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The Forgotten: Leo McCarey's Rally "'Round the Flag, Boys!" (1958)

Leo McCarey's last comedy enlivens a meandering plot with moments of crackpot charm.
The marvelous season of Leo McCarey films at New York's Museum of Modern Art features a few real rarities and a whole passel of acknowledged classics: features like Duck Soup and Make Way for Tomorrow and hilarious shorts programs featuring Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase and others. Perhaps the rarest item is Part Time Wife, a 1930 rehearsal for the greatness of The Awful Truth, complete with Airedale, but only slightly less obscure is late-career entry Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys! (1958), a strange quasi-satire which folds together several late-fifties concerns without actually addressing them or working out what it is, or what it's for.
Whether it's actually true that right-wingers can't do satirical comedy, McCarey certainly lost the fire that made Duck Soup so truly anarchic during the years when he moved away from comedy to make beloved, sentimental and sincere dramas. Returning to broad comedy is something many of his fan probably wished he would do, but when he did, the results were peculiar to say the least.
The movie is a small-town comedy set in a commuter-belt town where working stiff Paul Newman, a PR man, lives with his wife, Joanne Woodward. Seeing these two do farce, and a sort of time-warped 1930s farce at that, is slightly discombobulating. Though not primarily known as comedians, both could be funny. Perhaps what makes them deliver performances of kabuki-like stylization here is not so much uncongenial material as McCarey's old-school direction. He once claimed to have supplied Cary Grant with his whole persona: maybe he's trying to do that to his stars here, only the method players can't find a way into the personae they're being handed. At any rate, Newman often seems to be forcing it, mugging it, and his final laughter feels scornful of the whole enterprise rather than joyous (three rhythmic Ya-ha-has with identical-length pauses between them).
Still, there is pleasure to be had from Newman and Woodward's evident enjoyment of each others' company: it's not screen chemistry, it's love.
The plot concerns a top secret military base being constructed in this town (not so much sleepy as comatose) and the citizen's committee formed to protest it. Woodward is on every town committee, which means poor Newman never gets any nookie, and now he's being roped into the protest. The film's big point seems to be that everyone wants national defense but nobody wants it on their doorstep, an irony which seems kind of a flimsy basis for a whole movie. The army is embodied by Jack Carson, and even he seems ill at ease, though klutzy comedy formed a considerable part of his repertoire.
Fortunately, through being unable to keep its mind on its plot, the movie does provide more entertaining moments. A throwaway bit about Newman's ability to distract himself with daydreaming leads to a pointless parody of Josef von Sternberg's Morocco that makes the best use of cinematographer Leon Shamroy's wild way with Deluxe Color. Since Newman's marriage is on the rocks, his sexy neighbor is entitled to quite a bit of screen time, and she's played by Joan Collins with all the camp value you could wish for. Neglected by her own spouse, she's seeking a new man, and by chance Newman happens to be right next door...
The other highlight is the Newman-Woodward's kids' babysitter (actually the kids are really good too, untutored tinies who make every scene into a documentary about what happened when the director yelled "Action!"). Plot-wise, she has no real reason to be in the film, but this is an early appearance by Tuesday Weld: always a very welcome thing. Her character has just discovered boys, and despite being told by her anxious pop that she has two hundred years of puritan blood in her (her character name is Comfort Goodpasture) she is clearly exploding with adolescent passion multiplied by a powerhouse actor's urge to make a strong impression. Comfort has a molten core, and MoMA patrons are warned not to flutter too close to her blazing star wattage. Where Newman and Woodward struggle to get laughs by dexterously finding odd ways to say their lines, the aptly-named Weld simply fuses her material together with heat.
Huge sections of this movie appear disconnected, broken: a voice-over bolts scenes together where sweeping cuts may have been made. The sexual politics seem backward even for the fifties; the low comedy of Jack Carson and a chimpanzee isn't funny. But by shooting off in all directions like a firework display, the film does generate amusement, not by perfect aim but by scattershot brilliance. McCarey shows his remaining talent not by the number of laughs he gets but by the surprising nature of the moments that do work.

The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.
Right wingers can't do satirical comedy? What about Evelyn Waugh? The problem is social conformism, not left/right.
I don't believe I actually said that right-wingers can't do satire. I merely noted that that claim is sometimes made. It doesn't seem likely to me that it would be true, though I can't think of many more recent examples.

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