Monday, November 28, 2022

#2,870. Mister Roberts (1955) - The Films of John Ford


I was listening to the DVD commentary that the late Jack Lemmon had recorded for 1955’s Mister Roberts, and right off the bat he talked about the two men credited with directing the movie: John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy. Ford, who was hired at the outset, was rushed to the hospital one evening about halfway through production, and the next day Mervyn LeRoy was on-set to take his place. LeRoy supposedly assembled the cast and crew and told them he would do his best to shoot the rest of the movie as Ford would have. Lemmon then concluded by issuing a challenge, daring anyone to try and figure out which scenes were shot by Ford, and which by LeRoy.

It’s an interesting story, a bit of cinematic lore that adds some color to the film’s production. But as legendary as both Ford and LeRoy were, it wasn’t the directors that made Mister Roberts a classic. It was its cast, which featured four of Hollywood’s best at the top of their game.

World War II is drawing to a close, and Lt. Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) of the U.S Cargo ship The Reluctant (nicknamed “The Bucket” by its crew) has, for months, been requesting a transfer to another ship, so that he can get a taste of action before the war in the Pacific ends.

But Lt. Commander Morton (James Cagney), the Bucket’s ornery, bad-tempered Captain, has no intention of letting a “college boy” like Roberts get the better of him, and continually disapproves his request.

Roberts and the Captain butt heads on a regular basis, with Roberts doing everything he can to improve the conditions for the bucket’s crew, earning him their respect. Roberts is also good friends with both Ensign Pulver (Lemmon), his bunkmate and the resourceful, though ultimately lazy, laundry and morale officer; as well as Doc (William Powell), the ship’s physician.

When the Captain refuses to give the exhausted crew a liberty, Roberts is forced to make a deal: he will stop requesting a transfer and even quit bickering with the Captain in front of the men in exchange for weekend liberty. But while Roberts may have come up short in this particular skirmish, the war raging on the Bucket is far from over, and not even the Captain’s prize palm tree, a gift for exemplary service, will be safe once the battle kicks up again!

Before it became a movie, Mister Roberts was a hit Broadway play, running for 1,157 performances (the play was based on a book of the same name, written by Thomas Heggen and published in 1946). While some dialogue-heavy scenes do have a stagy quality to them, both Ford and LeRoy made Mister Roberts feel like a “bigger” film, shooting on-location in Hawaii and the Midway Islands, with a few scenes set in the Pacific Ocean. This grander tone is further strengthened by Franz Waxman’s score, which ranges from light and bouncy during the more comedic moments to booming and powerful whenever things take a dramatic turn.

The supporting cast features Ford regulars Ward Bond (as Dowdy, the ship’s chief petty officer) and Harry Carey Jr (as crewman Stefanowski), with Betsy Palmer (of Friday the 13th fame) turning up briefly as Lieutenant Ann Girard, a nurse Pulver tries to romance. Mister Roberts also boasts some memorably funny sequences, chief among them the first night of Liberty, when military police (of several branches of the service) have to escort many of the drunk crewmen back to the ship. Apparently, they had a very good time (I always thought the crew’s antics, which we only hear about after the fact, would have made a good movie on their own).

Still, nothing could upstage the film’s four main stars. Fonda, who played Roberts on Broadway as well, was perfectly cast as the title character, giving him both a warmth (when dealing with the crew) and sternness (his scenes with the Captain) that work equally well. William Powell, appearing in his last movie, also delivers as Doc, Roberts’ closest confidante who isn’t afraid to tell his good friend the harsh truth when necessary (he thinks Roberts is doing more good than he knows on The Reluctant, and shouldn’t be so eager to leave).

Stealing the show, however, are James Cagney and Jack Lemmon. Cagney is deliciously contemptible as the ship’s Captain, a character you dislike the moment you meet him and hate even more as the movie progresses. The actor has played some tough characters over the course of his career (Tom Powers in The Public Enemy, Cody Jarrett in White Heat), but Captain Morton is a real crumb, and we hope to hell that Roberts eventually gets what he wants so he can escape the tyranny.

And then there’s Jack Lemmon, who walked away with that year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the likable but hapless Pulver. Pulver talks a big game, telling Roberts and Doc that he intends to make the Captain’s life miserable, whether it be putting marbles in his overhead light to keep him up all evening or throwing a firecracker under his bed. But in reality, Pulver is scared to death of the Captain, and tries to avoid him at all costs; the scene where the two finally come face-to-face is one of the movie’s funniest. Pulver is an interesting character, a guy we genuinely like, even if we’re not sure he’d be a dependable ally when things go south. Lemmon is remarkable in the role, and has what may be one of the best final scenes in a movie… ever!

In that same DVD commentary I mentioned above, Jack Lemmon talked of the lasting friendships he forged while making Mister Roberts, how he remained close friends with Fonda, Powell, and Cagney for the remainder of their lives. He credits the three with teaching him about screen acting (though a veteran of television dating back to 1949, Mister Roberts was only Lemmon’s fourth big-screen appearance). He couldn’t have had three better instructors, and based on what he would accomplish in the years that followed, they obviously taught him well.
Rating: 9 out of 10

1 comment:

PooBahSpiel said...

I've seen this movie at least a dozen times. It was one of those films that if you changed the channel to it by chance, the daily would remain there until the finish.