Saturday, February 2, 2013

Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts is a re-watch for me. I caught it a few years ago on TCM. It is a 1955 film adaptation of a successful stage play by Joshua Logan that ran for several years on Broadway.  Henry Fonda reprises the title role in the film; he played the role for over four years on stage.  The film also stars James Cagney,  William Powell, and Jack Lemmon.  Mister Roberts is a sturdy and entertaining movie, though perhaps it is a little padded and long.  Whenever one of the four main stars are onscreen however, well, it's hard to resist them.

The film is credited with being directed by both legendary director John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy.  Ford, who won an Oscar as Best Director four times -- more than any other director -- apparently tried to put his stamp on the story by beefing it up a little. This rankled Fonda, who was loyal to the source Broadway play.  Ford developed a gall bladder problem, and left the production. He was replaced by LeRoy.  According to Lemmon, writer Logan also directed a few scenes too.With so many hands at the helm, it is surprising that the movie is as cohesive as it is.  In fact, it won Lemmon a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Sound.

Fonda portrays Lt. Doug Roberts, a sailor who has forfeited a career as a physician because of his patriotism.  He yearns to be near the action in the Pacific, but it is near the end of World War II and he has been stationed for many months on a cargo ship that is helmed by the tyrannical Captain Morgan. Morgan is played with bristle and bluster by Cagney. Morton tries to run a tight ship and refuses to let the crew have furlough. The crew is restless, and they respect Lt. Roberts because they see him trying to stand up for them against the captain.

Roberts tries unsuccessfully many times to get transferred off of Morgan's ship.  However, he agrees to Morgan's demands to do exactly what Morgan wants in order to secure a furlough for the crew.  After the raucous furlough,  the crew resents Lt. Roberts' apparent shift in loyalty to the captain; they perceive it to be a career move on Roberts' behalf.  Eventually, Morgan gets outwitted and Roberts gets his transfer, leaving Ensign Pulver (Lemmon) as the first mate.

At 50, Fonda was pushing the age limit to play Roberts in the film.  He gives a fine performance however -- dignified, kind, intelligent, confident, and honorable.  His screen presence is essential for the success of the film.  As Captain Morgan, Cagney gives a one-note performance, but at least it's a funny note.  William Powell plays the ship's doctor and confidante to Roberts.  Lemmon is quite funny as the ensign who constantly schemes to avoid work and find women. He hits all the right notes in this comedic turn, and definitely deserved his Oscar nomination and probably deserved his win.

There are some interesting actors who play fellow sailors on the ship. Character actor Ward Bond, Patrick Wayne (son of John), Ken Curtis (Festus on TV's Gunsmoke), Nick Adams, Phil Carey, and Harry Carey, Jr.  All the sailors exhibit good camaraderie.

One of the added features in the film that was not in the stage play is the addition of some nurses to a nearby hospital. Of these ladies, only Betsy Palmer is given much to do. She's beautiful, smart, and sassy, and holds her own against Lemmon quite well.  Palmer should have had a greater career instead of being sidelined as a panelist on TV's I've Got a Secret for years. She eventually did achieve screen immortality of sorts by playing Jason's mother in the original Friday the 13th movie.

Mister Roberts has a nice blend of inoffensive comedy and drama. It has a quartet of movie pros in major roles that keep the film fun to watch. Accordingly, it is essential viewing for fans of Fonda, Cagney, Powell, or Lemmon.  Grade: B+.

I watched Mister Roberts on DVD on January 29, 2013.


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