Mister Roberts (1955)

Review by Jenn

Here's a hilariously, touching classic that deserves to be run every so often. Adapted from the play, which was in turn adapted from the novel by the same name, Mister Roberts takes place aboard a Naval cargo ship in the back waters of the Pacific during the "winding down" time of World War II.

The title character (played by Henry Fonda), Lt. Doug Roberts, is chief cargo officer, patriot, champion of the common sailor, and a born leader (the author of the original novel goes on to say that, as far as born leaders go, there is no other kind). Mr. Roberts, as he is known to the crew, is continually butting heads with the ship's nutty, cruel, and ambitious Captain (played with sadistic glee by James Cagney, in what had to be one of his final roles - he looks pretty old here). The two other main characters include Mister Robert's bunkmate Ensign Frank Pulver (played by a very young Jack Lemmon), a quirky and somewhat lazy dreamer who's also a great admirer of his bunkmate, and Doug's close friend, the ship's doctor (played by William Powell of The Thin Man fame). A plethora of minor characters (many of whom are played by actual Naval seamen) adds to the funny, family aspect that occurs on one ship at sea.

Assigned to a dusty hospital island that sees little action, there is trouble aboard the U.S.S. Reluctant (less-than-affectionately known to her crew as The Bucket): cabin fever, anxiety, and increasingly fierce skirmishes are breaking out among the men, who have not been off the ship for other than work-related reasons in over a year. Mr. Roberts is also chafing, though for a different reason: he declares to the Doc that "I just happen to believe in this thing [the war]," and he is frustrated at being stuck on The Reluctant, serving a "useless" post as cargo officer and acting as a buffer between the Captain and the men when he would far rather be doing "worthwhile" work aboard a battleship or destroyer, in the thick of the action.

The Doc tries to reassure Doug of his usefulness to the war effort: "Whether you like it or not, this old bucket performs a necessary job, and you're the guy who keeps her lumbering along!" But even more important, he tells his friend, is Doug's unofficial function: the crew has only Mister Roberts to stand between them and the Captain, a petty tyrant whose greedy ambition is symbolized by a potted palm tree he keeps on the deck just below the bridge. The palm tree, which the nutty Captain nurtures as tenderly as though it were a child, was the ship's award from the Admiral for a job well done, and stands as a symbol to the Captain of better things in store - to wit, the possibility of his becoming a full commander. Knowing how Doug despises him (and hating him back just as cordially), he yet recognizes Mr. Roberts as a valuable asset to his own career, and so, despite his dislike and resentment, remains determined to keep him aboard, disapproving Doug's weekly letters requesting transfer to the front lines even as he rages over the less-than-flattering descriptions these letters contain of himself!

While the crew persists in tormenting the Captain by extinguishing their cigarettes in the soil of his beloved palm tree, and the Captain takes his revenge by depriving them of their evening movies, Doug schemes to arrange a "liberty" (shore leave) for the crew. His attempts lead to an explosive confrontation with the Captain, and later to a hilariously funny (and for Ensign Pulver, inspiring) final showdown which takes place on V.E. Day- a showdown that ultimately leads Doug to realize that maybe he wasn't quite as wasted on the SS "Bucket" as he thought.

If you like old movies, give this one a whirl - a funny, touching tale that deserves its designation as "classic."