With WWII winding down, supply ship officer Mister Roberts works every angle to get out of the cargo biz and into action at sea. That’s the simple idea behind the wildly successful play that broke all its creatives’ hearts in this film adaptation. Adding insult to injury, the damned thing became the year’s top-grossing narrative film. The behind-the-scenes-saga starts with co-author/ play director Joshua Logan up to helm with either Marlon Brando or William Holden starring; Logan having fallen out with original star Henry Fonda, still touring the play at 50 with a worshipful cast all aping his gallant perf. Enter producer Leland Hayward with director John Ford in hand, but only if Fonda took the lead. Except Ford & Fonda couldn’t agree on the tone (noble undertow or rough-and-tumble with sentiment); and Ford, on a terrible drunk, threw a punch at his star. So, with cast on eggshells, location shooting wrapped. Back to the mainland studio for interiors . . . and hospital for Ford & his gall bladder. Enter stiffening Hollywood vet Mervyn LeRoy to cover the rest of the shoot, bringing in all the visual allure of Golden Age television. (On the other hand, Winton Hoch’s location lensing is flat out gorgeous.) And now, we go full circle with Hayward ordering a major re-edit, and some re-shoots, from original stage director Joshua Logan. Yet, in spite of it all, the seams hardly show and the film works pretty damn well. Fonda at times gives off a rote feeling, trying to recreate iconic moments, but the other three leads are remarkably fresh. James Cagney, is more comic than sadistic captain, and a real tonic for a play probably too worked out for its own good. (It doesn’t seem to hold the boards anymore.*) Jack Lemmon, at his youngest, thinnest & freshest, is far less mannered than later; and old smoothy, William Powell, in his final screen appearance, seems unable to put a foot wrong or mistime a line. What an extraordinary technician that man was. So, if not one for the ages, it remains a handsome, effective, bittersweet service dramedy; deservedly popular.
DOUBLE-BILL: Similar troubles on the last mega-hit B’way-to-film transfer with author/director Garson Kanin kept off George Cukor/ Judy Holliday’s BORN YESTERDAY/’50 only to be called in for major post-production tweaking to ‘fix’ the ‘improvements.’
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *They tried MISTER ROBERTS as a LIVE play-on-television special in 1984, looking sadly dated with Robert Hayes (AIRPLANE/'80), Charles Durning, Howard Hesseman & Kevin Bacon in the Fonda, Cagney, Powell, Lemmon spots.