OPERATION MAD BALL was conducted with commendable zest in 1957 by a cast of noted for their humor skills, one of five entrants that year in the service-comedy sub-genre. Under Richard Quine’s proficient direction, Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs and Mickey Rooney shoot straight with the ammo provided by a well-crafted script, co-written by Blake Edwards. A $5,300,000 take put it in 43rd place that year, one overloaded with military-themed material. *
1945, France, the war in Europe just ended. A hospital unit (somewhat odd choice for a comedy, 13 years before MASH) has a good egg Colonel in command (Arthur O’Connell) but a fink for a Captain (Kovacs). Like many outfits, the guy with the right stuff is an enlisted man, here a ‘Pvt. Hogan’ (Lemmon) who has a thing for a nurse officer (Kathryn Grant). Bucking to avoid the oily Captain, aiming to please the comely Lieutenant, Hogan, with help from jiving hepcat ‘Sgt. Yancy Skibo’ (Rooney) sets up a wild party at an off-limits hotel. Gal-starved G.I. can-do works strategy wonders when it comes to scheming a fraternizing morale-booster.
Lemmon plays it straight—his film persona still in development, so the later-inserted tics aren’t present—in the second of six pictures he’d do with underrated director Quine. TV dynamo Kovacs, 36, excels in his feature debut, mastering a way to make a nasty, ingratiating character somehow fun to watch. Old-hand Rooney (also just 36) basically has an extended cameo, and he rips it up, nearly stealing the show. Kathryn Grant, 23, was being groomed that year, co-starring in five pictures. In game support are young turks Dick York, James Darren (20, 2nd film), Roger Smith, Paul Picerni and L.Q.Jones.
Blake Edwards was the last listed in the screenplay credits, after Arthur Carter (it was based on his play) and Jed Harris (famous—and often despised—Broadway producer-director). It’s a smartly done script, with—as promised in the title—a happily snazzy finish.
Superquick eyes might spot—in her first feature bit— a 21-year-old kid named Mary Tyler Moore. Others in the rank & file include Jeanne Manet, William Leslie, William Hickey, Betsy Jones-Moreland and Roy Jenson. Sammy Davis Jr. belts out the title number.
* The other uniform-formula frolics of ’57: Don’t Go Near The Water (WW2 Pacific, Navy, with Glenn Ford) was a big #10 hit, as likewise was #18, The Sad Sack (Jerry Lewis, peacetime Army). Kiss Them For Me (Gary Grant, WW2, stateside, Navy) mothballed at #67 and the hard-to-find Joe Butterfly (Audie Murphy–his only comedy, postwar Japan, Army) furloughed at #68.
It was a peaceful Eisenhower year, but 1957 was loaded with military movies: The Bridge On The River Kwai, Sayonara, A Farewell To Arms, Heaven Knows Mr.Allison, Battle Hymn, The D.I., The Wings Of Eagles, Men In War, Time Limit, Paths Of Glory, Bombers B-52, Until They Sail, The Enemy Below, Bitter Victory, Hellcats Of The Navy, Jet Pilot, The Strange One.
** Legendary sketch comic Ernie Kovacs only made nine more movies after this; he was killed in an auto accident in 1962, just 42. Perfect for playing sly guys, his other films were Bell Book And Candle, It Happened To Jane, Our Man In Havana, Wake Me When It’s Over, Strangers When We Meet (good dramatic part), North To Alaska (a favorite), Pepe, Five Golden Hours and Sail A Crooked Ship.