Mister Roberts

by Glenn Erickson Dec 12, 2020


This adapted Broadway play may be considered minor John Ford moviemaking, and some sources say he had to drop out before he could film very much of it. But what’s on the screen pleased audiences primed for the first wave of WW2 nostalgia. The story of cargo officer Henry Fonda’s one-man war against his Bligh-like Captain James Cagney had all of us ’50s kids asking dad if the war really was like that. James Cagney steals the show while stars William Powell, Betsy Palmer and Ward Bond make their marks. Young Jack Lemmon came out swinging with his bright personality and won an Oscar for his trouble.

Mister Roberts
Warner Archive Collection
1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 123 min. / Street Date December 8, 2020 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, Jack Lemmon, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond, Philip Carey, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Ken Curtis, Robert Roark, Harry Carey Jr., Patrick Wayne, Martin Milner, Frank Aletter, Tige Andrews, William Hudson, Shug Fisher, Gregory Walcott, James Flavin, Jack Pennick.
Cinematography: Winton Hoch
Film Editor: Jack Murray
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Written by Joshua Logan, Frank S. Nugent from the play by Logan, Thomas Heggen based on the novel by Heggen
Produced by Leland Heyward
Directed by
John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy

This popular hit from way back may be losing its core audience, as the generation it celebrates is quickly fading over the horizon. But we ’50s kids can certainly remember the smiles it put on the faces of our fathers, veterans that appreciated respectful comedies about their service. These valiant warriors simply haul food and toothpaste and toilet paper back and forth in the ‘rear area’ of the Pacific Theater, “from Tedium to Apathy and back, about five days each way. It makes an occasional trip to Monotony. Once it made a run all the way to Ennui, a distance of two thousand nautical miles from Tedium.”

The main theme is established before the main titles. Lt. Douglas Roberts (Henry Fonda) admires a flotilla of passing warships, wishing he were assigned to a combat unit instead of being stuck on the backwater supply ship Reluctant, otherwise known as ‘The Bucket.’ The freighter is commanded by the miserable, selfish creep referred to only as The Captain (James Cagney). The Captain holds his crew in contempt and cancels their movies and port leaves as punishment for petty infractions. Roberts does what he can to stand up for the rights of the bored, frustrated sailors, while trying and secure himself a transfer to a fighting unit. The crew notes Roberts’ morale too, but he doesn’t realize how much he is admired, especially by the ship’s doctor (William Powell) and the ‘laundry morale officer’ Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon). Things come to a head when The Bucket docks at a beautiful Polynesian port. The Captain uses the crew’s dying need for leave to blackmail Roberts into curbing his subversion/insubordination and toeing the line. When Roberts meekly complies, the crew can’t understand his sudden change of attitude.


Mister Roberts was a long-running Broadway play (over a thousand performances) that took Henry Fonda away from films for a full seven years. The movie opens up the show by filming in the South Pacific staging scenes in Hawaii and on the island of Midway. Director John Ford was still in the Navy reserve at this time, and the cooperation on view is substantial, with beautiful establishing shots of ships at sea. The Bucket is seen cruising into an exotic tropic port and met by ‘native’ boats, a spectacular set piece that Ford treated as idyllic — at least three times. He first did the ‘glorious arrival’ ritual in The Hurricane. Almost thirty years later, a similar scene in Donovan’s Reef is so idealized, it resembles an afterlife fantasy.

Lt. Roberts’ double dilemma — his battle with his captain and his gnawing desire for a combat posting — plays against low comedy among the crew, a group of ‘irrepressible extroverts’ straight from the stage. The girl-hungry sailors use spyglasses to ogle some nurses and go crazy on their wild leave on the island. Their off-screen hijinks don’t play so well, now that American servicemen are no longer welcomed as benevolent saviors overseas. Even Roberts seems amused to hear accounts of theft (a prize goat), wanton destruction and what sounds like near-rape. On stage in 1948, this surely played as high comedy, nostalgia for veterans that wished they had run wild while in uniform.

Was this Jack Lemmon’s breakthrough movie?  He won a Supporting actor Oscar so the answer is of course yes, but he’d been on TV for six years and in three movies too. Ensign Pulver is sort of a proto-Jack ‘mensch,’ redeemed by his association with the admired Mr. Roberts. For most of the picture the Laundry Morale Officer hides out, showing his laziness, self-absorption and lack of team spirit. His epilogue metamorphosis into an officer capable of carrying on the good fight releases the frustration with The Captain that Mr. Roberts had to absorb.

In many ‘histories’ and even the partial commentary by Jack Lemmon, it’s always assumed that John Ford directed quite a bit of Mister Roberts before falling sick. Replacement director Mervyn LeRoy’s purported plan was to ‘try to do what Ford would have done.’ Historian Clive Hirschhorn tells another story. According to what’s presently the text version at Wikipedia, Ford’s tenure as director was not pleasant. James Cagney had been directed by Ford in the so-so WW1 tale What Price Glory? and found him to be a ‘nasty old man’ who was unforgivably vicious to people. Fonda felt that Ford’s approach was reducing the story to knockabout farce and little else. The actual break occurred either when Ford struck Henry Fonda, or a medical emergency — or both. Ford officially left the film to have a gall bladder operation, which wasn’t necessarily an insurance dodge — he had been plagued with various ailments for years.

In many respects Mister Roberts still looks like a John Ford picture. He set up the production, hired the cast and insisted on Henry Fonda, who hadn’t been on the screen since 1948, back in Ford’s Fort Apache. Fonda was no longer considered ‘movie contemporary’ despite being identified with the long-running stage production. Whatever feud burst forward on the set between Ford and Fonda, it must have been rough.

Who filmed what?  If LeRoy reshot some of Ford’s work, what’s left by the more famous, more lauded director?  Mister Roberts doesn’t look at all like Ford’s previous military nostalgia movie, The Long Gray Line. By this time Ford was using fewer setups and often staging whole scenes in one take, with no cutaways or coverage. The Long Gray Line also has “I hate CinemaScope” written on every frame — Ford struggles to find acceptable compositions. By contrast, the finished Mister Roberts uses held takes only when the mood demands or a sight gag needs to be paid off, as when the entire cast of sailors is in motion. The broad performances of the ‘chorus’ crew members hits the same fake-vulgar note as the sailors in South Pacific. That makes sense, as Joshua Logan had directed the Broadway original, lobbied to direct the show himself and reportedly re-shot some of both Ford’s and LeRoy’s material. Logan scored a major solo directing credit later in the same year, on the excellent Picnic, which he also directed on Broadway.


Assigning director credit by association with earlier work is a risky business as well. Betsy Palmer’s Navy officer demonstrates more command style than any of the men, scenes that seem to be core Ford material; Anne Bancroft uses the same snappy gestures now and then in 7 Women. Palmer is marvelous, so where are her starring movies, dammit?  At one point Ward Bond struts past Palmer’s WAVEs and lets loose with a loud horse whinny, a gag he had done in My Darling Clementine and would do again in The Searchers. It plays like a strong Ford touch … in absentia?

I also notice a gag repeated from John Ford’s They Were Expendable. Jack Lemmon samples dishwater under the notion that it’s soup. Marshall Thompson drank the dishwater in Expendable, but unless I’m mistaken the cook is played by the same actor in both movies, Harry Tenbrook. Ford surely stuck this into the screenplay, but that doesn’t mean he necessarily directed it.


Other presumed add-on material includes the explosion in the laundry room and the comic wave of soap suds. I suppose this could have been handled with dialogue on stage, and here it plays as a ‘make something happen besides talk’ comedy addition. It’s on the level of I Love Lucy but kids love it. Scenes like that are staples in the Service comedies Operation Petticoat and Operation Mad Ball (with Lemmon in a very Pulver-like leading role).

The center of fun is of course between Roberts and The Captain, a grandly overstated turn by James Cagney. The beloved tough-guy star was five years removed from his last major hit White Heat, although Love Me or Leave Me matched him well with Doris Day. Cagney steals every scene he’s in, hands down, with Henry Fonda’s apparent total approval: it’s hilarious to see Roberts feign innocent calm while The Captain sputters into fits of raging apoplexy. It really looks like Cagney will bust a blood vessel. If they gave an award for best vomiting scene, he’d claim it for sure. Billy Wilder must have loved all this overplayed material — it’s all so American, hitting a note of insolent sass Wilder tried so often to replicate.


When The Captain pulls out a hat wrapped in cellophane that he’s saving for his next unearned promotion, we wonder if Wilder lifted the idea for The Apartment: the bowler hat that Lemmon’s C.C. Baxter unboxes, for the day he becomes an executive. But Wilder had used similar gags before. The Captain’s memories of misery as a mess boy (“Say Boy! My friend threw up, Boy! Clean this up, Boy!”) also remind us of Marty Maher in The Long Gray Line, who didn’t seem to mind similar humiliations.

The camaraderie comes from the text and the warmth between the leads, and the efforts of the ‘chorus crew’ toward sentimental love for Roberts are good, if too stagey. Perhaps it’s because the movie retained a full retinue of eccentrics with funny voices and wise-ass banter. We shouldn’t complain, as service humor has always been extra-broad. Even Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 is thick with burlesque mugging by Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck (who we’re told played on stage in Mister Roberts). Every once in a while a ‘wild line’ fills a gap in the dialogue, yelled by an anonymous crew member. I’ve always suspected that it’s Jack Lemmon, doing a funny voice. Exaggerated Public Address announcements are a staple of Service Comedies, and would bounce back strong in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. Of course nothing beats a sailor’s personal reportage, peering through The Captain’s window: “Whoops — there he goes AGAIN!”

Even if it was directed by committee — with Henry Fonda having final approval — Mister Roberts hits enough of the right notes to be a winner. It is often unabashedly sentimental, with ‘the gang’ gathered ’round on the poop deck or wherever to hear the Doc read a letter. The main characterizations are beautifully orchestrated. Jack Lemmon’s Pulver does his best to be invisible, with the motto ‘they can’t volunteer you if they don’t know you’re there.’ William Powell’s Doc is wisdom and sanity; he and Pulver are the main pillars of support and admiration for Fonda’s leading character. We remember Douglas Roberts’ main motivation, enviously watching destroyers heading where he wants to go, ‘in harm’s way.’ The 70% of WW2 veterans that got nowhere near combat could feel better by identifying with Roberts: ‘I was stuck in Biloxi, but I wanted to get in on the action.’


Franz Waxman’s score highlights Roberts ache to ‘get into the war’ and helps to sell the mix of sentiment and farce, which is of course paid off with Ensign Pulver’s audience-pleasing rebellion at the finish. The show ends with a bang, probably emulating the stage original.

If this was Jack Lemmon’s breakout, it was William Powell’s swan song — he’d go into twenty years of well-deserved retirement. I can only guess that film’s huge supporting cast is split between stage veterans of the show and John Ford’s extended stock company. The Ford people are split between old-timers — Ward Bond, Jack Pennick, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Patrick Wayne, Danny Borzage, Harry Tenbrook, James Flavin — and an equal bundle of Warners contractees: Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Philip Carey, Gregory Walcott, Martin Milner (doing a great drawl). It’s a big cast, and not everybody gets a chance to shine.

As a gift to readers that may actually know nothing of the movie, I’ve not mentioned a major non-human character in the film, that plays a part in the last scene and is the subject of Ensign Pulver’s highly quotable final dialogue line. My only question is this: in the original play what word did Pulver shout at the the Captain in place of ‘crud’?


The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Mister Roberts is a glorious HD encoding of this revered favorite (of viewers of a certain age). Kids my age knew the film only from miserable pan-scanned TV prints. It wasn’t pretty — on early color TVs most movies had all three colors — ugly orange, sickly blue and ruddy brown. Filmed by the great Winton Hoch, the colors on this disc are superb. All the footage on the dock at that port o’ call are how I remember Hawaii, bright and sunny but always looking like it had rained just an hour before.

Mister Roberts appears to be the first CinemaScope film shot by Winton Hoch. The problems with the anamorphic lens system are pretty obvious. This is the extra-wide initial C’Scope, and every time the camera approaches an actor, the CinemaScope Mumps break out. The diagonal lens element that squeezed the image was far from perfect — vertical lines tend to bow at the sides, especially on the left. Hoch makes it all look as good as he can. Those opening shots of sleek destroyers cruising in the moonlight are a little too sleek, as they’re actually flat cinematography allowed to ‘Scope Out — stretch horizontally. The first few years of the format did not find favor with Hollywood’s great camera artists.


Early CinemaScope had difficulties in confined spaces, and Mr. Hoch’a framing in the ship interiors earns only a B-minus. Angles in the Captain’s cabin aren’t bad as we don’t notice that the camera has to be so far away. But Roberts’ bunk room is like a dorm cubicle, and there’s just no way to get in there — early CinemaScope lacked wide angle lenses. Doug Roberts and the Doc are sitting in their chairs in several shots, leaning up against a steel wall. In the reverse angle we’re looking a their backs from ten feet away, and the wall is invisible. If there was another way to solve the problem, I’m sure they would have jumped at it.

The one extra is a good partial commentary from Jack Lemmon, originally from a Warner laserdisc. It’s nice hearing the actor bask in what had to be a very proud accomplishment, and he’s gracious and informative. He doesn’t address the big fracas over John Ford’s leaving the picture. We didn’t expect members of Ford’s unofficial family like Harry Carey Jr. to criticize the man, but by all accounts he behaved like a miserable ___ to practically everyone. Not even Joseph McBride gives us a good argument for why anybody would want to work with Ford unless they absolutely had to. At this remove we’re just grateful for all the good movies.

With aid and guidance from correspondent ‘woggly’ – ‘B’.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Mister Roberts
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good ++
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Limited commentary by Jack Lemmon, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
December 7, 2020

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.


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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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