Wednesday January 13, 2021
Movie Review: Mister Roberts (1955)
So were there any competent Navy captains in the Pacific during World War II? It’s a wonder we won.
At first blush, “Mister Roberts” seems like a lighter, breezier, Cinemascope and Technicolor (sorry: Warnercolor) version of “The Caine Mutiny,” with its incompetent captain obsessed with fruit (oranges rather than strawberries) and played by a 1930s Warner Bros. gangster (James Cagney instead of Humphrey Bogart). But that’s kind of backwards. “Mister Roberts” came first. It was a best-selling novel in 1946 and a smash Broadway play in 1948, while Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny” wasn’t published until 1951. Many of its reviews even invoked “Roberts”:
- “‘The Caine Mutiny’ is a sort of serious ‘Mister Roberts’… — Des Moines Register
- “His Captain Queeg [is] … somewhat reminiscent of the commanding officer in the play, ‘Mister Roberts’…” — Hutchinson News
“Caine,” however, did beat “Roberts” to the screen by a year, which is par for the course for later Cagney. He made his WWII movie (“Blood on the Sun”) at the tail end of WWII, his O.S.S. movie (“13 Rue Madeleine”) a year after the officially sanctioned “O.S.S.,” and his Huey Long movie, “A Lion Is In the Streets,” four years after “All the King’s Men” won best picture. “Come Fill the Cup,” his movie about alcoholism, showed up six years after “Lost Weekend.”
America to me
Cagney gets second billing here—he’s next to Henry Fonda on the title card—but it’s not a meaty role. It’s small and one-note. The Captain’s wartime goals seem to be: 1) prevent his men from going on leave; 2) prevent Lt. Roberts from being transferred; 3) don’t share fresh fruit. He’s a petty asshole who barely gets a name.
What’s his inner life? His backstory? Lt. Barney Greenwald salutes Queeg’s earlier career—“Who was standing guard over this fat, dumb, happy country of ours?”—but the only one defending the Captain is the Captain. During an argument with Roberts, he gives his raison d’etre: class resentment.
I’ve been seeing your kind around since I was 10 years old—working as a busboy. “Oh busboy, it seems my friend has thrown up on the table. Clean up that mess, boy, will ya?” And then when I went to sea as a steward—people poking at you with umbrellas. “Oh, boy! You, boy! Careful with that luggage, boy!” And I took it. I took it for years! But I don't have to take it any more. There’s a war on, and I’m captain of this vessel, and now you can take it for a change!
That’s only vaguely interesting, probably because it’s so vague. Not to mention incomplete. It may explain his pettiness toward Roberts but not to the mostly working-class boys on his ship. He’s awful to them, too.
On Broadway, the role of the Captain was actually darker. He was played by William Harrigan, a longtime character actor in Hollywood, whose roles included “Mac” McKay, Cagney’s gangster benefactor in “G-Men.” He was also the real-life son of Edward Harrigan, a 19th-century Irish playwright/actor for whom George M. Cohan wrote the song “Harrigan,” which, of course, Cagney sang with such gusto in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Amazing the connections when you dig a little.
Joshua Logan, who co-wrote both play and film, criticized the way John Ford directed the Captain character. “In Christ’s name, what has Ford made Cagney do [but] play the Captain like an old New England bumbler, without any hatred, without darkness, without threat? He’s all Down East accent—and comic at that.” Logan also complained how the atmosphere on the ship changed from “prison-like” in the play to “boys camp“ in the movie. But apparently that was necessary to get the cooperation of the U.S. Navy.
All of which created a mess behind the scenes. I’ll try to untangle it.
Because he was 49 years old and hadn’t starred in a movie in eight years, Warner Bros. didn’t even want Henry Fonda, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, to star in the movie version of a play for which he’d already won a Tony. They wanted Marlon Brando or William Holden. But Ford fought for him. Then he fought with him. Fonda hated the lighter, breezier tone and at one point the two men came to blows.
Ford also fought for Cagney and then with Cagney. Apparently on the first day of shooting, Cagney was slightly late, Ford went into a tirade, but Cagney cut it short: “When I started this picture, you said we would tangle asses before this was over. I’m ready now. Are you?” Ford wasn’t, and eventually his excessive drinking got him canned. The irony is he was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, whom Cagney hated. Cagney did one movie with him, ”Hard to Handle" in 1933, and pegged him as a brown-noser who took too much credit on too little talent. LeRoy’s autobiography seems to bear this out. Among other things, he claims credit for directing Cagney in one of his first films, “Hot Stuff” in 1929. The problem? Cagney wasn’t in “Hot Stuff.” He wasn't even in Hollywood until 1930.
Another irony: That “boys camp” atmosphere Ford fought for is the part of the movie that’s actually aged the worst. The crew seems both gay dream team (young, fit, shirtless, sweaty) and #MeToo scandal waiting to happen (voyeurism; literally tearing the clothes off women during shore leave). They're also, per every Hollywood WWII movie, a melting-pot vision of America—except more melted than usual. Sure, we get a Rodrigues (Perry Lopez) and a Stefanowski (Harry Carey Jr.), but they hardly register. It’s mostly bland, randy white guys who come from nowhere specific. The one time anyone brings up a state back home, it’s the Shore Patrol Officer with the bad southern accent (Martin Milner), who tells Roberts that six of his men razed the home of a French colonial governor. An Army private brought them there as a joke:
Shore Patrol Officer: He told them it was, uh... well, what we call in Alabama … uh…
Mr. Roberts: Yeah, we call it the same thing in Nebraska.
I like that they use Fonda’s home state for Mister Roberts’ home state.
Fonda makes the movie. His goal is noble. The Reluctant is a cargo supply ship drifting in a chain of islands in the Pacific, far from the war, and Roberts wants to be where the war is—he recognizes the historical moment—but his transfer is continually denied by the Captain. Since Roberts can’t get what he wants, he at least tries to get the men what they need. Sure, men, you can take your shirts off in these hellish conditions. Sure, I’ll sacrifice any attempt at transfer and follow all the Captain’s orders forevermore so you guys can have this one shore leave. It’s another of Fonda’s noble men—from Abe Lincoln to Wyatt Earp; from Tom Joad to Juror 8. For the ways Ford screwed up the movie, he couldn’t have fought for a better actor.
He humanizes what is otherwise a fairly cartoonish group. Just that opening, looking out at the open water, the yearning and hurt on his face. He obsesses over his latest transfer letter like he’s an upbeat Joseph K., giving Doc (William Powell) a boyish grin at his new turn of the phrase—the thing that he hopes will finally get him transferred. And that Fonda voice: slow, measured, stretching out his words: “Carriers so big they blacked out half the sky. Battlewagons sliiiding along, dead quiet.” You know the song lyric, “What is America to me?” Henry Fonda isn’t a bad answer.
Even with this great open, though, you sense the movie’s behind-the-scenes schism. Roberts walks out on deck on a sunny day, surveys the horizon with the water bright blue, then sits down with a pencil in his mouth—like a dog with a bone—to go over the letter again. Then it’s a reverse angle for the intro of Doc and … Where did the sun go? We don’t really see anything but the metal of the ship. I assume it was shot on a sound stage in LA rather than off the coast of Hawaii. It’s a disconnect. It’s Ford vs. LeRoy.
A quick synopsis. In the first act, the men admire Roberts. In the second act, not knowing his sacrifice, they turn on him, think he’s bucking for promotion. Third act? After he tosses the Captain’s prize palm tree overboard, and the men learn about his sacrifice through a kind of loudspeaker ex machina, they work to get him the transfer he’s always wanted. And they do! And they shower him with gifts and send him on his way.
And on that battleship, he dies in the waning days of the war.
Oddly, there’s no mea culpa from the men, no thought of, “Gee, if we hadn’t have gotten him that transfer …” Instead, Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon, in an Oscar-winning role), who is now a lieutenant and in Roberts’ role, and who never had the guts to finish one thing, finally does. He does what Roberts might’ve done—but with Pulver’s bluster. Over the loudspeaker, they hear that the night’s movie has been canceled, and, in a sudden rage, Pulver a secondary palm tree overboard and busts into the Captain’s quarters:
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?
Roberts is dead; Roberts lives.
Sadly, Cagney’s reaction is a comic wuh-wuh. It’s “Not this again?” as he buries his face in his hands. It feels off, considering what we’ve just learned about Roberts.
I like all the loudspeaker announcements we hear in the movie—spoken in that bored military cadence of an amateur draftee. “Attention! Attention!” Then some stupid annoying thing. Then: “That is all.” Fifteen years later, the movie “M*A*S*H” would use these to great comic effect.
“Mister Roberts” was nominated for three Academy Awards—picture, sound, supporting—and won for Lemmon. Don’t quite see it. His character is only mildly amusing, with that classic Lemmon jitteriness that never appealed to me. I like the calm guys. The opening scene, in the morning on the deck, where Doc and Roberts talk? That could’ve been the movie for me. But Fonda didn’t even get nominated. He got nomed for “Grapes of Wrath” in 1940 and not again until “On Golden Pond” in 1981. It’s one of the great travesties of the Academy.