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Mr. Roberts and His Children

June 17, 2006

I have seen the past of comedy, and its name is Mr. Roberts.

Mr. Roberts is set during the waning days of World War II, on a military cargo ship far away from the action in the Pacific. At the time of the film's release in 1955, its résumé was impeccable. It was based on a smash Broadway play that had swept the Tonies. Its directors, writers and stars had been nominated for 14 Academy Awards and won six. None of this changes the fact that it plays like Police Academy on a boat.

In Mister Roberts, Henry Fonda plays the Steve Guttenberg part, James Cagney is Lt. Harris and Jack Lemmon is the functional equivalent of the black guy who makes cool sounds. As in so many similar comedies to follow–Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, Ski School–a charismatic man leads a gang of lovable losers against an imcompetent, and often impotent, comic villain. Practical jokes, drunken stupidity and raunchy humor abound. Moreover, as the first American movie to show World War II in a humorous light, Mr. Roberts paved the way for Hogan's Heroes and M.A.S.H. For better or worse, Mr. Roberts is one of the most influential comedies ever made.

For a 51-year-old movie, the film's humor holds up remarkably well. Like many of its successors, Mr. Roberts derives its charm–and hence, its laughs–from its harmlessness. Ridiculous events happen and consequences are minimal. Sailors get drunk, put on tiki dresses and wreak havoc on an Army officer's house. Move on to the next scene. Jack Lemmon, a gas as Ensign Pulver, one of his first film roles, blows up the ship's laundry room, sending a tidal wave of soapy suds through the lower decks. Move on to the next scene. James Cagney, as the crazed captain, threatens to court-martial Henry Fonda. Move on to the next scene. Like the wrench-throwing session in Dodgeball, very little in Mr. Roberts is meant to be taken seriously.

Mr. Roberts is also a movie that uses its stars smartly. James Cagney plays an even more cartoonish version of himself, if that's possible, and William Powell is eternally charming as the ship doctor who's happiest sharing a bottle of orange juice and grain alcohol with a good friend. The only seeming misfit is Fonda, whose perfume of nobility cannot be masked by the stench of low-brow comedy.

But Fonda is actually perfectly cast as Mister Roberts. We need little convincing that the man who was Tom Joad would be an inspiration to his fellow men. And Fonda's apparent discomfort with comedy is an essential part of Mister Roberts' character; unlike the other bums on the ship, Mister Roberts wants to be on the frontlines of the war with the Japanese. As my college screenwriting teacher would say, the character of Mr. Roberts is arguing for another genre. Mr. Roberts doesn't want to be in a comedy, he wants to be in a heroic war movie.

But the key to the movie's only scene of emotional power–when the crew gets a letter saying that Mr. Roberts has died outside Okinawa–is Jack Lemmon. Up until this penultimate scene, Ensign Pulver has been nothing more than a likeable clown. But as he wordlessly reads the letter, and his eyebrows shift from 10 o'clock to 11 o'clock, we immediately understand–and buy–his devastation. It's one of the earliest demonstrations of Lemmon's rare talent to slip effortlessly between comedy and drama.

Now, if you're not down with older movies and their stylized acting and Cro-Magnon sexual politics, Mr. Roberts isn't for you. But if you're willing to trade boob shots for construction worker whistles and don't mind white people playing Polynesians, then Mr. Roberts may just float your boat.

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