An OK film, and good for an MGM Keaton talkie. Like most MGM Keatons the problem with this one is lack of an all-time classic chase we're accustomed to and simply the Elmer character himself. The former is what it is and will go without saying in future MGM reviews. MGM wasn't about to risk Keaton with STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. type spectacle for insurance reasons and the risk of losing a star. As stated before, these MGM films, while not loved today, were big money makers in their day, during the height of the depression, no less, so you can't blame MGM.
The Elmer character though is just too simple for the crafty Keaton we're used to. His flat out obsession in this film is Mary, played by Sally Eilers. Their relationship goes back and forth due to an annoying immature lack of communication in various ways on both ends, and it's hard to take the romance seriously the way we do in THE CAMERAMAN as a result. The worst part, and possibly the low point in the film, is when Elmer goes through Mary's window. The dialogue is painfully awkward, just them asking each other how they're doing several times for lack of knowing what to say to each other. It just serves to make Elmer seem bumbling and incompetent, I really hate that scene. I do want to add Edward Brophy is good as the drill Sgt., but there are times he's talking so much over Keaton it seems like a precursor of things to come. Keaton could do dialogue, and again, his few lines in LIMELIGHT show Chaplin knew what to do with Keaton more than MGM. A sharp Keaton character has a dry wit that could deliver a line fantastically, it's just sad in these MGM films, we're missing that sharp Keaton character.
But hark, all is not lost, there are some good scenes. There's the scene where the army has trouble undressing Keaton at the recruiting office, later done with Curly in RHYTHM AND WEEP. Keaton shows great physical agility here, my only complaint is the scene is not stretched out longer, as the potential is there. Also for great physical ability is Keaton in drag in the U.S.O. like stage scene being tossed around in that dance number, doing sunset flips, airplane spins, and other various bumps to keep any wrestling fan satisfied. It should be noted Keaton in real life served in WWI and entertained the troops. Supposedly DOUGHBOYS is the MGM talkie Keaton had the most input with, and I can imagine him drawing from his real life experience in this scene. Also has to be said for me, Sally Eilers in that little outfit during the stage scene is enough to make me act like a wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon. Day-um!
The two really good parts are Keaton fooling Edward Brophy and his interaction with the German soldiers. The former is a rare case of Elmer being smart and funny like the old Keaton. He takes sign that says "Mount Pleasant H.S.," cuts out the M and P, puts the letters on his arms to be appear to be an MP. Instead of his Sgt. chasing Keaton for seeing his girl, he momentarily tricks him into thinking Elmer's an MP to make the Sarge, also out against orders, run away from him.
The whole prisoner scene is excellent and the highlight of the film. First off, with good MGM production values, the look of Europe and the bunkers is top notch. Secondly, the idea of Keaton going into the German bunker, having one of them be his servant from home, make friendly with them, take food orders for them, and even have them offer ammunition is hysterical. Keaton in real life said the German people themselves were good people and it was a shame he had to fight them. But yeah, no hateful propaganda of the enemy, this was 1930, also the same year the anti war masterpiece ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT was released. War films between the two World Wars fascinate me. There is also this one bit where a silent, serious looking Keaton rises up from a bunker in a briefly peaceful stillness before Edward Brophy yells something.. that brief moment reminds me of silent Keaton.
Cliff Edwards, who later voiced Jiminy Cricket is in this film, and the musical bits are fun. There are some good bits in this film, but it's not enough visual Keaton comedy and too much of the Elmer like romance thatweighs this thing down..,and yeah, Brophy and Keaton together, at times, if not always, do clash.