Thursday, July 30, 2015

Henry Fonda's Pursuit of Happiness

"All right! Who did it? Who did it? You are going to stand sweating at those battle stations until someone confesses! It's an insult to the honor of this ship! The symbol of our cargo record has been destroyed, and I'm going to find out who did it if it takes all night!"

James Cagney

After a lifetime of watching movies, I have reached a conclusion that may seem obvious, but it is truly amazing how few people really consider it before embarking on a moviemaking project. If they did, untold millions — perhaps billions — of budget dollars could be spared.

The best movies are the ones that honestly examine human conditions and traits (both good and bad) that are fairly common. John Ford's "Mister Roberts," which premiered 60 years ago today, was such a movie.

It was a clever twist on the end–of–the–war theme that has been done dozens of times, but there was much more to it than that. The Mister Roberts of the title was Henry Fonda, reprising his Tony Award–winning stage role as an officer on board a cargo ship in the Pacific at the end of World War II. The cargo ship was far from the action — so far, in fact, that it could just barely be regarded as being involved in the war at all — and Fonda's character craved action. So he was forever writing letters asking to be transferred, which were passed along as required by Navy regulations.

His problem was the captain of the cargo ship (James Cagney) consistently refused to endorse Fonda's transfer requests. Without the captain's endorsements, the requests weren't considered — and Fonda's character felt trapped, helplessly watching as the war seemed to be ending in front of his very eyes.

Cagney's character took a heavy–handed approach to his job, and Fonda's character served as a buffer between the captain and the crew, always letting the men bend the rules. He had two friends with whom he shared quarters and frustrations — the ship's doctor (William Powell in his last movie role) and Ensign Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon) who spent most of his time trying to avoid both the captain and work of any kind.

Although Mister Roberts was worried that he would never get into the war before it ended, he was unselfish in his relationships with the men he commanded. It was an unselfishness that went beyond merely bending the rules. Mister Roberts went behind the captain's back and requested liberty for the long–deprived crew, which was granted, but then the captain refused to permit the crew to go on liberty when they reached the port. Fonda confronted Cagney, who told him he would permit the liberty if Roberts stopped writing letters asking for a transfer, enforced the captain's rules and pledged never to reveal what they had discussed. Roberts agreed to the conditions — he didn't like them, but he agreed to them — and the liberty was permitted.

But the crew had been without liberty for a long time, and several crew members got a little boisterous, which led to their arrests by the military police — and the captain being chided by the port admiral. That didn't go down easily for the captain.

At the same time, the crew was baffled by Mister Roberts' inexplicable rigidity about discipline, and Cagney made them even more suspicious by implying that Roberts was selling them out for a promotion. They were even more confused by his refusal to take advantage of a new Navy policy that could make it possible for him to get a transfer without the captain's endorsement.

Roberts' sense of urgency was heightened when news of Germany's surrender in Europe reached the Pacific. At first, he was despondent, realizing that the war was rapidly coming to an end — when he was inspired to throw a prized palm tree — a reward for the ship's cargo record — overboard.

And it was when the captain confronted Roberts — and their entire conversation was broadcast over an open microphone — that the crew understood what had happened.

A few weeks later, Roberts received an unexpected transfer. The crew had competed in a secret competition for the opportunity to forge the captain's signature. Before he left, the crew presented Mister Roberts with a homemade medal, the Order of the Palm.

Lemmon was appointed to replace Roberts as cargo officer, and he and the doctor received letters at the same time. The doctor's letter was from Mister Roberts, who wrote with enthusiasm about his joy to be aboard a destroyer. Then Lemmon's character read his letter, which was from an ex–classmate, who informed him that Roberts had been killed in a kamikaze attack shortly after mailing the letter to the doctor.

It was an indication of how well written the script was that it could turn on a dime from comedy to pathos — and then back again as Lemmon's character fully assumed Fonda's role, tossing the replacement palm tree overboard (in spite of a new chain that was supposed to keep it securely in place) and then storming into the captain's quarters, demanding answers about movie nights on board ship.

If I didn't know better, I would have sworn Billy Wilder did at least some of the writing. But he had no connection to the original novel — or the successful play that was based on it or the movie adaptation that premiered 60 years ago today. Of course, it was also a credit to the considerable skills of the cast — especially Fonda, who was so good at being the good guy that, when he played a really bad guy in 1968's "Once Upon a Time in the West," many viewers who saw the movie were shocked.

"Mister Roberts" received Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Lemmon, who won) and Best Sound Recording.