Rally Round the Flag, Boys!: Leo McCarey’s Last Comedy

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A few words on Leo McCarey’s last comedy film Rally Around the Flag, Boys (1958). Although he directed films in several genres, comedy was McCarey’s principal bailiwick, from his time at Hal Roach directing Charley Chase and Laurel & Hardy, to features with Eddie Cantor and Harold Lloyd, to a string of screwball comedy classics. (Read my full article on McCarey here).

1958 is quite late in his career, and this film is SO interesting for so many reasons.

One is that it is a real window into the 1950s, mixing a Douglas Sirk setting and aesthetic with a realistic peek into the period we almost never get from the artificial studio films of the time. It actually feels a bit like Mad Men, which probably drew from it.  (It’s about anti-government protest politics in a small Connecticut town, with sub-themes of marital infidelity, consumer dissatisfaction, feminism, chafing at conformity, all looking ahead to the 1960s and 70s.)

Secondly, McCarey managed to pry some fairly broad comic performances from the likes of Paul Newman and Joan Collins, no easy task (He is less successful at that where Joanne Woodward is concerned).

Newman plays a pr man. Woodward (as his wife) gets involved in local protest against a nearby army base (a nuclear facility) which is being built nearby. Newman gets drafted (literally drafted) into doing public relations for the military. Meantime Joan Collins keeps trying to seduce him, further driving a wedge in the marriage. Gale Gordon plays a general, Jack Carson a colonel. Tuesday Weld is a local teenage girl. Dwayne Hickman a greaser who pursues her.

The movie eventually loses focus and steam, but it was a moderate success in its day. I think it would have survived in the public’s memory better if it had had a better title – this one is very misleading. I had assumed it was a World War One thing prior to seeing it.

It was a minor miracle that McCarey even managed to find his sense of humor at this late date, and on the subject of the Cold War II no less. By the 50s and 60s, his big themes tended to be pro-religion (Going My Way, 1944 and The Bells of St Mary, 1945) and anti-Communism (My Son John, 1952 and Satan Never Sleeps, 1962).  The latter one was his final film by then he slipped very far outside the mainstream.

For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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