Don’t you love it when you take a chance on a movie you’ve never heard of and end up loving it? Such is the case for me with Operation Mad Ball.
WWII may be over, but there is a group of men still stationed at an American medical base in France. Among these are Captain Lock (Ernie Kovacs) and his nemesis Private Hogan (Jack Lemmon). Lock is a by the book sort of Captain who is unpopular with the other enlisted men. Pvt. Hogan, however, is a man with a glib tongue and quick mind. He is well-liked by his fellow soldiers, especially for his attempts to make life more fun on the base.
Also stationed on base is a group of female nurses, many of whom are officers. When a fellow private falls for a nurse, Hogan uses it as an excuse to play Cupid, by planning a ball. However, this is easier said than done. The machinations the men go through to secretly secure the site and the resources rivals a legitimate complex military mission. This is complicated when the base’s commanding officer Colonel Rousch (Arthur O’Connell) starts planning his own party for the same night. Hogan also needs to continually keep one step of Lock who is determined to finally catch him breaking Army regulations.
Several IMDb reviewers and TCM host Ben Mankiewicz compare Operation Mad Ball to M.A.S.H. Having never seen it, I’ll take their word for it. I watched this film strictly for its’ star. This is one of Lemmon’s earlier pictures and the first time he received top billing.
While this is definitely an ensemble piece, Lemmon’s character is not only the lynchpin of the story but the crazy center around which it revolves. He deftly carries the film on his shoulders and once again proves how talented he is. Hogan is a charmer, a rogue, a con-man, a rule-breaker and a tactical genius whose talents would be much better put to use higher up the military chain. Lemmon’s portrayal had me cheering for him to outwit Lock, get the girl and defy Army regulations because he’s just so likeable. His defiance is not malicious. He understands how monotonous and dreary daily Army life can be. Hogan just wants to liven things up a little, help his comrades and help himself in the bargain.
Lemmon’s performance is supported by a bevy of other talent. Ernie Kovacs plays Captain Lock to perfection. His rigidity is the perfect counterbalance to Hogan. And while he isn’t stupid, he also isn’t quite smart enough to keep up with Hogan’s shenanigans. (On a separate note, Lemmon and Kovacs also co-starred in It Happened to Jane) Arthur O’Connell is great as Colonel Rousch who is often caught between Lock and Hogan. Rousch is willing to be lenient with Hogan, but is forced by Lock to adhere to military guidelines. He is also rather sweet as the proud big brother of a newly minted General, who wants to throw a party in honor of his brother’s promotion.
Mickey Rooney has a small supporting role which is important to the plot. He plays it a bit over the top, but is so funny. Perhaps my favorite performance belongs to Dick York (of Bewitched fame) as Corporal Bohun. He unwillingly serves as Lock’s assistant while also assisting Hogan behind his back. York is absolutely delightful in this role. His unholy glee at using his position to aid in the party planning had me laughing.
In case you can’t tell, I found Operation Mad Ball highly entertaining. It’s funny, clever and a joy to watch. I was lucky enough to catch it on TCM. But I also think it’s worth the purchase price on DVD.