From silent era comedies like Chaplin’s SHOULDER ARMS and Harry Langdon’s SOLDIER MAN to such recent films as DELTA FARCE and MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, Hal Erickson’s mammoth study MILITARY COMEDY FILMS is a thoroughgoing look at a popular sub-genre that spans the history of movies. Erickson leaves few stones unturned, covering everything from the conventional army comedies of Abbott and Costello or The Three Stooges to the anti-war films, stories about the home front, military comedy’s involving women as the central figure, even cartoons.
The rigidity of military life, especially basic training, has been easy fodder for slapstick comedy for some time. Even actual war escapades have been used as a backdrop for comedy, from the various historical wars up to more recent ones. Erickson’s examination of this sub-genre explores a variety of different directions, whether they be more serious satires in the DR STRANGELOVE manner (attempting to make a statement with the humor), or something simply designed for laughs such as the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis vehicles JUMPING JACKS or SAILOR BEWARE. Through it all, Erickson puts the entire sub-genre in perspective, discussing how the various styles relate to one another and thoroughly their significance, their impact, and their timelessness.
While this reviewer was not trying to find films that were overlooked, especially in a book that is so complete and detailed, I did find it curious that even in a casual reference to Elvis Presley when discussing the Sal Mineo-Gary Crosby movie A PRIVATE’S AFFIAR, Erickson makes no mention of Presley’s own military comedy G.I. BLUES. But that is a trifling quibble.
It is particularly interesting how Erickson assesses Buster Keaton’s civil war comedy THE GENERAL, realizing that the focal point is Keaton’s role as a civilian who is not actively involved in the Civil War as a soldier. His argument for inclusion in his book is sound, is examination of the film within that context is fascinating.
Another notable aspect of this book is how Erickson acknowledges the less notable films within the sub-genre, including mentioning such interesting low budget efforts as LEAVE IT TO THE MARINES with Sid Melton, MILITARY ACADEMY featuring a few erstwhile Dead End Kids, and a series based on rustic comic book character Snuffy Smith.
MILITARY COMEDY FILMS is filled with fascinating information about a sub-genre that covers the entire history of film. It is most highly recommended.