Mister Roberts (1955), starring Henry Fonda, is based on the stage play by Frank Nugent. Fonda, who starred in the Broadway play, reprised his role as Lieutenant Douglas Roberts for this film, with an A-list of players supporting him. Jack Lemmon also stars as Ensign Pulver, a role which won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor; James Cagney as Captain Morton and William Powell as "Doc" round out the cast. Sadly, the film also ended the longtime friendship and working relationship between Henry Fonda and director John Ford who, in a fit of anger, reportedly sucker punched Fonda in the mouth.
It's the middle of WWII, and life aboard the Navy cargo ship the USS Reluctant (also known as “The Bucket”) is anything but pleasant. The weather is hot, hours are long, and the crew hasn’t had rest and recreation in months; to top it off, the ship’s captain is loud, mean-spirited, and power hungry. Lieutenant Roberts’ primary wish is to get off The Bucket and onto a real fighting ship. His best friends are “Doc,” the wise and bemused ship’s doctor, and Ensign Pulver, the laundry officer whose real skills seem to be getting out of work and chasing nurses.
The Captain cares very little about his crew—but cares a great deal about a palm tree awarded the ship for having the best cargo crew in the fleet. The Captain believes the reason for the crew's success is his strict discipline and adherence to the rules. The real reason, however, is the care Roberts gives the men, which often incurs the wrath of the Captain.
You won’t see any action in this film, and the story takes its time to set up the last scene perfectly. It's a comedy, but there is a lot of reality in it as well. One IMDB reviewer, who worked on cargo ships during WWII, said he had known captains like Morton—and was thankful for first mates such as Roberts.
Mister Roberts is a powerful play, and it's an equally powerful film that will make you think and laugh at the same time. If you like the film, you might also check out a filmed stage version from the Library, starring Robert Hays as Mister Roberts. I'll be talking more about this version in a future post. Both versions are worth seeing.
Perhaps you're wondering why director John Ford punched Henry Fonda in the mouth. After playing Roberts for two years on stage, Fonda felt he had a better understanding of the role and the story than Ford did. They disagreed often, and finally, at a meeting called by the studio to help the two work out their differences, Ford had enough—and the punch was thrown. The film was finished with Mervyn LeRoy in the director’s seat.