Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sergeant Dead Head (Alta Vista Films, American International Pictures, 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I had asked Charles if he wanted to go to the Vintage Sci-Fi screening in Golden Hill rather than do any of the Pride evening events (most of which involve partying, drinking and/or tricking), and we went even though the two movies being shown were uninspiring choices. One was a truly preposterous movie from 1965 called Sergeant Dead Head, made by the “beach party” unit at American International — and yes, the term “dead head” is spelled as two words, and since the Grateful Dead didn’t exist as a band yet it couldn’t have meant a member of that bizarre assemblage of camp followers they built up over the years who criss-crossed the country to see as many of the shows on each tour as possible. Instead it casts Frankie Avalon in a dual role: as the titular Sergeant Dead Head (that’s actually the character’s name!) and as Sergeant Donovan. Donovan is a straight-ahead officer but Dead Head is a classic screw-up in the manner of Private Snafu and the Sad Sack, doing slapsticky things like sitting on the “Panic Button” his commanding officer, General Fogg (Fred Clark), has installed on top of his desk and thereby calling out the entire base for evacuation. It’s unclear just what branch of the service the characters are in, since the females on the base are referred to as WAC’s (which stands for Women Army Corps) but the enlisted personnel are called “airmen” (both men and women are so called, which really dates this movie) and their job seems to be to fly things. 

There are quite a few people in this movie who had illustrious careers outside of it, including several supporting players who had got to make films with “A”-listers of previous eras and one who’d been on the “A”-list in a previous era: Buster Keaton. He plays a sort of civilian handyman around the base, who installs Fred Clark’s panic button and successively gives himself, General Fogg and his adjutant, Lt. Charlotte Kinsey (Eve Arden — between them Keaton and Arden make this movie and give it what meager entertainment value it has), electric shocks in the process; later he turns up as the groundskeeper, assigned to water the lawn of the training field, and of course he screws up the process and gets a huge splash of water in his face. He was nearing 70 and would die the following year, but Keaton still knew how to get laughs — and some of the slapstick scenes involving other actors in the movie suggest that in addition to appearing in the film, Keaton was also serving as a gag man. The main intrigue is that the base is working on a super-secret project called “Monkey Shines” in which a chimpanzee is going to be launched into space orbit — previously they’ve done this with lower animals and the creatures have returned with no ill effects except they got hornier. (Made during the last dregs of the Production Code era, this movie has a lot of teasing about sex, some of it genuinely funny — the intense sexual attraction between the Fred Clark and Eve Arden characters, who have to maintain the appearance of professional decorum whenever anyone else is around but who are literally all over each other when they’re alone, seems to have been the model for the Frank Burns/“Hot Lips” Houlihan relationship in M*A*S*H — and some just annoying: when the panic button goes off, the women in the showers on the base have to leave, and in order to stand at attention they have to drop the towels they’ve wrapped around themselves: this movie has a lot of prick-teasing that probably infuriated the teenage straight boys who were part of the target audience, though maybe they were too busy making out with the teenage straight girls in their cars at the drive-in to notice or care!) 

Of course, Sergeant Dead Head gets trapped in the capsule with the chimp, and the result is when he gets back he’s a lot more aggressive towards his fiancée, Airman Lucy Turner (Deborah Walley, the in-house replacement American International groomed for Annette Funicello when Walt Disney stopped loaning l’Annette to them), who as in a lot of her movies seems like a genuinely intelligent, “together” character whose attraction to terminally dull, klutzy Sgt. Dead Head remains totally inexplicable. (Blame Louis M. Heyward, who “wrote” this movie — or at least assembled it from clichés probably as old as Aristophanes.) The synopsis claims, “When they return to Earth after their orbit, it is discovered that the chimp has the brains of the astronaut, and the astronaut has the brains of the chimp” — which isn’t what happens, though this film would have been considerably funnier if it had been! Instead, like the previous animals shot into space, all that happens to Frankie Avalon is he gets hornier and more sexually aggressive with Deborah Walley (whose real-life husband at the time, John Ashley, is in the movie as one of Avalon’s fellow guardhouse inmates in the pre-spaceflight scenes), and writer Heyward decides to go for the Nutty Professor out of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tropes as Frankie Avalon turns out to have a more responsible double, Sgt. Donovan. 

The base command arranges a marriage ceremony between Airman Turner and … which one? The intent seems to be to marry her off to Donovan but she actually goes through the ceremony with Dead Head, who shows up at the honeymoon suite in the hotel where the climax (in more than one sense) occurs and Heyward turns it into a French farce with Turner alternately being romanced by Dead Head and Donovan, who gets locked in a convenient closet while Dead Head and Turner finally consummate their marriage, despite ceaseless interruptions by Fogg, Kinsey (it’s obvious Heyward deliberately picked her name after the celebrated sex researcher!) and a trio of obnoxious officers: Navy Admiral Stoneham (Cesar Romero), psychiatrist Captain Weiskopf (Gale Gordon, Lucille Ball’s sidekick on two of her post-I Love Lucy series), and Lt. Commander Talbott (Reginald Gardiner), a British officer sent to the U.S. military, presumably as part of the same exchange that sent Peter Sellers as Captain Mandrake to Burpleson Air Force Base in Dr. Strangelove. Sergeant Dead Head has some genuinely entertaining moments, notably the slapstick scenes Buster Keaton designed for the other actors as well as the ones he performed himself, and two good songs, one for Eve Arden (“You Should’ve Seen the One That Got Away”) and one for Donna Loren (“Two-Timin’ Angel”), who doesn’t appear elsewhere in the movie but turns up in a rock ’n’ roll nightclub and belts out this song with what I believe is the fabled “Wrecking Crew” studio band behind her. (I particularly noticed the unique solo style of their main guitarist, Tommy Tedesco, whose son Danny directed the documentary The Wrecking Crew.) The rest of the songs are as embarrassingly bad as the rest of the movie — they were all written by the deathless songwriting team of Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner — and the lowest point is a duet (or should I call it a trio?) between Deborah Walley and both Frankie Avalons on a lousy song called “Let’s Play Love.” 

When you look at the illustrious level of talent involved in this movie — the director was Norman Taurog, who’d made his bones back in 1931 directing Jackie Cooper in Skippy, had helmed many of the Martin and Lewis movies (and said that working with Martin and Lewis was like working with kids!) and had somehow hung on to a feature-film career while a lot of second- and third-tier directors with his sort of résumé were being relegated to retirement or TV series work; the actors included Keaton, Fred Clark (who had been in Sunset Boulevard and The Solid Gold Cadillac as well as one of the last Abbott and Costello Universals, A&C Meet the Keystone Kops), Eve Arden (who’d worked with the Marx Brothers on At the Circus, for which one of the gag men was Buster Keaton, and later turned up as Deborah Walley’s mother on the short-lived TV sitcom The Mothers-in-Law, Desi Arnaz’s only post-Lucy production), Cesar Romero and Reginald Gardiner (who worked with both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, though only severally, not jointly: with Astaire in A Damsel in Distress and Rogers in the 1954 Black Widow) — and compare it to the meager level of what was achieved, the first conclusion you reach was, “Why did they bother?” Obviously because they were making a lot of money with this crap, though by this time the whole concept was losing steam and the combination of superficial cock-teasing and underlying unshakable wholesomeness that had made the original Beach Party and its immediate sequelae, Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo, successes was wearing thin with audiences and American International decided to salvage the formula by combining it with the other sort of movie that was making them money at the time, horror films. The end credits for Sergeant Dead Head promised the next film in the sequence, Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, which had many of the same cast members as this one but added Vincent Price. Though it’s not entirely without entertaining moments (emphasis on “moments”), for most of its running time Sergeant Dead Head is the sort of annoying bad movie you sit through just asking yourself, “When the hell is this going to end, already?”