His Name Was Ernie

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Sometimes I watch a Richard Quine film and I’m disappointed and it takes me a while to watch another, sometimes what I see is very inspiring — OPERATION MAD BALL, though not a masterpiece, inflates a slender premise to a reasonable size, and gets some good comedy going.

France, right after WWII. There’s an army base full of nurses and enlisted men, but they’re not allowed to date because the nurses technically count as officers. The wily Jack Lemmon lots and schemes under the nose of stickler-in-chief Ernie Kovacs to organise a super-celebration at which the guys and girls can dance and hold hands and like that.

Kathryn Grant is extremely cute, sporting the same little curl above her big spherical forehead that she wears in THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD — a hairstyle apparently popular in both 8th century Persia and the 1940s US military. There’s an energetic cameo by Mickey Rooney. Kind of horrible, but undeniably energetic. And there’s Lemmon and Kovacs.

Jack Lemmon must have seemed a colossal breath of fresh air in 50s American film — it seems like, after the war, there was a rush to re-cement gender roles and men had to be Glenn Ford or nothing. The comedies gradually got less daring, as if you couldn’t even joke about the relationship between the sexes. Of course, there was still a lot of good stuff happening, but the appearance of a Jack Lemmon facilitated a lot of interesting developments. Lemmon is light, and not super-masculine. He doesn’t have a camp bone in his body, which made him safe to cast in SOME LIKE IT HOT, but he doesn’t radiate machismo. His insertion into the cultural mainstream opened a duct allowing about a hectolitre of excess testosterone to be drained off. This was later frozen and chiselled into the form of Charles Bronson, so nothing was wasted.

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Here, he’s playing a bit of a schemer, and the plot requires him to break down the resistance of a very proper young lady. At a key point, he has to threaten her with incipient spinsterhood if she doesn’ yield to what I suppose we must call his blandishments — a slightly nasty, and definitely sexist speech. Lemmon makes it a lot less hateful than it would have sounded coming from your typical tough guy, and he throws in a guilty look at the end which I’m positive wasn’t specified in the script.

Kovacs, asides from his creative genius as a television comedian, is just an amazing actor — his choices are really bold, but credible. To make Capt. Lock loathsome, he does a lot of work with his mouth, making it seem very wet and eager — canine qualities which can be endearing in a mutt, but are also a bit repulsive if you imagine getting too close. While his TV character Percy Dovetonsils would draw the edges of his mouth as far back as possible as if his head were attempting second-stage separation, lips parting tightly to admit little gasps that seem to ellicit our approval. By contrast, Capt. Lock’s lips seem slack and slobbery, his grin loose, stupid, ingratiating, somehow suggesting an abyss of self-doubt behind his bullying facade.

Lock is finally defeated when Lemmon frames him, getting him picked up by the military police. By chance, his own C.O. happens to pass, and Kovacs appeals for help — surely this man will vouch for him. But it’s one of those rather mean humiliation comeuppances — his C.O. doesn’t like him, and declares he’s never seen this guy before. (We’re to believe that this will all be straightened out in the morning, but Kovacs will spend the night in the cooler.)

Lock’s reaction to this apparent lack of recognition is stunningly played by Kovacs. Lock, of course, can’t comprehend why his superior officer is denying knowledge of him — he’s crossed over into the Twilight Zone. What he does, deprived by shock of the power of speech, is to point at his own moustache. With both index fingers. “This is my moustache,” the gesture seems to say. “So surely this is me?”

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An existential crisis we can all relate to, I think.

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8 Responses to “His Name Was Ernie”

  1. So much better than “Do Re Mi” in The Sound Of Mucus

  2. Charcoal. I’m in!

  3. henryholland666 Says:

    “He doesn’t have a camp bone in his body”

    You’ve seen “Bell Book and Candle”, right? :-)

    I’m not a big Jack Lemmon fan at all, I find his twitchy mannerisms annoying a lot of the time, but speaking of Glenn Ford, they’re both terrific in this:

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051496/

    Bonus: both are shirtless in separate bathtubs in the final scene. Woof!

  4. I recall reading somewhere that Lemmon was, at least a few times, one of the Nairobi Trio (unbilled) with Kovacs and Edie Adams.

    Recently TCM repeated a documentary of Billy Wilder just talking with a German filmmaker; he’d shift casually between English and (subtitled) German. He mentioned in passing that on “Some Like It Hot”, Tony Curtis was always a bit anxious about going to the commissary in costume while Lemmon made an entrance “like Mae West.”

    “The Apartment” remains one of my favorites precisely because it’s so hard to classify: Dark romantic comedy? Funny melodrama? Bitter and pointed deconstruction of “office sex” humor? Conscious attempt to ruin “date night”?

  5. OK, I admit it — Bell Book and Candle is very gay, and Lemmon sails close to the wind. Stewart is there to divert suspicion, Lemmon is there to make Stewart look even more straight.

    I like the idea of Lemmon on one of those chimp costumes.

    The thing about Lemmon I was trying to get at is — some don’t like him, and he admitted to a tendency to overact if not reigned in — he provided an alternative model of masculinity at a time when it was sorely needed.

    In Some Like it Hot, Curtis the louse is reformed by discovering his sensitive side in drag, and in his Shell Oil character, whereas Lemmon, already sensitive, nearly loses his identity completely.

    I don’t know what to call The Apartment either — it clearly allows itself the broad license of comedy, and clearly bits of it cannot be contained by that definition. Can’t call it tragi-comedy, because it has just about the most exhilarating ending ever (Volker Schloendorff’s favourite movie sequence).

  6. kevin mummery Says:

    As good as Kovacs is here, he’s even better in “Our Man in Havana”, and I believe he even gets a little more screen time there. He’s much more adversarial, and Guinness is a much better match for him than Jack Lemmon. Too bad he died so young.

  7. Yeah, he’s incredible in that — what else in his career made Carol Reed decide he could do it? A real dramatic performance that also happens to be very funny. That’s the dleightful surprise about a lot of his movie acting. Bell Book and Candle and Strangers When We Meet too.

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