As a war movie it is unique in having no war scenes, but is a study in character and the tensions that can arise in wartime. The script, by Frank Nugent and Josh Logan, is witty and entertaining and the movie is beautifully shot in wide screen color.
The film received three Academy Award nominations, losing for Best Picture and Best Sound, Recording, and winning for Best Supporting Actor for Jack Lemmon. It is ranked at number 276 in the American Film Institute's list of top 300 movies.
The movie was one of the top earning domestic films of 1955, returning a net profit of $4.5 million on worldwide rentals of $9.9million.
PlotHenry Fonda plays Douglas Roberts, an officer aboard the plodding U.S Navy cargo ship 'USS Reluctant' which has been bypassed by the action of World War II. He is engaged in a battle of wills with his superior officer, the sour, resentful Captain Morton, played by James Cagney.
Jack Lemmon plays Ensign Pulver, a man who finally finds the courage to take on the captain. The crew's morale keeps going up and down depending on the Captain's hardheadedness and the availability of women to ogle. The movie steers cleverly between drama, tragedy and comedy. It was less a war picture than a study in how men can survive boredom and an existence where the true enemy is that one tyrant has the power to control your destiny.
ProductionThe novel "Mr Roberts" was written by Thomas Heggen who served in the US Navy during World War II as communications officer aboard an attack transport, the USS Virgo. The novel began as a series of amusing stories about shipboard life under the command of an eccentric captain. He was persuaded to rework the anecdotes into a novel, and the resulting work was published in 1946, becoming a bestseller.
The rights to the novel were bought by agent and theatrical producer, Leland Hayward, who hired Heggen together with writer-director Joshua Logan to collaborate on a stage production. The smash hit play, with Henry Fonda cast in the title role, opened on Broadway on February 18, 1948, and went on to win five Tony Awards including Best Play, Best Director (Logan), Best Producer (Hayward), Best Author (Logan and Heggen), and Best Actor (Fonda).
Tragically, the author, Heggen, was found dead in the bath in 1949, a probable suicide. After Warner Brothers purchased the film rights in 1953, with Hayward attached as producer, Logan and Frank Nugent ('The Quiet Man') were hired to write the screenplay.
The film was shot between January and October, 1954. The original director was John Ford who, as an ex navy man,wanted to set up the movie to be as realistic as possible.For exteriors, the studio was granted permission by the U.S. Navy to utilize the light cargo ship USS Hewell, and following four weeks of filming at Midway Island, (where Ford had been hit by flying shrapnel during WWII), the troupe moved to Hawaii for an equal number of weeks. From Hawaii they returned to Warner Bros. in California for interior shots.
It was Ford who insisted on Fonda being cast in the lead role although the studio had been considering Marlon Brando and William Holden. Fonda had been in the Broadway production and worked on it with Leland Heyward and Joshua Logan, so he knew precisely what was necessary for the film. Fonda took exception to several script changes from the play which Ford thought necessary and he and Ford argued bitterly, leading to a drunken Ford punching Fonda. Ford was eventually replaced by Mervyn LeRoy who directed the film's interior segments at Warner Brothers apart from two scenes, the laundry scene and Pulver's final message to the Captain, both of which were directed by Joshua Logan.
The balance of the film remains perfect, however. It is almost flawless with just the right amounts of happiness and sadness, anger and goodwill, and just the right blend of drama and comedy. The movie is able to touch everyone on at least one level. It is one of the gems of American cinema.
Main CastHenry Fonda ... Lt. JG Douglas A. 'Doug' Roberts
James Cagney ... Captain Morton
William Powell ... Lieutenant 'Doc'
Jack Lemmon ... Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver
Betsy Palmer ... Lt. Ann Girard
Ward Bond ... Chief Petty Officer Dowdy
Philip Carey ... Mannion
Nick Adams ... Seaman Reber
Perry Lopez ... Seaman Rodrigues
Ken Curtis ... Yeoman 3rd Class Dolan
Robert Roark ... Insignia
Harry Carey, Jr. ... Stefanowski
Patrick Wayne ... Bookser
Frank Aletter ... Gerhart
Tige Andrews ... Wiley
James Cagney (1899-1986) Cagney was already one of the top stars of Hollywood and had won the Best Actor Oscar in 1942 for 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'. He was better known for his gangster roles but his over the top portrayal of Captain Morton is perfect for the film.
Henry Fonda (1905-82) Another Hollywood legend, Fonda began his acting career on the stage and began his movie career in 1935. He appeared in numerous classic Hollywood movies including ''12 Angry Men', 'The Grapes Of Wrath,' and 'The Ox-Bow Incident'. He was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for his performance in 'On Golden Pond' in 1981. He gives a career-defining performance as Douglas Roberts.
William Powell (1892-1984) After Vaudeville and an acting start on Broadway, William Powell began his movie career in Silents in 1922. With the advent of Talkies he became a major star, including in the popular and successful 'Thin Man' series. He was nominated three times for the Best Actor Academy Award. 'Mr. Roberts' was his final movie, as the world-weary but still quick witted Lieutenant 'Doc'. His sophisticated presence and brilliant comic timing were invaluable additions to the film.
Jack Lemmon (1925-2001) A highly popular actor who was nominated for the Best Actor Award on seven occasions, winning once, and who deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his entertaining portrayal of Ensign Pulver in 'Mister Roberts' in only his fourth movie.
CreditsDirector ... John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy
Producer ... Leland Hayward
Screenplay ... Frank S. Nugent, Joshua Logan
From the novel by Thomas Heggen
Music ... Franz Waxman
Cinematography ... Winton C. Hoch
Format ... Technicolor
Production Company ... Orange Productions
Distribution Company ... Warner Bros.
Release date ... July 30, 1955
Running time ... 123 minutes
Academy AwardsOne Win:
Best Supporting Actor ... Jack Lemmon
Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture ... Leland Hayward
Best Sound, Recording ... Warner Bros. Studio Sound Dept.