Program Notes: Mister Roberts (1955)

Mister Roberts is only half a John Ford movie.

Precisely which half has been debated ever since this naval comedy/drama was released in 1955.

Ford, the grand old man of movies, was fired from the project halfway through filming.

His offense: Going on a monumental alcoholic bender topped by a stark naked leap off the diving board into the pool of a Waikiki hotel. This outrageous behavior was witnessed by dozens of stunned cast and crew members, not to mention a good complement of tourists.

Mister Roberts was supposed to be a dream project that would reunite Ford with his longtime leading man, Henry Fonda.

Fonda had just spent three years on Broadway starring in an adaptation of Thomas Heggen’s novel about a Navy lieutenant who finds himself wasting his war experience. Doug Roberts is the executive officer on the supply ship USS Reluctant, sailing the South Pacific “from Tedium to Apathy and back again.” All he really wants is to be transferred to a ship where he’ll actually see some fighting.

Film Screening:
Mister Roberts (1955)
Saturday, Mar. 31 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Despite his familiarity with the role and the quiet decency he exuded in it, Fonda was 20 years older than the character he was portraying. When the play’s producers began thinking about making a movie, they initially looked at a younger actor: Marlon Brando.

Happily they came to their senses and gave the nod to Fonda, who in turn requested that his old mentor John Ford direct the film.

Big mistake.

The problem was that after three years of playing Doug Roberts, Fonda believed the film should be faithful to the stage production. Real sets, real ships, real ocean, yes. But no messing with the text.

And Ford was the sort of director who insisted on putting his own imprimatur on a story, whether through on-the-set improvisation or rewriting (or eliminating) entire passages.

No sooner had filming begun off Midway Island than Fonda began stewing. He feared Ford was losing the play’s poignancy by placing too much emphasis on comedy. Several of the characters were taking on a cartoonish feel. And Ford kept urging young Jack Lemmon, as the bombastic but cowardly Ensign Pulver, to improvise over-the-top comic business.

“Ford,” Fonda later said, is “an SOB who happens to be a genius ... those of us who had been close to the play felt Ford was tampering with something that was pretty good to begin with.”

And there was a political facet to the growing antagonism. Fonda was a classic Hollywood liberal. Ford was edging increasingly to the Right.

It all came to a head one night when, Fonda said, Ford sucker punched him. The actor claimed he was more embarrassed than hurt.

Lemmon, awakened by the ruckus, recalled:

“I came down the hall and I looked in through the door, it was only partially closed, and they were screaming at each other. The argument basically was about the fact that they weren’t sticking to the script. Ford took a swing at Fonda and missed. Fonda just held him with his hand on his chest, and Ford kept swinging like in a cartoon. He couldn’t reach him, couldn’t hit him. Then finally Hank just gave him a shove, pushed him back on the bed, and started for the door.

“I went paddlin’ in my bare feet down the hall as fast as I could, not making any noise, and got back in bed.”

After that Ford, who always had battled alcoholism, went on a binge.

“Nobody knew who was in charge of what,” producer Leland Hayward recalled. “Ford was [drunk] all day. Ward Bond was directing the picture. At lest he kept the camera turning when Ford came to and until he passed out again.”

When the company moved to Honolulu, Ford underwent six days of drying out. But he fell off the wagon and made his big naked splash in the hotel pool. A gallbladder attack was the final straw. The Old Man was off the picture.

Interior filming resumed on a Hollywood soundstage, where first Mervyn LeRoy and later Joshua Logan (who had directed the play) shepherded the production to completion.

After all this trauma, Mister Roberts could very well have been an unwatchable mess. In fact, it is terrifically enjoyable, amusing, and moving. It was a substantial hit and earned three Oscar nominations, including best picture. Lemmon won his first Oscar (for supporting actor) for his work as Ensign Pulver.

Ford and LeRoy share the directing credit. If a scene was shot on location, it’s probably Ford’s work. The below-decks stuff is almost all LeRoy’s or Logan’s.

Ford’s career somehow survived Mister Roberts. He would go on to make 12 feature films over the next 11 years, among them The Searchers, The Last Hurrah, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. There was still some life left in the Old Man.

Other films in the series “John Ford: Not a Cowboy In Sight”

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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