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On June 4, 1942, movie director John Ford had a 16mm camera pointing out the window of a powerhouse shooting one of the most important battles of World War II. It was the Battle of Midway Island and Ford was there at the request of the U.S. Navy. He kept the film rolling even after he was struck in the arm by shrapnel and knocked down by a flying block of concrete. Twelve years later, Ford returned to Midway to shoot a rollicking comedy with old friends. Again a battle raged and this time, Ford lost.
Mister Roberts (1955) started as a novel by Thomas Heggen, but became popular when it hit Broadway as a stage play in 1948, written by Heggen and Joshua Logan. The play starred movie actor Henry Fonda who had left Hollywood after making Fort Apache (1948) with director John Ford. For once, that turned out to be a wise decision, as the play became one of Broadway's most popular hits.
When Logan and the play's producer, Leland Hayward, went to Warner Brothers to make the film version, Fonda felt there was little chance he would be given Roberts. After all, he was then nearly fifty years old and Roberts was written as being a man in his twenties. In fact, Warner Brothers would have preferred Marlon Brando or William Holden in the lead. However, one of the first decisions the producing team made was bringing Ford onboard as director and Ford demanded Fonda. To make Fonda seem younger, most of the rest of the cast was populated with older actors; fifty-five year old James Cagney as the dictatorial Captain Morton and, after Spencer Tracy turned down the role, sixty-two year old William Powell for Doc. For the young Ensign Pulver, Ford chose a little-known actor who had made a screen test for his previous movie The Long Grey Line (1955)- Jack Lemmon.
As the filming began, sailing could not have seemed smoother. Ford used his Navy connections to find one of the old cargo scows to use for the story's setting and boat; cast and crew were all sent to Midway Island for exterior shooting. Why it all went wrong is a matter of controversy. After years playing Roberts on stage, Fonda felt he owned the role and knew how it was to be played. Ford had other ideas, introducing bits of broad physical comedy, inventing new situations and, allegedly, throwing more attention to Lemmon's Pulver than Fonda's Roberts. Fonda kept his mouth shut but Ford could tell he was dissatisfied. One night, Ford confronted Fonda in his quarters while Fonda was having a meeting with Hayward. "I understand you're not happy with my work," Ford muttered and, when Fonda confirmed it, Ford charged him, swinging wildly. Fonda managed to hold him back and Ford later apologized. The damage, however, was done and was irreparable.
Ford continued directing the movie into the next month but could not handle being subservient to an actor. His way of dealing with the humiliation was drinking, keeping an ice chest full of beer nearby and downing up to two cases a day. After exterior shooting was completed, Ford was hospitalized with a gall bladder attack. The day he went into hospital for surgery, he was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, the director of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Quo Vadis? (1951). LeRoy shot all the studio-bound interiors except for two scenes, the laundry scene and Pulver's final message to the Captain, both of which were directed by Joshua Logan.
Those who knew the play well from Broadway were unhappy with the end result but their perspective may have been colored by unrealistic expectations. Movie audiences loved Mister Roberts, making it 1955's third-biggest box office hit, and earning Jack Lemmon his first Academy Award. Ford went on to what many feel was his greatest movie, The Searchers (1956), while Fonda had a long career of acting triumphs. But these two former friends never worked together again.
Producer: Leland HaywardDirectors: John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy (and Joshua Logan, uncredited)
Screenplay: Joshua Logan, Frank Nugent based on the novel by Thomas Heggen and the play by Joshua Logan and Thomas Heggen
Cinematography: Winton Hoch
Music: Franz Waxman
Editing: Jack Murray
Art Direction: Art Loel
Cast: Henry Fonda (Lt. Douglas Roberts), James Cagney (Capt. Morton), William Powell ('Doc'), Jack Lemmon (Ensign Frank Pulver), Betsy Palmer (Lt. Ann Girard), Ward Bond (Chief Petty Officer Dowdy).
by Brian Cady