Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts (1955)

“Maybe that’s why we’re on this ship — ’cause we’re not good enough to fight!”

During World War II, the beloved executive officer (Henry Fonda) of a cargo ship repeatedly requests a transfer to be able to engage in combat, but is denied by his unreasonably insecure captain (James Cagney), who also refuses to grant his men — including Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) — a much-deserved leave; will Mister Roberts (Fonda) prevail on their behalf?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • At Sea
  • Betsy Palmer Films
  • Henry Fonda Films
  • Jack Lemmon Films
  • James Cagney Films
  • John Ford Films
  • Joshua Logan Films
  • Mervyn Le Roy Films
  • Play Adaptations
  • Ruthless Leaders
  • Ward Bond Films
  • William Powell Films
  • World War II

This adaptation of Joshua Logan’s long-running Broadway play — itself based on a 1946 novel by Thomas Heggen — was fraught with directorial challenges: John Ford began the film but was eventually replaced by Mervyn LeRoy (with some scenes directed by Logan himself). Apparently Ford and Fonda — who starred in the lead role on Broadway for seven years:

— had a major falling out, ending their 16 year friendship and string of 8 films together. However, the resulting movie was no worse for wear as far as audiences were concerned, given that they made it the second highest grossing film of the year. Jimmy Cagney plays a Bligh/Queeg type of power-tripping naval leader, though no reason is given for his attitude other than class resentment.

William Powell gave his final screen performance as a laid-back ship’s doctor who is friends with Fonda:

… and Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his supporting role as lazy Ensign Pulver, who is primarily interested in doing as little as possible other than bedding a beautiful nurse (Betsy Palmer):

Speaking of beautiful nurses, a bevy of them are conveniently spotted across the way, and end up on board the ship:

… while the local natives are exoticized on behalf of the men’s R&R.

Unfortunately, the humor in this film — including the men ogling the nurses using spyglasses and binoculars:

… Powell and Fonda crafting a faux-rum for Lemmon using grain alcohol, Coke, iodine, and hair tonic:

… Cagney’s obsession with a palm tree:

… and the men getting stinking drunk while on leave:

— hasn’t aged well. We primarily enjoy watching Fonda in a role he wears like a glove, epitomizing a man who does the right and decent thing without anticipating anything in return. Fonda makes this film worth a one-time look, but it’s not must-see viewing otherwise.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Henry Fonda as Mister Roberts
  • Fine CinemaScope cinematography

Must See?
No, though Oscar completists will want to see it. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book, and nominated as one of the Best Pictures of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars.


One thought on “Mister Roberts (1955)

  1. Agreed; not must-see, for reasons brought out in the well-stated overview.

    This movie used to be repeated often on tv when I was a kid. It’s not a film I would want to revisit particularly.

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