On an unrelated thread, Philip Portelli wrote:
"To the Commander: I would be very interested to hear your views on M*A*S*H, McHale's Navy, and particularly Hogan's Heroes, given your service. I know that they were comedies but I would like to hear your views, if or when you want. Heck comment on CPO Sharkey for that matter!"
First, let me state that, with regard to military series, both dramatic and comedic, television imposes certain necessary restraints to accuracy. I understand this. J.A.G. demonstrated a few of these necessary bars to accuracy. For ten years, the two stars served in the same billets at J.A.G. headquarters (except for occasional story arcs which temporarily shifted them around). Normal tours in the military are eighteen months to three years, at the most, and usually are two years. So, no way that would have happened in real life. But I understand that a popular show just can't go retooling itself with new formats and new cast members every couple of years. So I can accept that as a necessary fictional device.
Also, the two stars would not have reported to the Judge Advocate General of the Navy directly, as they did in the show. There would be a Chief of Staff and other ACOS's in the hierarchy. But then you're talking about the expense of additional cast members, so I can accept that as a necessary fictional device, as well.
Those kinds of things I grudgingly give a pass to. Other things I do not. Things which do not affect the budget, such as improper military protocol or errors in the uniform. These things don't cost a cent to fix, and J.A.G. had the least excuse of all shows for such mistakes creeping in. J.A.G. had a retired rear admiral on the payroll as an advisor. He must have been asleep through many of the episodes, though, for all the uniform mistakes---and obvious ones to anybody in the Navy---to have gotten by.
And, sure, many military-related series, especially sitcoms, didn’t hire a military expert as an advisor. But you can sure bet the shows received mail from vets who watched the show and called them on errors. So when I see mistakes of this sort appear, my estimation of the show immediately drops.
Now, to military sitcoms.
I understand, in order to evoke humour, certain aspects of military life have to exaggerated or lampooned. But the key here---from my standpoint as a military man---is to not go beyond my willing suspension of disbelief. Granted, the bar is higher for me than it is for someone who has never served. And there are lots more of career civilian television watchers than there are career military television watchers. So, if a producer wants to play the numbers game, he can go as extreme as he wants.
On the other hand, television history has had several military-oriented sitcoms that were successful and never strayed across my line of believability.
Let’s start with the two military sitcoms that are remarkable in the fact that neither one of them ever---ever---committed an error in protocol, uniform wear, or general military practice.
The first was Hennesey (CBS, 1959-62), starring Jackie Cooper. This show was so remarkable that it is tied, with Father Knows Best, as my favourite sitcom ever. It tells of a newly minted Navy physician, Lieutenant Charles “Chick” Hennesey, stationed at the Naval Dispensary in San Diego.
It’s a show that takes it’s humour from the characters’ reactions to simple, yet logical twists and developments in Navy life. While Hennesey and his nurse, Martha Hale, pretty much play it straight (though they are not beyond a witty line or two), there are some characters who are “characters”---Hennesey’s commanding officer, Captain (later, Rear Admiral) Shafer, and Chief Corpsman Bronsky. Yet, they never get so broad as to be unbelievable and underlie their minor eccentricities with remarkable humanity. It’s a show loaded with sentimental moments, but never saccharine ones, mostly because Hennesey is just a decent, likeable man, usually right but not always.
As I said, Hennesey never committed a single error in military protocol, not even a situation that bordered on being impossible to really happen. I credit this to the fact that Jackie Cooper, who also produced the show, hired a great number of military veterans as staff and he himself was a Navy veteran. The show was also distinctive in utilising techniques infrequently seen on television then, especially in sitcoms. It relied strongly on overlapping dialogue. And for most episodes, it eschewed an opening credit sequence. The show would begin with a cold open and a minute or so into it, the dialogue track go silent and the theme would play, while the credits got “painted” over the scene, which would still be going on. Even without the benefit of dialogue, the viewer could still follow the gist of the scene.
Many episodes were done without a laugh track. Particularly one tour-de-force episode which has only two cast members---Cooper, as Hennesey, and guest star Don Rickles as a chief petty officer. The TV Guide entry for this episode probably read: “Hennesey gives a C.P.O. a reënlistment physical.” Because that’s all it was. But the dialogue keeps you so riveted that you don’t realise that nothing else takes place.
As in many other Hennesey episodes, something pointed out early on comes back as the clincher in the end. And for this episode, throw away any previous conceptions of Don Rickles. He performs with nuance and subtlety. And in the last shot, which shows him walking toward the camera, away from the examining room, he looks and moves like every thirty-year C.P.O. I ever met.
Personal Sidebar: I was a tadpole when Hennesey aired and it was the first exposure to the Navy that I ever had, and from it, I got the idea that maybe the Navy wouldn’t be such a bad place to spend my life.
Fast-forward to 1999. It was Christmas Eve, and I was in my stateroom, lying on my rack, on board the flagship Blue Ridge, in Yokosuka, Japan. I had just been assigned to the staff of Commander, SEVENTH Fleet, and the Good Mrs. Benson, having a good job that neither of us wanted her to sacrifice, was back home in the States. The ship was quiet, practically deserted, except for duty personnel, everybody else home with his wife and family. And I started thinking about all the events that led me to that particular point, at that particular time.
I followed that thread all the way back to Hennesey, which I hadn’t thought about in years. It was about mid-night, Christmas now, when I got an idea. I was going to write Jackie Cooper a letter, telling him how his show had been my first inspiration to join the Navy and how much satisfaction my Naval career had brought me.
Right then, I went down to my office and wrote. Getting his mailing address wasn’t difficult---Cooper was still famous enough and, hey, I worked for an admiral. And I mailed it.
About three weeks later, there was something on my desk from mail call. It was a letter from Jackie Cooper, written in his own hand. He said that my letter was one of the nicest Christmas presents he had ever received. He was glad that Hennesey had been such an inspiration to me. And, to me, the most important thing he wrote was that “of all the things I’ve done as a producer, director, or actor, Hennesey is the thing of which I am proudest.”
(The same night I also wrote and sent a letter to his Hennesey co-star, Abby Dalton, that produced some interesting results. But that’s another story, for another post.)
The other error-free military sitcom came much later in television’s history, but has many of the same qualities as Hennesey. That was Major Dad (also CBS, 1989-93). As Hennesey was for Jackie Cooper, Major Dad was obviously a labour of love for Gerald McRaney. While the central premise was different---die-hard Marine Corps officer meets and marries a liberal-minded lady journalist with three daughters---it shared Hennesey’s impeccability in showing both the light side and the serious side of military life, including the grimness of combat, without diluting either. Like Hennesey, some of the regular characters were slightly eccentric but never beyond feasibility and were always underlaid with professionalism and competence.
Major Dad wasn’t a “quiet” sitcom, like Hennesey. It played comedy a bit more broadly and cranked in the generational humour with the three daughters. And it vested Major MacGillis with a Marine Warrior image that the plots both validated and poked fun at. It also plumbed the sentimentality well a bit more deeply, along with adding the cuteness factor of pint-sized youngest daughter, Casey.
It’s telling that the then-Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray, appeared in a guest spot on the show. The Marine Corps usually doesn’t go in for that kind of thing, unless they respect a show.
Since I’ve rambled on here, Philip, let’s make this “part one”, and I’ll get to some of the military sitcoms you specifically mentioned on the next go ‘round.
I've seen some of Major Dad. I think that one of the more interesting aspects was seeing a liberal reporter "evolve" into a military wife, certainly not a stress-free life, and one that most military shows sidestep. Ideas and ideologies were discussed, changed and compromised (in the best sense of the word). Their relationship had its bumps, but like freedom, worth fighting for.
Waiting happily for your next installment!
One thing I forgot to mention about Major Dad is that it has the best wedding scene of any television programme I've ever seen.
Not the best wedding episode, mind you. The first twenty minutes or so was standard sitcom lunacy. But the actual scene, ah, that was so perfect that I got chills watching it.
No dialogue---the soundtrack plays the Mills Brothers' "Nevertheless", a brilliantly nuanced selection---until the song itself culminates as the Major and Polly are passing the the Arch of Swords. As the couple passes under the final pair of crossed sabres, one of the honour guard, per tradition, whacks Polly on the derrière with his sabre as she passes by.
"Welcome to the Marine Corps, Mrs. MacGillis."
Veering a bit off topic into movies, I recently watched "Buffalo Soldiers," a black comedy Army film set in West Germany just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It centers around some thefts, the black market, drug deals and other hijinks within the quartermasters office.
While I watched it, I wondered if such activity was really possible (and profitable) in the military. Ever hear of any such activities, Commander? (I suppose in a roundabout way this has a bit to do with Sgt. Bilko/"The Phil Silvers Show.")
Without having seen the film, Jack, it's hard for me to give you an answer in that specific case.
I do know that soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines, at all paygrades, have managed to find ways of exploiting the military supply and requisition systems. Not to mention other frauds in such areas as non-recording leave and falsfying orders to obtain government quarters free of charge.
That's why, to the agony of commanding officers and command supply officers everywhere, the procedures for ordering, purchasing, maintaining, recording, and even disposing of supplies is so byzantine. Operational target funds (essentially, the "bank account" of money that each command has) are tightly monitored, with redundancy squared.
Certainly, larcenous servicemen have found their ways around existing regulations. And when these crooks get caught, the Department of Defense adds a new layer of regulations to cover the loopholes in the old ones. That's why getting a requisition through can sometimes feel like peeling an artichoke.
As for Sergeant Bilko. I'll be getting to that show. I was never a fan.
Major Dad? Really?
I watched much of Major Dad when it was in daily reruns on USA or A&E or some channel like that. I thought it was an okay show, but no great shakes.
Although one episode sticks out in my mind: The major's goofy subordinate has to go through some kind of celebration/hazing ritual called a "wetdown," which typically is a night of debauchery facilitated with the ingestion of copious amounts of alcohol. However, said subordinate (I forget his name, something like Howalachuk) is a teetotaler, and the major insisted that if he didn't want to drink, then nobody's going to make him drink; we're just going to have to have a "dry wetdown." I could really respect that.
Never saw Bilko - I was aware of it when I was a little kid, but never got into it. My impression of the program was that Bilko was a conniver who schemed to get an easy life for himself, and that kind of character didn't appeal to me.