' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Mister Roberts

Friday, September 09, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: Mister Roberts

Was anyone ever able to achieve as much dignity by being so matter-of-fact as Henry Fonda? In "Mister Roberts" (1955) Fonda is the title character, the executive officer onboard a naval ship called The Reluctant in the waning days of WWII which forgoes combat to offer supplies. The Captain (James Cagney) is your typical fire-breathing heathen but Mister Roberts has just finagled an evening of precious Liberty for his crew in the south Pacific. The island's army police turn up at The Reluctant and informs Mister Roberts that his men have drunkenly broken into the French Governor's mansion and begun throwing things out the window, food, furniture, even an army private. Upon hearing the words "army private" Mister Roberts asks, "Through the window?" I can't imagine any other actor being more blasé about hearing someone has been thrown through a window and yet somehow simultaneously employing that blasé attitude to show that he truly cares for the emotional and physical welfare of his men.


Co-directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy, "Mister Roberts" presents a familiar situation. Mister Roberts yearns to get out from the safe haven of his supply ship and face real combat. It's his duty, after all. He, with the the help of a few of his men, delivers a letter once a week, not unlike Andy Dufresne, to his hard-charging Captain Morton, who tends to his on-deck palm tree like a prize steer, requesting a transfer to combat. Every week the Captain reams him out but still forwards the letter, albeit with his official disapproval. Thus far no transfer has been ordered. Will it? What do you think? That's not the point.

At least it's not the point because Fonda, heroic without ever being heroic in glitzy neon lights, never makes it the point. He is pals with the ship's doctor (William Powell) and is forced to endure his lazy bunkmate, Ensign Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon, who won the Academy Award for Supporting Actor). In one of the film's finer sequences, Pulver is set to bring a beautiful nurse onto the boat and yearns to share a bit of his stowed scotch, scotch that Roberts has given away. Uh oh. But the Doc and Roberts sit down and slowly but surely concoct "scotch" out of a few available liquids. The film was based on a stage play and you can see it in sequences such as this one simply on account of its static nature......but just because the staging of it is static doesn't mean it feels static. Clearly they didn't have jump cuts back in the day because dudes like Henry Fonda and William Powell didn't need jump cuts, they didn't need dead air to be masked because they ensured there wouldn't be dead air.


It's fairly interesting to read about the behind the scenes situation involved with the making of the film and the apparent disagreements between John Ford and Henry Fonda, one of which supposedly ended with Ford punching Fonda and which partially resulted in Mervyn Leroy replacing Ford. Yet, it was Ford who insisted Fonda get the role. He knew his star's abilities. And he knew that a film about a by-the-book naval officer in which the story is also very much by-the-book needed a primary actor to make it all ring through those oft-trod hallways with truth.

But perhaps Fonda's neatest trick in the entire film is anchoring a sequence near the end in which he does not even appear. Ensign Pulver reads a letter to the whole crew written and sent from a battleship in the Pacific by Mister Roberts, and as Pulver does so the viewer has a clear picture in his mind of Mister Roberts sitting down to compose these words. And to say you know what's coming at that point would be a grotesque understatement and yet when it comes, it resonates to the fullest, and it resonates to the fullest because Fonda has subtly, though in plain view, crafted a character with as much graceful dignity as, say, a "Young Mr. Lincoln."

It reminded me a bit of Mark Wahlberg in "The Fighter." Lemmon got the Oscar. Fonda wasn't even nominated. But then a guy like Mister Roberts wouldn't have wanted a nomination anyway. He would've been happy to stand in back in the dark and see Ensign Pulver stand on the podium.

2 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I sort of cringe at the comparison to Wahlberg in The Fighter because even if I did think he was good - the parallel between Fonda just seems wrong (as does that of Jack and Christian). But, then, they're legends any comparison would be weird. I don't particularly love this movie (too many men) and I find it more funny than humorous (if that makes sense to you) but the acting is superb.

Nick Prigge said...

I didn't necessarily mean to suggest that Wahlberg was Fonda's equal. I really like Wahlberg as an actor buy yeah, come on, he was Henry Fonda! But I do think the two respective Oscar situations within their given context are essentially the same.