When wars were cold, comedies about the military were hot. By the mid-1950s, with the horrors of World War II and the Korean War starting to fade in memory, it became more acceptable to joke about military life.
Starting in 1955, “The Phil Silvers Show” (aka “You’ll Never Get Rich” and “Sergeant Bilko”) brought peacetime Army barracks humor to a national television audience, while ‘50s films like “Mister Roberts,” “Don’t Go Near the Water” and “Operation Petticoat” fooled around on World War II naval vessels. Military humor stayed on TV during the 1960s with “McHale’s Navy” and “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” and remained a popular subgenre in movies such as “Private Benjamin” and “Stripes.”
But perhaps the most successful and enduring military comedy is “No Time for Sergeants.” It began life as a best-selling novel by Mac Hyman in 1954, became a Broadway hit and television special in 1955, reached the movie screen in 1958 and, finally, emerged as a TV series in 1964. Key to its success was the captivating performance of Andy Griffith, who portrayed Pvt. Will Stockdale, a Georgia hillbilly drafted into the U.S. Air Force, in the original Broadway, TV special and movie versions. The movie, which was directed by Hollywood veteran Mervyn LeRoy and became one of the biggest box-office hits of 1958, makes its DVD debut this week (Warner Home Video, $19.98, not rated).
Griffith’s appearance in the movie version of “No Time for Sergeants” was not his big-screen debut; he had starred as a country singer turned political broadcaster in Elia Kazan’s prescient 1957 drama “A Face in the Crowd.” But his return to the role he created on Broadway for “No Time for Sergeants” cemented Griffith’s persona as a good-time bumpkin with a terrific smile, engaging demeanor and folksy charm to spare. Shortly after the success of this film, the actor began his long run as Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, N.C., in “The Andy Griffith Show.” (The military sitcom “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” starring Jim Nabors in a role similar to Griffith’s Will Stockdale, became a spin-off hit from Griffith’s TV series.)
In addition to being the archetypal military sitcom, “No Time for Sergeants” also belongs to the ever-popular “fish out of water” comedy genre. While we don’t generally view a military base as the height of sophistication, to the countrified Will it represents a whole new and amazing world. He gets to eat more food than he’s ever seen on a plate before, and when he hears “Taps” played at night, he marvels, “Somebody brung their trumpet.”
As in most fish-out-of-water comedies, the backwoods guy is initially picked on by others — in this case, a nasty fellow draftee named Irving Blanchard (Murray Hamilton) and the make-no-waves barracks commander, Sgt. Orville King (Myron McCormick), who assigns Will to permanent latrine duty. Naturally, it’s the rube who outsmarts all the others with his down-home wisdom and naivety. And as in most military comedies, the brass is a lot dumber than the enlisted men and draftees.
Griffith is supported by an excellent cast, including two fellow veterans of the Broadway production: McCormick, who’s memorable as the truculent sergeant, and Don Knotts, hilarious in his movie debut as the nervous and near-hysterical corporal assigned to test Will’s manual dexterity. (Knotts, of course, became Griffith’s longtime co-star in “The Andy Griffith Show,” and the two remained lifelong friends until Knotts’ death in 2006.) James Millhollin is also very good as the Air Force psychiatrist who examines Will and, not surprisingly but funny nevertheless, turns out to be a lot less sane than his subject. In a movie filled with comic over-acting, Nick Adams fits right in as Ben, Will’s best friend in the service.
“No Time for Sergeants” remains a funny film — even though I knew it was coming, a scene set in the barracks latrine left me in stitches. But it’s also a troubling one. Though not as condescending as 1959’s “Li’l Abner,” it expresses a chauvinistic attitude towards backwoods folk. To be sure, the other draftees who make fun of Will and call him “plow boy” get their comeuppance. But the jokes about Will’s lack of formal education (he appears to read at a second-grade level) and the ramshackle house he and his Pa live in come across as mean-spirited, as if Southern rural poverty and deprivation were a laughing matter.
And while it may not make too much sense to harp on the lack of realism in a farcical movie, a key scene involving an Air Force plane inadvertently straying into the Nevada airspace where an atomic bomb test is taking place — and everyone emerging unscathed — is beyond reason or credibility. Perhaps it reflects the cavalier way in which the public in the 1950s was misled about the harmfulness of atomic radiation, but still ...
It would have been great to hear what Griffith, now 83, thinks about this film and the role that helped launch his career. If he was not available, even a brief documentary on the history of “No Time for Sergeants” would have been worthwhile. Unfortunately, there are no bonus features on the DVD.