Saturday, January 23, 2010

"Francis in the Navy" and the absurdity of people who lived before us

Title: Francis in the Navy
Released: 1955
Genre: Nonstop comedy with a talking mule
Notable because: The imagination is staggered by the concept that anyone ever found this funny
Clint's subliminal message: "Hey! My name is in the credits!"

The best thing about this movie is it gives the Flory family a Kevin Bacon-like degree of separation from Mr. Clint Eastwood.

Donald O'Connor is the human star of "Francis in the Navy" and Donald O'Connor gave a drunken and indifferent performance at the 1975 Chesaning (Michigan) Showboat. Look it up if you suspect we are bold enough to lie. At the risk of being name-droppers, Brad and Andrew both know Captain Bob Rhode of showboat fame. So we need two links to Clint. It's almost like we exchange Christmas cards.

Humiliating as it sounds to be upstaged by a mule, Clint was probably pleased with his career progression in this, his second film. He appeared in eight or 10 scenes, had several lines and was for the first time listed in the credits. His name came one notch below Jim Backus (aka Thurston Howell III) and one notch above David Janssen (aka The Fugitive).

Clint's acting is forgettable and not funny. He is "Jonesy," one of several Navy buddies who show up onscreen primarily to be confused about O'Connor's hi jinks. If you would like to see a Clint-free example of said hi jinks, click here. Clint says things like: "A little rest, Slicker, and you'll be your old self." Sadly, he has no dialog with the mule.

Poor Andrew watched with bemused disgust. O'Connor plays a double role which leads to 1 hour and 21 minutes of dumb and impossible situations of mistaken identity. The climax involves military maneuvers that make no logical sense. The story is punctuated by bad jokes from a mule, a cinematic hook that spawned seven movies.

"I imagine those dweebs in the 1950s sitting in the theater and laughing so hard," Andrew said. Then he used a mocking voice: "Oh my God! Francis is singing 'La Cucaracha.' Stop! My side is splitting!"

Forgive him. Andrew is 15 and still enjoys the certainty that his time is normal but earlier eras were absurd. One day he will look back and believe the past was better, not dumber. That will be the day he is no longer young.

"Do you think everyone in the 1950s was an idiot?" Brad asked.

"No, but I think they didn't know what was funny," Andrew said. Based on "Francis in the Navy," it is impossible to argue.

Next up: "Lady Godiva."


  1. Dear Mr. Florey

    Give the young fellow two doses each of The Court Jester and The Trouble with Harry (both also issued in 1955) and tell him to get a good night’s rest. To put him asleep you can conjure up a fairy tale about people like Bobby Layne, Les Bingaman and “Night Train” Lane who once upon a time …….. But that was when Lions were lions and Tigers were tigers. (The aforementioned three really did exist, I saw them play the New York Giants, first at the Polo Grounds and later at Yankee Stadium over a ten or 15 year period.)

    The first Francis was made for about $580,000, which was remarkably cheap in those days. Universal reaped great financial rewards from the Francis series and the Kettle things. Alas. They were really the precursors of the mindless television sitcoms that have plagued us ever since. Eastwood seems a worthwhile path to follow.

    Gordon Pasha

  2. Dear Gordon Pasha:

    We have the original radio broadcast of the Lions beating the Cleveland Browns in the 1957 NFL championship game. Every once in a while I listen in order to remember things were not always as they are now. You probably already know this, but Bobby Layne did not play in that game, which is the most recent Lions championship. Layne was hurt and Tobin Rote played QB. Jim Brown was a rookie for the Browns and the radio announcers called him "Jimmy" throughout. I never heard that before.

  3. "they didn't know what was funny..."
    As opposed, of course, to today, aka: the golden age of comedy...
    And please go easy on Tarantula!

  4. Dear Mr. Florey

    I suspect the explantion lies somewhere between generational and regional. I was a native New York City boy and we always called him Jimmy. He was the greatest football player I have ever seen.

    When asked who were the three greatest players he ever saw, Frank Gifford said; "Jimmy Brown, Jimmy Brown and Jimmy Brown." Elsewhere when asked a similar question on the greatest football player, Gifford replied: “That's not even a problem for me. Jimmy Brown.”

    In later years, Jim became the norm. Best.

    Gordon Pasha

    Postscript: I concur with Matthew, of course. He made the case more succinctly than I.