Walter Mencken 6:15 p.m., Feb. 28
DVD Rentals: Mister Roberts (1955)
In spite of the forced, bully-boy shipboard comedy and mismatched attempts to stitch sumptuous location shots with obvious studio replicas, countless childhood viewings of a center-scan print of Mister Roberts on The Best of CBS render this title beyond criticism.
It was far from Hollywood’s first service comedy, but Mister Roberts’ imprint was felt on countless big and small screen imitations that followed in its wake. It spawned a sequel, a TV series by the same name, and its influences could still be felt as late as Robert Altman’s groundbreaking MASH. (The running-joke involving a public address system is an obvious lift from Roberts.) Many of the gags are riddled with Stooge-like logic. The crew is assigned to clean the ship’s supply of binoculars just in time for the peeping toms on Uncle Sam’s dime to spy on a fresh detachment of hot nurses as they shower. An explosion in the laundry room leaves Ens. Frank Thurlowe Pulver’s (Jack Lemmon) uniform in tatters while his skin remains surprisingly unblemished. And three top tier actors eating seven minutes of screen time trying to concoct a bottle of makeshift Scotch amounts to little more than a set up in search of a payoff.
Forget about returning home to your loved ones in one piece. As Lt. JG Douglas A. 'Doug' Roberts, real-life pacifist Henry Fonda wants nothing more that to kick the suds of this crummy cargo ship off his standard issue boots and answer his true calling as an American combat soldier. (Fonda was fifty when this was made, a little long in the tooth for a pre-med student.) Roberts is a firm believer that a man’s not a man until there’s Axis blood on his hands. Doug waits impatiently for the chance, docked somewhere in the Pacific, poised to kill. He greets the dawn with envy, watching as boats transport human cargo to their glorious and almost certain doom. Roberts hungers for combat and news of victory in Europe leaves him devastated. This scene is punctuated by off-camera stagehands throwing buckets of water at the rear of the set.
The casting was solid. Jack Lemmon took home his first Oscar playing plucky slacker Ens. Pulver. It’s just a guess, but the flagrant post-dubbed addition of Pulver’s signature tune, If I Could be With You (One Hour Tonight), over long shots appears to have been an afterthought. Even though he outlived the production by almost 30 years, Mister Roberts ended up being William Powell's last hurrah. For the first time in his long and illustrious career the actor complained of difficulty remembering his lines and bowed out gracefully. After two decades of loyal service, this would be James Cagney's last performance for Warner Brothers. He worked with Ford a few years earlier on what could amount to a low point in both their careers, a remake of Raoul Walsh’s silent classic What Price Glory. This time there would be no glory as the price of Ford’s rampant alcoholism was rapidly catching up with him.
Ford was loaded for bear when he personally arrived at the airport to greet Cagney. The first words out of his mouth made it clear to Cagney that he and the director would this time "tangle asses," as Ford put it. Cagney is quoted in Cagney: The Authorized Biography as saying: "I would have kicked his brains out. He was so goddamned mean to everybody. He was truly a nasty old man." Cagney missed the first day’s call time by a few minutes. A livid Ford immediately set about verbally expressing his discontent: "When I started this picture...” Cagney said cutting him short with, “you said that we would tangle asses before this was over. I'm ready now. Are you?" (He should have stayed in character by throwing in a Mis-tah! or two.) Ford backed down making this their one and only dust-up during the shoot.
When the fact becomes the stuff of legends, print the fact. John Ford did not leave the production due to gallbladder problems as widely reported in the trades. With tough guy Cagney unwilling to take any of Pappy’s guff, the Old Man had to look elsewhere for this production’s whipping boy. Who better than the film’s star Henry Fonda? During his six years playing Doug Roberts on Broadway, Fonda turned down all offers to star in features. Between Ford’s Fort Apache and Mister Roberts, Fonda’s only off-Broadway appearances were guest shots on three TV series, voice-over work on an Oscar-winning short (Fred Zinnemann’s Benjy), and an un-billed bit as a nightclub waiter in Fletcher Markle’s Jigsaw.
His long absence from pictures left Warner execs fearing movie audiences had all but forgotten Henry Fonda. Their gut instincts told them to go with Marlon Brando or Bill Holden, put Pappy went to bat for his old friend telling studio heads, "If he (Fonda) doesn't do this picture, then I don't do it either." Pappy also brought the Navy on board. They were initially reluctant to support a film that depicted a vindictive Unites States Captain during wartime becoming mentally unbalanced over shirtless seamen and a potted plant. Apparently The Caine Mutiny didn’t bother them.
With over 1,000 performances on Broadway under his belt, Fonda knew this material better than Ford did Monument Valley. Not wanting to fix something that wasn’t broken, the New York actor voiced discontent over Ford's script alterations that he felt were ruining the integrity of the material. Irritated with Ford’s constant mean-spirited dogging of his crew, Fonda pulled the Old Man aside for a heart-to-heart. Ford accused Fonda of betraying him and the actor’s pleas for common decency were greeted by a sock to the jaw. The actor later recalled, "It knocked me over backwards, and I crashed into some furniture...I was more embarrassed than hurt.” Once insiders caught wind of Ford’s alcohol-laced power trip, the director’s reputation took a hit. Needless to say, his friendship with Fonda was no more.
Ford was sent to dry out. (There is no indication that Ford loyalists, DP Winton Hoch and second unit director Wingate Smith jumped ship when Pappy was canned.) Mervyn LeRoy, who shares screen credit with Ford, was sent in to bat clean up. Mister Roberts was shot on location in Hawaii and Midway Island and judging by the finished product, all of Logan’s work was performed back home on a Burbank soundstage.
Once you know what to look for, the division of directorial duties between the two filmmakers and unaccredited stage director Joshua Logan becomes blindingly apparent. The location shoot is clearly the work of John Ford as are any interior shots that take place on the actual ship. Note the manner in which the most Fordian moment in the entire production - the exterior shot of Ward Bond removing his soiled glove before touching Doug Roberts’ sacred last letter - is dropped into Logan’s otherwise stage-bound retake. The longest speech Ford ever committed to film was Fonda’s famous final soliloquy to his mother at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. Logan’s cut of the reading of Roberts’ letter runs twice as long. Ford’s handling of the scene would have been shorter, to the point, and much more cinematic.
A good rule of thumb is to determine whether or not the scene is lit from the side. Scenes that are staged on a set are traditionally top-lit. Ford’s mastery of composition is so pronounced that he instinctively knows how to compensate for the distortion inherent in early CinemaScope lenses. (Note the way in which the edges of Ford’s frames don’t bow.) LeRoy helmed the rest of the interiors on set. At the behest of Fonda and producer Leland Hayward, Logan was flown in from New York to re-shoot key sequences the producers felt Ford had fumbled by bastardizing the original integrity of the play.
Given the abysmal behavior he displayed during his stint on Mister Roberts, it may well have been the last time Ford wielded this type of power on a set. Immediately following the debacle, Ford was reduced to working on a pair of television productions. The following year’s The Searchers lives on as Ford’s crowning artistic achievement, but at the time of its release it was considered just another John Wayne picture that performed as well as Blood Alley and The Sea Chase. The Wings of Eagles underperformed, and Gideon of Scotland Yard and The Rising of the Moon allowed Ford to pick up a few bob while pub crawling his way across London. By the time The Horse Soldiers rode into town, Duke’s star power could green light any project. Ford was merely an employee making one-third the salary of the star he helped to create. Ford knew it - everyone knew it - and didn’t like it.
With time on his hands, Ford showed up uninvited during the location shoot of Wayne’s dream project, The Alamo. He immediately assumed a wrongful place in Duke’s director’s chair and began dictating the day’s first set-up to cinematographer William H. Clothier. Wayne, taken aback, didn’t know how to react to Pappy’s big-footing him on his own show. Unwilling to take orders from two chiefs, Clothier suggested they send the Old Man out with a second unit camera crew to do pick-ups of the Mexican Army crossing the river.
With Mister Roberts, Fonda instantly regained his movie star status. Theatrical agent and Broadway producer Leland Hayward went on to stage such long running shows as Gypsy and The Sound of Music. While both men approved of the big screen adaptation of Mister Roberts, they privately thought the play was better. Hank and Leland went way back. Both shared martial bliss with actress Margaret Sullivan - who went from Fonda to Hayward to a deliberate overdose - the first of two of the actor’s five wives to take the easy way out. Mister Roberts novelist and co-playwright Thomas Heggen opted for a similar exit path. Like his creation, Heggen finally got what he wanted in life and it killed him. At the age of 29, with success pounding at his door, Heggen was felled by a crippling case of writer’s block and wound up drowning in his bathtub after ingesting a lethal dose of sleeping pills.
Featured player Nick Adams died in 1968 due to an overdose of drugs he was taking for a nervous disorder, and character actor Tige Andrews went on to play Det. Adam Greer in The Mod Squad. Decades later Ford, Cagney, Fonda and Lemmon all proved the test of time by becoming recipients of the prestigious AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. “Doc” was not present at any of the shindigs.
As miserable as all this sounds, unless your mining directorial thumbprints, none of the problems that occurred during the making of Mister Roberts are noticeable in the finished product. Call it a happy accident, call it a guilty pleasure, the cast and crew pulled together to form lasting entertainment.
Reader Rating: Three Stars
This column is a revision of a November 2008 article from my now defunct Emulsion Compulsion blog.
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