by Nick Santa Maria
OK students, what do Tommy Noonan, George O'Hanlon, Jerry Lester, Joe Besser, Mousie Garner, Frank Mitchell, Vince Barnet, and Doodles Weaver all have in common? Give up? Well, they all had a hand in what has to be one of the worst, and most fascinating "comedies" ever made.
If you haven't seen 1959's The Rookie, do whatever you can to get your maschochistic little hands on it as soon as possible. Directed by George O'Hanlon ("Joe McDoakes" himself), written by O'Hanlon and Noonan, and starring that anemic anachronism of a comedy team, Noonan and Marshall, this military comedy is sure to be a fave rave for all of you Third Bananites. Picture if you will a bumbling page (complete with ill fitting uniform) at a radio station (circa 1945) who gets his draft notice, but not before filling in for the Italian Chef of the airways. Noonan does a routine he previously performed in an earlier Noonan and Marshall appearance (Warner Brothers Starlift in 1951). The routine is about as funny as a colonoscopy done with a plumber's snake. He rants and raves in a bad Italian accent as he prepares a dish made up of every kind of liquor you can imagine. Of course, he gets more and more intoxicated as the routine wears on (...and on, and on) and we find ourselves wishing for Red Skelton to show up and save us with a bottle of Guzzler's Gin.
Now get this.....Noonan is drafted on the day the war ends, but the little schmuck wants to go anyway! Despite protests from his draft board, and complaints from the Pentagon itself, Noonan is granted his right to serve, even though the camp where he is to get basic training is about to close! This means that the entire staff has to forego their own discharges and stay to train Tommy Noonan (This also means that the film company gets to save money on extras dressed in fatigues.)! Some premise, right? Well, the sergeant in charge is none other than that Hollywood Square himself, singing straightman Peter Marshall. Peter is pissed, folks, because he is dying to get back to his girlfriend, starlet Julie Newmar (who has never looked sexier and is worth the price of admission all by her lonesome). Marshall even sings a horrible song about getting back to his baby....complete with vapid "rock and roll" guitars in support. Newmar has an unscrupulous press agent (the aggressively unfunny Jerry Lester) who is trying in the worst way (believe me) to create publicity for his amazonian charge. He decides that he will use the one recruit (who has gained quite a bit of publicity himself) for a contrived romance and marriage. This creates even more conflict between Noonan and Marshall and lots of fun for everyone but the audience.
Why did a major studio like Fox release this piece of garbage? Where they desperate at the time? Did they lose a bet? (I also recently got a hold of another late 50's Fox release, Space Master X-7, directed by Ed Bernds, produced by Norman Maurer, and featuring Moe Howard in a character role!!! Yipes!) The beauty part of the film are the appearances of what I like to refer to as the "desperate comedians". "Desperate Comedians" are those poor souls who'd outlasted the days of real comedy films and waited around for people like Tommy Noonan, or Jerry Lewis to throw them a bone. Frank Mitchell plays a ships' captain and has absolutely nothing comical to do. Mousie Garner is wasted in a bit as a waiter. Doodles Weaver does a very bizarre spoof of Walter Winchell, actually removing Winchell's famous fedora to reveal his head to be shaped that way underneath (It's the best gag in the film). Joe Besser is a sadistic soldier who wants Noonan to be killed so he can be himself can be discharged. At one point the sloppy filmmakers show Besser sitting in his undershirt with the other soldiers as he is smoking a cigarette. Perhaps I'm a purist but "Stinky" does not smoke! He looks like a tough auto mechanic on a break. The image is like seeing Shirley Temple rolling the dice in a crap game. And let us not forget about Jerry Lester. If Harry Ritz and Mickey Rooney had a child it would have been Jerry Lester. Nuff said.
Now to Noonan and Marshall. Apparently, they were a sporadic team in the clubs who would work together, but only when Noonan wasn't doing various film roles. You may have seen him in the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, or as Marilyn Monroe's nerdy boyfriend in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He wasn't bad, either. But as the "Jerry" half of this Martin and Lewis wannabe team he is merely pathetic and annoying. The team does routines in a fast talking double act kind of way, but the nightclub routines stand out like a sore thumb. The jokes are ancient and the delivery is soulless and a little too polished to be passed off as actual dialog. To see Noonan and Marshall try to incorporate their "routines" into the film makes me marvel at the seamless way Abbott and Costello did the same thing. To make matters worse, as if there weren't enough Noonan and Marshall, they are introduced as two completely different characters (Gulp) later in the film. They portray two stupid, goggle eyed, buck toothed Japanese soldiers who don't know that the war is over. The American Noonan and Marshall meet the Japanese Noonan and Marshall on a deserted island and when you are not wincing at the depiction of the Japanese stereotypes (Even Jerry Lewis would have been embarrassed.) you are wondering how much longer the film is going to go on before some kind of satisfying ending presents itself. (Did I say "satisfying"?)
There are even jokes about having to go to the bathroom while being forced to stand at attention and salute an officer, lots of wiggling and cleavage from Julie Newmar, and even throwing up on the high seas.....but these only come off as precursors to the gags featured in Noonan's two "smut-fests", Promises, Promises, and Two Nuts in Search of a Bolt (both of which also should be seen to be believed.) a few years later.
Noonan and Marshall made one more film together, Fox's Swingin' Along (1961). Barbara Eden is the bombshell in this one, and it was directed by comedy veteran, Charles Barton (My eyes are peeled for this one, folks.). After that the boys went their separate ways. Noonan wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the afore-mentioned adult films and Marshall went on to become the host of The Hollywood Squares, occasionally appearing as a Vegas singer. Noonan passed away of a brain tumor at the age of 46.
Yes, they're gone folks, but the stench of their movie legacy lives on in the nostrils of comedy buffs everywhere. Thanks Pete and Tommy. You really set the bar and managed to make Brown and Carney look like comic geniuses. For that alone you should be in Ripley.