Vaudeville Tyranny Ahoy
John Ford’s Mister Roberts(formally a hit Broadway play starring Henry Fonda, who returned to film for the first time after an 8 year absence to lead as its namesake)- is a comedy/drama about tedium and war. It’s one of those tiny but hugely consequential aspects of modern warfare that we don’t often see portrayed in film. In this story there’s never a bullet fired or even an enemy sighted- just the soul deadening impact of monotony and the morale sapping of diminutive commands. The film wants us to see that there were other battles taking place far removed from the traditional fronts.
From such tedium, the film posits, those in charge may become tyrants. That the Captain and reigning tyrant of the supply boat where almost all of the action takes place is James Cagney is fun enough, especially if you’ve seen him in Scarface- but there's also the nice bonus of watching James Cagney verbally spar with Henry Fonda for the wellbeing of the ship's crew. Fonda represents the good fight and is invested with the crew’s yearning for R & R (which translates into, as is par for such films, pent up sexual release and drunken adventure in exotic ports) while Cagney offers glaring contrast as the embodiment of all that is petty, selfishly singular and oppressive to the fighting spirit.
Fonda is the bulwark shielding the crew from Cagney’s authoritarianism and there’s never any doubt where your sympathies are to lie. Fonda’s Mister Roberts is all cool gravity and quiet, avuncular heroism (like Alan Alda’s Hawkeye in MASH but without the Groucho Marx shtick) while Cagney’s Captain Morion is theatrically exaggerated and cartoonishly animated. When they share a scene Cagney seems to be channeling the overemphasizing characteristics of vaudeville while Fonda exhibits a muted but heroic sagacity. Time and time again Fonda’s Mister Roberts challenges and transforms the outrageous and soul deadening commands of Cagney’s Captain Morion into something more palatable for the crew and they, of course, love him for it. He’s their true leader.
Jack Lemmon erupts around the edges of both Cagney and Fonda, showing up the two old pros in a role that won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1955. His Ensign Pulver is transformed from a conniving boy into a man with backbone. He’s an easy-going loafer and gets the biggest laughs and the most triumphant ending. He’s hammy and clownish but also down to earth and earnest. His scenes crackle with the piquant enthusiasm of an actor ascending and demonstrating his range.