The Film and Performance:
Mister Roberts is one of those quirky films from the 1950s that is ironically derived from true-life. Author Thomas Heggen wrote the source novel in 1946 as a series of semi-autobiographical short stories about his experiences as a sailor during World War II, which was subsequently adapted into a highly successful Broadway play that won the Tony in 1948. With the popularity of the novel and play, it is no surprise Hollywood decided to adapt the play into a feature film. Shockingly, Henry Fonda, who had originated the role of Mister Roberts on Broadway, had starred in the role for two years and even won the Tony for his performance, nearly didn’t get the title role for the film. The studio, believing Henry Fonda to be no longer marketable, were seeking to cast the role with Marlon Brando or William Holden, both of whom would seemingly guarantee box-office appeal. However, it was at the insistence of director John Ford that Fonda be cast, to which he was, but it ignited one of the most stunning rifts in Hollywood history. The Ford-Fonda feud was caused due to Fonda believing he knew his character inside-and-out considering he had starred in the role on Broadway for two years, yet director John Ford believed the performance to be not adequate and demanded that Fonda conform to his vision. This rift ultimately met its climax when Ford punched Fonda in the face, subsequently causing Ford to be replaced as director with Mervyn LeRoy.
When watching Mister Roberts one doesn’t realize that the film was made with such friction occurring between lead actor and director. Fortunately, Mister Roberts translated from the stage to screen as an amusing comedy film that has barely aged since its first release in theaters in 1955. The comedy themes within the film are easy to resonate with since they focus on issues that are timeless, such as being bullied and combating boredom. Yet Mister Roberts is a film that hardly possesses a fluid plot. The film is framed like an elaborate series of episodes that detail the daily antics of sailors aboard a vessel. In many regards, Mister Roberts is a film crafted by highly memorable vignettes delicately sewed together into a single film. What holds the film together is a handful of broad plotlines. The basic plot that carries throughout the entire film is Lieutenant Junior Grade Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) feeling that he is missing the war while aboard the USS Reluctant, better known as “The Bucket,” since their ship sees no war at all. His continued requests for transfer are always denied by Lieutenant Commander Morton (James Cagney), who takes tyrannical pride in keeping Roberts with The Reluctant. Yet while this is the broad plot that carries throughout the film, Mister Roberts is much more than that. The film is also about comradery and about finding one’s inner strength, which is conveyed primarily through the character Ensign Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon).
What especially kept Mister Roberts as an effective comedy film was it being a period piece that stayed within the realm of reality. If the film pushed the boundaries of realism, especially with its principle characters being a part of the Navy, it had to be done in a way that could be believed. Therefore, moments of sailors getting excited over seeing women or going completely crazy when they get a night of “liberty” in a town, fits within the confines of realism. This also kept the film from veering into satire territory, which would have undoubtedly minimized the film’s potential.
The film’s comedy is within its script, which meant its acting was the primary source of the film’s comedy. However, with a film that possessed a large cast, it was integral that the main actors separated themselves from each other and embodied a specific characteristic that would resonate with the film-viewer. Henry Fonda is outstanding as the USS Reluctant’s epicenter and the moral conscience of the film. Fonda’s style of acting typically mirrored the ‘everyday man,’ which is why the attention of the viewer often focused upon his performance. James Cagney, known as the tough-guy of older gangster films of the 1930s, was perfection with his tyrannical style of acting. His take as the Commander of the USS Reluctant was reminiscent of Captain Bligh of The Bounty (Click HERE to learn about The Bounty), but exaggerated just slightly enough to make the character his own. The last of the three legendary actors within this film, William Powell, was magnificent as the USS Reluctant’s sarcastic doctor. This was Powell’s last screen performance before he retired from acting, which is astonishing considering the level of humor and dramatic acting he was able to instill into a single performance.
Powell’s role as the ‘no BS’ best friend was nearly a scene-stealer of the film, but it was actually a newcomer who stole every scene he was in within Mister Roberts. That actor was Jack Lemmon. Mister Roberts wasn’t Lemmon’s first role in Hollywood, but it was the first that truly got him noticed. His performance as Ensign Frank Pulver is one of the few components of the film that shows a clear progression of character development. Easily this character could have been deemed as a stock character, but due to Jack Lemmon’s style of acting, it gave life to the character. Pulver is the character who is continually lazy and never follows through with his statements, such as standing up to Commander Morton. The antics of Pulver aren’t necessarily integral to the plot of the film, yet they demand the most attention. This is due to Lemmon’s memorable portrayal of the character. His acting of Pulver hinges on lunacy, which separates the character from all others.
One can definitely see the beginnings of Jack Lemmon’s style of acting and comedy in Mister Roberts. The character is somewhat reactionary to everything around him, yet he is aware enough of his own deviation from the normal. However, what separates this performance from Jack Lemmon’s vast career, is observing the character progress from being someone without much authority to becoming a leader in himself. Jack Lemmon subtly provided the character with a progression that slowly simmers until it culminates into him becoming a new person. This character metamorphosis was expertly done by Lemmon because he didn’t allow for it to happen all at once. He allowed the character to slowly gain confidence, but he did it so minimally that the viewer hardly realizes it until the film’s final scene, thereby surprising the viewer of how relevant Pulver actually is to the plot. This is partially why Jack Lemmon’s performance is the most memorable within this film, because he took the extra step in establishing the character. Yet also, Lemmon’s performance reminded movie viewers that anyone is capable of being a leader if they abandon their fears and stand up to what they know to be right.
Against stiff competition, Jack Lemmon succeeded in winning his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this role. Partially what aided him with this win was being a somewhat of a unknown actor, but also introducing a new style of comedy acting. Voters couldn’t resist the opportunity to award Lemmon with the win, which puts him in the small sub-category of Oscar winners who have won an Oscar for a comedy performance, which is exceedingly rare in Oscar history. To see Jack Lemmon win his Oscar and his brief acceptance speech during the 1956 Academy Awards ceremony, please click HERE.