Nothing as disappointing for a movie lover than watching a movie you'd been looking forward to and realizing it's failing and that one of your favorite actors is a big part of the reason it's failing.
Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys!, Leo McCarey's 1958 attempt to drag screwball comedy into the Atomic age, isn't very good and Paul Newman isn't very good in it.
Jeez. My fingers almost dropped off typing the last clause of that sentence.
As Harry Bannerman, good suburban husband, father, neighbor, and citizen, Newman isn't miscast. He wears his gray flannel suit with a casual flair, adores his wife, Grace---probably wasn't a challenge, since Mrs Bannerman is played by Joanne Woodward who'd recently become Mrs Newman---and dotes on his two kids in ways that would have done Robert Young and Fred MacMurray proud. You can hear Jim Anderson and Steve Douglas saying to each other, "Reminds me of that Petrie kid. A little raw, a little goofy, having a hard time letting go of the little boy inside him. But he's on his way to being one of us, give him time. Wait till his kids are old enough to teach him who's really boss." (Trivial pursuit: The Bannermans' eldest son is played by Stanley Livingston, who went on to play Chip on My Three Sons. Name Steve Douglas' other three sons. That's right. Other three. He had four.) Newman doesn't have any trouble being the character. He has trouble maintaining it, and I think it's because he doesn't have a good handle on it. He knows how Bannerman looks and acts. He doesn't know what makes him tick. He latches onto something different about Harry in just about every scene and since in just about every scene what's most interesting about Harry at the moment is a vice, or a weakness, or an act of foolishness, Newman makes Harry kind of a bum and a creep. He plays up Harry's lust, his selfishness, his thirst. A running joke in the movie is that Harry just can't get a drink when he needs one, and Newman's Harry really, really needs a drink. When Harry is meant to be charming, Newman finds the wheedling, the conniving, the manipulation and emotional bullying behind the charm. His Harry isn't a good man making mistakes that get him into deeper and deeper trouble. He's an immature jerk getting his come-upance.
Which would be fine if he actually got it. In the end Harry is rewarded, not for being an immature jerk, but for being the good guy the script's insisted he's been all along.
Basicially, then, Newman is working against the script for much of the movie, an approach you would think the director might have objected to. Instead, McCarey seems to have encouraged it.
Newman's other mistake, which I think actually causes this first one, is thinking that he needs to make Harry funny. I suspect that what he kept looking for in Harry was what would make the audience laugh at him, and here again the director should have come to his aid and pointed out that Harry isn't the funny one. He's the straight man. Joanne Woodward's the comic lead. Joan Collins is the comic femme fatale. Jack Carson's the comic antagonist. Newman's job as Harry should have been to let them push him around. Instead, he's always pushing back. He competes with them for laughs.
With Woodward he tries to out-cute and out-adorable her. When Carson blusters in his patented fashion, Newman infringes on the copyright and blusters right back. In his first two scenes with Collins, in which she is attempting to seduce Harry, Harry comes off as the predator. The only one of his co-stars he relaxes with his Gale Gordon. Yes, Lucy Carmichael's boss, Mr Mooney. Gordon plays a rather more easy-going and tolerant authority figure than he usually played, which is good, because Newman is easy-going and tolerant back, and the result is that their few scenes together are the only ones in which Newman lets his lines do his work for him and that allows us to see Harry as a human being and not a collection of actor's tricks.
Newman was only 33 at the time and he hadn't starred in a real comedy yet. Not only did he not realize that he didn't have to be the funny one, he didn't know how to be funny. Rally Round the Flag, Boys! must have been on the job training.
Rally Round the Flag, Boys! wouldn't have been a great movie even if Newman could have found his inner Rob Petrie. It doesn't have a handle on itself any more than Newman has a handle on Harry and it goes through three or four different possibilities for the kind of movie it wants to be before shrugging and giving up with an ending Abbott and Costello would have had rewritten. It starts out as if it's going to be a satire on small town suburban hypocrisy. Harry, Grace, and Joan Collins' character, Angela, are all feeling unhappy and hemmed in by their too cozy, too comfortable, too respectable lives. Then it turns into a bedroom farce, with Grace catching Harry in his underwear in a hotel room with Angela, who's wearing nothing but a sheet. For a while after that it just dithers along, making feints at getting back to the sexcapades, and finally settles on becoming one of those small town full of eccentrics goes mad for some made-up, silly reason comedies that Preston Sturges specialized brilliantly in, a decade earlier, movies like The Miracle of Morgan's Creek and Hail the Conquering Hero, and which enjoyed something of a new vogue a decade later with movies like The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! and Don Knotts' entire oeuvre.
Too bad it never bothered to develop any eccentric characters and fill the town with them.
Your turn: I wonder how much of my disappointment in Newman's performance was due to my knowing something audiences in 1958 didn't know: How great he was going to go on to be. I couldn't help comparing him to the Newman of five and ten years down the line. They'd have been comparing him to...Tab Hunter? Robert Wagner? Would it if been for them the difference between Ryan Reynolds and Ashton Kutcher? Or would they have been thinking, I wonder what Jack Lemmon would made of this one?
Anywho. Like I said, your turn. Has one of your favorites ever disappointed you like this with a performance?
Programming note: Speaking of unhappy and sexually frustrated suburban housewives and men in gray flannel suits from the later Eisenhower years, tonight's the season finale of Mad Men. Last chance to join in the live-blogging over at newcritics. Fun starts at 10 PM Eastern, but you don't have to wait. Mrs Peel already has her intro up.