Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 2, 2020)
As a sort of one-stop shop for Hollywood legends, you can’t do much better than 1955’s Mister Roberts. With John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy behind the camera and James Cagney, Henry Ford, William Powell and Jack Lemmon in front of it, the film boasts a top-notch collection of talent.
Based on a Broadway play of the same title, Roberts introduces us to the crew of the USS Reluctant, a cargo ship that covers remote areas of the Pacific during the last days of World War II. Bored with this tedious duty, Lieutenant JG Doug Roberts (Fonda) desperately seeks some combat action.
However, Doug does his job very well, so commanding officer Lt, Commander Morton (Cagney) won’t let him leave. This creates tension, and the ship’s crew feels the ramifications as well.
Although my introduction implies that Ford and LeRoy acted as co-directors, instead the latter actually replaced the former. Apparently Ford caused battles with his stars on the set, so when he needed emergency surgery, LeRoy got the nod.
In addition, screenwriter Joshua Logan directed parts of the film as well. With such disarray during the shoot, it seems likely that Roberts should’ve become a messy disaster.
Given the movie’s three Oscar nominations – including Best Picture - obviously Roberts enjoyed a good reception in 1955. The flick also did well at the box office, as it became one of 1955’s biggest hits.
65 years later, it remains clear why the film succeeded, as it offers a fairly charming affair. Don’t expect a plot-heavy tale, though.
In terms of story, the conflict between Roberts and Morton becomes the primary theme, and even that doesn’t dominate to the expected degree. Sure, Doug’s concerns and his battles with the boss turn into major elements, but much of the film feels more episodic.
This means it focuses largely on characters, and it does well in that regard. In addition to Roberts and Morton, we spend a lot of time with medical officer “Doc” (William Powell) and Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon).
Lemmon won an Oscar as Pulver, but I think Powell steals the show. He makes the most of his occasional onscreen moments and creates an indelible character despite limited material.
As for Lemmon, he offers good work early in his career. While Lemmon appeared on TV as early as 1949, he didn’t make his film debut until 1954, and Roberts became his fourth big screen effort.
Lemmon would play many manic characters ala Pulver in later years, and he creates a lively tone here. I do think Lemmon’s hyperactive style seems like a potential mismatch with Pulver’s personality, but he makes it succeed.
The ever-stable Fonda grounds the piece, and his inherent tone of earnest nobility lends contrast to Roberts’ feud with Morton. Cagney offers a true “Cagney performance” but he avoids self-parody and forms a solid antagonist.
If I wanted to find a flaw here, it would stem from the movie’s running time. While 121 minutes doesn’t seem excessive in general, the film’s absence of much narrative substance means it loses steam as it goes.
Also, I can’t claim to love the ending. I won’t discuss details, as even for a 65-year-old movie, I prefer to avoid spoilers, but the finale seems too bleak given the generally light tone of the preceding 115 minutes.
Still, Roberts boasts enough charm to make it an enjoyable effort. Abetted by a terrific cast, the movie becomes an involving ride.