Back in the day, just before Seinfeld mania hit the country I was watching Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts. He plays a lazy, fast talking, pretty boy, cowardly, skirt chasing loon named Ensign Frank Pulver. Pulver has been on the US cargo ship Reluctant for 14 months, all the while avoiding the notice of the ship’s task master Captain (Jimmy Cagney). Pulver is the ship’s officer in charge of laundry and morale. His first accidental meaning with the Captain is preceded by an amazingly Kramer- like slide on the stair rail entrance. It seems that Michæl Richards is as big a fan of Lemmon’s as even Ving Rhames is. Watch for a few moments and you’ll see where the walk, the pratfalls, and the attitude that also won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor came from.
“Mister Roberts” is a movie dedicated to anyone with a boring dead end job who wants to be a hero and has to decide whether to live honorably anyway. Stand up man Henry Ford plays Lieutenant Junior Grade Doug Roberts, the cargo officer of The Reluctant. Roberts desperately wants to get into the s**t with a combat unit in the closing moments of World War II. Every week he sends forth a request to be transferred, which is always refused by the ships officious and vain Captain. Cagney once received a palm tree as an award for excellence and knows he must keep Roberts around if he wants to get the promotion he is dying to have. He, in turn, intends to work his men to death killing them with life sucking boredom. Roberts enrages Cagney by continuously siding with the men. Roberts’ disrespect for the captain is the only ray of sunshine the men have to get through the drudgery of the safe zoned Pacific.
Behind doors Cagney refuses to offer the men a much needed liberty unless Roberts agree to end the letter writing and secretly start obeying his every word. After a riotous liberty that is close to a genuine wilding, the men notice a difference about Roberts. Word around the ship is that Roberts has betrayed them and is bucking for a promotion. Fonda torn and destroyed by his situation decides to toss the Captain’s palm tree, which has become a symbol of their servitude, overboard. Fireworks ensue.
The killer cast also includes William Powell, in his last roll, as the sensitive philosophical Doc. Cagney is almost as amusing as Lemmon. His Captain hates Roberts for his strength and always looks to be about 15 seconds away from a heart attack. Henry Fonda is of course the definition of the simple common goodness of a man’s man with his perfect and strong, honest drawl. The movie was based on a stage play and retains that type of theatrical feel. John Ford began the direction but fell ill during filming and was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, nevertheless, the movie retains a consistent tone. In the end the tear producing finale feels well earned.