STUDIO – Warner Bros.
DIRECTORS – John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy
NOT RATED (MPAA Equivalent: PG)
In 1948, Henry Fonda left Hollywood for Broadway to star in a play about Navy lieutenant on a cargo ship who wanted nothing more than get in some combat duty in the final days of World War II. Six years, four Tony Awards, and over 1,100 performances later, Fonda returned to Hollywood to bring this acclaimed play to the big screen, in 1955’s Mister Roberts.
In Mister Roberts, Lt. (JG) Doug Roberts (Fonda) is executive officer and cargo officer on the USS Reluctant. It is April 1945, and he can sense that the war will be ending soon. For over two years, he had been stuck on “The Bucket”, serving under his tyrannical commanding officer, Capt. Morton (James Cagney). His roommate is a lazy, yet resourceful Lothario, Ensign Frank Pulver (Best Supporting Actor Jack Lemmon), and his confidant is the ship’s doctor, known simply as “Doc” (William Powell, in his last film appearance). He’s a favorite among the crew, who regard Roberts as one of the guys, and they’re willing to back him up over the skipper any day. The centerpiece – and bane of existence – of the Reluctant is a palm tree, a “symbol of our cargo record” awarded by Admiral Finchley to the crew, and the only thing on the ship to which the captain gives any affection.
Legendary director John Ford worked his magic to bring as much authenticity to this production by filming exteriors on board an actual World War II-era cargo ship in Hawaii and Midway Island (Being a Navy veteran himself didn’t hurt). But, as the story goes, shortly after returning to Hollywood for the interiors, Ford was forced to step down for health reasons, and Mervyn LeRoy took the reins to finish out the movie. Some sources say there was fighting on the set (An IMDb blurb even states that Ford once sucker-punched Henry Fonda), while others say the health issues were real (emergency gall bladder surgery). Still, the end result is one of the greatest World War II movies ever made, and in this one, no guns are fired, there aren’t any battles, and no one is seriously injured. John Ford had a tendency to stick with the same people in his movies. He frequently worked with John Wayne, and there is a connection to The Duke in this movie. Bookser, the young, innocent, wide-eyed sailor who nearly missed the boat after shore leave, was played John Wayne’s son, Patrick.
My father was in the Navy in the late-1950s, so he had a soft spot for this movie. During my formative years, this was one of those movies that, if it was on TV, I would run out to the garage and tell him. He would then immediately drop what he was doing, clean up (if necessary), crack open a beer and spend the rest of that Sunday afternoon on the couch. And I would sit there with him and watch the TV, amazed at how even humdrum life on a cargo ship could be interesting!
A few years later, I discovered that my mother had a book with scripts from great American plays, and “Mister Roberts” was among them. I read it over and over. I reenacted scenes and monologues from it in my Drama class (looking back, maybe not such a great idea to concentrate on one play, huh?). I compared the dialogue between the play and the movie (Some changes had to be made because of The Code). I absorbed as much as I could from it.
It was also during this time, I became a fan of the Hollywood Everyman, beginning with Jack Lemmon and Henry Fonda. These weren’t dashing, sexy stars, like Gable, Flynn, or Connery. These were regular guys who looked and acted like regular guys. They came from regular places (Fonda was from Grand Island, Nebraska, Lemmon from outside Boston). And their roles were by and large unglamorous (Both played the pivotal Juror #8 in their respective productions of 12 Angry Men). I was able to easily relate to their characters almost every time, and even today they still resonate within me.
The DVD has a couple of cool features, including clips from Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town”, featuring Fonda, Lemmon and Cagney recreating scenes from the movie on live television. There is also a commentary track from Jack Lemmon, in which he recounts some stories about working with Ford, Fonda, Powell, and Cagney, and how much he’d learned on the set from these men (One caveat about the commentary: Lemmon himself says that if you get tired of his stories, just go ahead and turn it off!). There is also a clip from a video from Jane Fonda, in which she recalls her father’s Kennedy Center Honors induction.
Mister Roberts is funny, dramatic, moving, and classic. Those of you who know Jack Lemmon from movies like Grumpy Old Men, The China Syndrome, or Glengarry Glen Ross should see the raw talent that broke loose in this movie. Cagney, an expert at chewing scenery, leaves plenty of teeth marks here. Powell, who came out of retirement to play Doc, is ever the bearer of wit and sagacity (“What’ll it be, alcohol and orange juice, or orange juice and alcohol?”). And Henry Fonda, for whom Doug Roberts was created, is forever immortalized as the poor lieutenant desperate to get off “The Bucket”.
“Good night, Mr. Roberts.”