Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Military Sitcoms of The Sixties

From the early to mid-Sixties, American television saw a cycle towards military comedies, also known as service comedies. Beginning in 1962, the cycle would wind down during the 1965-1966 season. In all, the cycle would produce around eleven different shows. Of those shows, many are still remembered to this day. McHale's Navy, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., F Troop, and Hogan's Heroes are all still seen on various outlets even now.

When looking for the reasons why a cycle towards military comedies emerged on the American broadcast networks in the early Sixties, one does not have to look long. The answers can be found both in recent films and even on television itself. The Fifties had seen such successful military comedies as Mister Roberts (1955), The Perfect Furlough (1958), and Operation Petticoat (1959). Among the most successful shows of the Fifties was The Phil Silvers Show, which would sometimes be syndicated as Sgt. Bilko after its network run ended. The Phil Silvers Show was not only very successful in its first run on CBS, but proved very successful as an off-network, syndicated rerun. In addition to The Phil Silvers Show, the now forgotten comedy Hennesey (starring Jackie Cooper as a U.S. Navy physician) proved to be a modest success that ran from 1959 to 1962. Between the success of various military comedy feature films in the Fifties and The Phil Silvers Show, for many television producers in the early Sixties service comedies must have seemed like a sure thing.

Indeed, the cycle towards military comedies began all at once during the 1962-1963 season. It was that season that four different military comedies debuted. Strangely enough, the first to debut would be one of the worst failures to emerge from the cycle. Stranger still, the show emerged from the creator of a previous military comedy that had not only had moderate success, but also had received its share of acclaim. Don't Call Me Charlie was created by Don McGuire, who had previously created the aforementioned Hennesey. Not only had Hennesey ran for three seasons, but it had also received Emmy nominations in both acting and writing. This would not be the case for Don't Call Me Charlie.

Don't Call Me Charlie centred on Iowa veterinarian Judson McKay, who is drafted into the Army. When he saved a bird who belonged to a little girl who was related to Charles De Gaulle, he finds himself stationed in Paris. Country bumpkin McKay then found himself often at odds with his commanding officer Colonel U. Charles Barker (played by John Hubbard). Colonel Parker insisted people do not call him "Charlie", hence the title. The show was originally going to be titled Viva Judson McKay, but studies indicated people then thought the show was going to be about a Mexican revolutionary.

While Hennesey had seen some success and received some acclaim, Don't Call Me Charlie would not. In fact, it received over all bad notices from critics. Rick Du Brow of United Press International wrote that the show "...would best be put out of misery, removed from the air instantly, if not sooner." Worse yet, it performed horribly in the ratings. At a time when most shows managed to last at least one season, Don't Call Me Charlie only lasted from September 21 1962 to January 25 1963.

In some respects it could be argued that McKeever and the Colonel was not a military comedy, although it was set at a military academy where cadet Gary McKeever (played by Scott Lane) was constantly resulting in trouble. As a result, it certainly shared a lot in common with military comedies, even if it did not centre on members of the armed forces. McKeever's nemesis was the academy's commandant, the strict, by the book Colonel Harvey T. Bullock (played by legendary character actor Allyn Joslyn). The series was created by the writing team of R. S. Allen and Harvey Bullock, who in their long career wrote episodes of such shows as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and Hogan's Heroes. Ultimately McKeever and the Colonel would not prove to be a success, lasting only a single season. Debuting on September 23 1962, it was gone by the next fall. Much of the show's failure may have been because it occupied a rather awkward time slot. It aired on NBC at 6:30 PM Eastern time on Sunday.

Later on September 23 another military comedy debuted on NBC. Ensign O'Toole was based on the 1957 novel Ensign O'Toole and Me by William Lederer. While the novel was set before and during World War II, the television show was set during the early Sixties. The show starred Dean Jones as Ensign O'Toole, who served aboard the destroyer U.S. S. Appleby. Ensign O'Toole spent much of his time pulling pranks and avoiding work. Aside from starring Dean Jones, the show was notable for starring Beau Bridges in the minor role of Seaman Howard Spicer. Ensign O'Toole only lasted one season, but was rerun by ABC from March to September the following season.

If every military comedy that debuted in the 1962-1963 season had failed, it seems doubtful that the cycle would have ever emerged. That having been said, the last service comedy to debut in the 1962-1963 season would be one of the most successful shows in the genre ever. McHale's Navy starred Ernest Borgnine as Lt. Commander Quinton McHale, commander of the U.S. Navy PT boat PT-73 in the South Pacific during World War II. Lt. Commander McHale was far from being strict when it came to military discipline. In fact, he and his men perpetrated any number of schemes during the run of the show, all the time avoiding the watchful eye of their commanding officer, Captain Binghamton (played by Joe Flynn). The show was often compared to The Phil Silvers Show, and any resemblances between the two should come as no surprise. McHale's Navy was produced by Edward J. Montagne, who had been a producer on The Phil Silvers Show.

What might come as a surprise is that the sitcom McHale's Navy emerged from a very serious, World War II drama that had aired as an episode of Alcoa Premiere. "Seven Against the Sea" aired on April 3 1962 and centred on Lt. Commander McHale (played by Ernest Borgnine), the commander of PT-73 in the South Pacific during World War II. Lt. Commander McHale's relatively peaceful life is disrupted by the arrival of a new executive officer, Lt. Durham (played by Ron Foster), whose job it it is to get the base back to fighting the war. Naturally McHale and Durham clash, until word comes that a battalion of United States Marines are under siege. While "Seven Against the Seas" featured some humour, it was primarily a drama and a very serious one at that. Reportedly it was the pilot for a World War II drama to be called McHale's Men, although in later interviews Ernest Borgnine has said that Lt. Durham was to be the main character on the show. Regardless, it sparked little interest at Revue Productions. It was Jennings Lang of Revue, who had been involved in some of the studio's successes such as Wagon Train and The Bob Cummings Show, who suggested changing the format from a World War II drama to a comedy.

Only two actors besides Ernest Borgnine would make the transition from "Seven Against the Sea" to McHale's Navy. Gary Vinson played Quartermaster George "Christy" Christopher, while John Wright played radioman Willy Moss. The crew was filled out by Torpedoman's Mate Lester Gruber (played by Carl Ballantine), who always had some get-rich-quick scheme going on; Machinist Mate Harrison James "Tinker" Bell (played by Billy Sands); Gunner's Mate Virgil Edwards (played by Edson Stroll), the handsome ladies man of the crew; and Seaman Joseph "Happy" Haines (played by Gavin MacLeod).  Ensign Parker (played by Tim Conway) was McHale's naive, shy, and inept second in command.

McHale's Navy proved to be a moderate success, spending two of its four years in top thirty highest rated shows for the year. It spawned two feature films during its run. McHale's Navy (1964) was essentially a big screen, colour adaptation of the show.  McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force (1965) was essentially McHale's Navy without McHale. Neither Ernest Borgnine nor Carl Ballantine appeared in the film. Instead it centred on Tim Conway as Ensign Parker, who is mistaken as an Air Force officer (a bit of an anachronism as the Air Force was still part of the U.S. Army at the time and would not become a separate branch of the service until 1947).

For its fourth and final season the entire crew of the PT-73, as well as Captain Binghamton and his aide-de-camp Lt. Carpenter (played by Bob Hastings), all moved to Italy. Joining the cast was Jay Novello as the scheming mayor of Voltafiore, Mario Lugatto. The move to Italy appears to have not been particularly popular with the show's fans. Ranked a very respectable #29 for the 1964-1965 season, in its fourth season the ratings for McHale's Navy slipped so low that it was cancelled at the end of the season. Regardless, it proved to be a hit in syndication and can still be seen on various outlets to this day.

The 1963-1964 season would see no new military comedies, but the 1964-1965 season would see three more debut. The first of these would be No Time for Sergeants. The closing credits for the show read that it was "from the play by Ira Levin, presented by Maurice Evans, based on the novel by Mac Hyman". This was a fancy way the closing credits of the new TV show had of acknowledging the original novel by Mac Hyman, which Ira Levin adapted as a teleplay for The United States Steel Hour, which Ira Levin expanded into a Broadway play produced by Maurice Evans (the famous Shakespearean actor who would go onto play Samantha Stephens's father Maurice on Bewitched). While the closing credits did not acknowledge it, it is safe to say the TV series also owed a good deal to the 1958 film No Time For Sergeants, starring Andy Griffith in the role he had originated on The United States Steel Hour and then played on Broadway. Ironically, it would be Andy Griffith who would be partly responsible for the show's downfall. ABC unwisely scheduled No Time for Sergeants against the high-rated Andy Griffith Show (which ranked no. 4 for the season). Unable to compete with The Andy Griffith Show, No Time for Sergeants lasted only one season.

Although sometimes called a spinoff of McHale's Navy, it would be more accurate to describe the next military sitcom to debut in the 1964-1965 season as a separate show with a similar premise from the same creative team as McHale's Navy. Broadside was set during World War II and centred on a group of WAVES who were in charge of the motor pool on an island in the South Pacific. Their commander was Lieutenant Anne Morgan (played by Kathleen Nolan), who was always running afoul of the base's commanding officer, Commander Roger Adrian (played by Edward Andrews).  Broadside was created by McHale's Navy producer Edward Montagne, but it would not see that show's success. Broadside had the misfortune to be scheduled against The Ed Sullivan Show and later in the season the hit Western Branded. It left the air after only one season.

The third military comedy to debut in the 1964-1965 season would be the highest rated new show of the season. That having been said, its lead character was hardly new to audiences. Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. starred Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle, who had originated as an inept filling station attendant on The Andy Griffith Show. Gomer Pyle was created by writers Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell for The Andy Griffith Show episode "The Bank Job", which aired on December 24 1962. The character was based on an incompetent filling station attendant Mr. Greenbaum had once encountered. Jim Nabors was cast in the role of Gomer Pyle after Andy Griffith had seen his show at The Horn, a nightclub in Santa Monica, California. Gomer Pyle was only meant to appear once on The Andy Griffith Show, but the character proved popular and as a result he became one of the regulars.

On Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. Gomer had enlisted in the Marine Corps where his naivete and good nature caused him a good deal of trouble. The show owed a good deal to Andy Griffith's first big success, No Time for Sergeants.   It was Aaron Ruben, producer and one of the writers on The Andy Griffith Show, who came up with the idea of Gomer being spun off into his own show, in which he would be a Marine. The pilot for Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. was shot in 1963 and aired on May 18 1964 as The Andy Griffith Show's final episode of the 1963-1964 season.

Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. proved to be the big hit of the 1964-1965 season. Coming in at #3, it even beat The Andy Griffith Show (which came in at #4).  Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.remained in the top ten shows for each season for the remainder of its run. When it ended its network run, it was not due to ratings, but instead because Jim Nabors wanted to move onto other things. Namely, with the 1969-1970 season Jim Nabors received his own variety show, The Jim Nabors Show, which also proved to be a hit. Gomer Pyle never again appeared on The Andy Griffith Show or its successor Mayberry R.F.D., although he did appear in the reunion movie Return to Mayberry, aired in 1986.

The 1965-1966 season would see yet more military comedies debut. It would also be the last season of the cycle towards military comedies. The first military comedy to debut that season also happened to be part of a cycle towards Westerns that had began the prior season and a cycle towards spoofs and parodies that began in the 1965-1966 season itself. Quite simply, F Troop  was a parody of Westerns centred around the United States Cavalry troop of the title. It was Richard Bluel who initially had the idea of a  U. S. Cavalry sergeant who has a deal with the local Indians to make money. It would be writers Seaman Jacobs and Ed James who wrote the script for the show's pilot, "Scourge of the West", which expanded upon Mr. Bluel's initial idea.

A cursory glance at F Troop might lead some to conclude it was simply The Phil Silvers Show in the Old West, but that would hardly be accurate. Certainly F Troop's two non-commissioned officers, Sgt.  Morgan O'Rourke (played by Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Randolph Agarn (played by Larry Storch), were engaged in many shady business dealings, including a a secret business partnership with the local American Indian tribe, the Hekawis.That having been said, thrown into the mix was an extremely inept commanding officer Captain Wilton Parmenter (played by Ken Berry). Assigned to the command of Fort Courage after having been promoted from private, he was hardly suited to the job. As to how he went from private to captain, then Private Parmenter was retrieving his commanding officer's laundry during a battle when he began sneezing. The soldiers around him took his sneezes as a command to charge. The end result was that Parmenter inadvertently turned what could have been a defeat into a victory.

As to F Troop themselves, except for possibly Sgt. O'Rourke and Corporal Agarn (who were crooks), none of them were exactly competent soldiers. Private Dobbs (played by James Hampton) was the troop's bugler, despite the fact that he couldn't play the bugle. Trooper Vanderbilt (played by Joe Brooks) was the troop's lookout, even though he could barely see with his glasses on. Trooper Duffy (Bob Steele) was positively ancient and had claimed to be the sole survivor of the Battle of the Alamo. F Troop was fortunate in that the neighbouring Hekwais were more concerned with making money than waging war on the U.S. Army. Had they actually faced a hostile tribe, there can be no doubt F Troop would have been slaughtered. Fortunately Wrangler Jane (played by Melody Patterson), who owned the local trading post, was around in case there was any real trouble. She could outshoot, outfight, and out-rope anyone around

Although it only ran two seasons, F Troop would prove to be one of the most successful  military comedies of the Sixties.  While it did not rank in the top thirty in its first season, its ratings remained above a 32 share. The show did respectably well in its second season as well, ranking no. 40 for the year, making it ABC's highest rated sitcom besides Bewitched. Unfortunately there were those at Warner Bros. who were not happy with the expense spent on a television sitcom. This was not helped by the fact that F Troop went $3000 over budget in its second season. In the end, Benny Kalmenson, then a vice president at Warner Bros, ended production on the series even though it would have almost inevitably been renewed by ABC. Regardless, it went into syndication where it proved to be a lasting success.

The next military comedy to debut in the 1965-1966 season would also prove to be a lasting success. Hogan's Heroes centred on Colonel Robert E. Hogan (played by Bob Crane), a United States Army Air Forces officer and ranking prisoner of war in the POW camp Luft Stalag 13. Unbeknownst to Stalag 13's commandant, Colonel Wilhelm Klink (played by Werner Klemperer), Colonel Hogan and his men belonged to a special operations unit that was conducting Allied espionage right under his nose. Hogan's Heroes was then simultaneously a military comedy, a parody of such POW camp movies as Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), and a spy comedy.

Curiously, Hogan's Heroes did not begin its life as a military comedy, let alone one set in a POW camp. Creators Bernard Fein and Albert S. Ruddy developed an idea for a television series titled The Heroes set in a penitentiary. Messrs. Fein and Ruddy spent four years trying to sell the show with no luck. Bernie Fein often told a story that they changed the premise after he saw a fellow passenger on a plane reading Von Ryan's Express, a novel about Allied POWs during World War II. In truth, the premise appears to have been changed because of another prospective show. In 1964 there was news of a prospective sitcom created by Von Ryan Express author David Westheimer. Campo 44 was set in an Italian POW camp and would centre on the American and British soldiers held there. It was planned to air on NBC in the 1965-1966 season. It was apparently after news of Campo 44 came out that Bernard Fein and Albert S. Ruddy changed the setting of their prospective sitcom from a penitentiary to a German POW camp during World War II.  As to Campo 44, a pilot was shot and would later air on NBC in 1967. It is unknown why NBC did not pick up Campo 44, but it seems quite likely it was because CBS picked up Hogan's Heroes first.

Hogan's Heroes would prove controversial because of its setting. Many feared the series would make light of Nazism and as a result trivialise the horrible truths behind Nazi Germany. In its "television and radio" reviews from September 18 1965, The New York Times commented, "There's something a little sick about Hogan's Heroes..." The controversy would only be made worse by remarks from Bob Crane in an interview with Stan Freberg published in the September 19 1965 issue of The Sunday Times. Asked by Mr. Freberg what some of the other amusing aspects were, Bob Crane replied, "German police dogs, machine guns, the Gestapo..." Unfortunately, Mr. Crane's quote would later appear in Newsweek.

The controversy would fade after Hogan's Heroes had been on the air for a few weeks. In fact, the show ranked no 9 for its first season and no. 17 for its second. It ultimately ran for six seasons and would proved to be a success in syndication. It was also nominated for twelve Emmy Awards during its run and won two.

Despite this,  controversy regarding the show would resurface from time to time. In its October 25 1998 issue, when the possibility of a movie based on Hogan's Heroes was being discussed, The Boston Globe stated "...under no circumstances should a film of Hogan's Heroes be made," claiming it "...presented the Nazis as the biggest cutups since the Keystone Kops." In his 2000 book The Powers That Be, David Halberstam's examination of the rise of modern media, the author referred to Hogan's Heroes as a "...programme with an almost obscenely comic view of the Third Reich..." In 2002, despite the fact that the show had received good reviews in the Sixties (even from that particular magazine), TV Guide ranked it as the fifth worst show of all time, primarily because by that time they thought the show was offensive. While many current criticism directed towards the show is grossly inaccurate (although the Nazis were portrayed as fools, there was very little physical comedy of the sort for which the Keystone Kops were known), the fact remains that there are still those who today find the show offensive. Of course, given Hogan's Heroes still airs on various outlets, it would seem likely that they are in the minority.

While Hogan's Heroes would prove to be a success, the next military comedy of the 1965-1966 season,  Mister Roberts, would not. Mister Roberts was based on the 1955 movie of the same name, which in turn was based on the 1948 play which was itself based on the 1946 novel by Thomas Heggen. Like the movie, novel, and play, Mister Roberts was set on the United States Navy cargo ship the USS Reluctant. It centred on the ship's executive officer, Lieutenant Doug Roberts (played by Roger Smith). Mr. Roberts often found himself having to defend the crew against the ship's overly strict commander, Captain John Morton (played by Richard X. Slattery). Mister Roberts aired on NBC on Friday night, where it received lacklustre ratings. It then ended its run after only one season.

The Wackiest Ship in the Army was another sitcom that was based on a movie. Debuting on September 19 1965 on NBC, it was based on the 1960 film of the same name, which in turn was based on the short story "Big Fella Wash-Wash" by Herbert Carlson (published in the July 1956 issue of Argosy). The Wackiest Ship in the Army was set during World War II and centred on the crew of the USS Kiwi, a twin masted schooner used by the United States Army to plant spies behind Japanese lines. In some respects The Wackiest Ship in the Army was neither fish nor fowl. Although regarded as a comedy, it ran for an hour and, unlike most comedies of the time, it had no laugh track. It also contained a good deal of adventure in addition to the laughs.

While The Wackiest Ship in the Navy followed the top rated Bonanza on NBC, it still received poor ratings. It had the misfortune to air opposite Candid Camera and What's My Line on CBS and The ABC Sunday Night Movie on ABC. The show then lasted only one season.

The 1965-1966 season would be the season that the cycle towards military sitcoms ended. For the remainder of the Sixties no other shows in the genre would debut. As to why the cycle ended, it would seem likely that it simply ran its course. From 1962 to 1965 a total of eleven different military comedies debuted. Out of those eleven, only four would prove to be successes (McHale's Navy, Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., F Troop, and Hogan's Heroes) and only two of them would break the top ten shows for the year (Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. and Hogan's Heroes).  Given the cycle towards military comedies produced only a few hits, it would seem unrealistic for the American television industry to continue to debuting them.

Of course, this is not to say that there would be no more military comedies. In 1972, only three years after Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. had ended its run and only a year after Hogan's Heroes went off the air, possibly the most successful military comedy of all time debuted, M*A*S*H. The Seventies would see further military comedies in the form of Roll Out, C.P.O. Sharkey, and Operation Petticoat. The genre was hardly dead, but at no point since the Sixties have so many military comedies debuted in so short a time.


Hal Horn said...

Great article as always Terence. Some ratings info:

MCHALE'S NAVY did fade a bit in 1965-66, but was still competitive against RED SKELTON at # 44 with a 30.1 share. It did show some signs of wear and tear, though, with F TROOP (tied for 38th) which followed it at 9 PM ET and COMBAT (36th) preceding it at 7:30 PM ET both posting higher shares and ratings. The show itself dropped from 29th place in 1964-65, but was still runnerup in the time slot: NBC's DR. KILDARE didn't even make the top 70. At mid-season, NAVY was 37th, KILDARE 67th.

NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS almost got renewed for a second season; it was on the bubble at # 40 during 1964-65, but the share (29.5) was a bit disappointing. It was replaced by A MAN CALLED SHENANDOAH the following season, which also posted a pretty good showing against ANDY GRIFFITH at # 37 and a 30.6 share, but it too was dropped after one season.

BROADSIDE was absolutely pummeled, missing the top 70 in 1964-65. After BRANDED premiered, it was competing against two top-15 shows in the same time slot.

WACKIEST SHIP IN THE ARMY missed the top 70 in 1965-66. CANDID CAMERA was 41st (34.8 share), SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE was 55th (32.4 share, across the 9-11 PM period), and WHAT'S MY LINE was 64th (32.5 share at that late slot). At midseason, WACKIEST SHIP was # 63 (16.5 rating), SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE 51st (18.3), CAMERA 40th (19.4), WHAT'S MY LINE 63rd (16.5). Looks like WACKIEST SHIP kept fading in the second half of the season.

Television Magazine, March 1966 and August 1967 issues have this info. Unfortunately they have rating only for some and share only for others.

Hal Horn said...

A bit more, from the March 1965 Television Magazine:

BROADSIDE ranked 52nd at midseason in 1964-65, not too bad. It fell badly after BRANDED joined the timeslot. It was second in the time slot at that time with BILL DANA ranking 71st. BRANDED moving that up to 14th is arguably as impressive at what BATMAN would do a year later.

NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS was # 33 at midseason in 1964-65, so it fell only slightly after MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. joined the timeslot along with ANDY GRIFFITH. A case could have been made for its renewal despite the 29.5 season ending share given the competition. If I ever get a chance to see this series I'll do an article on it. :)

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for the info, Hal! It has always interested me how shows could do relatively well but still not get renewed. Anyway, I would love to see you do an article on No Time for Sergeants.

Mike Doran said...

In the fall of '65, Stan Freberg was engaged by CBS to do radio promotional spots for the new fall shows on the network.
Freberg was well-known for the somewhat acerbic tone he took with his advertising clients, and his promos for the CBS fall shows were no exception.
A this point, Bob Crane had just stepped down from the daily morning radio show he'd done for years in Los Angeles; he'd known Stan Freberg for years, and often worked with him on comic bits for the radio show.
That quote you cite above was not from an "interview"; it was a comic bit for a CBS promo which Freberg and Crane collaborated on (although later Crane expressed misgivings about it).
Actually, you left out the most famous line:
Freberg to Crane: "So you might say 'If you liked World War II, you'll love Hogan's Heroes'?"
Crane to Freberg: " ...no, I wouldn't say that, exactly ..."

CBS never asked Stan Freberg to do promos after this - probably a coincidence.