Despite having two directors with somewhat clashing styles, being noticeably dated in places, and a little too obviously based on a stage play, Mister Roberts still works as a classic comedy and a war movie in which the only violence is committed upon a pair of hapless palm trees.
The Tony-winning play by Joshua Logan and Frank L. Nugent had already run for seven years on Broadway when the film was made and Henry Fonda had played the role of Lt. (jg) Doug Roberts 1,300 times before a frame of film had been shot. It’s safe to say that he didn’t need reheasal.
The location shooting was largely directed by legendary filmmaker John Ford before he was forced to leave the film due to illness. Most of the interior scenes were filmed by his replacement Mervyn LeRoy. Ford’s scenes have manic, forced quality that contrasts sharply with the more restrained, modern tone of LeRoy’s scenes. Also, a lot of dialogue sounds like it was written for actors on a theatrical stage, describing things that the camera could just as easily have shown us.
Lt. Roberts is the cargo officer of a sadsack Navy cargo ship, the U.S.S. Reluctant, which plies the back waters of the War in the Pacific. The ship is commanded by a petty martinet named Lt. Commander Morton (James Cagney), who denies the crew liberty for the slightest infraction. About to go stir crazy, the crew looks up to Roberts for his intercessions to captain on their behalf, however fruitless they may be. Roberts is also the reason the ship won an award for efficiency, a palm tree on which the captain lavishes more attention than he does on the well-being of his crew.
It’s late in the war, and Roberts is desperate to get off the Reluctant and join a aircraft carrier task force he saw steaming past, to get into the real war before it’s over, but the skipper has turned down every transfer request. Roberts is the key to his efficiency award and his eventual promotion to full commander.
In an effort to get some shore leave for the crew, Roberts bribes a harbor master to send the ship to a liberty port, but the captain still denies the crew any leave, at least until Roberts agrees to stop requesting transfers and start toeing the line. The crew gets their leave but the new Mister Roberts is acting more like the captain’s right hand than the benevolent cargo officer they knew. The friction between him and the crew plus the end of the war in Europe eventually push Roberts into a confrontation with the captain.
In memorable roles as Roberts’ best friends are William Powell as the laconic ship’s doctor and Jack Lemmon in an Oscar-winning turn as Ensign Frank Pulver, a lazy skirt-chaser with feet of clay. The scenes in the officers’ quarters include some classic comic set-pieces, such as the scene in which the resourceful Doc and Roberts fashion a bottle of scotch out of grain alcohol, Coca-Cola, iodine and hair tonic.
The raunchy dialogue of the play had to be toned down considerably for the film, but the writers still managed to slip some decent double-entendres. Still, the censorship led to the deletion of some classic lines, like when Roberts mentions how Pulver was somehow resourceful enough to catch the clap during a year at sea with no liberty.
But despite these alternations and other minor faults, Mister Roberts remains a classic with moments of great comic energy and a poignant story of courage in the face of mind-numbing tedium.