Every Monday, I spotlight a random episode of M*A*S*H, providing a brief review and asking readers to offer their thoughts.
“Iron Guts Kelly” (#52, 3×04)
Originally Broadcast: Tuesday, October 1st, 1974
Written by Bill Larry Gelbart & Sid Dorfman
Directed by Don Weis
Capsule Summary: A general dies at the 4077th in Margaret’s tent and his aide wants to ensure that the general’s death appears heroic.
After watching “Hot Lips is Back in Town” for last week’s Episode Spotlight, in which Margaret turned down a general’s advances, it was purely coincidence that this week’s episode turned out to be “Iron Guts Kelly,” which saw Hot Lips all but throwing herself at a general. These two episodes perfectly depict the evolution of Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan over the course of the series.
During the early years of M*A*S*H, despite their bickering, Hot Lips and Frank were so inseparable, either romantically or in opposition to Hawkeye and Trapper, that it was easy to forget that Hot Lips apparently had a lot of dalliances with other men, most of them high up the military food chain.
True, it was often suggested that these affairs took place prior to her transfer to the 4077th, but there were still a number of generals who arrived at the 4077th either hoping to or actually being able to spend some time alone with Hot Lips in her quarters. And yet there was Frank, either completely oblivious or so resigned to the situation that he didn’t seem to care.
During the scene in the Officers’ Club, Frank didn’t seem to realize that General Kelly and Hot Lips were practically undressing each other with their eyes. Like Hot Lips, Frank was often overly excited about being in the presence of military brass but this is the only episode where I recall him actually trying to get a picture for his scrapbook.
I can’t say whether we’re supposed to feel sorry for Colonel Wortman or be disgusted by his behavior. On the one hand, he may have truly felt General Kelly deserved a better death (or at least a less embarrassing one). On the other hand, he was obviously very used to helping the general get some private time with attractive nurses. And his attempts to find a battle to send the general’s body to was disturbing.
McLean Stevenson steals every scene he’s in, chief among them the scene in his office when he freaks out waiting for General Kelly. I think FX used to use the shot of Henry pulling the gum of his hat in promos for the series. I don’t think the gum would have been that sticky or stretchy after just a few chews, though.
I also love Henry’s line about Hot Lips during the scene in the Officers’ Club: “We’re always surprised that she can be kind, sir.” And him trying to push his way into Frank’s picture of General Kelly and Hot Lips then later accidentally taking a picture while handing the camera back to Frank.
And of course there’s the calm with which he asked Hawkeye and Trapper if Colonel Widmore was sort of crazy for trying to kill a general who was already dead.
There’s a very quick continuity error in this episode. When Frank and Hot Lips are talking in her tent, right after she tells him that General Kelly’s daughter wants to be a nurse and that’s why he was in her tent, Frank asks “Well, did he?” and Hot Lips replies “Did he what?” Notice that Loretta Swit’s hair is somewhat fluffier than it was in the previous shot, background scenery is slightly different and her voice actually sounds a little different, too. Then in the next shot her hair is flatter just like before.
Here are stills from the three shots I’m referring to:
For whatever reason, that one reaction shot apparently had to be filmed or refilmed at a later date.
According to Larry Gelbart, in a June 10th, 2002 post to the alt.tv.mash newsgroup, this episode “was based on the experiences of Red Saunders, onetime UCLA football coach and the actor, John Garfield, both of whom met their Maker while making someone else.”
Finally, I think we can all be thankful that the 1950s setting meant there weren’t any jokes about General Kelly coming out of the closet (unless Hawkeye’s line about a “closet general” is meant to imply something).