Sunday, December 22, 2013

Film Review: The Adventures Of A Rookie

"The Adventures Of A Rookie"  *** (out of ****)

In the 1940s two comedy teams reigned supreme in American cinema; Abbott & Costello and Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Hope & Crosby starred together in the first "road" picture, "Road to Singapore" (1940) which became a hit due to the chemistry between the two stars, who almost seemed to be having too much fun on-screen. Stories of their ad-libs on set are now legendary. As for Abbott & Costello they made their screen debuts in "One Night in the Tropics" (1940) offering comic relief. The stars of that movie were Robert Cummings and Allan Jones (!). But the comedy team made such an impression a year later they were given an opportunity to star in their own vehicle, "Buck Privates" (1941) a peace time war comedy about the draft, which I have reviewed.

I mention all of this for a reason (believe it or not), to give readers an understanding of the impact these comedy teams, in particular Abbott & Costello had on the culture. After "Buck Privates" Universal Studios released an avalanche of Abbott & Costello comedies. In 1941 alone the team appeared in four comedies! The following year Universal released three comedies. Every studio was looking the duplicate their success with their own comedy team. Everyone was trying to copy the formula which made Abbott & Costello comedies work.

This leads us to RKO studios and "The Adventures Of A Rookie" (1943) a WW2 service comedy starring Wally Brown and Alan Carney. They were RKO's answer to Abbott & Costello.

I have written about Brown & Carney on here before. I reviewed "Zombies on Broadway" (1945) perhaps their most accessible movie together. It stars Bela Lugosi and is something of a low rent sequel to RKO's own "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943) which I have reviewed. The comedy team was also in the Frank Sinatra vehicle "Step Lively" (1944), which I have also reviewed, a musical remake of the Broadway play "Room Service" which the Marx Brothers adapted on film in 1938.

"The Adventures Of A Rookie" is a modest attempt to cash in on the success of "Buck Privates" and is generally considered the best movie the team starred in.

In my review for "Buck Privates" I admitted I don't like the movie very much. Sure, Abbott & Costello are funny in it but the movie gets bogged down in American propaganda and patriotic sentiment. I said the screenplay could have been written by FDR and Harry Truman and America wasn't even at war in 1941! "The Adventures Of A Rookie" at least avoids sentimental American propaganda and just wants to be funny. And Heaven knows, that is sometimes hard enough - to make a funny comedy.

The movie however does start off with some American pride. The first image we see is of Jerry Miles (Brown, the straight man of the team) working in a nightclub singing a patriotic song about how Americans will do all they can to support the boys over-seas. And then he gets his draft papers while on stage. Next we see a wealthy young man, Bob Prescott (Richard Martin) sitting at a piano in his fancy home as his butler delivers him his draft papers and finally we see truck driver Mike Strager (Carney) get his papers. The idea behind this montage is simple - no man can escape the draft. Men of all walks of life - the nightclub performer, the rich and the working man, will all fight in this war. Of course in reality that's not true, but, it was a sentiment Hollywood was trying to promote (more on that later).

And so while taking an aptitude test Jerry and Mike meet (these were the names of their characters in various pictures) and become friends while also being introduced to Bob.

It is quickly established which role each man will take in the team right from this first introduction. Jerry will be the straight man, the "brains" of the team while Mike is the comic, the gullible friend who goes along with his buddy Jerry's plans. Mike is a bit of a man-child (a la Lou Costello) and sometimes speaks in a innocent baby voice asking if someone is mad at him.

The best gag in the movie happens in Jerry and Mike's introduction as they discuss one of the questions Mike had a difficult time answering. A math problem involving "A" and "B" driving to Chicago. If "A" leaves an hour before "B" and is driving at 20 mph and "B" catches up to him in three hours, how fast was "B" traveling? As Jerry tries to explain the problem to Mike, Mike keeps interrupting asking his own questions. For example, "how did "A" and "B" get gas?" Why exactly did "A" leave "B" behind? Why couldn't "A" wait for "B"? Clearly this resembles the word play of Abbott & Costello. And while we can tell it is an imitation, Brown & Carney have fun with it and make us laughs.

In another scene there is even room for an army exercise scene as Jerry and Mike are doing gun drill exercises, another lift from "Buck Privates".

Events take a turn when the boys, along with Bob, are put in quarantine while visiting some lady friends at a boarding house.

There isn't really much plot to the film, as the title suggest is it mere "adventures", little episodic predicaments Jerry and Mike find themselves in. And what a silly name for a movie. Why is it called "The Adventures of A Rookie"? First of all there are more than one character we are following, so should it be "rookies"? Also, why even use the word rookie? They are in the army, shouldn't it be "privates", "The Adventures Of Privates"?

But why think about such things.

Now back to a point I made about the rich serving in the army and Hollywood trying to promote this idea. We also saw this idea in "Buck Privates" where a man of privilege tried to use his influence to get out of the army. In another attempt to copy "Buck Privates", 20th Century Fox had Laurel & Hardy star in "Great Guns" (1941) another peace time war comedy, where another wealthy young man gets drafted. Most people in society felt the draft would only affected the poor and working class. They would be the ones called to service, while the rich would get a deferment. This naturally was bad for morale. The country had to be united and not be lead to believe society had different rules for the rich and the poor. That's commie talk mister! So Hollywood had to show the rich and the poor fighting side by side in the war. No man escapes the draft. It is a subtle message lurking around all of these comedies, especially "The Adventures Of A Rookie".

So, is this movie any good? Yes. It has some funny sequences. Brown & Carney have some chemistry between them. I prefer this over "Zombies on Broadway". There was a sequel made called "Rookies in Burma" (1943), which was directed by the same man who directed this movie, Leslie Goodwins. He directed the team in some other movies; "Vacation in Reno" (1946) and "Genius at Work" (1945) a remake of a 1935 comedy starring another forgotten comedy team; Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, "The Nitwits".

Also keep your eyes open for a sequence where Carney goes into some imitations of famous Hollywood stars; Edward G. Robinson and Charles Laughton. It is pretty funny.