Episode Spotlight: Movie Tonight

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

“Movie Tonight” (#117, 05×21)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, February 22nd, 1977
Written by Gene Reynolds, Don Reo, Allan Katz, Jay Folb
Directed by Burt Metcalfe

Capsule Summary: Everyone at the 4077th is working hard so Colonel Potter schedules a movie as a special treat. When the projector keeps breaking down, the camp must provide its own entertainment.

“Movie Tonight” is widely regarded as a classic episode of M*A*S*H, although there may be some fans who don’t like how silly it is. Personally, I’ve always loved it even though I recognize how unlikely it is that so many people could so quickly come up with such brilliant song lyrics on the spot. I’m more than willing to suspend my disbelief.

There’s a plot to this episode but it’s a thin one. Although not mentioned, there must be a lull in the fighting if the staff feel comfortable taking the time to clean the OR from top to bottom. All that work has everyone bickering and fighting. Fortunately, Father Mulcahy manages to track down the mail and with it a copy of Colonel Potter’s favorite movie: My Darling Clementine.

At first, the movie doesn’t draw much of a reaction. The nurses are more excited about an I-Corps dinner where they’ll get to see new people. Frank invites Margaret to sit with him but takes things too far when he suggests after the movie the two play “war games” like they used to. He then makes fun of Donald Penobscott’s last name, which is kind of funny. He later takes out his frustration on Radar, berating him for not finishing his peas. Even Hawkeye and B.J. seem a bit snippy.

Once the movie starts, however, the whole camp gets into it. So of course the projector fails. Poor Klinger is bombarded with popcorn and catcalls as he tries to fix it. Colonel Potter attempts to keep the jocular mood intact by ordering everyone to sing “Tennessee Waltz,” which they do.

The highlight of the episode is the camp singing “Gee Ma, I Wanna Go Home” when the projector fails again. Father Mulcahy kicks things off with a verse about being a chaplain in the Army. Hawkeye and B.J. follow with a verse that fits Hawkeye more than B.J. Colonel Potter sings about his horse, the nurses sing about choppers, Radar sings the praises of corporals, Klinger sings about wearing dresses, and Margaret sings about getting married.

Later, after a few of Radar’s impersonations, Frank jumps up and starts singing his own morbid verse about stabbing Hawkeye and B.J. in the heart. If you go back and watch Frank closely while everyone else is singing “Gee Ma, I Wanna Go Home” you’ll notice he doesn’t seem very enthused, particularly after Margaret’s verse.

The Father Mulcahy Soundalike Contest is hilarious. I think Radar does the best impersonation. Frank sounds like Minnie Mouse. Everyone is having so much fun the nurses would rather stay at the 4077th than go to their I-Corps dinner. Margaret’s performance of “C’est Magnifique” is, I think, intentionally longer than it needs to be. To the untrained ear, Loretta Swit sounds like she has a good set of pipes.

As the episode comes to a close, the movie reaches its climax. A massive shootout on screen has everyone in the Mess Tent pretending to be a cowboy. Margaret mows down Hawkeye before being shot herself. Frank is either shot in the throat or chokes on popcorn. Radar enthusiastically blasts away with a six-shooter. It seems bizarre that these doctors and nurses who see so much death would get so much enjoyment out of pretending to kill one another and play dead.

That’s exactly what the writers were going for, of course. The 4077th deals with death on a daily basis. They would never make light of killing and dying but watching a violent movie and playacting allows them to blow off some steam. When actual wounded arrive moments later, they all jump up and head to surgery, the fun over.

The episode ends with one final song, a somber rendition of “My Darling Clementine” sung softly by the doctors and nurses as they try to save lives. It’s a moving ending to an otherwise jocular episode that borders on the absurd at times. In my opinion, it deserves to be called one of the classics of M*A*S*H.

Still from the M*A*S*H episode Movie Tonight showing Father Mulcahy and Colonel Potter
“Jocularity! Jocularity!”

There have to be so many great stories about the making of this episode. Did the cast enjoy filming this episode? Was anyone apprehensive about having to sing? I’m especially curious about how the script was written. Gene Reynolds, Don Reo, Allan Katz, and Jay Folb are credited with writing the episode. That’s an unusual number of writers. Reynolds, of course, was executive producer of M*A*S*H during Season 5. Reo and Katz were producers. Folb served as story consultant.

Did the four work together to write the lyrics for the 4077th’s version of “Gee Ma, I Wanna Go Home” or was one person responsible? The music cue sheet for the episode offers no insight. I wonder if any verses were written but not used–what would Igor have sun about, I wonder–or perhaps alternate versions drafted but later discarded.

Enid Kent and Judy Farrell are credited as Bigelow and Able in this episode. The two have brief exchange with Margaret while cleaning surgical packs:

Margaret: “Oh, can it nurses! Check the surgical packs.”
Able: “Checking, checking.”
Bigelow: “Checking packs like crazy.”
Margaret: “Put a lid on it!”

The other two nurses are uncredited but one is Gwen Farrell.

Radar’s imitation of John Wayne from McLintock! is an infamous example of an anachronism on M*A*S*H. The movie was released in November 1963, more than a decade after the end of the Korean War.

When Margaret is singing “C’est Magnifique” and Klinger gets the projector working again, her shadow can be seen on the movie screen.

12 Comments

  • futurenurse says:

    This is one of my favorite episodes! 🙂 I think the absurd portions of the episode work well because (like you said) the camp is under high levels of stress and everyone needs to let off a little bit of steam. Gary Burghoff does a very good Col. Potter imitation and is probably the best one, but they are all really funny! And I love their version of “Gee Ma, I Wanna Go Home”. My sister actually figured out how to play it on ukulele, and I walk around singing it all the time. I do wish we had access to stories about the making of this episode, but I haven’t heard any before.

  • BDOR says:

    This has got to be one of the absolute best episodes of the entire series – it’s a perfect go-to episode to watch to cheer you up if you’re feeling blue or down, I love it.

    There’s an interesting blooper from this episode: at one point when the projector breaks down again, Hawkeye yells at Klinger a split second before the movie screen goes black.

    One minor quibble I have is this: during the sing-along, Klinger’s verse is met with everybody booing and hissing, and throwing popcorn at him . . . that’s actually funny. When the clip was used in “Our Finest Hour,” they cut to the final refrain after Klinger’s verse, which begins with everybody clapping and cheering . . . not as funny.

    And I actually saw MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, maybe a year ago or so, I wanted to check it out out of my own curiosity – obviously, there’s a lot from the movie we didn’t even see in this episode. It was a fairly pretty good movie – I’m not really into westerns that much (though I did love THE GENE AUTRY SHOW), so I’m not entirely sure if this is a movie I’d go out of my way to see.

    Oh, and did anyone else besides me feel like Hawkeye’s shirt having one sleeve longer than the other seemed a little reminiscent of his sister sending him a sweater with a similar problem in “Mail Call”?

    • futurenurse says:

      I definitely agree: whenever I’m feeling down or I just need a break from the world, this is one of my favorite episodes to watch. 🙂 I never noticed the parallel with the episode “Mail Call” (but I don’t watch the earlier episodes as often, which is probably why).

      • BDOR says:

        Ten years ago I was battling depression (partly due to a side effect of governmental acne medication I was taking), but I remember one night I was curled up in my dad’s recliner watching TV – this episode was on TV Land that night, followed by an equally funny episode of SANFORD AND SON (“Earthquake”), then I flipped it over to TBS for an episode of SEINFELD (“The Cigar Store Indian”); it turned out to be one of the brightest nights I had that entire year.

  • Crabapple Cove says:

    As has been said already, a terrific episode and one of the classics of the series. This episodes highlights an aspect of M*A*S*H that comes across to me in many episodes — that the 4077th camp was a little slice of the USA thousands of miles from home. “Movie Tonight” shows the common culture that was shared by the Americans on that base. Despite their diverse backgrounds and interests, the members of the 4077th were ‘family’ in the sense of sharing the common values of the U.S. — sadly a commonality that is ebbing away as our country descends into various factions and ‘-isms’. We no losing our melting pot culture…

  • Father Angus says:

    This is one episode that I never get tired of watching. It is a fantastic episode, with lots of jocularity, yet the theme of war and the drama of it also peeps through, especially in the last, moving scene.

    As a person with a musical background, I always cringe whenever a piano is played, as it is so massively out of tune. In this episode, the piano is even more out of tune than usual, which gives it a real feeling of war, and the scarcity of good entertainment!

    On the topic of music, Loretta Swit doesn’t have the best ‘set of pipes’ in my mind. Listen to her rendition of ‘My Blue Heaven’ in ‘Dear Dad, Again’ and you’ll see what I mean. But in this episode, she seems to have had some singing lessons, and it is (kind of) nice.

  • Eric says:

    I agree that this is a great episode! And I happen to have a copy of this script in my collection. I pulled it out and flipped through it, and the writers of this episode did a great job of keeping the episode held together. In the front of the script is a sheet with the words to Tennessee Waltz. Then, in the script where they sing it, it just says that they sing the song together. As far as the army songs and the impressions, they were written in advance and the actors delivered them perfectly! Margaret’s solo does not include the words, so she other received a separate sheet or she already knew the song.

    With scripts, it’s interesting. Some of them have quite a few changes from script to screen. This one has very few, if any. Certainly due in part to the great team of writers who put this episode together.

  • Larry P. says:

    This is easily a top 10 favorite of mine, no doubt about it. Just a great, great episode. Fantastic the whole way through, though “Gee Ma” and the Fr. Mulcahy impressions are particular highlights.

    There is one thing that irritates me, though: watch after Klinger sings his part in “Gee Ma.” When everyone starts yelling at him, Alan Alda in particular is just GOING OFF. I mean, geez, I know they want to get back to the movie, but can’t Klinger join in the fun for a moment?

    That small moment aside, this one hits all the right notes with me. Pure, classic M*A*S*H!

  • Todd J says:

    My dad was in the Navy when the Korean War began. He landed at Inchon with the marines as a radio operator. Once the troops started moving up the peninsula he was longer involved in combat. He eventually got sent to Japan where he went to projector school for a week. (My mom: “It took a week to learn how to run a movie projector?”)
    My dad is a life long movie buff, so this was his favorite duty in the military.
    I like how the MASH writers incorporated watching movies into some of the scripts and I’ve always enjoyed this episode.
    I saw “My Darling Clementine” about 33 years ago in a film studies class. Like most movies, it is definitely a lot fun to see projected on a screen and with an audience. It’s a great choice for a movie to be shown in this episode.

  • jgf says:

    Definitely one of my favorites.

    “…how unlikely it is that so many people could so quickly come up with such brilliant song lyrics on the spot”

    This is an old military song, for which you can probably find dozens (or more) verses, since anyone with such a flair could add their own. So it is not unbelievable that many people would have heard/learned lyrics pertinent to their MOS. (I recall hearing this song, with lyrics suitable to the locale, in summer camp in the mid sixties.
    “Here comes counselor Kallbach,
    You know he’s such a twit.
    We’ll say no more about him
    Except he’s full of s…

    Oh I don’t want no more of summer camp,
    Gee, mom, I want to come home.”)

    As for Margaret’s singing, notice she always has to be practically dragged off stage once she starts.

  • Latrinogram says:

    This one is definitely a classic. Maybe it is unrealistic that everyone could come up with so much off-the-cuff talent, but so what? It’s a fun episode.

    The best parts of the movie-watching scene were:
    1. Margaret’s song and her determination to finish it, even after the movie started back up. I also love Hawkeye’s lusty over-the-shoulder comments.
    2. Radar’s version of Father Mulcahy.
    3. Frank’s pathetic attempt at zinging Hawkeye and BJ through song.
    4. The nurses deciding to stay at the camp. It represents that the unit had great camaraderie, in spite of everything. By the way, Judy Farrell was quite the looker. This might be the most screen time she had in the whole series.

    Continuity Error: At the beginning of the episode when they are cleaning the OR, the floor is clearly made of concrete or some other hard surface. It certainly isn’t wood, which contradicts at least a few episodes.

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