Film Title: Mister Roberts
Studio: Warner Brothers
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Henry Fonda
- James Cagney
- William Powell
- Jack Lemmon
After playing Lt. (J.G.) Doug Roberts on Broadway for three years, Henry Fonda recreates his Tony Award-winning performance in this 1955 film version of Mister Roberts. With an all-star cast that includes James Cagney as Captain Morton, William Powell as Doc, and Jack Lemmon in his Oscar-winning performance as Ensign Pulver, you have a wonderful movie that holds up quite well since its release over 60 years ago.
The setting is on a cargo ship called “The Bucket” that is stationed in the Pacific during World War II. Mister Roberts has spent the entire war aboard the Bucket, but he really wants to see some action on a destroyer. Every week he writes a letter, requesting a transfer, but Captain Morton refuses to approve them. Morton rules his ship with an iron hand, punishing his crew over the smallest infraction. Mister Roberts does his best to run interference between the crew and the captain, but even his best efforts don’t always work. When Morton discovers that Roberts has bribed a port director to get the ship sent to a liberty port, he blackmails Roberts into obeying his orders, and instructs him to write no more letters for transfer. Thinking of the crew, Roberts agrees. What follows is a misunderstanding between Roberts and the crew, who believe that their beloved Mister Roberts has gone to the side of the enemy and is bucking for a promotion. When they discover the truth, they go to great lengths to do right by Mister Roberts, with tragic results.
“Mister Roberts” was the last of four movies in 1955 for Cagney (the other three were “Run for Cover”, a western; “Love Me or Leave Me”, a biopic about singer Ruth Etting with Cagney as her gangster boyfriend; and “The Seven Little Foys”, in which Cagney appeared as George M. Cohen to do a dance number with Bob Hope’s Eddie Foy). Cagney as Captain Morton reminds me of his early tough guy roles. Captain Morton is gruff, aggressive and doesn’t take any guff from Roberts or the crew. He’s bitter over the way he was treated when he worked menial jobs as a younger man, and sees his position as captain as a way to exact his revenge. Yet there is a sense of vulnerability when his personal flaws are pointed out to him. His obsession with the palm tree, his award for moving the most cargo, is a symbol of disdain for the crew. William Powell was at the end of a wonderful 33-year-career that was full of colorful characters. “The Thin Man” series with Myrna Loy are his best known movies. As Nick Charles, he was debonair, charming, witty, smart and very much in love with his beautiful wife Nora. But as the older, wiser Doc in “Mister Roberts”, Powell provides the voice of reason in the middle of all the chaos. He thoughtfully gives out advice, but stops just short of telling Mister Roberts what he should do, allowing Doug to figure it out on his own.
The best performance by far comes from Jack Lemmon himself. The second of three movies Lemmon did that year (“Three For the Show”, a musical with Betty Grable, and “My Sister Eileen”, another musical, this time with Janet Leigh, Betty Garrett and Bob Fosse), it was this movie that put him on the “A” list. As Ensign Pulver, we see the man who is still a child, collecting marbles or making firecrackers to throw under the captain’s bunk. He dodges authority (in the form of the captain) in order to remain oblivious to the cruelty of war. It is only when he faces the loss of a friend does he grow into the man that Mister Roberts knew he could be. And let us not forget the crew, whose humor comes from pure boredom of the same, dull routine: Ward Bond as the Chief, Phil Carey (of “One Life to Live” fame) as Mannion, Ken Curtis as Dolan, Harry Carey Jr. as Stefanowski, and a 16-year-old Patrick Wayne (son of legendary actor John Wayne) as young, naïve Bookser. They look for little things to break up the monotony, from staring at the new nurses through binoculars, to their riotous fun at the liberty port. Yet through all the boredom, you can see a crew that is devoted to Mister Roberts and who would do anything for the man who tries to make their life on the Bucket a little more bearable. This movie had two directors: John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy. It was Ford who directed the movie first, but he became ill in the middle of filming, and was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy. Both were given directing credits. Much of the filming took place in Hawaii and the Midway Islands. There was a sequel to “Mister Roberts” in 1964 called “Ensign Pulver”, with Robert Walker Jr. (son of legendary actress Jennifer Jones and actor Robert Walker) taking over Jack Lemmon’s role, Burl Ives as Captain Morton, and Walter Matthau (who would star together with Lemmon in “The Odd Couple” four years later) as Doc.
Mister Roberts was released on DVD in 1998 by Warner Brothers. The DVD comes with great bonus features: a list of the cast, with biographies and filmographies for Fonda, Cagney, Powell and Lemmon. Theatrical trailers and some behind-the-scenes information about the making of the movie are also included. The disc is available as a single and also as part of the “Henry Fonda Signature Collection”, along with the films “Advise and Consent”, “Battle of the Bulge” and “The Wrong Man”.
I watched this movie with my husband and twelve-year-old son. While some of the innuendos went over his head, my son thought it was a wonderful movie and said he would watch it again. My husband thought the film was fantastic as well, proving that Mister Roberts has an ageless appeal. This was the last movie of William Powell’s career, and what a way to go out, with a spectacular performance to remind the viewer why he was considered one of the best actors of his time. This movie is definitely worth adding to your collection for a fun-filled family night.
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