Friday, July 18, 2008

Quine's "Operation Mad Ball" (1957)

Jack Lemmon turned in one of his finest, most assured and confident and also most unheralded performances in 1957's ”Operation Mad Ball,” Richard Quine's long-lost military farce that will be receiving a rare showing on Turner Classics at 8 a.m. (est) on Saturday, July 19th.

To date, Sony has yet to release this minor gem on any home entertainment format, although it was reported recently on "reports from the lost continent of cinephilia," Dave Kehr's lively blog, that both it and "The Notorious Landlady" (1962), also directed by Quine, would be part of an upcoming boxed set devoted to Lemmon.

"Mad Ball," written by Jed Harris, Blake Edwards and Arthur Carter (adapted from Carter's play), is something of a '50s Playboy cartoon that can't be maintained as a single-frame strip and comes hilariously to life - what with the usual barracks of horny guys quietly lusting after female officers who are enticingly buttoned up in their regulation uniforms.

Lemmon plays Pvt. Hogan, the incorrigible schemer who hatches a plan to bring the men and (willing) women together at an illegal military bash to end all illegal military bashes. It's an ensemble piece with perfectly cast ensemble performers but, still, Lemmon manages to take center stage and command it but without ever really hogging it.

His Pvt. Hogan plays like a natural extention of his Ensign Pulver in "Mister Roberts" (1955), coated with a nice knowing swagger and a little more maturity. Actually, Hogan plays like a combination of Pulver and Roberts and I've a hunch that Lemmon planned it just that way.

His smooth delivery of the unexpectedly literate dialogue and witty banter (you can see Edwards's fingerprints on most of the quips) may be better than his line readings in even "The Apartment." This is Lemmon during his naturalist period, with no finicky bits of business to get in the way.

And his remarkable rapport and generosity with the cast around him only hightlights his - and the film's - naturalism.

Look for memorable bits by then-newcomers Dick York, William Hickey, William Leslie, James Darren, Roger Smith, Paul Picerni, L. Q. Jones, David McMahon, Sheridan Comerate and Dick Crockett (director Quine's right-hand man off screen and frequent co-star in his films) as the various guys in awe of Hogan's assorted shameless cons.

Ernie Kovacs, in a terrific film debut (and the first of three films that he made with Quine and Lemmon), makes a fastideous villain as Hogan's rigid nemesis; the always-reliable Arthur O'Connell is the camp's endearingly befuddled commander; Kathryn Grant (Crosby) supplies the sweet love interest, and Jeanne Manet, a wonderful, little-know French actress who disappeared from the screen far too soon, is outstanding as Madame LaFour, the cynical French woman who provides Hogan with a location for his mad ball - for a price.

And then there's Mickey Rooney, running, jumping and dancing all over the place as a hipster soldier (and York's cousin) who talks like a '50s beat poet way ahead of his time. The film is set in 1945.

In many ways, "Operation Mad Ball" is the '50s precursor to Robert Altman's "M*A*S*H" (1970), boasting the same amount of irreverent, dark humor. The only difference is that it uses Coke in lieu of blood for one of the film's funny visual gags. (You have to see the film to get it.)

I mean, here is a military comedy that, not unlike "M*A*S*H," locates humor in the word "coagulate."

Note in Passing: The title song performed over the film's opening credits was composed by Fred Karger with lyrics by director Quine. It is sung by an uncredited Sammy Davis, Jr.

(Artwork: A newspaper display ad for Quine's "Operation Mad Ball" and the usual studio publicity shots - standard for that era - of stars Lemmon, Kovacs, Grant and O'Connell)


Ralph said...

I've been waiting for this one. I'm ready to tape it. Thanks for describing it perfectly.

jbryant said...

I just got back from a long overdue visit to my hometown. The whole time I was gone, I kept thinking, "I should've checked the Turner Classics schedule - I just know there's something I really wanted to record." I was right.

Oh well, I still have my VHS copy, and with any luck that Lemmon box will materialize.

joe baltake said...

Shoot. Sorry you missed it. And it was presented letterboxed, even though it was listed that way. I'm sure Turner will air it again, perhaps many times.

jbryant said...

Well, now I've got a chance to see Mad Ball, Landlady and other Quine greats on the big screen! The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is having a series of Quine double features over the next two weekends:

I fear I won't be able to make any of them, but I'm really going to make the effort for August 16th, the Mad Ball and Landlady pairing.

joe baltake said...


Thanks for the tip on the Quine retro in L.A. Should be great. And I've a hunch you'll be seeing new prints - prepared for the alleged Lemmon set that Sony to release soon. We'll see.

Thanks also for checking in again. I haven't been very active of late because, frankly, I've been feeling lousy. It's difficult to concentrate when one is in pain. Anyway, I hope to file new posts here shortly.


jbryant said...

Sorry to hear you're under the weather, Joe. I'd been wondering. Hope you feel better soon!

jbryant said... has two Quine articles up, one about the film series and a more reflective piece by someone who interviewed him in his twilight years.

Nice to see Quine's great "Strangers When We Meet" being routinely referred to as a masterpiece!

a.n. said...

It is a fun, fun movie. Mickey Rooney is hilarious. And by the way, I think you mean Roger Smith ( married to Ann Margret).

joe baltake said...

a.n.- Oooops! You're right! Corrected. -J