DVD Review: ‘McHale’s Navy’ Double Feature

McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force

It’s one thing to turn TV series into movies long after the fact (Get Smart, Bewitched, George of the Jungle, 1997’s McHale’s Navy), but in the ’60s, some such spinoffs were made and released while the series still aired.

Take 1964-68’s The Man From UNCLE, which added footage to existing episodes for two feature films, and 1962-1966’s McHale’s Navy, which shot two all-new features.

Both of the latter are on a single-disc DVD due Tuesday from Shout! Factory, which also has released the zany WWII naval comedy’s four seasons and 138 episodes.

The first film, 1964’s McHale’s Navy, show the pros and cons of splashing small-screen shows onto big-screen canvases. Though production values are higher — starting with using color, unlike the b&w series — they aren’t that high.

The film clearly is a backlot So Cal production, using obvious process shots to show ships at sea. Yet it’s still nice seeing Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine’s PT-boat commander, McHale, and his rascally boys amid more expansive on-land locations and in wider views.

A routine save-the-farm (orphange) plot is stretched thinly over 93 minutes, with McHale’s PT-73 crew involved in more scheming and high jinks while torturing belligerent Captain Binghamton, trailed by lovable lackey Lt. Carpenter (Bob Hastings), a Smithers to Flynn’s Mr. Burns.

Flynn plays the captain for the big screen with even fiercer fury — to the point of shrill painfulness at times. As always, the true war here wasn’t with the Japanese  in the South Pacific so much as Binghamton’s obsession with drumming McHale and his mischevious crew out of the service — while being haplessly tormented by Tim Conway’s bumbling Ensign Parker.

Conway can’t do much to one-up his goofy pratfall shtick, upon which the film relies relentlessly. His slapstick is obvious and labored through much of the movie — funny in moments, but a little of this goes a long way.

But as the boys try drumming up big bucks to pay off debts and benefit a struggling orphanage, they do meet newcomers played by welcome guest stars.

George Kennedy — an Oscar winner for Cool Hand Luke just four years later — plays a combative French businessman, and songstress Claudine Longet plays a young French woman (at least her accent isn’t feigned) vaguely connected to him and menaced by him. Enter Parker as her unlikely Lancelot.

Both guest actors also guest-starred on two episodes of the TV series. Here they pop up in just two segments, leaving us with the usual crew’s routine laughs — but at least a more colorful view of their world for the big screen.

The follow-up film, 1965’s McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force, has Flynn, Conway and company but, awkwardly, not Borgnine. He was off making the film The Flight of the Phoenix, and his character’s absence was written off with one line.

Carl Ballantine’s Gruber didn’t join the crew either, but that was no great loss for him, since the supporting players had far less to do in this feature and barely appeared in its last hour.

That left Conway and Flynn to carry the laugh load, and they did — not always adroitly, but often more amusingly than in the first film, with absurd situations taken to cartoonish extremes

Like Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther films, Parker is utterly inept yet somehow prevails via dumb luck. And it makes Binghamton just want to scream — which he does. A lot.

The setting is Australia, where Parker is mistaken for a general’s pilot son, leading to nutty business that sustains manic mirth well enough. It’s also nice to see lots of women in the cast — a rarity for the series.

In a cameo, Ted Bessell played the general’s son, shortly before landing a five-season role as Marlo Thomas’ boyfriend on That Girl.

Though this feels a bit more movie-like than the first film, it can look just as phony at times. Worst of all is black-and-white stock footage of aircraft — within a color movie! Stock footage is obvious enough without announcing is fakiness.

But overall I’ll take this second film, even without Borgnine (largely a straight man, anyway). It’s not art, but did it ever claim to be?

— Bruce Westbrook





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