Today, we’ve got a classic war comedy, in the form of the 1955 film Mister Roberts, starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon! So, let’s enjoy our theatrical short, and then it’s on with the movie itself!
Coming Up Shorts! with… The Flea Circus (1954)
(Available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 2 from Warner Archive Collection)
(Length: 7 minutes, 1 second)
When a stray dog walks in on a circus of fleas, the fleas all leave (except for Francois, the clown), and it’s up to him to bring more back! While it’s not quite as wacky as Tex Avery’s cartoon’s tend to be, this one is still a lot of fun! Bill Thompson, the usual voice actor for fellow Tex Avery cartoon character Droopy, voices Francois, who is not as beloved by the audiences (in the cartoon, but, obviously, we love him). This one might be more conventional, but the gags revolving around the flea acts are fun, and I enjoyed watching the cartoon overall (and will definitely be coming back to it again). Vive la France!
And Now For The Main Feature…
Life is hard for the crew of the Navy supply ship the Reluctant (or the “Bucket,” as they call it). It’s World War II, but they are far away from all the actual combat. They’re stationed near a South Pacific Island, but they’ve been kept on board the ship for nearly a year, with nary a liberty granted. Worse, the ship’s captain (James Cagney) seems to enjoy spoiling the morale of all on board. His cargo officer, Lieutenant Douglas Roberts (Henry Fonda) tries to do what he can to help the crew out, but he wants very much to be a part of the war. He keeps trying to request a transfer, but the captain refuses to sign off on the idea. These fights between the two are pretty much what amounts to entertainment for most of the men. The men find themselves some new “entertainment” when some nurses arrive for the hospital on the island (and apparently shower within range of what the crew can see with their binoculars). That ends when their laundry and morale officer, Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver (Jack Lemmon), brings a few of the nurses on the board the ship as he tries to spend some time with Lieutenant Ann Girard (Betsy Palmer), and the nurses realize how much the men can see. Roberts decides to go around the captain to get the men some liberty, and gives a bribe of a bottle of scotch to an official, resulting in the ship being sent to the island of Elysium. However, even when they arrive at the island, the captain refuses to let the men have liberty, and Roberts goes to his cabin to tell him off. Instead, the captain makes him an offer: he will let the crew have their liberty, BUT Roberts has to stop writing transfer applications, and he must follow the captain’s orders without question (and nobody else can know about this arrangement). Having no choice, Roberts acquiesces, and the men go ashore. With all their pent-up energy, the men get into a lot of trouble, and the ship gets banished from the port. Angry at this new blot on his record, the captain drags Roberts into punishing the crew, and makes it look like Roberts is “bucking for a promotion.” With the captain now trying to drive a wedge between Roberts and the crew (and Ensign Pulver scared of the captain), will they still be as fond of Roberts? And will he be involved in the war, or will it end before he can do anything?
The movie was based on the 1948 play Mister Roberts by Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan (which was itself based on a novel by Thomas Heggen). Actor Henry Fonda had left Hollywood after filming Fort Apache in 1948, and was cast in the play. The play turned out to be a hit, but when Warner Brothers wanted to make a movie, they were hesitant to cast Henry Fonda, citing his age and lack of screen presence for a number of years as reasons. However, director John Ford wanted him to do it, and that was that. Still, John Ford and Henry Fonda ended up not getting along, as the director wanted to make a lot of changes, whereas Henry Fonda wanted it more like the play. John Ford was unable to finish the film when health issues arose, and so Mervyn LeRoy stepped in to finish it (although the director of the Broadway show, Joshua Logan, also did some uncredited directing to help finish it). While it wasn’t what some had hoped it would be (due to the changes), it still turned out to be a hit with movie audiences as well.
I’ve seen this movie once before, and it’s been a while since that first viewing, but I remembered enjoying it that first time, and it was still just as good (if not better) the second time! The cast alone is a big enough selling point on this movie. Even if he might have been a bit too old for the role, Henry Fonda’s performance is good enough to take your mind off that. I enjoyed watching his portrayal of a character who yearns for something better and more “important” than what he is doing, without realizing how much he means to the crew of the ship that he is on. And James Cagney? He’s still good, giving us another very unlikable character as the captain. So much so, that I can’t help but cheer when Roberts goes against him (and jeer when the captain gets the upper hand). And while it may be William Powell’s last film, his role as the ship’s doctor is still fun, as he is quick to realize when the men are trying to fake illness/injury to get out of work (and, seeing what the captain is like, I can’t blame them for trying). And he can see Roberts’ importance to the crew. And Jack Lemmon? In my book, he earned his Oscar as Ensign Pulver, a man who is scared of the captain (so much so that, after fourteen months of being on the ship, the captain still didn’t know of his existence). Obviously, his womanizing ways wouldn’t go over well with audiences today (nor should they), but, at the same time, you do want him to follow through on some of his planned pranks against the captain. Like I say, the cast is so much fun here, and makes this movie well worth seeing! So I would indeed highly recommend this one!
This movie is available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection. This release makes use of a 4K scan of the original camera negative. This movie was filmed in the WarnerColor process, which made it problematic in terms of restoration (and apparently, the original camera negative was quite faded as well). So, with that in mind, what we got is indeed a wonder! For the most part, the transfer looks wonderful, with the color looking like it should, and the detail is much improved! There are a few shots that don’t look quite as good (whether that’s because that’s how it was filmed, or those shots required the use of inferior elements, or something else, I haven’t heard), but they are so few and far between, that this would still be the best way to see this wonderful movie!
Film Length: 2 hours, 1 minute
My Rating: 10/10
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
The Lady Eve (1941) – Henry Fonda
Love Me Or Leave Me (1955) – James Cagney – Man Of A Thousand Faces (1957)
Song Of The Thin Man (1947) – William Powell
Phffft (1954) – Jack Lemmon – My Sister Eileen (1955)
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