No Laughing Matter.
Technically, the first film appearance of “Martin and Lewis” is MY FRIEND IRMA (1949), where they played B-characters to the two female leads. AT WAR WITH THE ARMY is the first starring vehicle for the world’s premier comedy team at the time – Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The most amazing thing about this stagnant yawner is that it launched their film career into the stratosphere.
Opens during WWII at a military base, with Jerry as Alvin the army cook, doing a musical number. (To Millennials: A “musical number” was when an actor started singing an irrelevant song during the action, complete with orchestral backing, though there is no orchestra in the scene. It grinds any film to a halt, and personally, I can only take it in very small doses, even in films which I love. The only exception to this rule is JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, which was musically magnificent.)
Dean as Sgt. Vic enters for an expositional to Jerry: “Just because we were friends before, and used to work together…” and the premise: “You’re going on a long journey and you might not be back…”
At this point in their career, Martin and Lewis were already the hottest act in America, from their stints on the nightclub circuit, television and radio, at one point, the “highest paid act in show business” (LIFE Magazine). Though they had their crooner-monkeyboy comedy act down for nightclubs and TV, I presume director Hal Walker had yet to find a filmic stride for the superstars. Though he plays his “nine-year-old” character (with the squeaky voice, pout and slouch), Lewis seems reined in, not as frenetic as we’re used to seeing him in live performances, and Martin’s impatience with the rambunctious Lewis comes off as a bit too mean-spirited.
Vic (Martin) and Alvin (Lewis) are buddies who used to perform together, now in the army as Sergeant and Private, which strains their relationship. The film seems too concerned with its storyline, rather than its comedy. People walk in and out of rooms, dialogue and leave; Alvin comes in constantly to try for a three-day pass and Vic keeps shouting at him, all while B-characters wander in and out of frame with their own mundane subplots (usually involving “dames”), while the camera holds static shots of all the rooms the action takes place in. (How long can they draw this out? Answer: the whole movie!)
SOPRANOS fans, note Martin’s redheaded date, Helen. That’s Polly Bergen, young as sin, who, as an old woman, would regale Tony Soprano with tales of her halcyon days dating Jack Kennedy and Frank, in the episode In Camelot.
There is a scene in the third act (after much nothing in the first and second acts) where we eventually see Martin and Lewis in their element, recreating a nightclub act for their fellow soldiers. Their expertise at synchronized tap-dancing, and their ease at commanding attention is a wonder to behold. Then it unfortunately returns to the movie storyline for some inane reason…
Women are treated like airheads or sex objects. And the movie seems to be militarily-themed simply because that was the trendy thing to do in that decade after WWII. Easy to get the costumes. During training maneuvers, Alvin performs some unintended slapstick and a drill sergeant laments to him, “Alvin, you gotta stop this clownin’!”
Uh, Sarge, we were waiting for him to start…