Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tonight's Episode: The Awkward Squad or Shell Mock

It's great to be back!  My time in the last few months has been occupied with health issues, an ill-fated romance, and professional study.  But now, my friends, it's time to get back to the comedy.

I just finished reading Hal Erickson's Military Comedy Films.  This is a comprehensive work that provides insightful commentary on a wide variety of military comedies.  My favorite chapter was "Abbott and Costello Meet the Ripoffs," in which Erickson describes the attempts of various studios to mimic the success of Universal's Buck Privates (1941).  I have to admit that I was unaware that Jackie Gleason was cast as a Lou Costello clone in Columbia's Buck Privates variant, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1942).

Of course, I read the book with a special interest in the gags and routines.  The main purpose of the classic military comedies was to lampoon military life, but they also allowed funnymen to reintroduce old stock gags into a new setting.  Take, for example, this gag from Sailor Beware (1952).  Erickson appropriately dubs this the "human sieve" gag.

The most persistent routine in military comedies was the drill routine.  The routine can be traced to the nineteenth century minstrel shows, in which the black Civil War regiments were a prime target for satire.  A popular routine known as "I'm One of the Black Brigade" (1864) involved black soldiers ineptly making their way through the manual of arms.

At first, vaudeville comedy was as much centered on Irish stereotypes as minstrel show comedy had been centered on black stereotypes.  It was only a matter of time before vaudeville funnymen would adapt the drill routine into a vehicle for the standard Irish caricatures.  But additional inspiration came along with the rise of ragtag ethnic neighborhood militias in New York City during the 1870s.  John Kendrick wrote in Musical Theater: A History, "These local 'guard' units were little more than uniformed drinking clubs sponsored by local politicians."  After overindulging in the free beer provided by the politicians, the militia units paraded drunkenly through the streets of the Lower East Side in their ill-fitting uniforms.  In 1873, Edward Harrigan & Tony Hart poked fun at these figures of folly in a skit called "The Mulligan Guard," which debuted at Broadway's Theatre Comique.  Jon W. Finson, Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina, noted that much of routine came down to the comedians "trying to make their way through the manual of arms without impaling themselves on bayonet or saber."  The skit was soon expanded into the play The Mulligan Guard Picnic, which became a steadfast hit and went on to spawn four sequels.

The drill routine was also popular in the English music hall.  An 1877 British pantomime, Dick Whittington and His Cat, featured a comic drill scene.

Harold Lloyd directed raw army recruits in a comic drill in Luke's Prepardedness Preparations (1916), which may be the first time that the routine was ever recorded on film.  But the routine came to prominence with film audiences when it was performed by Charlie Chaplin in Shoulder Arms (1918).

The routine showed up fairly regularly after Shoulder Arms.

Clyde Cook in The Misfit (1924)


Stan Laurel in Smithy (1924)

Snub Pollard in The Doughboy (1926) 

Jack Haley in Salt Water Daffy (1933)

Laurel and Hardy can be seen performing a variety of bungled military exercises in Beau Hunks (1931), Pack Up Your Troubles (1932), Bonnie Scotland (1935), The Flying Deuces (1939) and Great Guns (1941). 

Here is an exceptionally funny scene from Pack Up Your Troubles.

Mishap often occurred in drill scenes when the drill sergeant had the soldiers count off.  This is demonstrated in Beau Hunks.

The Three Stooges put their own unique stamp on the routine in Boobs In Arms (1940).

The most memorable drill scene was no doubt provided by Abbott & Costello in Buck Privates (1941).

Marching into the wrong direction.  Tripping over his own belt.  Getting the butt of a rifle slammed down on his foot.  Asking the drill instructor, "Why don't you make up your mind?"  It had all been done before.  But Abbott and Costello were still able to make this material seem fresh.  Costello managed, through his exasperated reactions, to make the routine more relatable than it had ever been before.  Also, he kept the audience on their toes by throwing in the occasional non sequitur ("What time is it?").  Costello was at the peak of his charms at the time and the audience was with him all the way.  But Abbott contributes significantly to the routine as well.  Totally unique is Abbott's forceful and calculated strategy to get Costello moving in the same direction as the other soldiers.  Abbott, who baffled Costello with his many mathematical equations, was the most calculated straight man in movie history.


After Buck Privates, other comedians paled at their attempts to perform the drill routine.

Bowery Battalion (1951)

It's a Grand Life (1953) 

Cartoon characters even got into the act.  The following clip is from Donald Duck  Donald Gets Drafted (1942).

Neil Simon, king of wordplay, proved that the conflict between a raw recruit and a drill instructor can be expressed comically without a single pratfall. 

Biloxi Blues (1988)

Costello's struggles with a hammock in In the Navy (1941) was another stock military routine.  The routine showed up in many silent comedies, including Miss Jackie of the Navy (1916), Ship Shape (1925), Jolly Tars (1926) and Shore Shy (1926).

Overall, I enjoyed Military Comedy Films and recommend it to comedy fans.


  1. Only one thing, Woody Allen in Love and Death :)

    1. Yes, you're right. "Love and Death" was a tribute to classic comedy. Allen repeatedly dropping his rifle and marching out of step with the other soldiers is great physical comedy.