Episode Spotlight: The Smell of Music

Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.

“The Smell of Music” (#135, 6×15)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, January 3rd, 1978
Written by Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum
Directed by Stuart Millar

Capsule Summary: Charles annoys Hawkeye and B.J. with his French horn so the two decide to give up showering until he agrees to stop practicing his music in the Swamp.

I love this episode. It’s unbelievable and silly but I love it. Actually, what I love is the A story with the smells and the music. I’m not as fond of Potter’s B story involving a suicidal patient because it’s a bit too convenient. More on that in a bit.

The A story is unbelievable in a few ways. First, I feel like there’s no way Charles would play the French horn so badly. A Winchester would never risk being seen doing something poorly, including playing a musical instrument. In fact, if he was actually good I think it would have made the storyline stronger because he could argue that his playing was bringing culture to the Swamp. Or there could have been people who actually enjoyed listening to him, adding more conflict.

It also seems unlikely that Hawkeye and B.J. would be allowed to go without showering for so long. Aside from the smell, there are also sanitary concerns. I’m not sure if being incredibly stinky would impact their ability to remain sterile in the O.R. At the very least they would be a disgusting presence during surgery. And what about the patients? They have it bad enough being wounded.

It certainly looks like everyone had a lot of fun filming the forced washing of Hawkeye and B.J. and the destruction of the French horn. Listen carefully and you’ll hear Hawkeye scream “I don’t care what you do to me but those lice you killed were women and children.” And B.J. say “How well do we know each other?” while a nurse is scrubbing him. The French horn was obviously replaced after being run over by the jeep. It’s far too flat.

The B story isn’t a bad one. It’s understandable that an injured patient like Saunders would be depressed at the prospect of going home with a ruined face. And it’s perfectly understandable that Colonel Potter would get emotionally invested. What doesn’t work well for me is how easily Saunders was able to try to kill himself not once but twice.

He smashes a medicine cabinet and overdoses on pills, then slips past everyone in Post-Op to get into the O.R. and the anesthesia? That seems hard to believe even before Potter asked that he be watched around the clock.

The immovable object is being polished off by the irresistible force.

My favorite scene is Hawkeye and B.J. turning on a fan in the Swamp and trying to blow their odor towards Charles. The expression on Hawkeye’s face while he’s furiously flapping his shirt is hilarious. Father Mulcahy trying to figure out how to politely refuse an invitation to sit outside the Mess Tent is also a great moment.

Another good line is Hawkeye’s “The irresistible force is about to polish off the immovable object!” That’s not quite as good Hawkeye telling Charles “The more you blow the worse we’ll grow.” In fact, there are a lot of funny lines and puns involving smells and odors.

The very last shot during the tag, when Charles is examining the bizarre contraption Sang Nu built, is much darker than the rest of the episode:

Note the difference in color

There’s a goof involving footwear during the scene in which Potter convinces Saunders he doesn’t actually want to die. Saunders can be seen with bare feet while inhaling anesthesia but later is wearing shoes when Potter helps him walk through the door.

According to the Internet Movie Database, the music Charles is playing on his French horn is from two works by Richard Strauss (“Ein Heldenleben” and “Don Juan). Hawkeye and B.J. play the “Colonel Bogey March” on the kazoo and improvised drum.

Radar does not appear in this episode.

10 Comments

  • Paul S says:

    Actually french horn is one of the most difficult brass instruments to play, It is quite believable that Charles would play it badly. Many rich or affluent people desire to reproduce recorded or live music. There are many homes with grand pianos, cellos, violins, and brass instruments that sit unplayed in a corner of a room. They have the means to play, but not the skill.

  • Big Daddy O'Reilly says:

    This episode is hilarious, I love it! Once again, there’s really nothing more I can add that RJ hasn’t already touched-up on, except that there’s an equally funny series of outtakes from this episode: when Hawkeye is saying, “The irresistible force is about to polish off the immovable object!” Mike Farrell keeps breaking up, prompting Alan Alda to at one point say to him, “Stop laughing at me, for Christ’s sake, I gotta hit my goddamn egg!” Finally he goes to smashing it, but it rolls out from under his fist, and Mike just loses it at this point, rolling off his chair, taking the table down with him, and just laughing hysterically while on the stage floor.

    • Big Daddy O'Reilly says:

      Also, in regards to the change in the brightness and contrast during the tag, we talked about this before, but it has to do with how primitive optical effects were back in those days, in this case, the flash of credits overlayed on the film.

      • RJ says:

        I can’t think of any other explanation for the brightness/contrast change but it is odd that it is so hit-or-miss. I checked most of the other episodes on the same disc as “The Smell of Music” and only saw one other tag that ended with a brightness/contrast change just before the first credits appear. Weird.

      • Sean C. Shepherd says:

        I’am the grandson of George W. Hyde the musician actually playing the French horn in the MASH episode the smell of music. Mr Hyde started his Hollywood career on live radio. No written music was used by Mr. Hyde and he did have to practice playing the French horn for the episode. It’s jokingly said no horn player never sounded so good playing so bad.

  • David G. says:

    Clarification about the tag scene: The “dark shots” problem only cropped up when Fox began cleaning up the episodes for the Columbia House VHS and (later) DVD releases beginning in the mid/late 1990s. If there’s a text credit with the familiar yellow text on the screen, it threw off whatever was being done to fix the color balance that were done for the shows. The opening and closing shots of the episodes did NOT appear dark like that when the shows originally ran on CBS, or even during syndication in the 1980s and 1990s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this same problem occur on DVDs of other TV series from the ’70s or ’80s. (Another change that occurred during the clean-ups: On several of the DVD episodes, that familiar quick shot containing severely scratched-up film of an ambulance is cleaned up. Also, the film flaw “spot” that always appeared at the side of the “Alan Alda” in one frame of the opening theme is also cleaned up in most (all?) of the DVD episodes.) Wish Fox would fix this remastering problem with those dark with-credit-texts shots before this series ever goes into BlueRay! (And invest the few hours to properly re-create “Our Finest Hour” via re-editing in all the old episode clips, while they’re at it!)

  • jgf says:

    A funny but unbelievable episode.

    There is no timeline so we’ve no idea whether the events transpire over a few days or a couple of weeks; but it seems Hawkeye and BJ become putrid rather quickly.

    Also Charles seems exceedingly inconsiderate and childish here. I assume he is learning to play his horn, which is a loud instrument (not like learning a guitar, for instance), yet he doesn’t care at all that he is annoying everyone within earshot, not to mention those living in the same tent. He wants to play his horn and he is going to play it.

    He displayed this same attitude when both he and Potter had the mumps. He was essentially a guest in Potter’s home for a few days but insisted on playing his opera records, which Potter hated. Now a bout of mumps only lasts about four or five days (I caught them in my early fifties and it was over in four days), certainly Charles could go without the opera music for that short time.

  • Klyf Harrison says:

    I´m a former Professional Horn player having played with the San Diego , Oakland and San Fracisco Symphony orchestras and thought Stiers was actually playing albeit badly with his hand too far up the bell -what was the piece he butchered ?

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