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Film Friday: «Mister Roberts» (1955)

For my second Oscar-related «Film Friday» I'm bringing you one of the five Best Picture nominees at the 28th Academy Awards ceremony in March 1956. This also serves to honour Jack Lemmon's 92th birthday, which was on Wednesday.

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 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 laundry and morale officer. 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.
James Cagney, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and William Powell in Mister Roberts.
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 in an idyllic South Pacific island, but when the ship arrives, 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 write letters about disharmony aboard the ship. He 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. Realizing who the culprit is, Morton summons Roberts to his quarters and berates him. An open microphone reveals to the crew what changed Roberts. Weeks later, Roberts received an expected transfer. «Doc» (William Powell) reveals to him that the crew risked court-martial by submitting a transfer request with Morton's forged signature of approval. Several weeks later, Pulver, now cargo officer of the Reluctant, receives a letter saying that Roberts was killed in a kamikaze attack. Incensed, Pulver throws Morton's replacement palm tree overboard and marches into his cabin, openly bragging about it and demanding to know why he has cancelled the showing of a film that night. Morton slowly shakes his head, realizing that his problems have not gone away.
Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver: Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I just threw your stinkin' palm tree overboard! Now what's all this crud about no movie tonight?

While serving abroad the cargo ship USS Virgo in the South West Pacific theatre of World War II, Thomas Heggen wrote a series of vignettes based on the daily activities of the crew. Rather than being a harrowing account of combat experiences, these stories described the boredom of life abroad the fictitious USS Reluctant, which, as Heggen writes, sails «from Tedium to Apathy and back, about five days each way. It makes an occasional trip to Monotony and once it made a run all the way to Ennui, a distance of two thousand nautical miles from Tedium.» Several characters were based on real people, including the ship's cruel skipper, Captain Morton, who was modelled after Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander Herbert Ezra Randall.

Following his release from active duty in December 1945, Heggen spent several months reworking the stories he had written into a novel, which he titled The Iron-Bound Bucket, after the nickname the Virgo's crew had given the ship. When Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish the manuscript, they suggested that Heggen name the book for the character of Lt. Doug Roberts because «he is the one who holds the ship together.» Heggen agreed, and Mister Roberts was published in 1946. It received excellent reviews from critics and it became an overnight sensation, with the first hardcover edition selling 100,000 copies.

LEFT: Thomas Heggen, author of Mister Roberts. RIGHT: Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan during rehearsals for the stage adaptation of Mister Roberts.

After the success of Mister Roberts, Broadway producer Leland Hayward bought the rights to the book and hired Heggen and Joshua Logan to write the stage adaptation. Henry Fonda, Logan's longtime friend, took on the title role, while William Harrigan, Logan's brother-in-law, played the tyrannical Captain Morton. The original cast also included David Wayne as Ensign Frank Pulver, Robert Keith as Doc, and Jocelyn Brando as Lieutenant Ann Girard.
Directed by Logan, Mister Roberts opened at the Alvin Theatre on Broadway on February 28, 1948. The play was both a critical and commercial success, winning Tony Awards for Best Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (Fonda), Best Producer, Best Author and Best Director. After closing on Broadway on October 28, 1950 after a total of 1,157 performances, the production embarked on a nine-month national tour, with Fonda reprising his acclaimed role. Even after almost three years, he never tried of playing Doug Roberts; he always said that portraying that character on stage was as exciting and fresh the 100th time as it was the first.

Scenes from the Broadway adaptation of Mister Roberts.

When Logan and Hayward made a deal with Warner Bros. in 1953 to make a film version of Mister Roberts, Fonda was not the first choice to star in the title role. At 48 years old, he was deemed too old, and the studio thought that after a five-year hiatus from the screen he was no longer a box-office draw. As such, they considered casting a younger, more popular star like Marlon Brando or William Holden. The latter reportedly turned down the part, saying that it belonged to Fonda. Brando was interested in the project, but when John Ford was brought in to direct, he insisted that Fonda be hired. Ford and Fonda, who had both served in the U.S. Navy in the South Pacific during World War II, had already worked together on six pictures, including the critically acclaimed The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and My Darling Clementine (1946).
To make Fonda seem younger, most of the main cast was filled with older actors: 55-year old James Cagney as the authoritarian Captain Morton, and 62-year-old William Powell as the philosophical Doc, a role originally offered to Spencer Tracy. For the young Ensign Pulver, Ford borrowed Jack Lemmon from Columbia. At the time, Lemmon was still a little-known actor, but Ford had been enough impressed with him during a screen test for his previous movie, The Long Gray Line (1955), to give him an important role in Mister Roberts.

William Powell, Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon and James Cagney in Mister Roberts.
Filming on Mister Roberts began in late August 1954 on location off Midway Island in the Pacific and Keneoke Bay in Hawaii, abroad the cargo ship USS Hewell, which stood for the fictional USS Reluctant. Ar first the U.S. Navy was not happy that the picture was going to be made — Captain Morton was not the kind of naval officer they wanted to see represented on screen — and was going to withhold all cooperation with the filmmakers. However, Ford, a former Navy commander who had also served during World War II, called on some friends at Navy headquarters in Washington D.C. to secure their partnership in the making of the film.
Even though Ford and Fonda had worked together many times before and got along well, they clashed constantly during the making of Mister Roberts. The two disagreed about the film's concept: Fonda believed the material should be left as intact as possible, retaining the original idea of boredom at sea, while Ford wanted to open it up and focus more on the story's comedic aspects, adding more slapstick moments. Their mutual stubbornness eventually culminated in Ford punching Fonda, after the latter expressed his dissatisfaction with the changes added by the director. This altercation marked the end of their personal and professional relationship.
LEFT: Henry Fonda and Jack Lemmon during a break from filming Mister Roberts. RIGHT: Shooting a scene with Henry Fonda abroad the USS Hewell.
After Ford was hospitalized with a ruptured gallbladder, Mervyn LeRoy was hired as his replacement. According to Lemmon, «The studio screened everything for him that had been shot and we got underway again. Mervyn made no attempt at all to insert his own ideas; he tried his best to set up the shots the way he thought Ford would have done.» At Fonda's request, Logan re-shot some of the scenes Ford had directed, and later he also assisted with the editing. 

Although Fonda was deeply unsatisfied with the film, Mister Roberts opened on July 30, 1955 to generally positive reviews from critics. The Library Journal called it «an uproarious picture, often rather touching,» while the reviewer for The New York Times wrote, «To Mister Roberts and all hands involved in one of the season's greatest pleasures: 'Well done!'» The film was also a great financial success, becoming the third biggest moneymaker of the year. At the 28th Academy Awards, Mister Roberts earned Jack Lemmon the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, while also receiving two additional nominations for Best Picture and Best Sound Recording.
Henry Fonda: A Bio-Bibliography by Kevin Sweney (Greenwood Press, 1992)
John Ford: A Bio-Bibliography by Bill Levy (Greenwood Press, 1998)
Lemmon: A Biography by Don Widener (iUniverse, Inc., 2001)
«Happy 65th Birthday, Mister Roberts» by James C. Roberts, Naval History Magazine, Volume 25, Number 6 (December 2011) 


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