'At War With the Army' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9:00 p.m., KCET brings you the 1950 film "At War with the Army," a musical comedy starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as a pair of soldiers dealing with one mishap after another at a dysfunctional Army training camp. It's the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic, Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "At War with the Army" back on December 30, 1950.

"At War with the Army" was the third of many on-screen collaborations between funnyman Jerry Lewis and legendary crooner Dean Martin, and their first time in starring roles together. Before each went on to pursue a solo career, the duo was collectively known as "Martin and Lewis." They started in nightclubs in the mid-1940s, graduated to radio and television, and went on to appear together in 17 Hollywood films. Watch this scene from "At War with the Army" to hear both their singing voices.

And watch this video to get a better idea of what the Martin and Lewis straight man-funny man routine was like during their decade of performing together.

"At War with the Army" is one of many World War II films made in the early 1950s. They usually depicted important battles or end of war readjustment for American serviceman. This film -- set in a Kentucky army post in 1944 -- follows the self-assured First Sergeant Puccinelli (Martin) and his screw-up sidekick Private First Class Korwin (Lewis). While the two characters had been best friends and nightclub partners "before the war," Puccinelli outranks Korwin in the service -- and is quick to remind him of this. Martin and Lewis' odd couple interaction in this film laid the framework for many film performances to come. Martin would always be the charming "King of Cool" and Lewis the hapless goofball.

Here's a clip from "At War with the Army" that showcases Lewis' goofball style. Here, his character dresses in drag to sneak off the army base incognito.

Interestingly, when it came to the stars' working relationship it was Martin who felt he was low man on the totem pole. He was limited to playing bland romantic leads while most of the pictures focused on the wild antics of his comedic partner. Martin left the act in 1956, a decade after the duo began. The relationship had disintegrated considerably prior to the break-up. At one point, Martin angrily told Lewis, "To me you're nothing but a f---ing dollar sign."

Watch Lewis give his side of the story many years later:


And watch Lewis and Martin reunite 20 years after their split, at Lewis' MDA telethon in 1976.

After their break-up, both Lewis and Martin's careers reached new heights. Jerry Lewis became Paramount's golden boy with films like "The Nutty Professor." Martin continued in the movies, became a recording artist and launched the hugely successful "The Dean Martin Show." As his fame grew, he joined Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack, acting alongside Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Peter Lawford in films such as "Ocean's 11."

Take a Closer Look Back

"At War with the Army" was released at the close of 1950, as the U.S. military shifted its focus to Korea and the "Red Scare" pervaded Hollywood and Washington D.C. (For more on that, read our Classic Cool Context entry for another 1950 war film, "The Big Lift"). While most other 1950 military films included elements of propaganda, "At War with the Army" simply used a training camp and its stock characters (angry drill sergeants, nitpicking colonels, etc.) as a backdrop for its odd-couple comedy. It wasn't intended to be an accurate representation of military life or a recruitment tool. But here's what military recruitment films did look like at the time:

So, what was happening in L.A. in 1950? Mob king Mickey Cohen certainly was making news. A U.S. Senate committee was investigating the violent mobster and convicted him of tax evasion, leading to a four-year prison sentence. The violent associate of Al Capone and Bugsy Siegel lived in a fortress-home in Brentwood -- equipped with floodlights and alarm systems. Here's a Cohen at an arraignment in 1949:

Mickey Cohen and some of his henchman in court yesterday as they appeared for arraignment. 1949. Via Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive.

And check out photos of Cohen's bulletproof Cadillac here.

What else was going on? Well, the Los Angeles Rams were performing extraordinarily well after moving from Cleveland four years prior. In 1950, the Rams became the first professional football team to have all of its games televised. A week before the release of "At War with the Army," the Rams lost narrowly to the Cleveland Browns in the NFL championship game. Check out the 1950 Rams' stats here.


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