Friday, 10 February 2017

Film Friday: "Mister Roberts" (1955)

For my second Oscar-related "Film Friday" I am bringing you one of the five Best Picture nominees for 1955. This also serves to honor Jack Lemmon's 92th birthday, which was on Wednesday.

Original release poster by Bill Gold
Directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, Mister Roberts (1955) is set aboard the USS Reluctant, where executive officer Lieutenant Junior Grade Douglas A. "Doug" Roberts (Henry Fonda) tries to shield the dispirited crew from the harsh and unpopular captain, Lieutenant Commander Morton (James Cagney). World War II is winding down and Roberts fears he will miss his chance to get into the fighting. He repeatedly asks to be assigned to another ship, but Captain Morton - anxious to use Roberts to expedite his own promotion - refuses to sign any of his transfer requests. Roberts shares his quarters with Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver (Jack Lemmon), the officer "in charge of laundry and morale." Pulver spends most of his time idling in his bunk and avoids the captain at all costs, so much so, that Morton is actually unaware Pulver is part of the crew.

One day, Roberts surreptitiously requests, and is granted, crew liberty from one of Morton's superiors. The liberty is supposed to be at their next resupply stop, but when the ship reaches an idyllic South Pacific island, Morton denies the crew their much-needed shore leave. In private, Morton tells Roberts that the crew will not get liberty as long as he continues to request a transfer and then strikes a bargain with Roberts: in exchange for never requesting another transfer, never bending Morton's rules and never revealing what has made him change his attitude, Morton will grant the crew liberty. Meanwhile, the crew is mystified by the atypical behavior shown by Roberts, who is further depressed by the news of the Allied victory in Europe. Inspired by a patriotic radio speech celebrating VE Day, Roberts throws Morton's prized palm tree overboard. When the captain realizes that Roberts is the only person aboard with the nerve to do it, Morton summons him to his quarters and accuses him of the deed. An open microphone reveals to the crew what changed Roberts. Weeks later, Roberts receives an unexpected transfer. "Doc" (William Powell), the ship's doctor and Roberts' friend, confides to him that the crew risked court-martial by submitting a transfer request with Morton's forged imprimatur. Several more weeks pass and Pulver, now cargo officer of the Reluctant, receives two letters: one is from Roberts, who speaks enthusiastically about his actions during the Battle of Okinawa; the second reveals that Roberts was killed in a kamikaze attack. Incensed, Pulver throws the captain's replacement palm tree overboard. He then marches into Morton's cabin, openly bragging about it and brazenly demanding to know why Morton has cancelled the showing of a film that night. Morton slowly shakes his head, realizing that his problems have not gone away.


Mister Roberts started as a 1946 novel by Thomas Heggen, but became popular when it hit Broadway as a stage play in 1948, written by Heggen himself and Joshua Logan. The play starred Academy Award nominated actor Henry Fonda, who had left Hollywood after making Fort Apache (1948) with director John Ford. That turned out to be a wise decision, as the play became one of Broadway's most popular hits, running for a total of 1100 performances.

When Logan and the play's producer, Leland Hayward, made a deal with Warners Bros. to make the film version of Mister Roberts, Fonda felt there was little chance he would be given the opportunity to reprise his role as Lieutenant Junior Grade Doug Roberts. After all, he was then nearly 50 years old and Roberts was written as being a man in his twenties. In fact, the studio would have preferred Marlon Brando or William Holden in the lead. However, one of the first decisions made by the producing team was bringing Ford onboard to helm the picture and the director demanded Fonda. To make Fonda seem younger, most of the rest of the cast was populated with older actors; 55-year-old James Cagney as the dictatorial Captain Morton; and, after Spencer Tracy turned down the part, 62-year-old William Powell for the philosophical Doc. For the young Ensign Pulver, Ford chose Jack Lemmon, a little-known actor who had made a screen test for his previous movie The Long Grey Line (1955).


James Cagney and Henry Fonda
Filming on Mister Roberts began in late August 1954 without any difficulties. Ford used his Navy connections to find one of the old cargo scows to use for the story's setting and boat, while cast and crew were all sent to Midway Island for exterior shooting. Halfway through production, however, tension set in. After years playing Roberts on stage, Fonda felt he owned the role and knew how it was to be played. But Ford had other ideas, introducing bits of broad physical comedy, inventing new situations and, allegedly, throwing more attention to Lemmon's Pulver than Fonda's Roberts. Fonda kept his mouth shut, but Ford could tell he was dissatisfied. One night, Ford confronted Fonda in his quarters while Fonda was having a meeting with Hayward. "I understand you're not happy with my work," Ford muttered and, when Fonda confirmed it, Ford charged him, swinging wildly. Fonda managed to hold him back and Ford later apologized. The damage, however, was done and was irreparable.

Ford continued directing the movie into the next month, but could not handle being subservient to an actor. His way of dealing with the humiliation was drinking, keeping an ice chest full of beer nearby and downing up to two cases a day. After exterior shooting was completed, Ford was hospitalized with a gall bladder attack. The day he went into hospital for surgery, he was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, the director of such hits as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Quo Vadis? (1951). LeRoy shot all the studio-bound interiors except for two scenes, the laundry scene and Pulver's final message to the Captain, both of which were directed by Joshua Logan.

Although Fonda, Ford and Logan were deeply unsatisfied with the film, movie audiences loved Mister Roberts, making it the third biggest moneymaker of the year, earning $8.5 million at the box-office. At the 28th Academy Awards, Mister Roberts earned Jack Lemmon the Oscar for Best Actor, while also receiving two additional nominations: for Best Picture and Best Sound.

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