Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cool ocean breezes

With the heatwave continuing here, it's time to think about another way of beating the heat, by getting out on the ocean. Titanic, with its iceberg, wouldn't be a bad selection, but in the heat, it might be better to have something light, like a service comedy. One that fits the bill nicely is You're in the Navy Now.

Based on a real story, the movie stars Gary Cooper as Lt. John Harkness, who is given the thankless task during World War II of captaining a new, experimental ship. The experiment is that the US Navy is going to try to power a warship with steam, and that the ship ought to be able to create enough distilled water from seawater to run the turbines. (Apparently, nobody taguht the US Navy brass about the laws of thermodynamics.) The good lieutenant isn't happy about it, but doesn't have a choice, and tries to put his new crew and ship through the paces. The crew don't like it either, and call their ship the USS Teakettle, an apt description from just one look at the boilers.

The comedy is mostly in the mode of gentler humor, of the sort that you'd see in the old Beetle Bailey comic strip, only focussed on the Navy instead of the Army. The thing is, any time you get an institution as large as a corporation or an arm of the military, you're going to get some odd institutional practices that are ripe for parody, and in You're In the Navy Now, this is no exception. You've got poor Gary Cooper suffering the slings and arrows of his superior officers, and his crew suffering indirectly through his orders. They chafe against this in all the ways you'd expect, trying to break curfew and violate orders by bringing extra distilled water on board to make the experiment "work" so that they can just get off the darn boat. Also, on one occasion, the ship gets stuck on forward, unable to stop; this naturally occurs just when there's an admiral aboard. It wouldn't be as funny if it only happened to the regular crew, since we're supposed to have sympathy for them.

That regular crew is well worth watching, too. Eddie Albert and Jack Webb are amongst the crew members whose names you can see in the credits; uncredited parts are played by Lee Marvin (on the radio) and the ship's boxer, played by a young Charles Bronson. You're In the Navy Now is nothing spectacular, but is a solid enough service comedy from the early 1950s. Some people in the audiences of today might find it a bit dated and less than exciting, but that's their loss. It's also available on DVD.

As I mentioned earlier, the movie is based on a true story; the ship on which it was based was eventually sold to the Taiwanese navy and can be seen here.

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