John Ford: Mister Roberts

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews Mister Roberts.

Mister Roberts has the distinction of being a John Ford film that was not entirely directed by John Ford.

In 1955, Warner Bros. hired John Ford to direct Mister Roberts, a Naval comedy about a lieutenant junior grade on a supply ship with ambitions for battle. The film was based on the play of the same name, which had been playing on Broadway for years with Henry Fonda in the title role. Warners wanted William Holden or Marlon Brando for the role because they thought Fonda had spent too much time on stage to be a draw at the box office, but Ford insisted on Fonda.

Ford had conflicts with Fonda and James Cagney on the set. Attempts by producer Leland Hayward to settle the issues between Ford and Fonda had the result instead of creating a rift between them that lasted well beyond the production of Mister Roberts. After some time, Ford suffered a ruptured gallbladder and underwent surgery for it. The studio replaced Ford with Mervyn LeRoy and Joshua Logan (uncredited).

According to Jack Lemmon, LeRoy watched the scenes that Ford had already filmed and “decided to shoot (the rest) the way John Ford would have shot ‘em.” Fonda requested that Logan, who had directed the play, reshoot some of the scenes Ford had already done. It’s easy to think that too many cooks ruin the soup, but Mister Roberts holds together very well (even if some elements of dialogue or humor may feel dated). LeRoy did a good enough job mimicking Ford’s style that it can be challenging to determine which scenes were his and which Ford’s.