Sergeant Deadhead

Sergeant Deadhead. Alta Vista Productions 1965.

Before watching the movie:

From how hard the movie is trying to be sold as a wacky comedy, I would expect that the change that Avalon’s undergoes in space would be really wacky, like he comes back really loopy, or having switched minds with his simian copilot. At the very least, “Deadhead” suggests to me an “idiot comes turns smart” story, which isn’t necessarily funny. But the summary I read says that he returns with a more “aggressive” personality. That doesn’t necessarily sound funny. Maybe it’s funny because he’s aggressive like a chihuahua, overconfident in his abilities.

After watching the movie:

Sgt. O.K. Deadhead is an awkward, clumsy, and shy soldier who conveniently manages to fall into trouble and get thrown in the guardhouse every time the latest rescheduling of his wedding to WAC Airman Lucy Turner, which is a relief to Deadhead because he’s afraid to get married. Deadhead’s clumsiness makes him a thorn in the side of his base commander Gen. Fogg, who needs everything to go perfectly this week for the launch of Project Moonmonkey. Broken out of the guardhouse by a cellmate, Deadhead hides in a rocket, not realizing that it’s about to be launched into a region of space that has been noted to cause personality changes in test subjects. The US President orders the military brass to keep the screwup quiet and to announce that Deadhead is a heroic volunteer. The generals get the idea to sweeten the PR by sweeping Deadhead into an on-base marriage to Lucy immediately on return, but Deadhead comes back wrong, all arrogance and id, lording his hero status over the generals and threatening to tell the press the real story if they don’t obey his orders. Realizing they can’t let Deadhead get to the press, but need to present a hero to the public, the generals throw him in the guardhouse and find the loyal, obedient, and eager Sgt Donovan, a perfect doppelganger of Deadhead, and order him to pose as Deadhead for the press, the wedding, and the honeymoon. But Deadhead won’t let some concrete walls contain him.

Avalon plays something like 2 3/4 roles here. Old Deadhead is a shy bumbler, New Deadhead is a power-mad braggart, Donovan is shy, but not a bumbler, and eventually Deadhead cools down to become a more confident and capable version of his real self. Everyone else is basically playing archetypes, but Avalon has to vary his acting a lot, and he handles it pretty well.

The songs are completely forgettable. They don’t outstay their welcome, but they don’t add a thing to the story. They’re just there because Frankie Avalon movies need songs. There are a handful of improvised Buster Keaton bits that also don’t really belong. Buster Keaton is always funny, but he’s in the wrong movie. He drops out after the first act and the movie is improved by it. This isn’t a big enough movie to be influential, but I think the “little bit of everything” approach to putting together movies was on the decline by this time, and that’s a good thing.

This is a mishmash movie. The plot is heavily burdened by a lot of distractions, and it only succeeds at being a Frankie Avalon vehicle by giving him a broad range of things to do. The story is much more with the brass than with Deadhead, but it’s made about him because he’s the problem they’re trying to keep up with. It’s a bit of fun, but not anything terribly worthwhile. They had high hopes for this movie, but it failed to deliver on its promises.

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