When I discover a live-action movie isn’t on Disney+, I play a little game with myself—how bad is it, exactly, and it there anything on the service that’s worse? While this is definitely not a good movie, and also has some moments that even at the time were called out in a review—by Judith Martin, in her pre-Miss Manners days, yet—for being based on Mexican caricatures that no one would try with black caricatures, it’s still a better movie and less racist than The Castaway Cowboy, which has actually been added in the time since I wrote about it. I suppose because you can get away with Hawaiian caricatures today in a way no one would try with Mexican ones.
Lieutenant Jordan (Joey Forman) of the US Coast Guard has had enough of Balboa, where he’s dealing with boats set on fire by incompetent cooks and women going into labor on pleasure boats. He asks for a transfer to icebreaker duty in Alaska. His replacement is young Ensign Tom Garland (Robert Morse), son of a war hero who served with his commanding officer, Commander Taylor (Don Ameche). Only Tom seems to be jinxed; it all started the day he was born. December 7, 1941. At the Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. He has a meet-cute with Kate Fairchild (Stephanie Power), who quickly goes from hating him to falling for him.
Meanwhile, a trio of jewel robbers are trying to make their way to Mexico. They are Harry (Phil Silvers), who goes by “Commodore Simmons,” Max (Norman Fell), and Charlie (Mickey Shaughnessy). Tom rams into their car on the way to the marina, and when a motorcycle cop is dealing with it, they hear over his radio that there are road blocks on the way to Mexico. So they decide to take a boat. Only they don’t know how to sail, and when they’re stuck in the fog, Tom manages to sink their sailboat with the Coast Guard cutter. So they need to retrieve the jewels from the bottom of the harbor.
For many years, I’ve assumed I hadn’t seen this movie, as I don’t remember having done so and certainly haven’t as an adult. Very little of it seemed familiar this time around except that the robbers disguised the stolen jewels in a picnic basket, hiding them inside salamis and loaves of bread and pickles and things. I had a vague memory of knowing about that, although it might’ve been on a Disney Channel commercial for the movie. I was able to guess a fair amount, unto betting myself a shiny new nickel that Chiyoko Kuni (Midori) would turn out to speak English. And I was right.
This isn’t a Condorman situation, where the whole thing is improbable and unfamiliar and yet so eminently forgettable that I routinely have to check my own article to remember what the damn thing’s about. This is an extremely familiar movie whether you’ve seen it or not. The MST3K gang rightly mention it when doing Catalina Caper, a movie I’d note came out three years earlier. Whether Kevin Corcoran’s uncredited appearance is a reference to that, I can’t say, but it’s amusing to me, at least. Still, it’s also fitting that there are so many TV actors in it, because most of the jokes wouldn’t be out of place on a sitcom.
It’s not a movie so much as it is a pop culture punchline, and that’s pretty much what it deserves. Joe E. Ross shows up as an inept boat captain in a running gag that might well be lifted from The Phil Silvers Show, because Phil Silvers, but I don’t know; it might be from Car 54, Where Are You or something the scriptwriters thought up all on their own. The “Ooo, ooo” is definitely Ross’s catchphrase, though. Al Lewis, better known as Grandpa Munster, has a brief appearance. Half the cast at least were better known on TV.
It is the rare appearance of a Chekhov’s Submarine—in a weird moment of Disney Prescience Syndrome, there’s a small personal sub that shows up on the back of a truck at the beginning and becomes important in the third act, including a moment wherein Kate says that the sub must’ve been crushed by the pressure. It’s also got a bit in the scene lifted from Operation Petticoat, among other things, and an admittedly clever line about how U-boats always make a character want to speak German. But when that sub appears at the beginning, it’s not exactly surprising to see its third act return; several plot threads come together surprisingly well at the end.
It’s not a good movie, but it’s not a hugely bad one, either. Kate is an entertaining character who deserves a better movie around her. I winced when the jewel thieves managed to steer their sailboat into the dock of a Mexican restaurant and I heard the waiter’s accent. It only gets worse when Vito Scotti shows up at the end as Pepe Galindo. The whole bit with Trans Mexican Airways is awful, and Judith Martin is absolutely right about it.