Oh, Sailor Behave DVD Review: Olsen and Johnson Liven a Dud to Death

They don't make 'em like this anymore. And an entire nation - if not universe - can sleep soundly with that assurance.
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Considering the seemingly-infinite amount of musicals Hollywood once proudly cranked out once the members of the industry figured out how to add sound to motion pictures, it's somewhat difficult to imagine that there was a time wherein the very public such items were manufactured for rolled their eyes in discontent at the thought of seeing yet another film with singing and dancing. After all, they could just go see a Broadway play if they wanted to see that type of tripe. And yet the suits in Tinseltown insisted on making musicals; often shooting movie picture adaptations of the same Broadway shows people had already taken in, occasionally adding a variant or two to add the appearance of keeping things fresh.

But, just as if they were reading a milk carton that proudly advertised "Tastes Fresh Longer", the public caught on to the inclusion of the artificial additives, even going so far as to denounce the musical completely in the early '30s. Again, this is almost impossible to comprehend when you see movies like Oh, Sailor Behave - a prime example of a musical play being turned into a musical movie with a couple of extraneous flavor enhancers tossed in so that its makers could promote it as a comedy. Because comedies with musical numbers in them are so much more acceptable than just regular, ordinary musicals. Please note that the Academy Awards' Best Original Song category formerly read Best Original Song in a Musical or Comedy; so the industry apparently sees the two genres as being one and the same.

Speaking of comedy, another thing that is somewhat hard to imagine in this day and age are those outrageous, zany, and in all other definitions of the word "madcap" antics certain vaudeville/stage comedians used to exhibit. Even well-phrased wordplay and minor slapstick seem to be lost, intentionally forgotten methods of comedy today - replaced by much more marketable materials like toilet humor and a gathering of yutzes getting stoned and behaving like, well, stoners. But even the lowest of lowbrow entertainers almost seem like a comical messiah when you witness the bizarre talents of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, who appear as the additives in the pre-Code Oh, Sailor Behave - and the horror only multiplies when you discover that this was an example of Olsen and Johnson being restrained.

Though nowhere near as well known today as they once were (and that's giving them all the benefit), the sheer raw energy Olsen and Johnson put into their live censor-free performances was the kind of thing that could land some poor souls into an asylum today. Writing them into a movie adaptation of Elmer Rice's musical play See Naples and Die (great title, actually) probably wasn't the best move on Hollywood's part. But then again, neither was making yet another musical play into a feature film. In fact, once the public practically boycotted the new film genre, Oh, Sailor Behave had its advertising campaign completely dropped, and all plans of premiering the feature in (early two-strip) Technicolor was scrapped. From one point of view, it's a bit sad. From a comical point of view, it's almost like a gag right out of Olsen and Johnson's one and only magnum opus Hellzapoppin' (a comical assault on Hollywood and its theatrics - both onscreen and off - best described as "a movie within a movie within a play within a movie").

The story of Oh, Sailor Behave itself centers on the plight of its serious protagonist, Charles King (the classic Broadway musical type, whom audiences had already grown tired of) and his attempt to win back his beloved Irene Delroy (another one) after she is forced to marry a Russian prince (doomed actor Lowell Sherman, once again being one of the brighter highlights as he later was in What Price Hollywood?). Meanwhile, King's Naples-based character tries to get in to interview a local general (Noah Beery), but instead starts to woo the elusive military man's gal pal (Vivien Oakland, who appeared with Laurel and Hardy several times in much better productions) once he hears his beloved has married another.

In-between all of that, we have Olsen and Johnson (using some of their own material) as two American sailors on the hunt for a man with a wooden leg - a soon-to-be-ignored subplot (even though the general is later revealed to have a limp) that basically serves as a lame introduction to some even lamer moments. For the most part, the pair stalk a local honey (Lotti Loder) with only one thing on their minds. Well, maybe Ole Olsen. Chic Johnson's high-pitched shrieking and homoerotically jealous actions one minute, outright violent behavior the next is so manic, he comes off as a purely psychotic individual hiding behind the mask of a comedian. In fact, if Christopher Nolan were able to travel back in time to make The Dark Knight in the early 1930s with the same script but with actors of the time, I think Chic Johnson would be the only American-born performer able to play The Joker in the same vein as Heath Ledger. Seriously.

Well then, where was I? Hell, I don't even know anymore. Oh, Sailor Behave has had a very weird sort of effect on me. On one hand, it's a just bad movie musical (I frequently found myself adjourning to the kitchen whenever anyone started singing, only to have the music start swelling up again by the time I found my snack or sharp object of choice and sat back down). But somewhere within all of that is something else entirely: a nerve-wracking exercise in excruciatingly strange comedy that simultaneously exhibits signs of subgenius greatness and borderline psychosis. Then again, I suppose those two are one and the same, just as musicals and comedies are in the Academy's eyes.

The Warner Archive presents its unsuspecting patrons with what I believe to be the only surviving print of this rightfully-neglected assault on the senses (Charles King himself retired from film after this one, returning to the stage for the remainder of his career). Time has not been terribly kind to the print in question (that, or an unknown individual, presumably pushed over the brink of madness after viewing the film, tried their best to destroy it), and there are a number of moments wherein wear and tear can clearly be seen. That said, it's intact, so the odd little movie can be enjoyed [citation needed] to its fullest. Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the Manufactured on Demand DVD release is accompanied by an oft-fuzzy English mono soundtrack that is about what you'd expect for a film from the beginning of the Sound Era.

There are no special features to be found here, but I wasn't in the least bit disturbed by that: Olsen and Johnson had already taken care of that for me. In short: they don't make 'em like this anymore. And an entire nation - if not universe - can sleep soundly with that assurance.

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