Mister Roberts (1955)

Dir. John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy. Starring Henry Fonda, William Powell, Jack Lemmon

Roberts (Fonda) has just traded his chance to get into the war and away from the dyspeptic tyranny of his commanding officer, Morton (James Cagney). Roberts, a onetime medical student who volunteered for the war instead of finishing his degree, is an excellent administrator. Morton resents Roberts less as an individual and more as a general principle; he’s served too many Roberts as a busboy and steward to rationally confront the reasonable but vaguely insubordinate man in front of him. I’ll make you a deal, Morton says. Toe the line for good and stop asking for transfers to combat, and I’ll let the boys off the boat for the first time in more than a year. Later that night, having sold his soul to the Devil, Roberts checks in his embarrassingly grateful shipmates. Someone gives him a prize goat he’s commandeered. What’s his name? Roberts asks. The sailor looks down. “Property Of,” he replies. “What’s his last name?” Roberts asks. Roberts receives a report from a shore patrol officer that some of the sailors of the Reluctant have obliterated the governor’s mansion, defenestrating as many objects as possible alongside an unlucky private who told them the governor’s house was some other kind of house. The officer says they have a name for it in Alabama, but is reluctant to say precisely what that is. That’s okay, Roberts replies. We call it the same thing in Nebraska. The scene ends after a fellow on a motorcycle drives it into the water at full speed. One of the crew members, Dowdy (Ward Bond) throws the man a rope, but after being pulled from the water, the man jumps back in. “I forgot my motorcycle!” he cries. Mister Roberts is that kind of movie; it finds a way to juxtapose Roberts against everyone else. There are ribald, almost absurd moments of humor in Mister Roberts, but they rarely belong to Roberts himself. He’s much too dry, too ironically inclined; he doesn’t have the “cut loose” button, even though he’s not shy about helping others access theirs.

Sometimes, in his lowest moments, Roberts does much the same thing that the movie does, comparing himself to the unworthies who populate the ship bearing a palm tree because it ships “toothpaste and toilet paper” at a heroic rate. Saint Mister Roberts, the man who holds the clipboard, is martyred by a higher bureaucracy than the one he’s part of. The men around him are suffering too, but at least can cut loose from time to time. They can complain, shirk, and generally skive off if they have a mind to. Some of them get assigned to clean off the binoculars; they turn it into an opportunity to spy on showering nurses at the hospital near the boat. Roberts has too much responsibility to even do those things. It’s why this movie can make the “Order of the Palm” a surprisingly moving little object not long after a junior officer literally blows up a laundry and sets a soapsud monster loose below decks. It knows that neither Roberts nor the crew members are terribly interesting without each other to lean on.

In a career full of do-good types, Mister Roberts stands out for Henry Fonda. In his best roles he is not merely an arbiter of right and wrong, like Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men. Doug Roberts and Tom Joad and, to a certain extent, Robert Leffingwell are in his upper echelon. Fonda’s best work is done in packs, for the most part. He is less interesting to us when he’s on his own, but when surrounded by equally recognizable faces he seems to shine, energized by actors who can fill in the gaps around the most wholesome face in American cinema. In 12 Angry Men, Advise and Consent, and The Grapes of Wrath he is the chief among a tribe of character actors, which suits him pretty well; he can be a focal point for the viewer to seize on but who never dominates the screen. In Mister Roberts, as in On Golden Pond or Fort Apache, Fonda can’t walk ten steps without running into another star. His best scenes are with William Powell, a big enough star to act as a counterweight for Fonda; his scenes with Cagney and Lemmon, both of whom are far more idiosyncratic than the generically famous/handsome Powell, don’t feel right. He and Cagney seem to be yelling past each other; their scenes should be more dramatic, but both of them are so wrapped up in their parts that it’s hard to see them connecting to the other man. Lemmon is already too quirky for Fonda, and watching the dignified Fonda with the quacking Lemmon is like watching an elephant hang out with a rock hyrax. Yet Fonda needs them both; I’ve always thought he was at his best when someone was harassing him. His famous speech in The Grapes of Wrath is the reaction of a man who has been pushed to the very limits of endurance and who intends to see just how far from the edge he is. In Mister Roberts, we feel for him most when he says that he will miss his shipmates, the men he has gone out of his way to try to protect from an ugly captain. It’s hard for us to recognize just how good a fellow he wants to be until someone has forced him to be the better man. Even small crises warm us to Roberts. Pulver (Lemmon) is desperate to give a nurse a good time with the bottle of scotch he promised her, not knowing until it’s too late that Roberts bartered it for a chance to get the Reluctant crew shore leave. Roberts and Doc (Powell) conspire to make a bottle of grain alcohol into a bottle of scotch using Coca-Cola, iodine, and hair tonic. Doc pours, but Roberts is the one who gamely suggests some disgusting things to put into the bottle, and who proves himself to a be a true man of the people in doing so.

Mister Roberts suffers from this problem of stars who are too old in the same way that The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance does. Just as Jimmy Stewart is just too old for me to believe him as a newly minted, so too is Fonda too old to make me believe that he could be a volunteer sailor. In black and white, we can occasionally pretend that Stewart or John Wayne are younger than they look, but in color Fonda’s real age shines through. One blames Ford here; it’s hard to see him breaking in William Holden or Paul Newman for Roberts after working with Fonda as long as he had. (Maybe Newman might have been a smidge too young for the role, but Holden would have been a seamless fit. I usually default to Monty Clift, but there’s too much insubordinate Prewitt From Here to Eternity on him for Clift to have been a good fit; Burt Lancaster has the same From Here to Eternity problem, but Warden is too much like Roberts for that to have been interesting.) And as much as I really like Fonda and Powell in those roles, they’re simply too old, even for the meanest freighter in the Pacific Theater. Fonda was fifty when Mister Roberts was released, which is an unbelievable age for the rank he holds. William Powell was in his sixties, which somehow rings even less true. The rest of the crew is Hollywood-twenties, which is to say that they were in their early thirties when the movie was filmed (Lemmon, Harry Carey, Jr., Nick Adams, etc.). The effect is one that makes Roberts like a dad rather than a big brother; the latter seems like it would be more useful. The men band together to ensure that Roberts is transferred to a destroyer in the way that one sees young men act for peers, not elders. More than that, Morton is the epitome of the “bad dad” trope in the military, selfishly looking out for himself rather than doing right for his boys. They look to Roberts to shield them from the worst of Morton’s tantrums – or provide entertainment for them via Morton’s tantrums – like younger brothers try to use their older ones like umbrellas. There ain’t room for two dads on this ship, and Roberts is the odd dad out.

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