Sunday, July 2, 2017

Film Review: Rookies in Burma

"Rookies in Burma"  ** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Rookies" prove to still be amateurs in "Rookies in Burma" (1943)

"Rookies in Burma" is a sequel to the Wally Brown / Alan Carney comedy, "Adventures Of A Rookie" (1943), a World War II comedy about two American dopes (Brown & Carney) that are drafted in the army. It was RKO's response to the popularity of the Abbott & Costello comedy "Buck Privates" (1941) and the continued success Abbott & Costello were having at Universal Pictures with their war themed service comedies; "In the Navy" (1941) and "Keep 'Em Flying" (1941).

Of the eight "official" movies Brown & Carney were teamed together in, between 1943 - 1946, "Adventures Of A Rookie" and "Rookies in Burma" may be their two best known comedies. Both are available on DVD as part of Warner Brothers Archive Collection - "The RKO Brown & Carney Comedy Collection", which features four titles in total.

Movies lovers do not have to be told, Brown & Carney never achieved the success of Abbott & Costello. Their comedies together are largely forgotten by the mainstream. The comedies are mainly of interest as curiosity pieces. Some movies fans, like myself, may take pleasure in "discovering" forgotten comedy teams and / or comedians. Over the years I have found not all of them deserved their "forgotten" status.

"Rookies in Burma" however may prove to be a different matter entirely. I actually enjoyed "Adventures Of A Rookie", to an extent. I may be the only person in the history of the world to prefer it over "Buck Privates". "Privates" I felt was too sentimental and patriotic whereas "Rookies" knew its limitations and was strictly a comedy with no greater ambition. "Rookies in Burma" however is essentially a "B" movie made on a small budget featuring less than distinguished actors and poorly chosen locations. It wants to be a cross between an action / adventure story and comedy. The problem is neither aspect of the story is well executed.

Young, modern, liberal viewers will also be off put by the movie and will claim the movie is offensive and filled with racial stereotypes. The dialogue in the movie is filled with references to "Japs" and implications that all Japanese people have slanted eyes and buck teeth. While that language would definitely not find its way in movies today, one has to remember the time period. The movie was made during World War II. America was at war with the Japanese. I see no difference in this compared to American movies today and the depiction of Middle-Easterners in cinema as terrorist. Both share the objective of belittling your opponent.

At the start of the movie we meet Jerry Miles (Brown) and Mike Strager (Carney). They have not made anything of themselves since we last saw them in "Adventures". The first image of them is they are both peeling potatoes. Jerry, the "leader" of the team, is upset. Jerry believes he should be fighting in the front lines against the Japanese. His country needs him. Mike, on the other hand, is not so brave. When an opportunity presents itself for Jerry to become a hero and capture several Japanese soldiers, his plan backfires and he and Mike are taken to a Japanese camp as prisoners of war.

But Jerry is not ready to admit defeat. He is an American and Americans always fight back. Jerry and Mike will escape from the camp. Each man is surprised to find out their Sergeant (Erford Gage, reprising his role from "Adventures Of A Rookie") has also been capture. The three men manage to escape the camp and spend the rest of the movie hiding from the Japanese soldiers in an attempt to find their way back to the American lines.

Much of the humor in "Rookies in Burma" revolves around verbal dialogue between Jerry and Mike, much like the wordplay between Abbott and Costello. One routine is built around the word "cinch". Jerry wants Mike to strap a cinch for a saddle on an elephant (never mind how the elephant makes its way in the movie!). Jerry tells Mike it will be a hard job but when he keeps using the word "cinch", Mike takes it to mean it is an easy job. Do you find that funny? Well, how about this one. Mike says he never sneezes, which Jerry finds amazing and begins to tell Mike the effects his actions have on the economy and all the jobs that will be lost due to Mike not sneezing. It is incredibly similar to a routine Abbott & Costello did about not putting mustard on a hot dog.

"Rookies in Burma" feels like a one-note comedy that keeps going back to making fun of the Japanese for laughs. The action scenes are never thrilling. There isn't any suspense created where the viewer wonders will Jerry and Mike find their way back to safety. The screenplay doesn't develop Jerry and Mike as two "loveable losers" that become endearing characters. The comedy feels "dated" and stale. The movie doesn't even give us a sense of patriotic pride as we see the American soldiers outwit the Japanese.

The movie also throws in two female characters played by Joan Barclay and Claire Carleton. Their appearance, one can assume, was meant to give the movie some sex appeal. Neither women is given much material to work with. There is no romantic development between the women and Jerry and Mike or between one of the women and the Sergeant. The movie doesn't even go to any lengths to suggest the movie are beautiful by photographing them in any particular way with special lighting. The whole movie is shot rather bland.

Despite all of this, I don't believe Brown & Carney should be entirely avoided. They did appear in some watchable comedies, "Girl Rush" (1944) and "Step Lively" (1944) starring a young Frank Sinatra. I also question the need to make a sequel for "Adventures Of A Rookie" in the first place. What does this movie accomplish?

Part of me likes the stale jokes in "Rookies in Burma". I have always admitted a weakness for dumb jokes and a soft spot for harmless comedies of the 1930s and 40s. But, my better judgement tells me this isn't a very good movie worthy of a wide audiences' attention. You have to draw a dividing line somewhere and "Rookies in Burma" is on the wrong side. Only watch this if you are a devoted fan of Brown & Carney. For the rest of you, check out "Adventures Of A Rookie" as a starting place to become familiar with Brown & Carney.