I am so glad I decided to watch “The Caine Mutiny” before watching “Mister Roberts,” because that made this experience so hilarious.
Both films take a slightly different approach to a similar story, about a rundown navy ship during World War II, run by a captain that is only out for himself and have gone a bit insane, while the crew is less than thrilled following a crazed-captains’ orders. “The Caine Mutiny” played that story straight and handled it with the necessary gravity that such a situation deserves.
“Mister Roberts” on the other hand plays it all for laughs. In this film, the crew has been stuck on a beat-up bucket for nearly two years, has never taken shore leave, has never seen combat, and whose sole purpose is to deliver cargo. The only accomplishment the crew was ever given was a palm tree, which the captain keeps in front of his office, and now clings to that dying plant like it was the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Much like “The Caine Mutiny,” the best part of “Mister Roberts” is the captain, played by James Cagney, who plays the role as if Captain Queeg fully embraced the crazy and didn’t care one bit about his fellow officers. Cagney is one of those actors like Jim Carey or Nicholas Cage who puts his entire body into his performance, where screaming at the top of his lungs isn’t enough to show his anger.
It is amazing to see how detached from reality this captain is, and yet he thinks starving his men from the outside world is going to help him and the crew (but mostly him).
But the improvement over “The Caine Mutiny” is the supporting cast in this film. While the serious drama had some wonderful performances from Fred MacMurray and Van Johnson, “Mister Roberts” has such a varied range of emotion with its crew. From the tough yet nurturing doctor played by William Powell, to the gruff chief played by Ward Bond, and the always perfect comedic timing of Jack Lemmon, this crew has it all.
Of course, this would be incomplete without the titular Mister Roberts, played by Henry Fonda. Fonda has previously played this role on Broadway, and it goes to show just how much passion he has for this role. I’ve always looked at a Fonda performance through the eyes, because he has the biggest blue-est eyes I’ve ever seen in cinema. In “Mister Roberts,” those eyes are stone cold, but always seem close to being on the verge of tears, as if he is being held back.
“Mister Roberts” feels like a combination of “The Caine Mutiny” and “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It takes the WW2 story about a crazed captain ruining his command, but then the film surprises you by bouncing so effortlessly between comedy and serious moments. Part of this is because of Jack Lemmon’s antics, but it is also due to the comradery between the crewmates. This journey of solitude and despair has drawn them so close together that sometimes they speak louder by bowing to a palm tree.
I was surprised by how funny “Mister Roberts” was, as well as how captivating the entire crew was. There were very few dull moments throughout this one, as the performances as so stunning to watch, especially Cagney and Lemmon. This was not how I expected the movie to turn out, but I am not unsettled by that at all.
Final Grade: A-