After their supporting roles in My Friend Irma and My Friend Irma Goes West, At War with the Army was the first film starring the legendary duo of Dean Martin (Artists and Models) and Jerry Lewis (Scared Stiff)... they went on to co-star in thirteen more comedies becoming Paramount Pictures new comedy team and box office champs. Lewis is a hapless bungling private and Martin is his bossy first sergeant and ladies man with the crooner's voice. Together the duo is thrown into a series of classics gags and routines and some great musical pieces. Directed by Hal Walker (Road to Utopia, Sailor Beware), one of the few directors to work both with Martin & Lewis as well as with Hope & Crosby.
“I’m gonna keep drinking until this lady starts looking good.”
Martin & Lewis proved to be a comedic dynamo through the early 1950s, dominating stage, silver screen, and most importantly the new technological marvel of the age - the television set. At the time, it was a new concept to see the stars of your favorite television program also be featured in a sting of new movies dominating your local movie house. After small supporting roles, the comedic duo got their chance to be the lead stars of 1950’s ‘At War With The Army’ with some intermittently funny but ultimately mixed results.
I’ll be honest and upfront when I say that ‘At War With The Army’ feels like recycled Abbot & Costello and Three Stooges bits, only not as sharp, edgy or even nearly as funny. The basic plot (if you could call it that) centers around Dean Martin’s Sgt. Vic Puccinelli having to wrangle his long time pal Pfc. Alvin Korwin, Jerry Lewis as he slacks about his duties on an army base. Vic has bigger issues he needs to attend to than trying to ensure his buddy does as he’s told. You see, Vic is quite the catch with the ladies. He’s made overtures to two of the frequent faces at the officer’s club and now one of them want’s to see him about an issue of “responsibility.”
Meanwhile poor hapless Alvin gets shuffled from one meaningless army job to another as he desperately tries to get a song he’d written recorded so he and Vic can secure a record deal. Also his wife has had a baby and he’s trying to get leave but he gets shuffled from superior to superior in a running gag about how Army bureaucracy muddles up efficiency and common sense. If this is sounding like a bizarre recap of events, that’s because this movie is just that scattershot and completely random.
If you’ve never seen this movie before and find yourself confused as to what is going on, that’s okay, I have a hunch that’s by intent. You see, while Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were fairly new to the movie scene together in their respective roles of “Straight Man and Funny Guy,” they were killing it on ‘The Colgate Comedy Hour.’ If you’ve been lucky enough to see clips or rebroadcast episodes late at night - you get a quick idea why those guys are funny on TV but drastically miss the mark in this film.
Their show was like a broadcast vaudevillian routine featuring established as well as up and coming comedians of the era. There wasn’t any kind of singular plot thread or through line to follow, just random gags, bits, jokes, and goofball shenanigans. It worked because of their brief nature - packed into a film that’s trying to establish some kind of a story - it just doesn’t work. it goes through the routines of a few yuks and gags, goofball camera mugging, and the expected song numbers, but because everything is so random, much of the movie falls flat.
That isn’t to say there aren’t any good moments. Dino’s smooth voice is welcome during the music numbers and he does a fine job as the straight man to Lewis’s manic insanity. Lewis also gets an honestly hilarious scene where he sneaks off base dressed as a woman complete with low-cut dress that fails to hide his abundant chest hair and blonde wig as he goes table to table trying to find Dean Martin at hot night spot in town. Another great moment comes when Lewis has to run the obstacle course for PT and comes up with rather ingenious methods for circumnavigating the obstacles. Unfortunately these moments are few, far between, and sandwiched around a plot that goes nowhere.
If you’re a Martin and Lewis fan looking to complete your collection, this isn’t a terrible movie, but it isn’t the funniest thing the duo ever produced during their time together. If you’re new to the pair and looking for an introduction, find discs or clips from their TV appearances. Those brief gags and random bits of clever dialogue is the true showcase of their vast musical and comedic talents, this movie only gives you an idea of the talent they had to offer.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
‘At War With The Army’ arrives via Kino Lobber as part of their Studio Classics collection on a Region A locked BD-25 disc. Housed in a standard blu-ray keepcase it features the film’s original poster art. The disc opens straight to the main menu allowing you to “play now” or open the chapters menu.
Newly remastered in HD and presented in a properly pillar-boxed 1.37:1 image, ‘At War With The Army’ isn’t the worst HD presentation of a classic movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s also far from pristine. The opening credits sport a heavy amount of print damage including flecks, scratches and a lot of dirt, then the movie cuts to stock footage that is equally rough and very soft at times. Once the main show starts, things do improve quite a bit, but only for short bursts as instances of print damage crop up here and there.
This print appears to be an amalgamation of several sources as scene to scene the film can look wildly different. One moment it’s sharp, beautiful, with fine shadows and black levels. The next scene can be soft and muddy or overly bright making people’s skin look like they’d gone supernova. Considering its 65 year age and it’s status in the public domain, one could cut it a little slack as there are great moments of image clarity - particularly in the scene mentioned above when Jerry Lewis goes out on the town dressed as a hot blonde, his dress, his wig, and yes even his chest hair comes through in fine clarity. But when this picture gets ugly, it’s outright unsightly. Thankfully over all it looks better than it does bad.
Given what I’ve just said about the video, it should hardly surprise you the audio doesn’t fair much better. Sporting a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, this mix tends to hit the high and low ranges pretty hard. The high notes of the songs and Jerry Lewis’ grating voice can lead to some fairly persistent rattling from the stereo channels. Particularly rough is the opening orchestra opening credits tune and then Jerry Lewis’ opening number “Beans” creates a lot of static and feedback.
Thankfully most of the movie is normal, midrange dialogue that comes through with fine clarity. Imaging and balance aren’t too bad either as volume levels sound even and it has a nice lawyering effect so dialogue, the later music numbers, and some of the more active scenes sound natural. Also for a film of this vintage there aren't any annoying hisses, pops, or jumps in the audio.
No supplementary features are present.
To call my exposure to Martin & Lewis as a comedy duo “limited” would be accurate. But that isn’t to say I wasn’t familiar enough with their better television efforts to know what to expect going into ‘At War With The Army.’ Ultimately I was disappointed. It was funny in parts but it also felt like their bits should have stayed on the small screen rather than get blown up on the silver screen. Since, in 1977 this film entered the public domain, fans should count themselves lucky that this film exists let alone is on Blu-ray. That said, people looking to complete their collection should be aware of the picture and audio inconsistencies prior to purchase and adjust their expectation levels as such. It could have been a lot worse but it’s far from amazing. Chalk this one up for fans only.