When is a farce farcical? When it is Blake Edwards’ “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” Edwards got the title from a question asked of him by his son. Edwards had been in the Coast Guard during WWII and if he was ashamed to answer that question, making this movie was not the solution. Edwards was coming off the underperforming “The Great Race” and apparently decided the box office blahs were due to too much subtlety. He was hoping to replicate the success of “Operation Petticoat” by using the old more-ridiculous-is-better formula. The script was by the usually competent William Blatty, who was coming off the hilarious “Shot in the Dark” (one of my favorite comedies). “Daddy” was shot in California where a quaint Italian village was created for the setting. Edwards went with a middle of the road cast of recognizable stars.
The movie is set in Sicily in 1943 during Operation Husky. Gen. Bolt (Carroll O’Connor playing the same role as in “Kelly’s Heroes”) sends a company commanded by the green Capt. Cash (Dick Shawn) to reconnoiter the village of Valerno. The Americans go charging into the village to find the citizens and Italian soldiers involved in a soccer match. Capitano Otto (Sergeo Fantoni) immediately surrenders and the crowd sings “The Eyes of Texas”. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. Otto insists on postponing he and his men’s trip to a prison camp until the annual town festival is finished. Only the by-the-book Cash thinks that is a bad idea. If you get him drunk, however… Pretty soon he is not the only one. Meanwhile, a PR Maj. Pott (Henry Morgan) arrives to chronicle the glorious American success. He is taken captive by “Italian soldiers”, but escapes into the catacombs beneath the town. Wouldn’t it be hilarious if he went insane and found a gladiator suit to wear? Wait, there’s more! When a fistfight breaks out between the Americans and the Italians a reconnaissance plane snaps a picture of the “battle” and Gen. Bolt smells glory. Lt. Christian (James Coburn) realizes that to keep the farce going, they will have to stage a battle for future recon flights. Luckily they have an enormous supply of blanks handy. (Don’t ask.) Everyone in the town is involved including the prostitutes who spectate and applaude the better deaths. Don’t stop the movie at this point because you will miss the appearance of two bumbling bank robbers, four incompetent communists, and party pooping Nazis. And hijinks aplenty.
“What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” is the kind of movie that no participant wants on their resume. Everyone embarrasses themselves except the Italians, who were probably told it was a drama. (I apologize for that swipe at the Italian war effort.) It is sad to see James Coburn stuck in this. It was fortunately a bump in his road as he made “Our Man Flint” that same year. Aldo Ray continued his career decline and Shawn did not build on “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World” from three years earlier. All the fault lies with Edwards who had some ability with farces, but this one smacks of desperation. The movie degenerates from the start to where you expect a cameo from a kitchen sink. More is not usually better, but normally if you are going to get away with it it would be in a movie of this type. Unfortunately, little of the quantity is quality. The movie strains so much for laughs that Blatty must have pulled a muscle in his brain. It does not help that the usually reliable Henry Mancini contributes a lame score. Everyone was off their game for this one.
There are some terrible WWII comedies and this is one of them.
GRADE = F