Many, many moons ago -- it may have been when I was working as a page at the New Castle County Library and had grown well acquainted with what was hidden away on the shelves -- I read Thomas Heggen's slender novel MISTER ROBERTS (1946), about an ambitious executive officer serving aboard a dreary cargo ship during the latter stages of World War II. The book is more of a collection of short stories/vignettes than a novel proper, but I remember liking it. The tale was later adapted into a Broadway smash starring Henry Fonda and seemed a natural for easy translation to the screen, under the direction of John Ford, no less. The shoot, however, turned into a rough one, with Ford uncharacteristically imbibing on the job and Fonda quarreling with the great director over changes the latter made to the script, most notably in the area of pumping up the role of the callow Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon). After location filming had been completed, Ford finally checked out of the picture due to illness, leaving Mervyn LeRoy to helm a good portion of the studio-bound material. The directorial seams don't really show, but the film, though enjoyable enough, has a far more serious flaw: its wildly inconsistent tone. The original book had both moments of mirth and periods of seriousness, but the film overplays the former to the extent that it undercuts the latter. A few tough-to-take acting performances don't help the cause.
At bottom, MISTER ROBERTS is about doing your job under difficult, and frequently absurd, circumstances -- think DILBERT on the high seas. Roberts desperately wants to get away from the backwater environs of the USS Reluctant and see some real action before the war ends. He sends a steady stream of letters to his tyrannical captain (James Cagney) asking to be transferred. At the same time, he rules the Reluctant's working stiffs with a light, yet very respected, hand. The ship's worldly-wise doctor (William Powell, whose rough experience on this shoot convinced him to retire for good) is Roberts' anchor (no pun intended), always ready with a good piece of advice or a good stiff drink. The war of wills, had it been limited to these three main characters, would have been enough to carry the entire film. Pulver, however, knocks everything out of balance. Lemmon plays Pulver as a cartoon of a lecherous, scheming junior officer who'd have been right at home sailing with McHale's Navy. Granted, Lemmon is funny, but he's also irritating as hell; how did he win the Academy Award again? Cagney also fits into the little-bit-goes-a-long-way category, yelling his way through his role. The captain, whose promotion from the Merchant Marine was obviously one of those "wartime necessities" on a par with saving grease, does get several good scenes, including a surreal little dialogue with Pulver (who's managed to keep his head low enough that the captain doesn't even know who he is, even though he's been on board for over a year) and a memorable showdown with Roberts, during which he sets the final part of the plot in motion by blackmailing the exec into pledging his "undying loyalty" in exchange for the men being allowed much-needed liberty. Roberts exacts revenge -- of a sort -- and finally gets his wish to be transferred, but "be careful what you wish for" rears its ugly head during the memorable final scene. The moment would have been even more powerful had the film throttled back a bit on the earlier sophomoric hijinx. John Ford always had a weakness for comedy relief, even in his most serious films like The Searchers, but very rarely did the humor so severely compromise the message of the movie. It's especially surprising here, given Ford's wartime Naval service and reverence for the Navy (he liked Hogan's Heroes but hated McHale's Navy).
The DVD's extras are modest at best: a clip from an episode of Toast of the Town (The Ed Sullivan Show) during which several scenes from the movie are reenacted on very cheap-looking TV-stage sets; still pictures of the cast; a vintage trailer. No commentary, I'm sorry to say, though I would have liked to have heard more about the details of the troubled shoot.