Hello, Ms. Russell…
Rosalind Russell was nothing if not versatile, and like a lot of stars during the petering out of the studio era, went free agent. Along with her husband, Fredrick Brisson, she even produced a few films for her own studio, Independent Artists, such as 1953’s Never Wave At A WAC. Shot at Walt Disney Studios and at Fort Lee, Virginia, it’s a fun, light comedy. Not the strongest of efforts, but the schtick is classic Rosalind.
Washington has many luminaries in its midst, and grouped in with Betsy Ross and Martha Washington is socialite Josephine McBain (Rosalind Russell). Her dad, Senator Tom Reynolds (Charles Dingle), is active in the Beltway scene with an eye to the Presidency, and Jo is always handing out awards, cutting ribbons, and greeting dignitaries.
At a party for her boyfriend, Lieutenant Colonel Schulyer “Sky” Fairchild (William Ching), Jo finds out Sky is shipping out to Paris to oversee NATO. To add to the awkwardness, Josephine’s ex-husband, Andrew (Paul Douglas) shows up looking for some books and leaves with a laundry basket full of odds and ends, plus his trusty schnauzer. Just to put the cherry on top, he and Jo have a spat right in front of the party guests, just in time for a photographer to snap a photo.
Jo’s jealous of Sky’s aide, Phyllis (Hillary Brooke), so she makes plans to fly to Paris and be with Sky, but Tom is concerned about his daughter chasing a man, so he suggests Jo join the WACs. She could get a commission and go to Paris. Maybe even start out as a general. Jo’s eyes gleam, and she jumps at the chance to show up Phyllis.
Meanwhile, in New York City, Clara Schneiderman (Marie Wilson), a full-time showgirl and part-time moll also known as “Danger O’Dowd” gets fed up with being seen as an object and storms out. Once on the street, she feels a little bewildered for a split second, except that there are three giant WAC recruitment posters practically slapping her in the face. Clara decides then and there to join the Army.
It’s clear Jo has no idea what she’s walking into. She rolls up to the base in her snazzy convertible loaded down with three massive suitcases and expects the guards to welcome her with wide-open arms. She’s got personal recommendations from Omar Bradley (who makes a cameo appearance) and the President of the United States, so she thinks her commission is in the bag, and thinks nothing of breaking ranks to go talk to officers she knows.
What actually happens is that she’s treated like any other private, because, much to her chagrin, that’s what she is–no commission for our heroine. Jo doesn’t get it at first, and sleeps in a pretty little mask with cotton in her ears and her train case open next to her. She also talks during lectures and congratulates the teachers as if she’s at a garden club meeting.
Clara is a different story, though. She quickly shows a talent for Army life, and gets assigned to teach Jo how to march. Well, it’s more like Clara marches while Jo hangs out under a tree smoking the cigarette she’s smuggled in her belt. From what we can tell, Clara doesn’t notice she’s been left in the lurch. It doesn’t matter, because she and Jo become best friends.
Not even Jo can escape KP duty, though, and she and Clara are assigned to griding meat for burgers. Jo is so lost in thought planning out a letter to Sky that she doesn’t even notice she’s stuck what she’s already written in the meat grinder. She’s humiliated when two officers find the scraps of it later (they’re somehow still legible) but keeps her head down.
In spite of herself, Jo’s beginning to take to the Army. Her life becomes even more fun when both Sky and Andrew show up–Sky because he’s there to see her, and Andrew because he’s developing all-weather gear for the Army and he needs some WAC guinea pigs. Welp, guess who’s assigned to test the gear?
Jo and the faithful Clara, along with eleven other WACs, wear sub-arctic suits in a simulation chamber, and Jo is the fortunate one who has to try and light a fire in freezing temperatures. She and Clara also test the new bivouac feature on their suits, and they work so well the ladies are frozen and have to be carried out. Especially Jo–Andrew gets it in his head that he’ll play a little joke on her by leaving her in the longest, and she’s like a Popsicle when she finally comes out.
Andrew doesn’t stop there. Jo and the ladies have to test a new non-bulky raincoat, and that means rolling through an obstacle course in a fake rainstorm. Well, Jo gets stuck, and she finally snaps, blowing up at the officers and Andrew. This puts Jo’s graduation from basic training in jeopardy, but the ending isn’t quite so cut-and-dry.
Rosalind Russell was in a transition period when she made Never Wave At A WAC. TCM says that she was toying with the idea of getting into TV, and her husband thought a play called The Private Wore Skirts might work. Renamed Never Wave At A WAC, there were two versions filmed–an hour-long one for TV, which gives Jo a daughter, and the feature. The TV show likely doesn’t exist anymore, but the movie is readily available in both DVD and streaming formats of varying quality.
The movie had a lot of cred, as, again, Omar Bradley was involved, plus it was filmed at the real Fort Lee in Virginia, which had a WAC base in the early fifties. Elmer Bernstein composed the score, giving the film further legitimacy.
The comedy isn’t the only thing that’s light in Never Wave At A WAC–the character development is pretty fluffy, too. I felt like Russell deserved more to say, for one thing. Her brain worked so fast and she rocked rapid-fire dialogue, but she doesn’t really get to do that in WAC. She and Andrew could easily have bounced more banter off of each other, which would have given the movie more bite, but they don’t. Their spat at the beginning is all we get.
As it is, Russell does get to employ her effective physical style now and then, but it’s nowhere near what she was capable of. Sometimes her mishaps amount to getting stuck somewhere and having to wait for someone to free her, so we have the fun at staring at her immobile combat boot for thirty seconds while she rails unintelligibly.
Sky is kinda extraneous, too. For a guy who supposedly has a super prestigious assignment to NATO in Paris, he sure has a lot of time to hang around Fort Lee waiting for a chance to squire Jo somewhere. He’s also way too willing to drop his career for good once Jo’s fortunes change. Kinda odd for someone who’s such a bigwig.
All in all, Never Wave At A WAC is a cute, funny movie that could have been cuter and funnier but wasn’t. Knowing Rosalind Russell, they could have definitely done better.
For more of the wonderful Rosalind Russell, please visit In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Thanks for hosting, Crystal–it was fun, as always! Thanks for reading, everyone, and hope to see you tomorrow for yet another blogathon…
Never Wave At A WAC is available on DVD from Amazon and can also be found on Amazon Prime’s streaming service.