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All hands on deck for Warner Brothers’ “Mister Roberts”

Updated: Jun 15, 2022


Henry Fonda, right, reprising his Broadway role as Lt. JG Douglas Roberts. James Cagney plays the psycho Captain.

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Blu-ray; 1955; Not Rated

Best extra: Scene specific commentary with Jack Lemmon, who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

IT TOOK three directors to bring the 1955 Tony-winning play – Best Play, Best Director Joshua Logan, Best Actor Henry Fonda – based on the 1946 novel by Thomas Heggen to the screen.

Filming began with Oscar-winning director and notorious bully John "Pappy" Ford (“The Quiet Man,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Stagecoach”). He didn’t get along with James Cagney, who was cast as the micro-managing psycho Captain. Superstar Cagney of “The Public Enemy,” “The Roaring Twenties” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy” spent most of his time hiding out with then-newcomer Jack Lemmon, according to Lemmon’s great, scene-specific commentary. They both knew enough to stay out of Ford's way. They also practiced a big scene together to stump Ford later when the man demanded take-after-take, change-after-change. “You worked on this together,” Ford accused, but the two actors only shrugged it off.

As usual, Ford kept tempers at fever pitch on set until he and Henry Fonda, reprising his role as Mister Roberts from the play, got into a fistfight and Fonda punched him out as rumors say. Ford and Fonda had been friends for years, but Ford liked to bring out the worst in his crew and actors as well as their best.

(1) “Mister Roberts” was mostly filmed in Hawaii and the Midway Islands. Roberts writes a weekly letter to the Navy Department requesting a transfer to active combat. (2) The Captain waters his prized palm tree every morning, an award for “superior cargo transfer.” (3) It’s seven a.m. and the crew lines to request sick leave from the ship’s doctor (William Powell). They get aspirin instead. (4) The sailors discover Navy nursers onshore at a new hospital. (5) Morale is so low fights are a common occurrence.


The story goes that Ford, hospitalized with an infected gallbladder, left “Mister Roberts” in the capable hands of director Mervyn LeRoy of “Gypsy,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.” Director Joshua Logan of “Sayonara” and “Bus Stop” finished the film with re-shoots of two scenes including a character changing, emotional moment with Jack Lemmon. Later, Ford, from his hospital bed, would accuse Lemmon of taking new direction on the pivotal moment. When he confessed, Ford responded with “Good for you!” Lemmon would go on to film the “Mister Roberts’” sequel, “Ensign Pulver,” with Logan.

The story of "Mister Roberts" is set near the end of World War II in the South Pacific aboard the cargo ship Reluctant, also known as “The Bucket.” Lt. J.G. Douglas A. Roberts (Fonda) tries to keep the crews’ morale up even as he labors for a transfer to a destroyer so he can take part – make a difference – in the war’s final days. His requests are always refused by Captain Morton (Cagney), a small-minded bully with enormous control issues. Roberts shares quarters with Ensign Pulver (Lemmon) and is good friends with the ship’s doctor, Doc (William Powell in his last role). Roberts also lobbies for shore leave (vacation) for the overworked crew. They are long overdue for relief.

Ugly repercussions take place when Roberts fights back by throwing the Captain’s prized palm tree overboard. He must promise to be the Captain’s best mate, follow orders, and end his transfer requests. There’s a lot of grumbling and ill due to this change among the crew until they find out Roberts risked everything for their shore leave. They follow up by risking court-martial by submitting a transfer request that finally goes through.

Ward Bond, Ken Curtis, Nick Adams, Patrick Wayne, and Betsy Palmer co-star. Sexist attitudes of the time in which the men only see women as sex objects – not to mention the women’s tight uniforms – is unsettling, but somewhat true to the time. There’s also a lot of macho breast-beating on top and under the deck, and some lousy accents, which might put some viewers off.

(1) The Captain doesn’t recognize Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon), who has avoided the senior officer for months. (2) A sailor faints from the heat after working inside the cargo hole. (3&4) Lt. Ann Girard (Besty Palmer) and her nurses arrive onboard “The Bucket.” Pulver had hoped for some one-on-one time with Lt. Girard.



Warner Archive’s “Mister Rogers” is loaded with bold, Pacific color courtesy of Cinemascope, aka WarnerColor. Opening credits are bright enough to appear neon, just as intended in the 1080p remaster (super-wide 2.55:1 aspect ratio) sourced from a new 4K master of the original camera negative. Contrast is very good, as is detail in close and long shots with a nice wash of natural film grain. Sharpness drops in a couple of spots when a substitute second-generation print was subbed for the damaged negative. Overall skin tones are natural, with a slight reddish tint at times.

The new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack balances dialogue with effects and music by Franz Waxman (“Sunset Blvd.,” “Rebecca,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “Sayonara”). Occasional loudspeaker announcements and an explosion rattle the walls, but not enough to bring neighbors charging. It’s all good!

The only bonus feature is Lemmon’s engaging commentary. Take time to listen because it’s loaded with info and a lot of fun.

“Mister Roberts” has a surprise ending, used again in an episode of the highly-rated “M.A.S.H” TV series. It’s what makes this 65-year-old film a lasting classic.

— Kay Reynolds

Liberty Port

(1) The islanders of Elysium greet the Reluctant’s crew after the men finally get shore leave. (2) The sailors are all smiles as they prepare for liberty. (3) The captain tries to derail their leave, and makes a deal with Roberts. (4) The sailors let off so much steam, they’re asked to leave the island. (5) A sailor says goodbye to his new girlfriend as the ship leaves the dock.


(1) Roberts finally receives transfer orders to a destroyer stationed in Okinawa. The men present him a handmade medal for standing up for them inscribed, “Order of the Palm.” (2) Assigned Roberts’ position, Pulver reads a letter from him to the crew. Roberts says he treasures his palm tree medal more than a Congressional Medal of Honor. (3) Pulver races to the captain’s cabin saying, “Now what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?”



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