Saturday 29 August 2020

Movie Review: The Honeymoon Machine (1961)

A comedy farce, The Honeymoon Machine finds good laughs in the story of navy men trying to win big at the casino with the help of a military supercomputer.

Navy ship USS Elmira uses the MACS on-board computer to track missile trajectories. Civilian scientist Jason Eldridge (Brian Hutton) confirms to intrepid Lieutenant Fergie Howard (Steve McQueen) that given the right information, MACS could predict roulette wheel outcomes. The Elmira arrives in Venice, where Fergie, his hesitant buddy Beau (Jack Mullaney) and Jason establish signal lamp communications with MACS from a fancy hotel room, breaking numerous navy rules along the way.

Their plan is threatened by Admiral Fitch (Dean Jagger), who occupies a hotel room one level down, and his attractive daughter Julie (Brigid Bazlen), who immediately catches Fergie's eye. Meanwhile, Jason's ex-fiancee and heiress Pam Dunstan (Paula Prentiss) shows up along with her new beau, justice department official Tommy Dane (William Lanteau). With the ship-to-shore signals being misinterpreted by both Fitch and the Soviets as code for upcoming villainous activity, Signalman Burford Taylor (Jack Weston) is sent on a room-to-room search, and Fergie has to think quick to rescue his plan.

An adaptation of the 1959 Broadway play The Golden Fleecing by Lorenzo Semple Jr., The Honeymoon Machine is Steve McQueen's one and only foray into the comedy world. Although he hated himself in the role, McQueen, fresh off his breakthrough in 1960's The Magnificent Seven, is sharp and radiant as the creative Fergie, never short of a trick to weasel in then out of the next jam. 

The premise of misusing a military computer for nefarious gambling gains sails into the outer reaches of credible range to anchor the story. Writer George Wells then easily overcomes the material's stage-bound origins and surrounds the budding star with enough shenanigans and vividly drawn secondary characters to create the requisite madcap energy. 

From there director Richard Thorpe is able to find laughs in everything from unexpected romantic entanglements to the threat of international incidents (the Venetian economy is imperiled as the casino house losses mount) and rising Cold War tensions (the Soviets are as bamboozled as Admiral Fitch by the flashing codes to and from a military vessel).

Of course plenty of plot points make little sense, including both Fergie and Jason pursuing romances when massive winnings are on the line, while sidekick Beau's recurring mishaps with Venetian glass are bland and predictable.

But overcoming the few weaknesses are many highlights, including Brigid Bazlen as the Admiral's daughter going toe-to-toe with Fergie, her upbringing strengthening her steel against lustful seamen. Paula Prentiss as Pam Dunstan is a riot as she copes with being blind as a bat without her glasses. And then Jack Weston invades the movie with an unforgettable turn as the dimwitted signalman intent on finding the signal lamp but waylaid by all the available booze Fergie so graciously offers. Meanwhile Dean Jagger plays the Admiral role absolutely straight, his pole holding up the tent as mayhem erupts.

The Honeymoon Machine crashes the casino in search of cash, but finds comedy treasure instead.

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