Douglas A. Roberts, whose initials suggest an elitist organization (Daughters of the American Revolution), “has background,” as we used to say; he is one of those “college boys” that his captain, Morton, whose background is rough and working-class, disdains. (They treated him with contempt when he was a busboy.) During the waning days of the Second World War, Mister Roberts is the chief cargo officer of the U.S.S. Reluctant, called by the lackadaisical crew The Bucket, a cargo ship in the Pacific; Roberts is determined to be transferred to a ship that sees combat, but thus far Captain Morton has succeeded in thwarting each attempt by withholding official approval. “Doc,” the ship’s medico (an attendant to duty-shirking crew members and dispenser of aspirin), astutely says this about Roberts: “[He is feeling p]anic that the war is ending before he can get to it.”
After all, Doug has been trained—and expensively—for combat; in the meantime, he condescends to his crew just a mite and tries ingratiating himself with them—a mark of noblesse oblige. He is doing his best to ameliorate the boredom of those immediately under his command. (He is a junior-grade lieutenant.) Morton, a “stickler for rules,” a non-combat martinet, relishes punishing the crew because that is how he can “get at” Roberts, to whom he says more than once, “I’m the captain of this ship, and don’t you forget it!” Roberts was born into social status; Morton can never have this (because the U.S. isn’t such a classless society as it likes to pretend), but his wartime military rank and dedicated service can confer on him a kind of status. This is why he fetishizes the palm tree that his ship won for its cargo maintenance and distribution, and his acute class sensitivity explains the antagonism he feels for Roberts, for whom everything has “come easy,” and his delight in lording over his crew, which in the main claims social origins akin to his own, but lacks his talent and ambition. Films by John Ford often possess a clash of distinct personalities at their core, and Morton is the “bad guy” to Roberts’ “good guy.” However, those who dump Mister Roberts into (pardon) the bucket of superficial entertainments I think miss the subtleties of the contest between these two characters and how these reflect unresolved social tensions in the peacetime America of the time at which the film was made. Ford’s next stop: the issue of race-hatred and racial conflict, in The Searchers (1956)—a topic to which Ford would return again and again.
At some point Ford fell ill and Mervyn LeRoy stepped in to direct some of Mister Roberts, but perhaps not so much as some people claim. (On the basis of its theme and Brechtian distancing, I suspect that the film is largely Ford’s.*) It is John Ford, of course, who made this film so much more interesting than Thomas Heggen’s trivial play, which was principally a hit because of Hank Fonda’s lead performance as Mister Roberts. The film marked the seventh collaboration between Ford and Fonda, who came (literally) to blows during production over the main reason for professional divorce in the industry: “creative differences.” The two never mended their relationship. The scuttlebutt has been that Ford added more slapstick comedy to the proceedings than Fonda could stomach; but, I wonder, whether Fonda, beneath that complaint, wasn’t annoyed that “his” play was becoming his and Jimmy Cagney’s movie. We may not like Morton; indeed, we don’t. But Cagney’s phenomenal performance, to which Ford evidently devoted considerably more attention than he would have to some cardboard villain, slides with peerless grace between nuance and farcical exaggeration. Fonda, for his part, is wonderful; his Mister Roberts is prissy and pretentious to just the right degree, so that we see this and reflect on it without forfeiting our pleasure in his company. Moreover, his vocal inflections result in some hilarious comedy without sacrificing the character’s generally straightforward nature. Above all, though, Ford effortlessly prods us to question the hunger for bloody war that Mister Roberts exhibits beneath a cultured façade. Surely among their collaborations Fonda’s Mister Roberts is bettered by his Tom Joad and Wyatt Earp, but Fonda’s characterization is more complex than possibly it seems at first—more complex than perhaps he even wanted.
Jack Lemmon is hilarious in his Oscar-winning role as Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver, in charge of the laundry room and crew morale—a coward who finds the spine to confront Captain Morton. William Powell, in one of his last film roles, is adequate as Doc; the scene where Doc, Frank and Doug “manufacture” scotch for (what turns out to be) a visiting contingent of WAVES, using such ingredients as iodine and hair tonic, has me weeping with laughter every time.
* Filmmaker/critic Glenn Andreiev has e-mailed me the following:
I had the pleasure of chatting with Betsy Palmer, at the time a young actress who was one of the WAVES in Mister Roberts. According to her, the film is mostly John Ford, whom she remembered as “rough speaking but professional.” She has fond memories of Cagney.