Mister Roberts (1955)
Mister Roberts is a film that one can either be for or against when comparing it to the actual stage play from whence it came. Unfortunately for Henry Fonda who plays the leading character in both the film and stage productions, most people are for it. Henry and perhaps Broadway producer/director Joshua Logan might be the only two people dead set against it.
For the Stage to Screen Blogathon hosted by Rachel’s Theatre Reviews and The Rosebud Cinema I went with Mister Roberts. I have always enjoyed this film as it has a knockout cast and it’s mostly directed by the legendary John Ford with Mervyn LeRoy lending a hand as well.
Logan and Tom Heggen who actually wrote the source novel approached Fonda about taking the lead in the play and Henry jumped on board. After working through previews the play debuted on Broadway February 18th, 1948. It proved to be both a critical and box office hit. Both Fonda and the play would receive Tony Awards.
As is the case with many successful plays it would spawn other versions elsewhere including Tyrone Power performing the role on stage in England. Fonda would do the show on Broadway into October of 1950 before taking it on the road.
In 1951 Henry would move on to another play and even perform The Caine Mutiny on stage. It was Lloyd Nolan who had the meatier role of Captain Queeg that Bogie would enact on film in 1954.
It was time for Henry Fonda to get back on the big screen as 1954 came around. His last film had been John Ford’s Fort Apache in 1948. It was Ford who would helm the big screen adaptation of the play that was so close to Fonda’s heart.
Mister Roberts is the story of the crew aboard the U.S.S. Reluctant. The ship is Captained by James Cagney in a cartoonish role of a stern task master that no one aboard likes or has any respect for.
Fonda as Mister Roberts is second in command who would like nothing more than to get transferred to a ship that is in on the fighting action of WW2. The Reluctant is nothing more than a cargo ship that only sees action when it comes to nurses. Jack Lemmon appears here in an Oscar winning performance as young Ensign Pulver. It’s a star making turn for Lemmon opposite our iconic leads plus the smooth performance of William Powell as the ship’s doctor. This would in fact be Powell’s swan song from the movies.
I for one enjoy what’s on the screen here but realize there was plenty going on behind the camera. Admiral John Ford began filming the Robert’s screenplay at Midway in September of 1954. He’d had a long association with Fonda that was about to come crashing down. Despite the fact that Cagney is memorable here, Fonda didn’t like the tone of the character that had been changed from William Harrigan’s stage interpretation and he felt the film wasn’t living up to the play’s standards. According to legend, he confronted Ford with his concerns and Ford decked him. In that one moment a great Hollywood union was sadly broken and following this production, they never worked together again.
Ford’s drinking which had plagued him over the years but not really onset spiraled this time and he wound up with gall bladder issues forcing him off the picture as it neared completion. Ford stock company regular Ward Bond stepped in to take over some of the director’s chores until another long time vet took over the production, Mervyn LeRoy. Other members of the John Ford stock company appearing here are Ken Curtis. Patrick Wayne and Harry Carey Jr.
Despite Fonda’s overall disappointment about the film it would receive three Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Sound Editing and the win for Jack Lemmon.
From our view point looking back we have to take the film as it is without comparing it to the stage production as is the case with so many stage to screen adaptations. Whereas Fonda was unhappy with the overall experience the public made the film a box office hit. The acting company do a splendid job on screen and James Cagney does his best to steal every scene he’s in. A hard thing to do with Lemmon in there as well. Perhaps that’s part of the reason Fonda wasn’t happy with the film. Fonda more or less had to play straight man here to a legendary pro and one who could some day be called the same.
Mister Roberts has been a regular addition to television networks over the years and has found a home on TCM like so many other fine films from yesteryear.
Seek it out and let Fonda, Cagney, Lemmon, Powell, Bond and the crew of the Reluctant touch your heart one more time.