This is one of those films I discovered by way of my mom, if memory serves. The first viewing may have happened at any point during the first few years of the new millennium — probably a DVD borrowed from the library. That occasion would have been my first exposure to William Powell, and pretty close to my first exposure to Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and James Cagney, for that matter. It goes without saying that I had little grasp of just how special it was to see those four performers together. Some years later, when I started rating the movies I watched, I put Mister Roberts on a list of movies I remembered having seen and wanted to rewatch. In 2010, I saw it again and decided it was fun but nothing spectacular, a filmed play through and through. Something about it amused me enough, however, to give the film 3 ½ stars. Little did I know that this would make the film eligible for yet another revisit, and a more in-depth examination of why I was on the fence about it.
Mister Roberts tells a story about boredom, impotence, and frustration. It certainly helps that these subjects are played for comedy, but it may be unavoidable that these characteristics rub off on the film itself to some extent. Fonda plays the title character, second-in-command of a cargo ship on the sidelines during World War II. Itching to join the fight in a more meaningful capacity, he regularly asks for a transfer but is denied the request by his captain (Cagney), who believes such a disruptive change would hurt his own chances for a promotion. The film consists primarily of these two men butting heads, one demanding strict discipline from the crew while the other tries to keep their morale up. Powell and Lemmon, meanwhile, play friends of Roberts from different generations (older and younger, respectively), forming a chain of mentors and protégés. Lemmon won an Oscar for his comedic turn as Ensign Pulver, a layabout who overcompensates for his fear of the captain by planning elaborate pranks on him.
Adapted from a play which was in turn adapted from a novel, Mister Roberts doesn’t make an especially compelling film. A claustrophobic setting rendered mostly in medium shots, a story that by its very nature involves a lot of talk and very little action, straight-arrow heroes facing off against an implacable villain — there’s not much in this movie that surprises. The directorial vision isn’t very strong, since John Ford was replaced partway through the shoot by Mervyn LeRoy (with playwright Joshua Logan directing some re-shoots afterwards). The way the film depends on an offscreen death for emotional power seems particularly cheap. All told, this film is a far cry from the visual dynamism and narrative excitement of 12 Angry Men, another Fonda vehicle adapted from a play that uses an even more claustrophobic setting.
Despite all these things, there is one good reason to watch this film, and that’s to see Fonda, Cagney, Powell, and Lemmon acting together with a script that knows how to use them. Nobody’s doing career-best work, but they all brighten the screen when they appear, which just happens to be most of the running time. Lemmon is a ball of energy, as eager to impress these acting veterans as his character is to impress the war veterans. Powell, who retired after this film, retains his wry, sophisticated good humor. Fonda is impossible to root against, as usual. As for Cagney, I never cared much for him in this film. He plays a very “boo, hiss” kind of villain. My younger self was content to let it go at that. It’s still the case that his character is entirely separate from everyone else in the film, which makes him very difficult to sympathize with. But now I recognize that this character is just as frustrated with not being able to fight as his crew. He’s just letting that frustration out by pulling on his crew’s nerves until they snap. Besides, there’s always something poignant about a character who can never join the fun that everyone around him is having.
A half-step down from 3 ½ stars is a rating that denotes happy indifference. When I give a movie 3 stars, I’m saying that there isn’t anything notably poor about it, but I’m not compelled to seek it out for another viewing. This is what I’m going to do with Mister Roberts. It’s a pleasant film, but it shouldn’t be on the cusp of becoming one of my favorites. It’s a minor work in the careers of some extraordinarily gifted actors and filmmakers. In the future, I’m more likely to go out and see a local production of the play than to seek out the film version again.