Thursday, March 20, 2014

MISTER ROBERTS (1955)

During the final months of the Second World War, the cargo ship U.S.S. Reluctant is stationed at a remote Pacific Ocean island. The ship's captain (James Cagney) doesn't care about his men, only his spotless record. The opposite of this tyrant is the ship's executive officer, Lt. Douglas Roberts, who cares deeply for the men, but also feels a great longing to get in on the action of the War and be a visible part of the War effort not just loading ships all day. Each week he writes a letter asking for a transfer to the front and each week the captain rejects his request because he knows that Roberts' work is what's going to get him (the captain) promoted.

Henry Fonda was born to play Mister Roberts.  As hard as I try I can't think of anybody who could have successfully portrayed the emotions of Roberts as Fonda does.  By 1955 (and not counting his brief cameo in 1949's JIGSAW which he did as a favor for Franchot Tone) Fonda had not starred in a movie for seven years!  Why this is, I don't know, I have read that he was unhappy with the films he was given to him by Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox.  I don't know if this is true or not, but in 1948 Fonda was able to get out his contract to star in the Broadway production of Thomas Heggen's popular novel "Mister Roberts".  It ran for 1,157 performances!  Eventually Warners bought the rights to the film version.  Various actors were considered, but when John Ford was brought on to direct he insisted on Fonda.  Strange thing is once Fonda showed up Ford ended up acting like a total butthole.  Whether this was because of his drinking or his considerable health issue, we'll probably never know, but things finally came to a head when Fonda confronted Ford about it and Ford hauled off and punched him in the face!  Soon after Ford was hospitalized for his gall bladder and both Mervyn LeRoy and Joshua Logan were brought in to take over direction.

Despite all of this off-screen drama, the story of MISTER ROBERTS shines though and we're given a beautiful movie.  It's as equally funny as it is touching.  I've seen MISTER ROBERTS many, many times and on each occasion I find myself completely in awe of the performances.   Jack Lemmon ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but everybody else was equally as good.  And I still have no idea how Hank didn't crack up during the marble scene!  Also according to Cagney's autobiography, he and Lemmon had to rehearse the scene where they first meet over and over again because Cagney keep laughing.

The only thing that keeps MISTER ROBERTS out of my Best Films list is the continuity errors and weird unsynchronized audio.  It's not a huge deal, but it's enough to be distracting and throw off the mood.  Which is really sad, because I love this movie dearly.  Excellent story, beautiful scenery, Hoot Gibson in "The Sheriff's Daughter", the last performance of William Powell, double beriberi, Jason Voorhees' mom, impressive supporting characters, a floating appendix, John Wayne's son and numerous memorable lines.   For fans of classic cinema I cannot recommend it enough.