|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 22 December 1998|
Nowadays, when you see two names given shared director credit on a film, it’s normally cause for alarm. However, when the names are John Ford and Mervyn Leroy and the film in question is ‘Mister Roberts,’ it’s a whole different story.
‘Mister Roberts’ is the 1955 screen adaptation--scripted by Frank Nugent and Joshua Logan--of the Thomas Heggen/Joshua Logan Broadway hit about a class of wills between a captain and a lieutenant on a U.S. Navy supply ship in the Pacific fleet during WWII. The ship, officially the U.S.S. Reluctant but called simply ‘The Bucket’ by her crew, might sink under the weight of broken spirits if it weren’t for Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda). Roberts, the ship’s cargo officer, delights the crew and infuriates the captain (James Cagney) by sticking up for the men and requesting transfer to combat at every opportunity.
This may not sound like the stuff of comedy, but ‘Mister Roberts’ is genuinely funny and insightful about human behavior under pressure. With hindsight, we now know that these Navy men are a bit clean-looking and clean-speaking, even if they are in 1945, but the script’s basic observations ring true.
The performances are as solid as they come, even if Cagney seems to ever-so-slightly sending up his patented tough guys. Fonda couldn’t be better cast as the soft-spoken man of the people, William Powell’s seen-it-all, cares-about-it-all Doc is a timeless figure and Jack Lemmon (apart from looking shockingly young to a modern audience) does a fine job as Ensign Pulver, which won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Warner Brothers is to be commended for the gorgeous restoration job they’ve done on both picture and audio track when their original negative is well over 40 years old. The colors are vivid, with so many distinct, brilliant shades of blue that one is tempted to pull out a dictionary just to name them all. The sound is primarily dialogue and Frank Waxman’s orchestral score, but both sound clear and rich, except for a bit of antique tinniness on a Pacific Island musical theme in Chapter 14. There is a perfectly swell explosion (accompanied by an even better sight gag) in Chapter 19.
Lemmon supplies an audio commentary track, explaining up front why ‘Mister Roberts’ wound up with two directors. The track has the odd (and unwelcome) feature of requiring the viewer to return to the menu to tell it to proceed once Lemmon has guided us through the opening credits; left alone, the film returns to its regular audio track. Otherwise, this Warner Bros. Premiere Collection Edition’s load of extra goodies--including an extra-rare clip of the film’s stars on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’--are an excellent addition to a classic film.