Thousands of American sailors died in the South Seas during World War II—971 in the Battle of Guadalcanal, 3,809 in Okinawa, 4,026 in the Navy’s return to the Phillipines—but you’d never know that by watching McHale’s Navy.
Filmed a little more than 20 years after bombs dropped on Pearl Harbor and 15 since The Bomb dropped on Hiroshima, this quintessential war sitcom, precursor to everything from M.A.S.H. to China Beach, took a resolutely rosy view of the hostilities. The worst thing that ever happens to anyone is a pratfall or a collapsing chair. Lt. Commander Quentin McHale’s happy-go-lucky crew can hardly be pried away from cards, women, liquor and quick buck schemes to swat away occasional Japanese insurgents.
It would all be pretty offensive, if it weren’t so funny. But the fact is, it is quite amusing. You only have to see Ensign Charles Parker (a very young Tim Conway) arriving at McHale’s autonomous little enclave by boat, ramrod straight and dressed in neatly creased Navy Whites, standing at full attention—until the boat stops suddenly and pitches him into the lake—to realize that we’ve lost track of the simplest ways of making people laugh. There’s next to no violence in these episodes, the most innocent of sexual relations, and squeaky clean language (Joe Flynn’s Captain Binghamton does slip in an occasional “Nobody likes a smart ensign!” past the censors), and yet it’s all very funny.
McHale’s Navy comes from what many people see as a golden age for television comedy, a period in which Gilligan’s Island and Mayberry R.F.D. and (similarly themed) Hogan’s Heros cracked people up in black and white. On this show, and others of its period, you can see the ‘60s just starting to dismantle conservative institutions. Look at McHale, sitting on the beach in his Hawaiian shirt, peaceably co-existing with indigenous tribes, treating an escaped Japanese P.O.W. like family, and arranging an endless array of cons, ruses, and short-cuts around bureaucratic red-tape. He’s the early ‘60s embodied: alternately starched and pressed for company and loosely hedonistic at home.
Ernest Borgnine had already won his Oscar when McHale’s Navy began its run, and he is as easily competent, as relaxed and sure of himself as an actor, as his character is as a sailor. You get the sense that he didn’t have to work too hard to make McHale believable; really, all he had to do was to stand close enough to his ensemble to seem like the very personification of reason.
Throughout the first season, and indeed, through the entire run of the show, Borgnine was supported by a very able cast. Tim Conway’s uptight, officious, yet somehow likeable Ensign Parker steals pretty much every scene he appears in, whether he is firing an anti-aircraft gun maniacally (and missing all the targets and getting his finger caught in the barrel) or trying to avoid the flirtations of the local chief’s daughter. You could spend the whole episode just watching his reaction shots. He is always working, and always funny.
The minor characters are almost as good, Carl Ballantine as the entrepreneurial, angle-working Gruber, Edson Stoll as the girl-crazy, shirtless Virgil Edwards, Billy Sands as the nasal-voiced (and most likely to wear drag) engineman Harrison “Tinker” Bell. Gavin McLeod has his first continuing TV role here as Happy Haines. And Yoshio Yoda has a boyish charm as the Japanese cook.
And then there are the bad guys. I am, of course, not talking about the Japanese, who are almost always treated with respect and seriousness. I am talking about the Navy officers who cannot seem to keep McHale and his crew in check. Specifically, the enemy is one Captain Wallace Binghamton, a bespectactled, self-aggrandizing base commander, whose tag-lines “Why? Why? Why?” and “I could just scream!” became mid-‘60s punch lines. Binghamton is played by Joe Flynn, an actor who would go on to play authority figures in many of Disney’s late-‘60s live action films before dying mysteriously (a heart attack? a swimming accident? a murder?) in 1974. As villains do, he tends to get most of the funny lines, and when McHale laughs at one of his jokes, he tends to bark “Cut that out!” before the commander can squelch his guffaws.
The show relies very heavily on physical humor for laughs, with people always falling or ducking or getting nasty substances spilled on them. Yet it’s also written with an offhand sort of sophistication. One of the early writers was Joseph Heller, who contributed under the pen name Max Orange, and even less luminary writers seemed to have plenty of experience in cranking out one liners. There are references to a mysterious captain of PT 109 (the boat that John F. Kennedy commanded) and a certain amount of innocent wordplay. Many of the scenarios turn on mistaken identities, schemes to fool people (usually officers) and money-making operations. This is a war theater where theater often triumphs over war, where a squadron of Japanese snipers may be frightened off their mission with the audio from old war movies.
The first season contains 36 episodes aired between October 1962 and June 1963. Although the original television pilot is not included, the five DVD set does include Tim Conway’s first appearance on the show. It also offers classic episodes like “Operation Wedding Party”, where the crew plans an elaborate, secret wedding for Christy on a remote island, only to find it under Japanese attack when they arrive, and an early Christmas show which features a gift-laden Borgnine parachuting to an orphanage in a Santa suit, and immediately being captured by the Japanese. The set stops well short of the show’s shark-jumping move to Italy in 1966, when Borgnine and his boys were puzzlingly relocated to the European theater.
The bonus features are modest, really only one contemporary crew reunion in which surviving cast members—Borgnine, Conway, Ballentine, Bob Hastings (Lt. Elroy) and Stroll—gather for brief reminiscences. We learn that Flynn called Conway “the stupidest man on television” and that Borgnine, like his character, was a kind and generous co-worker. We hear, in passing, of the more famous actors who have passed through Taratupa Island—Raquel Welch, George Kennedy and Ted Knight, among them—and that for all his iconic stature and Oscar credentials, Borgnine never earned more or less than $5,000 an episode.
The crew chuckles about what they’d been making now, but the truth is that no show like McHale’s Navy could be made now. Not with our cult of stars and multi-million dollar salaries and relentless race for the lowest common denominator. McHale’s Navy was funny without bad language or insufferable children or sexual innuendo. It was an ensemble comedy where people worked together and where everyone, stars included, fell in the lagoon once in a while (though nobody else did it with Tim Conway’s panache).
Hollywood also probably couldn’t make a war comedy where nobody ever died, anymore. In fact, in today’s TV marketplace, as soon as sweeps week rolled around, straws would be pulled and one of McHale’s crew would summarily be written out of the show. It would be touching, Emmy-baiting stuff, we’d have a good cry and congratulate ourselves on the show’s social relevance, and then it’d be back to the cup-size jokes. Kind of makes you glad McHale’s Navy ended in 1966, doesn’t it?