Punching his leading man. Drinking on the set. Quitting the production after being hospitalized. The tales of John Ford’s behavior on Mister Roberts aren’t pretty, and neither is the film. While some of its flaws can be blamed on its having multiple directors, the failures of Mister Roberts are largely a result of Ford’s decisions. The film is a bizarre mishmash of styles, moods, and genres, full of pointless shots and ludicrous acting. The fact that it was a success rather than a flop is likely due to the stellar performances of three of its stars, Henry Fonda, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon; if you love these three actors, as I do, watch the movie. The scenes between the three of them are compelling. If you don’t, avoid it, for the film is not quite bad enough to be camp, but comes awfully close.
The film is about Roberts’ (Henry Fonda’s) efforts to get into combat in WWII, efforts that are squashed by his cargo ship captain, played by James Cagney. The crew love Roberts for his rebelliousness and his sympathy for their needs. The story is meant to be both moving and comic, but succeeds at neither thanks to Ford’s odd direction. Had I not known that this legend was at the helm, I would have guessed a newbie was having trouble distinguishing between stage and screen. Yes, Mister Roberts was a play, but that doesn’t explain why the crew in the film are practically shouting, or why their hamming reaches such preposterous levels that you have the feeling they’re always gathering to sing a song.
When they don’t, you feel vaguely uncomfortable, like when a stand-up comedian’s punchline falls flat. What’s even more puzzling is that you can almost see “exit left” printed on the screen because when figures leave the group, the others act as if they’re no longer in earshot. The transitions throughout the film feel forced, with odd shots of ocean and ship that neither advance the narrative, nor contribute to the mood, and the score seems slightly off the entire time.
The choice to have James Cagney, who plays the villain of the film, act as if he’s starring in a camp masterpiece was also ill advised. Look, I love my camp. Brainsmasher: A Love Story is one of my favorite movies. But a film doesn’t work when half your cast is taking themselves seriously, and the other acting as if they’re auditioning for a Mystery Science Theater special. Cagney has talent, but you wouldn’t know it from this film. I kept wishing he’d disappear from the screen so that I could stop being embarrassed for him. A character can be ludicrous but still menacing, but Cagney’s bluster in Mister Roberts is merely a caricature of his earlier, meatier roles.
And try to forget the depiction of the islanders as soon as you see it. For a moment when I watched them approach the cargo ship in canoes, I thought, Battle!!!
Unfortunately, these scenes didn’t have the charms of camp portrayals, such as one of my favorites, the underappreciated parody Joe vs. the Volcano, in which the islanders are all obsessed with orange soda.
But when Fonda is on the screen, you forget how bad Mister Roberts is. Ford made many mistakes, but his stubbornness in demanding Fonda over the studio’s preferences, Marlon Brando and William Holden, almost outweighs all of his poor choices. In a better movie, this performance could have won Fonda the Oscar, just as he won the Tony for it on the stage.
He plays Roberts with such understated dignity, humor, and pathos. Watch his easy leadership of the crew, his posture demonstrating how naturally he takes charge. Witness his subtle deflation once he sacrifices his own ambitions for the sake of that crew. I have never seen Fonda so good in anything. How hard it must have been for him, to have the role that meant so much to him undermined by his own director.
Luckily, there are multiple scenes with Fonda, Lemmon, and Powell.
With the crew absent and only a room as background, the three show you what a film this could have been. Lemmon’s performance won him the Oscar. He’s riveting as a cowardly, lazy, sex-crazed ensign who has the potential to be so much more.
To what extent Ford is to blame for the film’s flaws and not his co-director, Mervyn LeRoy (who was also assisted by Joshua Logan, the play’s cowriter and director), is impossible to exactly determine. But unless he ONLY directed the scenes with Powell, Lemmon, and Fonda, Ford was right to be embarrassed by it.
It’s a good thing he followed it up with one of his masterpieces.
Don’t forget to check out the other John Ford entries in the blogathon!