One of the most popular and enduring sitcoms of its era, "McHale's Navy" ran from 1962-1966. The premise centered on Lt. Commander Quinton McHale (Ernest Borgnine), a PT boat skipper stationed in the South Pacific (later transferred to Italy) during WWII along with a motley but lovable crew of swabbies. McHale and his men are unconventional, to say the least, and routinely disregard basic military discipline. They are so unruly that they have been relegated to their own tiny island, which suits them just fine. Here they brew booze, entertain young women and run about dressed in party attire. They also manage to "adopt" a genial Japanese prisoner-of-war, Fuji (Yoshio Yoda), who manages to stay hidden despite indulging in all the excesses of McHale and his crew. McHale's antics are to the chagrin of their superior officer, Capt. Binghamton (Joe Flynn), who is constantly devising schemes to catch McHale and his men in a major infraction and have them court martialed. Inevitably, just in the nick of time McHale and his crew distinguish themselves in some sort of military action that brings them praise from the top brass instead of ending their careers.
The series proved to be so popular that is spawned two feature films that have now been released as a double-feature DVD by Shout! Factory. "McHale's Navy" was certainly not the first TV series to have a cross-over to the big screen. In the 1950s Walt Disney edited together several episodes of his immensely popular "Davy Crockett" series starring Fess Parker and released them as the feature film "Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier". During the 1960s and 1970s, the same process was used to release previously-seen TV episodes as feature films, though many were seen only in European markets. These included "Mission Impossible Vs. The Mob", "Mission: Monte Carlo" (based on "The Persuaders") and most notably, eight entire feature films derived from two-part episodes of "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.". "McHale's Navy" was a more ambitious venture because, like the big screen versions of "Batman" and "The Munsters" ("Munsters Go Home!"), it at least consisted of entirely new material shot specifically for the theatrical version. The real thrill for fans of such shows was the ability to see their favorites on the big screen in color during an era in which precious few homes boasted color TVs.
The plot of the first film is reed-thin. McHale crew member Gruber (Carl Ballantine) tries to raise funds for an orphanage by devising a massive betting scheme predicated on the outcome of a horse race in Australia that has already been completed. However, the bettors won't legitimately know the results of that race until the newspaper is delivered by mail drop a week after the race's conclusion. Thus a large number of servicemen converge on McHale's island to engage in the betting. The trouble is that almost everyone is betting on the favorite: Silver Spot. When the newspaper arrives, Gruber discovers to his horror that Silver Spot has indeed won- and now the pot isn't big enough to pay off the bettors. McHale and Gruber stall for time and buy a week during which they must come up with the money to pay off the bettors. McHale and his men sail their PT 73 to New Calendonia where McHale reunites with a former lover, Margot (Jean Willes), a local saloon owner who he hopes will lend him the funds. She agrees to do so but only for a steep price: he must consent to marry her. Meanwhile, McHale's bumbling executive officer, Ensign Parker (Tim Conway) attempts to rescue a local French beauty, Andrea (Claudine Longet) from a bothersome local wolf, a rich businessman, Le Clerc (an unrecognizable George Kennedy). He earns her respect and his wrath but he also accidentally launches a depth charge that destroys one of the docks owned by Le Clerc. Now McHale and his men must come up with money for damages or risk being imprisoned. In a plot device that is as improbable even by sitcom standards, it turns out the valuable Silver Spot has gone missing and the crew of the PT 73 just happens upon him on a remote island. They attempt to win the money they need by disguising the horse and running him in another race under another name. The "Day at the Races"-like scenario falls apart, exposing the crew's deceitful tactic- but when McHale and his men thwart a Japanese submarine attack, all is forgiven and they are rewarded with enough cash to pay off all their debts. The film provides some pleasant entertainment and manages- ever so slightly- to spice things up compared to the TV series. (It's clear that McHale and Margot enjoy a pretty steamy past.) Also, the ever-virginal Ensign Parker finds himself uncomfortably close to Andrea as she tries to change out of wet clothing. Much of the fun derives from watching the great Joe Flynn and Tim Conway interact with impeccable comedic timing. The direction by Edward J. Montagne is well-paced. Montagne, who also produced the TV series, was an underrated talent, having helmed and/or produced the terrific Don Knotts feature films of the era including the cult classic "The Ghost and Mr. Chicken".
Edward Montagne was also in the director's chair for "McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force", released in 1965 on the heels of the first film's success. This time, however, Ernest Borgnine is nowhere to be seen. Borgnine told this writer years ago that he never got a clear explanation for why the film was made without him but said that theater owners leveled criticism at him, thinking he refused to be in it. In fact, Borgnine said he was flabbergasted that he had never been asked to appear in the movie. There were probably two motives for by-passing him. The first was money. By eliminating the highest paid cast member, Universal could keep production values low. Second, the studio might have wanted to give unrestrained screen time to the antics of Joe Flynn and Tim Conway, who were becoming an enormously popular duo through the TV series. In any event, Borgnine's absence is initially glaring but the as the film gets underway it turns out this sequel is superior to the original. The plot is more ambitious and the antics of Conway and Flynn are unrestrained. This film also affords McHale's crew- which consists of some wonderful character actors like Billy Sands, Gavin MacLeod and Carl Ballantine- to appear as something more than mere window dressing. This time around the plot revolves around a case of mistaken identity. Cutting through the clutter, it boils down to Ensign Parker first being mistaken for defecting Soviet officer and being arrested by KGB agents (one of whom is played by Len Lesser, who went on to appear as Uncle Leo in the "Seinfeld" series). Parker bumbles his way out of that but then becomes mistaken for a high profile Army officer (Ted Bessell), who has a reputation for being quite the lady's man. A lot of the fun revolves around the hapless, innocent Parker becoming a chick magnet for the likes of willing young women played by Susan Silo and Jean Hale, among others. Since the Army Air Corps officer Parker is impersonating is also a master pilot, he is forced to act as navigator aboard a bomber. Through a convoluted series of events, Binghamton ends up aboard the plane with him and the two wreak havoc before tumbling out of the plane on a jeep that is suspended from the cargo hull by a parachute. Flynn and Conway are like a modern version of Laurel and Hardy and I must admit that, despite the sheer predictability of their routine, I ended up chuckling out loud at numerous points. Meanwhile, McHale's crew gets some screen time when they switch uniforms with Russian sailors in order to sneak off PT 73 and go into town to get drunk. This, of course, turns out to have disastrous unforeseen consequences. The film also benefits from some other familiar character actors of the era including Henry Beckman, Tom Tully and Willis Bouchey, all of whom are marvelous to watch. Both films also feature the deft comedic turns by series regular Bob Hastings as Binghamton's ever-present aide and boot-licker, Lt. Elroy Carpenter, whose devotion to his unappreciative boss borders on the homo erotic. (I'm convinced the Mr. Burns/ Smithers relationship in "The Simpsons" is directly based on the Binghamton/Carpenter characters in "McHale's Navy"). As with the previous film, this one is a bit more mature in terms of sexual content, though it remains firmly in the category of family entertainment. The women's sexual aggressiveness would never have made it in the TV series (Jean Hale's character in particular makes it clear she can't wait to bed the legendary Romeo that Parker is impersonating). In another scene, Parker and Binghamton uncover a shipment of brassieres and both of them are clueless as to what they are.
Both of the Shout! Factory transfers are completely pristine and make for a highly enjoyable afternoon of "McHale" bing-watching. Unfortunately, there are no bonus extras.