Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts (1955), directed by John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy, and Joshua Logan.

This fondly remembered service comedy seems slow going these days, talky and obviously adapted from a stage play, with a chorus of sailors always clustered nearby. Ford had a fondness for all things military.

The fun is watching Ford's crew together again: chiefly Henry Fonda in the title role, but also Ward Bond, Ken Curtis and Harry Carey, Jr. Photographed, as usual, by Winton C. Hoch and with a comical score by Franz Waxman.

Worthy new additions to the ensemble: James Cagney as the bitter, unfit but ambitious captain, a lighter version of Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954). One scene reveals the class-based source of his resentment, which makes him more human.

Also with Jack Lemmon, age 30.

Most significantly, this is a great exit for William Powell; his last feature film, although he lived in retirement for almost 30 years after. For the first time he had trouble remembering his lines and decided it was time to go. As Doc he is a natural Ford character and I wish they had done more together.

A troubled production. Ford was in a nasty mood and abusing everyone, apparently throwing punches, then had a medical leave. Mervyn LeRoy came in and said he would shoot the rest as he judged Ford would have done it, then Fonda had Joshua Logan, who wrote the play, do extensive reshoots. It is hard to know who is responsible for what.

My wife had objections to some sex play: long-range spying on the women as they shower and alcohol as a dating adjunct.

Available on a poor DVD. Jack Lemmon provides an intermittent commentary track: you have to chapter skip.