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Sergeant Dead Head

Entry updated 8 June 2018. Tagged: Film.

Film (1965). American International. Directed by Norman Taurog. Written by Louis M Heyward. Cast includes Eve Arden, John Ashley, Frankie Avalon, Pat Buttram, Fred Clark, Reginald Gardner, Gale Gordon, Buster Keaton, Harvey Lembeck, Cesar Romero and Deborah Walley. 90 minutes. Colour.

Bumbling Sergeant O K Deadhead (Avalon), his name spelled that way despite the film's title, has been assigned to the base that is about to launch a chimpanzee into space; however, for various misdeeds, he keeps getting thrown in the guardhouse, regularly postponing his marriage to Airman Lucy Turner (Walley). When he escapes with another prisoner (Lembeck), he decides to hide inside the Spaceship and is accidentally launched into space with the chimpanzee. Scientists have previously noted that "something funny happens to personalities up there" in space, and the result of this flight is that the formerly mild-mannered Deadhead begins to act like a brash bully, while the chimpanzee acquires human speech. Unwilling to expose the changed Deadhead to the public, base commander General Rufus Fogg (Clark), along with the visiting Admiral Stoneham (Romero) and Captain Weiskopf (Gordon), decide to recruit his exact double, Sergeant Donovan (Avalon), to replace him, while the real Deadhead is locked up. But Deadhead escapes, leading to comic mix-ups as the real Deadhead contrives to replace his impersonator in a hastily arranged marriage to Turner; later, Donovan and Deadhead keep trading places in the bridal suite. Finally, the real Deadhead and his bride are summoned to meet with the President of the United States (Buttram), but the meeting unexpectedly begins smoothly, since Deadhead's original personality has returned. However, after the President briefly dons Deadhead's space helmet, he is detained by guards who were sent to seize Deadhead. The sergeant and his bride then slip away in the presidential helicopter.

The only interesting feature of this terrible comedy is that, in contrast to 1950s Spacesuit Films that argued for space travel as a way to expand humanity's horizons, this film's Space Flight is undertaken solely as a matter of public relations, as there is not the slightest mention of any efforts to garner new scientific knowledge from venturing into space; instead, everyone is focused on exploiting Deadhead's flight to improve the image of America's military. (The same attitude toward space travel would later figure more seriously in the film Countdown [1967]). The flight itself is very brief, as the rest of the film is devoted to tedious shenanigans on Earth. In early scenes, famed silent comedian Buster Keaton, playing a soldier at the base, does enliven the film with a few comic routines that have nothing to do with the plot, but the character vanishes without explanation; other skilled veterans of tv sitcoms, like Arden, Clark, Gordon, and Lembeck, are wasted as support for the bland Avalon. [GW]


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