Armed Farces

And another thing —

Though a saucy bedroom farce might seem like a strange artistic response to the Allied invasion of Sicily in WWII, I do think Blake Edwards’ WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY? can be explained, in a couple of ways.

Firstly, since the end of the actual war, movies on military themes had been getting lighter in tone. THE GREAT ESCAPE plays like a romp, with tragic elements for added spice. And the service comedy, dealing with the non-combat-related activities of enlisted men, was a long-standing thing. Combine the two and you have something like WDYDITWD, as it is known for short.

Also, the Mirisch Corporation. A comfortable home for Blake Edwards and Billy Wilder, it otherwise specialised in large-scale war movies of the 633 SQUADRON variety. So they knew where to get the big toys, the tanks and planes. The rather excessive scale of Edwards’ production, apparent from the opening montage, is explicable only in terms of Edwards’ moneymaking success at a company familiar with military subjects.

After that, we get into the realms of allegory. The characters of the film represent the different neational factions if the war. Dick Shawn, though playing an American commander, stands for Britain: prissy and rigid, but devoted and dependable. James Coburn is the US: fearless, flexible and resourceful, but endeavoring to stay out of the fray as long as possible. Sergio Fantoni, though Italian, stands for all the surrender-monkey nations of Europe (we’re dealing in offensive stereotypes, here, you understand). The Germans, shockingly, represent the Germans (also the Japanese, I suppose, but only loosely: Edwards had already made his definitive statement on that nation via Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S).

So now it all makes sense, right?

4 Responses to “Armed Farces”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    And after this came MASH and “Catch-22” both of them dark comedies (Nichols darker than Altman)

  2. MASH is certainly a mutation of the service comedy tradition, whereas Nichols and Buck Henry gave us a faithfully absurdist nightmare. (I’ve only glanced at the Clooney version but didn’t like the looks of it.)

  3. The choice of title was interesting, that being the slogan on a particularly insidious recruitment poster. It showed a child asking his father that question, and the father hiding his face in shame. The movie seems to be saying the characters will have a hard time relating such naughty activities to their own kiddies, but it could also be taken as saying the filmmakers are no more shameless than the serious war messagings.

    Maybe “King of Hearts” fits into this somewhere. It was of the crazy-people-are-saner-than-everybody-else school, relentlessly sweet and cute with the semi-twist ending: They know they belong in the asylum when The Establishment returns.

    “The Americanization of Emily” is one I always think of as Blake Edwards, although it has nothing to do with him aside from Julie Andrews and James Garner in the leads. That was overtly an “ideas” film, about a general obsessed with the PR value of one of his men leading the D-Day invasion and Garner the comfortable coward who gets the job — driven by Coburn with a gun.

    “Operation Petticoat” and “The Incredible Mister Limpet” are both of the family-friendly school, with a bit of smirkiness in the former and The Enemy literally dehumanized into boats and subs. The 60s brought the sitcoms “McHale’s Navy” (which spawned two B movies), “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (based on a movie), and the infamous “Hogan’s Heroes” (certainly inspired by “Stalag 17”).

    The fascinating thing about WWII comedies produced up until the 60s or so is that so much of the onscreen and behind-camera talent served during the war, and likewise much of the audience.

  4. I *presume* there was a recognition factor to the comedy in the early service comedies, and then it became a genre so that by the time you get to WDYDITWD, the whole thing is just based on what happenes when you fold together the war film and the farce, using the possibilities of exchanged uniforms and play-acting. The battle scene staged for the benefit of spy planes is maybe the cleverest variant on this.

    Tarantino ought to like it: the Germans speak German, the Italians speak Italian and those without a second tongue have to struggle.

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