Typically, I don’t say a lot of negative things about the movies I watch. Since I watch classic movies and silent films, the sometimes over one-hundred year old use-by date doesn’t leave a lot of unknowns. And if a “classic” movie doesn’t sound like something I want to see, I just skip it and move onto the other roughly billion or so old movies in my queue. So it was a weird and convoluted set of circumstances that led me to watch Mister Roberts, which is fitting because – wow -this is a weird and convoluted movie. Picture this…
It’s Sunday evening, and it’s also the anniversary of a certain tragic event. Every media outlet everywhere has spent the day providing wall-to-wall coverage of their own coverage from a decade ago. Things are already weird. Expecting respite, I flip over to my beloved TCM only to find… special 9/11 programming. Huh? TCM has dredged up some retired NYFD chief to guest program. Now I lived in New York, and I’ve known some firemen, and rarely did I seek their movie recommendations. But lo!, Mr. Fire Guy’s first pick is Casablanca. Sweet. And of course, though I’ve seen Casablanca nine thousand times and counting, I get sucked right in and pass an enjoyable two hours.
Which leads us to Mr. Fire Guy’s second pick, Mister Roberts. When I read the description, I already don’t want to watch it. But I’m mellowed by the glow of Casablanca and, frankly, I’m just too lazy to reach the remote because I would kind of have to sit up a bit and stretch my arm really far. Ben Mankiewicz appears and gives some further deets. Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemmon, William Powell. Okay, I can handle that. Directed by John Ford? Sold! After some pretty awkward conversation between Mankiewicz and our erstwhile guest programer (“What do you like about Casablanca?” “Bogey is just so cool.” “How sad was 9/11?” “Very, very sad, and also it’s my wedding anniversary.”), I settle in for Mister Roberts.
So here’s the basic gist. Mister Roberts is set on the naval cargo ship the USS Reluctant, lurking about in calm waters in the dying days of WWII. The Reluctant, captained by Lieutenant Commander Morton (James Cagney) hasn’t come anywhere near combat, but it does a cracker-jack job of supplying the fleet with soap and dungarees thanks to the efforts of first executive officer, Lieutenant Douglas Roberts (Henry Fonda). The cast rounds out with ship’s doc Lieutenant “Doc” (William Powell), Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver (Jack Lemmon) Laundry and Morale Officer, a crew of bored mates who haven’t had a shore leave in two years. All of the conflict arises from Mister Roberts burning desire to get off the ship and see some real action, and Morton’s desire to keep him on it. Hilarity ensures.
The problems with Mister Roberts starts with the opening credits, namely with the credit “Directed by John Ford… and Mervyn LeRoy.” Uh-oh – it is never a positive sign when a movie has two directors. Especially if one of those directors is the irascible and bullish John Ford and the other is the stolid and dependable studio director Mervyn LeRoy. The dual directorship smacks of tensions – tensions between director and cast, director and producers, director and studio, and ultimately director and director. These tensions and this ostensible co-direction must go a long way to explaining the wild seesaw in tone of Mister Roberts. What genre is this movie? A drama? A comedy? A dramaedy? A comerama?
Mister Roberts was made in 1955. By that year, the world was sufficiently far enough way from the horror of what WWII really was. There is a delightful bit of contextual synchronicity going on here in programming this movie released one decade after VE day (which happens in the movie, via radio) as some sort of comment on a very different kind of war one decade after its start. But it’s an ultimately distasteful comment. I think as a viewing audience, we’re supposed to sympathize with Roberts’ burning desire to see combat. But as a contemporary viewer, sitting on my couch post-9/11, hailing from a country that is still embroiled in two destructive and futile(?) “military conflicts,” I can’t help thinking that Mister Roberts is an idiot. To wish for combat is to wish for death. To view that death as noble requires to view the cause as noble, and if that’s the case isn’t supplying oranges and toothpaste to the troops just as noble, not to mention a helluva lot safer?
Henry Fonda in Mister Roberts is as always a calm and noble everyman. But that is as far as the nobility stretches. The crew are a bunch of yahoo knuckleheads, the doc is dyed in the wool cynnic and [drinky drinky motion], Ensign Pulver is a hapless laze-about, and the Captain – well he’s nuts. I mean he’s bat shit crazy, ya’ll. There’s nothing noble about the USS Reluctant and, at least in the context of this film, nothing noble about this war. Roberts’ urge to fight comes off as juvenile, merely a desire to be relieved of tedium. And that’s no reason to die.
The rising action pivots on the crew turning against Mister Roberts. See, they adore him, like a group of school boys adore a beloved teacher. The love him for his stick-it-to-the-man attitude as it comes to Captain Crazy. But Mister Roberts has to do some horse trading to get the boys that much deserved shore leave, chiefly he has to promise Commander Cuckoo that he’ll stop sticking it to the man. Fair enough. But then Roberts really does stop… he stops requesting transfers (a weekly shipboard sport), starts yelling at the boys and enforcing stupid rules, and even puts them “on report.” Maybe it’s my own cycniscm or lack of integrity or something, but I kept thinking, why? Why not just promise Lieutenant Lunatic whatever he wants, get the shore leave, and then renege? The worst that could happen would be court martial, and Mister Roberts has already emphatically stated that at least he would get off the boat if he were court martialed. As noted, the USS Reluctant seemed to have already dispensed with grand notions of nobility and honor. You can confront lunacy with rationality all day long and it’ll get you no where anyway.
Of course, Mister Roberts does eventually renege on his vows to stop causing trouble. When the news of VE Day reaches the ship, Mister Roberts goes right over the edge. Again, one might assume that peace in Europe would be a joyous occasion but Roberts is mostly just sad that the war passed him by. When read outside the context of this movie, this is troubling. To “celebrate,” Roberts wages a personal act of war on his local tyrant by chucking Major Meshugana’s beloved potted palm tree over board. Thus peace and harmony is restored, at least on board the USS Reluctant and Mister Roberts prayers are answered when he ships off to Okinawa. The bitter ending of this movie, while not unexpected, might be the most troubling detail. I don’t want to completely spoil it… but Mister Roberts dies. There.
Not quite a criticism sandwich (more like a criticism flat bread pizza?), I’ll try to end on a positive note. The performances from what is obviously a stellar cast are quite charming. Henry Fonda does an excellent impression of Henry Fonda giving a great performance in a quality role. And James Cagney always does crazy pretty damn well. Jack Lemmon, so young and unlined here, actually won a Best Supporting Actor for his work as Ensign Pulver. I don’t know what to say about John Ford here, except that I hope the best parts were his work.