By 1955, Henry Fonda had been away from major film roles for going on 8 years. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Fonda worked in film for several years before returning to the stage, specifically in a role he would play for 8 years. Naturally, when the film rights were purchased, Fonda wasn’t originally considered. Makes sense, right? Thankfully, the powers that be made the right decision, ultimately casting Fonda in the titular role in 1955’s Mister Roberts.
It’s spring 1945 and Allied forces are pushing Japanese forces back across the Pacific with victory seemingly in reach. Thousands of miles back across the Pacific on a securely head island, Lt. Doug Roberts (Fonda) is the cargo officer on a cargo ship that helps supplies the nearby island and passing ships heading toward the fighting. After 2-plus years on the ship, Roberts feels he’s not doing enough to help the war effort, and he would like nothing more than to serve on a destroyer in the fighting. The ship’s commander, Capt. Morton (James Cagney), knows his value to the ship and its efforts though, so he won’t approve Roberts’ transfer. In the meantime, Roberts continues to keep working hard, all the while working as a buffer, a go-between between the much-maligned crew and the crazy captain.
A huge hit for many years on Broadway with Fonda in the starring role, ‘Roberts’ made the inevitable jump to the big screen with classic results. Impressive considering the production was less than smooth, director John Ford clashing with Fonda and Cagney to epic proportions (Fonda supposedly punched him square in the face) to the point Ford eventually left the production. Mervyn Leroy took over with Broadway director Joshua Logan also helping with reshoots. It’s debatable which director shot what footage — some Ford footage with some broad humor seems to stand out — and at times, the first 45 minutes are a little slow, but the end result is a highly memorable flick that deserves its classic status (or at least its mostly classic status).
You take for granted sometimes how good an actor can be. Henry Fonda was never a flashy actor, always stealing scenes in subtle, underdone fashion. Then, you finish the movie and realize how good he was. His part as Lt. Roberts belongs with his best roles, 12 Angry Men, The Grapes of Wrath, Once Upon a Time in the West, and who knows? It might be his best. Fonda specialized in a long distinguished career at playing the everyman, Joe Normal who’s thrust into an unpleasant situation. As Roberts, it’s dramatic, there is some comedy, and a genuine humanness that plays incredibly sympathetic on the screen. He wasn’t nominated for the Oscar, but he should have been.
Fonda not surprisingly steals the movie, impressive considering the cast around him. Cagney hams it up in a big way (even for him), overdoing it as the narcissistic, egomaniacal Capt. Morton. You need a bad guy though to counter Fonda’s Roberts, and you get it with Cagney. William Powell is perfectly cast as Doc, the ship surgeon who’s good friends with Roberts. Their dialogue-heavy scenes together are a gem, just 2 guys talking, not 2 guys acting. Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his supporting role as Ensign Pulver, the young officer with some issues who clearly looks up to Roberts and is trying to impress him while dealing with his own shy, nervous, lazy demons.
Because that quartet clearly isn’t enough, the crew of the USS Reluctant (the cargo ship) features Ward Bond as the ship chief, Dowdy, with Ken Curtis, Philip Carey, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Robert Roark, Harry Carey Jr. and Patrick Wayne rounding out the cast. Also look for small parts for Martin Milner, Gregory Walcott and Ford favorite Jack Pennick.
The 1950’s were an especially popular time for navy stories, especially World War II navy stories set in the Pacific. ‘Roberts’ would even inspire a sequel, 1964’s Ensign Pulver (not good). This is one of the prettiest, sunniest, most beautifully shot movies of the decade. I can’t recall a single scene that isn’t sun-drenched with cool blue waters in the background. The US Navy aided during filming, and it shows with an authentic military look and feel to the proceedings. Composer Franz Waxman turns in a solid score too, appropriately balancing the comedic and dramatic moments. Give it a listen HERE.
In my latest viewing, I struggled early on in a 121-minute movie. It’s slow — really slow — setting things up. Thankfully, when things up, they do in lightning-quick fashion. After a slow first 45 minutes, ‘Roberts’ hits its groove. It builds and builds, right up into a highly memorable final stretch. This is a movie that’s ready to punch you right in the stomach with a tragic final 15 minutes. It helps save the early portions and ends the movie on a great final scene. Excellent flick — flaws aside — with Fonda in one of his best performances in a long list of best performances.
Mister Roberts (1955): *** 1/2 /****