Grade: B+
Not rated (would be PG)

Mister Roberts (1955) is set during the waning days of World War II, but it’s not a war movie. There are no battles, no strategic planning sessions, and no missions. That’s a problem for Chief Cargo Officer Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda, reprising his Broadway role), who desperately wants to see action. Stuck on a cargo ship stationed off a small island in the Pacific far away from the fighting, Roberts’ serves his country by procuring and delivering such commodities as toilet paper and toothpaste to other ships that are headed for combat.

It’s not like he’s itching to become a hero or put his life in danger. He just feels like he ought to be serving in the “real” war instead of being anchored where on one side he watches a task force slipping by under the cover of darkness, and on the other side his men aboard the appropriately named Reluctant discover some excitement one morning by training their binoculars and spyglasses on a group of nurses who just landed at the local hospital.

In addition to fighting tedium, Roberts and the crew have to deal with a tyrannical captain (James Cagney) who prizes the palm tree he received from the admiral for delivering the most cargo in the Pacific. But the captain has his sights set on something more: a big promotion. Like the factory boss who refuses to give his line workers a break because they’re so productive the company would lose money, he keeps his crew on the ship. Always. No leave. No shore liberty. And the time off they get for good behavior? Ten minutes of swimming.

If the crew collectively feels like the exaggerated characters we met in the musical South Pacific without the songs, it’s no coincidence. Joshua Logan had a hand in writing the screenplays for both of the cinematic adaptations. Tonally Mister Roberts isn’t all that different either. It’s a light story with mostly comic moments and several serious ones.

Audiences today might think that the first act gets off to a slow start, but that’s only because Mister Roberts is meant to be the sympathetic character. He’s the everyman who felt guilty for serving in the war but not seeing, someone who needed to be reassured that his job was still important to the war effort. And if Roberts is driven bonkers by the boredom, as is the crew, there’s only one way to show it: you can’t speed quickly to the second act. Roberts’ only battle is with the captain, and the crew’s only battle is with confinement . . . and with the islanders once they finally do get a liberty.

Audiences today have to look past outdated cultural stereotypes and behavior that are now considered highly inappropriate. The men’s pre-Porkys ogling of women in the shower is one such behavior, as is their epic drunkenness and antics—none of which are shown onscreen. In one  scene, Roberts and Doc (William Powell, Life with Father, The Thin Man) make their own booze to help Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) score with a nurse. Never mind that it’s all pretty  innocent and cute for the times, or that the scheme backfires; it’s still an attempted seduction-by-booze. That said, the central story is so touching and the moral so strong that it makes up for any shenanigans that seem, by contrast, superficial.

Directors John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy, and Logan focus on character for this one, and at its core Mister Roberts probably has more in common with Goodbye Mr. Chips, To Sir with Love, and films about influential and beloved characters than it does Ford’s They Were Expendable or other wartime dramas. And it has a killer cast. Fonda is his usual likable onscreen self, Cagney effectively manages to channel his old gangster persona into a downsized package of badness to the point where he’s more nit than full-blown nemesis, and this was the role that launched Lemmon’s career into that next rocket stage.

TV and movie lovers will recognize a lot of other familiar faces. Ward Bond (The Searchers, It’s a Wonderful Life) plays Chief Petty Officer Dowdy; Betsy Palmer (Knots Landing) plays the head nurse; Philip Carey (77 Sunset Strip, Laredo) plays a crewman; and Nick Adams (Teacher’s Pet, The Rebel) plays another crewman. And they’re not the only familiar faces.

When Mister Roberts first played in theaters, a reviewer for The Pittsburgh Press gushed, “There hasn’t been a more absorbing movie in recent years. If there ever was Oscar material, ‘Mister Roberts’ is it . . . magnificently acted by a corps of top-flight actors.”

That prediction came only partly true. While Mister Roberts received three Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor), only Lemmon would win—the first of his two Oscars. Lemmon provides a scene-specific commentary in this release’s only bonus feature, aside from the theatrical trailer.

Entire family: No (younger children will be as bored and restless as Roberts)
Run time: 123 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Warner Bros.
Aspect ratio: 2.55:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link
Not rated (would be PG for adult elements)

Language: 0/10—Nothing at all that I could catch

Sex: 2/10—Aside from a notable look at sailors drooling through their binoculars over a woman taking a shower (nothing shown, not even a head and shoulders shot of the woman), there’s nothing here

Violence: 2/10—Sailors returning from leave talk about all the havoc they wreaked, and there’s one fight aboard ship; other than that, there’s one offscreen explosion

Adult situations: 4/10—The officers make scotch and drink and toast, but no one gets drunk; the crew returns from shore leave drunk as skunks, some of them needing to be helped onboard; there’s also brief smoking . . . by a doctor (this was the ‘50s, after all)

Takeaway: Still a solid, entertaining and impactful film, but the Logan-directed sequel Ensign Pulver (1964) couldn’t entice any of the original cast to climb onboard—and subsequently assembled its own quirky collection of stars (Jack Nicholson, Larry Hagman, Tommy Sands, Burl Ives, Walter Matthau, James Farentino, James Coco, and George Lindsey); remade in 1984 as a Made-for-TV movie