A depiction of life on a Navy supply vessel, based in the South Pacific during the latter half of World War 2.
Mister Roberts is a film I discovered back when I was in high school. I had a summer job at a restaurant in my hometown and one of the cooks had a favorite line from the movie, that he would repeat over and over again. It got to the point where I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I made the inquiry… “why do you keep saying that?” Of course he didn’t know what I was talking about because he was unaware that he kept repeating it at every whim. It was his go to response for any matter that arose and any obscure thought that surfaced. So I repeated the line for him: “Busboy, oh busboy, my friend has puked on the table, could you clean it up?” He broke out laughing, realizing how stupid he was coming off, especially since the restaurant didn’t have any bus boys (the waitresses bused their own tables). He immediately informed me that it was a line of dialog from a movie he admired, spoken by James Cagney. The film is, as you may have guessed, Mister Roberts. I had never seen or even heard of the film, but I was intrigued. On my next day off from work, I ventured to my local video store and purchased a VHS copy of the movie. I didn’t rent or have any sort of subscription in those days. I do not recall my reasoning, but if I wanted to see a film that was on home video, I outright purchased it. When I got home in the evening I gave the film a view. I was moved by the inventiveness of the story, in that it is set almost entirely on a supply ship stationed in an un-eventful area of the South Pacific, during the climax of the second World War. I was taken in by all of the characters and how they were portrayed, the interactions between all of them, the direction and the on-the-mark writing. I recognized that, while there was a 1950’s feel in its approach and aesthetics, it still felt like a World War II period film. I never informed the person from the restaurant that I had watched the film on account of his obsession with that one strange line of dialog, but the story stuck with me. I didn’t watch it again until long after I had grown up and settled in New York and then a few more years went by. My old VHS of the film is long gone (either that or stored away somewhere inside the labyrinth of my parent’s attic). At one point some years back I ended up renting it on Netflix so that I could show it to my girlfriend.
Two weeks ago I checked out a DVD from my local library: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, directed by Frank Capra. I was a little miffed by the fact that the disc was missing from the case, but settled down when I realized it had been replaced by a special edition of Mister Roberts. These past two weeks I have watched the DVD multiple times, with and without Jack Lemmon’s audio commentary. I watched the special features and dug up every bit of information I could get and this article is the result of my fateful rediscovery of this amazing classic.
The story is set aboard the fictional US cargo ship Reluctant (referred to by the crew as The Bucket) in the last quarter of World War II. James Cagney plays the sociopathic Captain Morton, who takes pleasure in making his crew as miserable as possible. Mr. Roberts, the action starved title character, is played by Henry Fonda. Roberts is seeking to win a transfer to get away from the tyrannical Captain and join the rest of the American forces before the war ends. He feels the war is dying before he can get to it and it eats at him that he has to bide his time on a freighter with a deranged superior officer. We are introduced to him at the very top of the movie as he watches a fleet of Naval Warships pass him by, headed for Japan. The Bucket is anchored off of Midway Island and they’re not going anywhere for the time being. Ensign Pulver, the mandatory lackadaisical crewmember played by Jack Lemmon (in his first movie), is one of the highlights of all the performances. There are wins, fails, disagreements and unifications a plenty with an extremely human morality tale at its core.
Mister Roberts first came into the public eye as a novel written by Thomas Heggen. Stage producer Leland Hayward bought the rights to adapt the novel and hired Heggen and writer/director Joshua Logan to turn it into a producible play. Henry Fonda originated the title character in the play when it opened on February 18, 1948 at the Alvin Theater in New York City (now the Neil Simon Theatre). Mister Roberts was a smash on Broadway and ultimately ran for seven years before it was adapted to film.
In 1953 Warner Bros. purchased the rights to adapt the play into a feature length motion picture. Leland Hayward was attached as producer while the show’s Broadway Director, Joshua Logan, was selected to direct the film. Marlon Brando was announced to play the title role since Henry “Hank” Fonda was unavailable. Brando eventually dropped out and the role was offered to William Holden, who, out of respect for Fonda, turned it down cold. In January 1954, Fonda finally accepted the role.
Logan eventually stepped down as Director and was replaced by John Ford. Ford reassigned Logan to work with Frank Nugent to improve the screenplay and open the action up by creating depth in some of the various characters’ motivations. Some other changes that were made revolve around the play’s dialogue, which had to be toned down to conform to the infamous Production Code. Broadway shows often had more freedoms in those days and films had to be fit for family viewing or the work wouldn’t qualify for distribution. One key scene that Logan and Nugent added is a beautiful moment at the top of the film where Lt. Roberts is watching a convoy of US Navy ships sail by. We can see his desire to be with them, his longing to leave his post on the freighter and engage the enemy. We understand in this one shot, exactly what his character is all about.
The role of the ship’s resident ‘Doc’ was originally offered to Spencer Tracy, who passed on the project. The role eventually ended up going to legendary actor William Powell, who put off his retirement so that he could be a part of the film. His decision to delay his retirement is credited to his admiration for the project’s impeccable script and Fonda’s admiration for the original play.
From the getgo, Ford wanted to shoot the bulk of the movie off of Midway Island, where several years before he had been wounded while shooting b-roll for The Battle of Midway, a World War II documentary. When the production first approached the Navy about cooperating with the production, the Navy turned their backs, citing the Captain’s sociopathic character as “detrimental to their image”. Ford responded by going directly to the Chief of Naval Operations and thus, secured the use of the USS Hewill, which stood in for the fictional Reluctant, along with permissions to film at bases on Midway and on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu.
For a young Jack Lemmon, being cast onto this film as Ensign Pulver was the biggest break of his career. Lemmon had many stories to tell about his work on the picture, some of which he recounts on the film’s DVD audio commentary. Among the many stories, he remembers having his screen test spliced to the end of dailies on one of Ford’s earlier movies, just to get him to watch it. On developing his character, Lemmon described Ensign Pulver as “not needing a great deal of research”, “you just kind of get the guy” he said, “you don’t even have to understand the Navy to play him.”
During the production of the film, Lemmon started a long-time friendship with Cagney, which lasted until Cagney’s death in 1986. Years before Mister Roberts, Lemmon starred in live television. In one particular performance, Lemmon decided to play his character ‘left handed’ for one episode, to see if anyone would notice. No one did, neither his wife ‘nor the director of the show. A few years went by and when Lemmon finally met Cagney at the airport before heading out to Midway, the first thing Cagney asked was “Are you still fooling people into believing you’re left handed?” As Lemmon and other people have noted about Cagney, this is an example of Cagney’s ability to observe human behavior and adapt these observations to enhance his own performances.
“Pappy Ford” used to pull tricks on his actors. As Lemon said, “he was famous for it.” He used to try and trick actors into giving the performances he didn’t think they were capable of, and many actors used to resent him for it. One incident had Ford telling Cagney that he wanted him ready at 6AM sharp for a scene. At the last minute, Ford would send an assistant to inform him that he didn’t need to come in at all This would go on for many days. Cagney recognized the behavior, as it had been described by other actors who had previously worked with Ford. He knew was Ford was up to. When Cagney’s first shoot day finally arrived, Ford attempted to catch him and Lemmon off guard, by sending an assistant to inform them an hour before the new call time. Cagney and Lemmon were smart about it and to prepare for this possible circumstance, they secretly rehearsed the entire script, front to back, so that Ford would get an actual performance and not a forced reaction. Lemmon believed that actors have to be in control of what they’re doing but Ford felt if the scene was thrown at them, it would bring an added element that couldn’t be “performed”. Ford told Lemmon at the end of this day “that was damned good work.” Ford never tried to pull this stunt again, at least, not on this film.
After the location shooting was complete, the production was brought stateside so that the remaining scenes could be filmed on the Warner backlot. It was around this time that Ford had to be hospitalized for emergency gallbladder surgery and forced to give the film up to another director: Hollywood veteran Mervyn LeRoy. While Joshua Logan also directed various scenes on the project and oversaw the post-production and editing of the film, LeRoy is the only other person, next to Ford, to receive a directing credit. Logan’s contribution was largely to re-film certain scenes so that they would be closer to the play, which the producers felt Ford had dropped the ball on. LeRoy directed scenes the way “he thought” Ford would shoot them. Audiences then and today have trouble deciphering who directed what scenes. On LeRoy’s first day, he told the cast he wasn’t going to direct them on how to play their parts, “the stuff looks great” he said, “I’ll just move you around here and there.”
The film plays off some daunting parallels between life aboard a ship that is run by a deranged Captain and the struggle of getting through the war. In a scene that comes around the third act of the picture, the title character Mr. Roberts, throws the Captain’s palm tree overboard in celebration of hearing that there has been an allied victory in Europe, equating the Captain’s tyranny with the evil of the war and his palm tree as the symbol of that evil. It is a moment I continue to cheer with each viewing.
The film was shot in CinemaScope format, giving the final frame a beautiful anamorphic look. The 2.35 aspect ratio allowed the filmmakers to show off the breathtaking Midway Island location and further allowed them to keep the shots wide and epic. At times the film looks like a postcard for the South Pacific (in a good way), documenting a location that had previously been largely filmed in black and white and littered with war and destruction.
On working with “Pappy Ford” and the impeccable cast, Lemmon said “if we were selling shorts at Macy’s, I’d be selling shorts better because of them.” Lemmon obviously felt a great deal of respect for the actors on Mister Roberts and continued to be thankful for the experience in his later years. Watching Ford work made Lemmon think more like a director. Lemmon said that he learned how to lead an editor into a cut by turning his head at a certain point and bang, cut, the angle goes to another person. For many years Lemmon would do this, directing the editor subconsciously to make the edits he felt were necessary.
The scene with the line that my former co-worker used to quote over and over again comes at about the halfway point. In the story, the Captain has discovered that Mr. Roberts has managed to pay off a Port Director to get the ship new orders that would send them to Hawaii, in an effort to cheer up the crew. Cagney lectures Fonda about his growing up as a working boy, whereas Fonda’s character was a college kid whom we get the impression was born with a silver spoon. Cagney insists that he “knows (his) kind”. “I hate your guts” Cagney says, “you smart college guys. I’ve been seeing your kind around since I was ten years old, working as a busboy. Oh busboy, it seems my friend has thrown up on the table, clean it up, will you busboy?” It is a spiteful scene and some of Cagney’s best work because we truly feel his hatred for Mr. Roberts and to some degree, hatred for himself.
By seeing the film over and over again across the decade and a half that it’s been, I’ve developed my own personal favorite moments. There are many, but my absolute favorite Cagney moment comes toward the latter half of the movie when he’s trying to keep his cool while investigating which crew member threw his precious palm tree overboard. His delivery is hysterical, “aaaalll right… whoooo did it…. who did it?!” Words cannot describe his genius in this moment. The humor as well as the drama is very over the top at times, a relic of its Broadway origins, but balanced beautifully with one another. The film is equipped with contemporary jokes of the day, including crew members doing great Cagney impressions, a scene that gives me the idea that Cagney impressions were as big then as Jack Nicholson impressions are today. Aside from this and some odd choices of direction, the film is incredibly personal and has an unexpected emotional peak, in addition to an ending that continues to catch me by surprise with each viewing. But nothing hits the human core more than the film’s climatic and relatively famous “letter reading scene” that no matter how many times I view it, manages to choke me up.
Mister Roberts was a massive hit when it opened in late 1955, receiving rave reviews and becoming the second-biggest grossing film of the year. Financially, the film was on par with its Broadway brethren and loved by audiences just the same. Ultimately, the film grossed $21,200,000, bringing in a total of $8.5 million from its theatrical run.
In 1964, Logan co-wrote, produced and directed the sequel: ENSIGN PULVER with Robert Walker in the title role and co-starring Walter Matthau and Burl Ives.
Rumors that made its way around industry circles was that Hank Fonda wasn’t happy with the film because of various elements that Pappy Ford added. Ford wasn’t able to avoid this, as he wanted Mister Roberts to be his film, not necessarily Logan’s play. Much of the added material revolved around Lemmon’s character and Fonda advised the young actor to screw up any added and unnecessary direction so that it wouldn’t end up in the movie. Most of that material did not end up in the movie, but regardless, the final project still didn’t sit well with Fonda. Henry Fonda wrote in his 1982 autobiography, My Life, that he believed that “as good as the movie is, the play is even better.”
Hank Fonda clearly felt protective of Mister Roberts and worked very hard to make sure the film was on par with what he and Logan had done in New York. Whether or not he grew to appreciate the work is unclear, but from the perspective of this filmmaker and film appreciator, Fonda had nothing to worry about. Mister Roberts is a classic and one of the few films from the 1950’s that I can honestly list as one of my all time favorite movies across all of cinema history. No matter how good or bad the film could possibly be, I don’t think it would ever top the play, at least, not in Fonda’s eyes.
Today the film is available on DVD, however there are some imperfections with the transfer. At this point, I am not sure what the studio’s plans are for the movie, but I do hope that at some point soon, they will restore and re-release the film on DVD and Bluray and give the work a solid 4K digital archiving.
If you haven’t seen Mister Roberts yet, check it out, it may wind up being your favorite “Pappy” Ford movie.
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