One of the great comedy-dramas set in wartime, John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy’s Mister Roberts comes to Blu-ray finally in a video and audio presentation that’s worthy of the film’s greatness.
The Production: 5/5
The hit Broadway play Mister Roberts was something of a phenomenon in its day. Earning a three-year run and voted the Tony Award for Best Play over such landmark dramas as A Streetcar Named Desire, The Heiress, and Command Decision, Mister Roberts’ popularity insured that it was a highly anticipated motion picture, and it didn’t disappoint. With sterling direction by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy and a star-laden cast including Henry Fonda reprising his Tony-winning role as the title character, Mister Roberts was and is one of the great classic comedy-dramas coming out of World War II.
Stranded on the cargo ship The Reluctant as World War II winds down and itching to get a transfer to a battleship headed into the midst of the action in the Pacific, cargo officer Lieutenant Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda) does everything he can think of to get his recalcitrant captain (James Cagney) to approve his transfer. But the captain is vindictive and petty: he resents Doug’s college education, and he knows what a hard worker Roberts is and won’t OK his papers off the boat leaving Roberts frustrated and infuriated. It’s something of a tonic that the men admire and respect Mister Roberts as much as they loathe the captain, but neither the ship’s wise doctor (William Powell) nor the calculating but reticent laundry officer Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon) can figure out how to get Roberts transferred off the ship.
Josh Logan and Frank Nugent have adapted Logan’s Broadway play (co-written with Thomas Heggen who wrote the book that started it all) by keeping all of the play’s major sequences intact but milking the ability to magnify them on the big screen (lots of extras, location filming, major set pieces like the laundry explosion) so that while the crisp and crackling dialogue is almost all there, the film never feels like a filmed play. Credit for that must be shared by directors John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy (Ford’s health broke down midway through filming and LeRoy replaced him) and the great cast which has been assembled for the film (including Ford regulars like Ward Bond and Harry Carey, Jr.). While the nurses-raiding-the-ship sequence is much ado about nothing, there are joyous times to be had when the exhausted crew is finally granted shore leave near a tropical island, and the several face-offs between the cool Roberts and the agitated captain sizzle with the electricity of two towering actors playing men who despise one another but keep their physical presences under control. And if you get caught up in the film’s character interactions, you can be sure there won’t be a dry eye in the house at the inevitable farewell or the climactic revelations that lead to one last, great blast of unexpected ironic slapstick.
Henry Fonda played the entire three-year run of the show as well as touring with it, leaving his film career behind for a seven-year stretch until Mister Roberts brought him back to movies. He knows the character inside and out and wins the audience over early on and never lets them go (unlike his men, the audience is aware of the sacrifice he’s making on their behalf, a bit of dramatic irony that increases the play’s dramatic chops). Seasoned pros James Cagney and William Powell (this was his last film in a lengthy, celebrated career) have never been better bringing tons of personality to what could have been clichéd, predictable parts. Jack Lemmon takes the role of Ensign Pulver and steals the movie earning a supporting actor Oscar and lots of laughs as he stumbles and bumbles his way to ultimate respect. And in the roles of the sailors, you’ll easily pick out favorites of your own from among many of them who had lengthy careers in movies and television: Nick Adams, Patrick Wayne, Ken Curtis (my particular favorite), Philip Carey, Ward Bond, Harry Carey, Jr., Perry Lopez, and Frank Aletter.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s early Cinemascope aspect ratio of 2.55:1 is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. A huge improvement on the blurry, brazenly colored DVD, image quality is excellent with only occasionally soft shots or parts of the frame a bit blurred on the left side. The problematic WarnerColor still has moments when you know something’s off, but overall, it’s wonderful looking with next to no registration issues. Contrast is beautifully achieved, and there are no age-related scratches or spots to mar the viewing experience. The movie has been divided into 34 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix is well balanced with dialogue in the center channel with Franz Waxman’s music spread mostly across the front soundstage spilling occasionally into the rears and some sound effects that do occasionally make use of the rear soundstage. And the one huge explosion will rattle your windows if you have even an average sound system. There are no problems with age-related anomalies like hiss, crackle, flutter, or pops.
Special Features: 2/5
Audio Commentary: Jack Lemmon’s remembrances of making the film are scattered throughout the running time. They’re interesting and entertaining, but as there are sometimes long gaps between them, it would have been nice for them to have been cued somehow so the listener could skip from one to the next uninterrupted.
Theatrical Trailer (4:08, HD)
One of the great comedy-dramas set in wartime, John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy’s Mister Roberts comes to Blu-ray finally in a video and audio presentation that’s worthy of the film’s greatness. Highly recommended!
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