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Edward L. Cahn
"A Private's Affair" is a 'musical' in only the most charitable sense of the term. If one song performed over and over throughout a feature-length movie is enough to make that movie a 'musical', then "A Private's Affair" qualifies. During the opening credits, we hear a song called "It's the Same Old Army". It's a pleasant song, with a brisk tune and a decent lyric. You'll be hearing it again, later. And later. And later still.
Luigi (Sal Mineo) is an Army private with a chip on his shoulder and some personal problems. He's also a talented jazz drummer (Mineo does his own drumming in this movie), but the Army offers few outlets for this ability. His best buddy is Mike Conroy (Gary Crosby, playing his role in the easy-going manner that made his father Bing a star).
One morning, Luigi and Mike and two other grunts are assigned to unload heavy sacks of potatoes. While doing this, they improvise a song called "It's the Same Old Army", and they heave the sacks back and forth while singing this song. It's a pleasant song, but we've already heard them sing it during the opening credits, so the song is already a reprise the first time they perform it. Still, the number is well-staged, with the PFCs lugging heavy sacks up and down in time to the music while they sing. The lyric is interesting: it describes army life irreverently without actually being disrespectful. Of course, it's implausible that four guys are all able to improvise the same song, with tune and lyric falling perfectly into place, but...
Word gets out to the base commander, who decides that the four squaddies should warble their ditty on a nationwide TV show. (Ah, the Army!) Quick as you can say 'ten-hut!', our lads are packed off to New York City to perform on a live broadcast. But, um, well, y'see, Private Luigi has a lot of personal problems, and he's going to throw away his big break (and the big break for his three buddies) because he needs to go somewhere and sulk, and darkly brood. Or maybe he won't throw away his big break after all. Which will it be?
Who cares? The song 'It's the Same Old Army' is performed over and over, with less variation and less imagination each time it's reprised. Several good performers in the cast list (Barbara Eden, Jim Backus, Jessie Royce Landis) have nothing to do.
"A Private's Affair" is one of those annoying and unconvincing military-themed movies in which a commanding officer, in charge of thousands of men, spends all his time trying to resolve the personal problems of one disaffected inductee. Other examples of this dismal sub-genre are "Thousands Cheer" and "Buck Privates" (the dull subplot with Lee Bowman, not the brilliant comedy sequences with Abbott & Costello).
I sought out "A Private's Affair" only because the great director Raoul Walsh made it, and I want to see as many Walsh films as I can. I was disappointed. Walsh appears to have phoned in his efforts here, bringing nothing to the pacing and characterisation of this film. Mineo and Gary Crosby were heart-throbs for teenage girls at this time: I suspect that the executives at 20th Century-Fox decided that this movie would be a big hit purely on the strength of Mineo's and Crosby's presence, without requiring a decent script or a good score. (They were probably right.)
I did enjoy one brief scene near the climax of the film, when we see the novelty act which goes on the TV show just before Crosby's quartet. This act consists of two guys who ride unicycles and chuck Indian clubs at each other while wearing silly hats and blowing bubble pipes. **WHILE** they're juggling the Indian clubs and riding the unicycles, each one grabs the other guy's hat and bubble pipe and transfers them to his own head and mouth ... and they keep doing all of these things simultaneously. It's an astonishing act, and unfortunately it only appears on screen for about ten seconds. This novelty act is consists of two guys named Scott Beldin and Don Thompson, who performed together for a while as the Volantes, but who also made at least one appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show while billed as the Martin Brothers. I wish that "A Private's Affair" had featured much more footage of the Volantes, and much less footage of the bathetic plot involving Sal Mineo. I'll rate "A Private's Affair" 2 points out of 10.
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