Mister Roberts (1955 Film) - Production

Production

Fonda was not the original choice to star in the film version; Warner Bros. was considering William Holden or Marlon Brando for the lead role. The studio thought Fonda had been on stage and off the screen so long (8 years) that he was no longer a movie box office draw. In addition, when filming began he was 49, much older than the average lieutenant junior grade. Fonda was only hired because director John Ford insisted.

Also featured were James Cagney as Captain Morton, William Powell, in his last feature film, as "Doc", Jack Lemmon as Ensign Pulver (the role for which he won his first Academy Award, Best Supporting Actor), Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond, Philip Carey, Nick Adams, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey, Jr. and Martin Milner. The screenplay was written by Joshua Logan and Frank S. Nugent.

The movie was directed by John Ford, Mervyn LeRoy and Joshua Logan who was uncredited. While directing the film, Ford had personality conflicts with actors Henry Fonda and James Cagney. When Ford met Cagney at the airport, the director warned that they would "tangle asses," which caught Cagney by surprise. Cagney later said: "I would have kicked his brains out. He was so goddamned mean to everybody. He was truly a nasty old man." The next day, Cagney was slightly late on set, and Ford became incensed. Cagney cut short the imminent tirade, saying: "When I started this picture, you said that we would tangle asses before this was over. I'm ready now ā€“ are you?" Ford backed down and walked away and he and Cagney had no further conflicts on the set.

Nevertheless, Ford was replaced by LeRoy after difficulties with Fonda (Ford apparently punched Fonda in the jaw during a heated argument), and a gall bladder attack that necessitated emergency surgery. It has been widely speculated which scenes were directed by LeRoy. Jack Lemmon shed some light on this issue in his DVD commentary: "Mervyn LeRoy would watch all of the rushes that Ford had shot prior to his temporary departure and decided to shoot them the way John Ford would have shot 'em." Logan, who had directed the original stage production in which Fonda starred, re-shot major portions of the film, at Fonda's request.

The DVD release of this film includes an audio commentary of Jack Lemmon years before he died. In the commentary, he recounts some stories of his experience making the film and his views on acting. During the production of the film, Lemmon started a long-time friendship with Cagney which lasted until Cagney's death in 1986. Prior to his appearance in his first film, years before Mister Roberts, he started in live television. In one particular performance, Lemmon decided to play his character differently. He decided to play the character left-handed, which is opposite to his own way of movement. With much practice, he pulled off the performance without anyone noticing the change. This change even fooled Lemmon's wife at the time. A few years went by and Jack met Cagney on their way to Midway Island to film Mister Roberts. They introduced themselves, and Cagney chimed in, "Are you still fooling people into believing you're left handed?" They had a great laugh and a strong friendship was born. As Lemmon noted, this was an example of Cagney's ability to observe human behavior for his acting.

Henry Fonda wrote in his 1982 autobiography, My Life, that he believed that as good as the movie is, the play is even better. The film was William Powell's last movie, although he died decades later in 1984. It was also James Cagney's last movie for Warner Brothers, the studio that had propelled him to stardom 25 years before and the studio to which he had spent the majority of his career under contract.

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