Thursday 8 January 2009

Mister Roberts (1955)

Now if a movie with names attached to it like those attached to this one went wrong it would end up as a disaster of scary proportions. The names here are huge names and there are a lot of them: Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon in a John Ford film. I don't want to know what those wage packets added up to! And yet it nearly went pear shaped: Ford left the production after getting into a fistfight with Fonda about how he should play the title character. As Fonda had originated the role on Broadway and played it for two years, he won out and Ford was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, hardly a minor name himself.

All these stars live on a US Navy cargo ship called the Reluctant, though it's known more colloquially to the folks who serve on her as the Bucket. They're somewhere in the South Pacific towards the end of World War II and they've been at sea for a year, so tempers are getting frayed. That's not a good thing given that James Cagney is the captain, Capt Morton, and he's is a strict taskmaster and a contrary soul, putting people on report because they don't wear shirts on deck and pulling privileges because leave cigarette butts in the bucket that holds his palm tree. While he can certainly bluster and rant, he doesn't actually seem to do much else except piss people off.

And while he blusters and rants, the Mister Roberts of the title really runs the show. He's Lt Doug Roberts, in the capable hands of Henry Fonda, who is extraordinarily efficient running a cargo ship but who really just wants to get into the war, so writes continual letters requesting reassignment to an active combat role. The film starts off capably but slow and it's when the two of these men finally clash that it really sparks into action and laugh out loud comedy. Adding to the mix are Ford regular Ward Bond as Chief Petty Officer Dowdy, who helps to keep the peace; William Powell as the savvy but laid back ship's doctor; and not least Jack Lemmon as Ensign Frank Pulver who won an Oscar for his work.

Pulver is the officer in charge of laundry and morale but he spends most of his time staying his cabin, or at least keeping well away from the captain. He manages it pretty well too. As if the first real face off between Cagney and Fonda wasn't a gem of a scene that most films are dying for, it gets bolstered with another one right afterwards: Ensign Pulver running right into the captain who doesn't even recognise him. Morton asks him how long he's been on the ship and Pulver has to answer '14 months'. Apparently Cagney rehearsed with Lemmon at length so that he wouldn't crack up when it came time to shoot the scene for real and he only just kept his face straight. Not far away, Fonda obviously couldn't manage that much.

As a comedy this has some awesome moments but is no laugh a minute romp. It has its serious moments and plenty of them, especially in the how the title character's psychology is addressed, but it's definitely a serious film with a light heart. Everyone has fun with their roles, especially Cagney who gets more and more iconic as the film progresses. Fonda brings all the depth needed to his role, and the pair of them are a riot when locked up in a room together, playing off each other joyously. It's also a sentimental film all about camaraderie, devotion and loyalty, nicely played so that it's touching without ever becoming overdone.

Powell is excellent in what would turn out to be his last film, after debuting on screen 33 years earlier in 1922. This is hardly his most memorable performance but it's a worthy last bow and I enjoyed it immensely. While Jack Lemmon is excellent, his performance didn't scream out at me as an Oscar winner. He did a great job and it's certainly the most flamboyant role of the film, but I've enjoyed other flamboyant Jack Lemmon roles more. He has a knack of being memorable in anything he does and he's memorable here but he's been just as memorable, if not more so elsewhere. In fact I enjoyed Cagney and Ward Bond even more and I'll take Lemmon in other films like The Apartment any day.

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