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One of stage and film director Joshua Logan's signature efforts was the Broadway adaptation of Thomas Heggen's cynical WII maritime opus Mister Roberts. Besides directing the show, he also co-authored the dramatization of the story with Heggen. With Henry Fonda in the title role, the production enjoyed a heralded and lengthy run. Logan was also on hand to co-author the screenplay for the 1955 Hollywood version, which John Ford helmed for a once-in-a-lifetime ensemble of Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon. Logan patently believed that lightning would strike twice when he first contemplated making a well-after-the-fact sequel as director, producer and co-scripter. The end result, Ensign Pulver (1964), suffered in comparison to its predecessor at the time of its release, but it's amusing enough on its own merits, and provides an entertaining opportunity to pick out the future familiar faces among the cast.
The action resumes back in the Pacific as WWII winds down, and the dispirited crew of the cargo ship USS Reluctant is still chafing under the dictatorial rule of the martinet Capt. Morton (Burl Ives). The ship's surgeon Doc (Walter Matthau) is still trying to pry some compassion from the skipper for the stressed sailors; and Ensign Frank Pulver (Robert Walker, Jr.) is still forever in pursuit of a fast buck. Tensions escalate even further when the captain callously refuses sympathy leave to crewman Bruno (Tommy Sands), who has lost his toddler daughter. The disgusted Pulver responds by escalating his campaign of pranks to undermine Morton's dignity.
Circumstances contrive to the point where the skipper is washed overboard during a storm, and Pulver is the only one in a position to rescue him. The enterprising ensign finds himself stuck adrift in a life raft having to ensure the survival of the despised captain, and possibly learn the reasons for his miserable demeanor.
In his 1978 autobiography Movie Stars, Real People, and Me, Logan made no bones about the indifferent public response to Ensign Pulver. "We though we had everyone in the picture that anyone could ask for," he reminisced. "But we had left out the most important thing: the catalytic agent, Mister Roberts. And without him, the story falls into shreds. No one really cares about the others enough to create suspense as to the outcome."
Besides Jack Nicholson (who, recalled Logan, "appointed himself my 'assistant producer': he helped me cast some of the other actors as well as Millie Perkins"), the sharp-eyed viewer will be able to pick out Larry Hagman, Peter Marshall, James Coco, James Farentino, Dick Gautier, George Lindsey and Gerald S. O'Loughlin from the officers and seamen.
Producer: Joshua Logan
Director: Joshua Logan
Screenplay: Peter S. Feibleman; Joshua Logan (screenplay and play "Mister Roberts"); Thomas Heggen (novel "Mister Roberts", play "Mister Roberts")
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: Leo K. Kuter
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: William Reynolds
Cast: Robert Walker (Ensign Frank Pulver), Burl Ives (Captain Morton), Walter Matthau (Doc), Tommy Sands (John X. Bruno), Millie Perkins (Nurse Scotty), Kay Medford (Head Nurse), Larry Hagman (Lt. J.G. Billings), Peter L. Marshall (Lt. J.G. Carney), Joseph Marr (C.P.O. Dowdy), Gerald O'Loughlin (Lt. S.G. LaSueur), Diana Sands (Mila), Robert Matek (Captain Donald 'Stretch' Zimmer), Jack Nicholson (Dolan), Al Freeman, Jr. (Taru).
by Jay S. Steinberg