Episode Spotlight: Iron Guts Kelly


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.

The closet general

The closet general

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:

Continuity Error

Continuity Error

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).

6 Replies to “Episode Spotlight: Iron Guts Kelly”

  1. This episode was interesting to say the least… I’m not really sure if I would consider it one of the best, but it’s surely not one of the worst… I think the whole idea of the General having died while trying to get lucky with Margaret, and Colonel Wortman trying to find a battle to send the body to so he could have a more heroic death was on the morbid side.

    One little note about this episode is I THINK this marked the beginning of something of a recurring schtick throughout the rest of Radar’s stay on the series: different characters waking him in the middle of the night to make phone calls, much to his dismay or annoyance.

  2. Wow, I never noticed that continuity error before, but I certainly will from now on. I know it probably wasn’t, but it looks like that extra scene was done a LOT later. I’m sure it’s just the lighting/make-up/camera angle/what have you, but Loretta Swit looks a bit older to me in the extra shot.

    I’d like to think Frank was more or less oblivious to Hot Lips’ other, erm, “romatic interests”, but he’s confronted directly with photos of one such incident in “Ceasefire”, so maybe he’s either resigned to them or (my guess) in the frame of mind that they were one-time flings. I don’t know.

    All that said, this is a very enjoyable, funny episode. The whole “finding a better death” thing is kinda dark, and a very good example of the black comedy aspect of the series (that tended to fade later in the series).

  3. I just watched this last night. We must be watching season 3. I guess when I see Kelly in the title I always think nurse Kelly every time without fail. Margaret makes this episode. What was the quote.. Margaret :Oh you’re gun is poking me.. Kelly: Lucky gun. ha ha . Well about Frank we weren’t ready for him to go crazy just yet… We like a well cooked nut job Frank Burns. Also love that Margaret calls Frank a ferret face..

  4. Speaking of Margaret’s hair, in a late season episode (I’m too lazy to search for which one) we see it parted on the right side in the first scene, then it is back to being parted in the middle as it normally is.

  5. “And his attempts to find a battle to send the general’s body to was disturbing.” Made more so when you think of all of the soldiers injured or killed because Colonel Wortman wanted General Kelly to go out during the rockets’ red glare. He called in some very heavy artillery to kill a dead general. Not even Hawkeye or Trapper picked up or commented on it.

    Having said that, I, of course, understand that this is fiction. Except for that one bit I love this episode. It has a message but with humor.

  6. Well, I actually found it interesting that Margaret went to Hawkeye and Trapper for help with her there’s-a-dead-general-in-my-bunk problem.

    She didn’t like them at that point, and she certainly didn’t understand them, but they were her first instinct when that happened. For all she knew, they could find this hilarious and blab it all over camp and it could even end up on her permanent record. But she trust them not to do that.

    While Frank was her boyfriend, so he was definitely out, Henry was an option too. He was her CO, even if he was not the military commander she would have liked, he had once put out effort to keep an indiscretion off of her record (Hot Lips in Empty Arms), and he probably knew she’d gone to bed with with General.

    But she went to Hawkeye and Trapper

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