“Mister Roberts:” NOW: Eight Months After


For the “Now (and Then)” Blogathon hosted by Thoughts All Sorts and Realweegiemidget Reviews, I am reviewing two James Cagney films which are separated by twenty-two years. Footlight Parade was released in 1933, and Mister Roberts was released in 1955. 1933 was James Cagney’s fourth year in Hollywood, and 1955 was his twenty-sixth year. Even though more than two decades separates these films, I will now examine Mister Roberts to show how similar it is to Footlight Parade, which I reviewed here.

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Mister Roberts is the story of a Navy lieutenant, Douglas Roberts (Henry Fonda), who is desperate to join the war in the South Pacific but cannot escape the tyrannical control of the captain of the cargo ship on which he is the supply officer. He is defiant of Captain Morton (James Cagney), with whom he has a continuous feud, but the captain insists on keeping him because he knows he is what makes the ship efficient. Captain Morton is obsessed with power, control, and the palm tree which is on the deck; it is the symbol of his ship’s outstanding achievement and his pride and joy. Doug’s friends are his roommate, Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver (Jack Lemmon), and the ship’s surgeon, Doc (William Powell). Doc understands Doug’s frustration and his desire to join the fighting of the war, but he keeps trying to convince him that he is helping the war effort in the job he is doing. Frank, on the other hand, has little understanding of why anyone would want to do any kind of work if he could avoid it, since he is a laundry and morale officer who sleeps sixteen hours a day, visits the laundry maybe once a week, and hides from the captain. The other sixty-two men in the crew look to Mr. Roberts for inspiration and guidance, but they are very restless and frustrated, since they have seen no action and haven’t had a liberty in over a year. Thus, they are constantly fighting. Mr. Roberts continually asks the captain to grant the crew a liberty, but Captain Morton is as unwilling to grant liberty as he is to approve Doug’s letter for transfer. The crew gets a thrilling diversion when some of the men discover that nurses have arrived at a hospital on a nearby island. They get great pleasure out of using binoculars to watch the unsuspecting women take showers. Meanwhile, Frank has bigger plans for the nurses. When Doug goes onto the island to bribe the port director into granting them liberty, Frank visits the hospital and invites the head nurse to visit their ship. Nothing comes of it, but Frank, who is the most lecherous person that Doug has ever known, always tries. Eventually the crew gets a liberty, but they enjoy it so rowdily that the ship gets thrown out of port. What no one knows is that Doug made a deal with the captain to get the crew its liberty. He promised that he would obey the captain’s orders, stop defying him in front of the crew, and, most importantly, stop writing letters asking for transfer. His new behavior alienates him from the rest of the men, who think that he is trying to advance his naval career. Later, the ship receives the news that the war is over in Europe. Doug is alone on the deck after everyone has gone to bed. A stirring speech on the radio inspires him to take action against “the enemy.” To the accompaniment of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” he rips the captain’s palm tree out of its pot and throws it overboard. When Captain Morton discovers its disappearance, he throws a fit and sounds the general alarm. The crew thinks that the ship is under attack. When the captain guesses that Mr. Roberts did it, he summons him frantically. When Doug finally arrives, he feigns ignorance of the captain’s meaning. Not realizing that the speaker is still on and that the whole crew is listening, the captain says that he gave the crew liberty, but now Doug isn’t maintaining his side of the bargain. He gets so upset that he makes himself sick, but the crew now realizes that Doug is a better friend than they ever thought he was. The next thing you know, Doug is about to be transferred to a destroyer. He is happy about leaving, and he flippantly says to Doc that the crew doesn’t care about him personally. Doc is troubled by his callous attitude, so he tells him that he is getting this transfer because the crew wrote a letter of transfer for him and forged the captain’s signature of approval so that he would get his greatest desire. Doug is suddenly stricken with remorse for not appreciating the men, and he feels bad to be leaving. He says a fond farewell to the crew and a disgruntled Frank, who is the new cargo officer. Apparently, Captain Morton likes him. A plane takes Doug away from the ship that carries his worst enemy and his best friends. What will happen to Doug in the real war, and what will happen to the crew without him? Will Frank learn to be a man and stand up to the captain, or will Captain Morton tyrannize the crew without Mr. Roberts to stand up to him? You have to watch the movie to find out!

Image result for Mister Roberts 1955 James Cagney

You see much less of James Cagney in Mister Roberts than you do in Footlight Parade. He gets second billing as Captain Morton, and he is a crucial character, but he is discussed more often than seen. In the first two scenes in which you see him, he is wearing a large captain’s hat, so you can’t even see his eyes very clearly. You see more of him later, but not nearly as much as you see of Henry Fonda or even William Powell. I don’t think this was an accident; it was an intentional device which was used by the filmmakers. James Cagney was famous for playing evil or even nasty characters but making them strangely likable because of his charming personality, his patheticalness, and the good old Warner Brothers sympathy angle. However, this unique talent of being likable in an unlikable role was not desired in this film. No one is supposed to like Captain Morton. He is a tyrant, a manipulator, and a maniac in some ways. He gets fixated on certain items, such as his palm tree and the white hat of complete commander, which he keeps in a combination safe in his quarters. He also has a real chip on his shoulder because he didn’t have much education and had to work very hard since he was ten years old. He hates “college boys” like Mr. Roberts, since he thinks that they think they are superior to him. If too much screen time was given to the captain, some members of the audience might start liking him just because he is played by James Cagney, who looks very good in this role, by the way. He still was quite thin, he had maintained a fair complexion, his hair was predominately red with a touch of gray, and he is wearing a significant amount of makeup. Warner Bros. liked their actors to wear makeup even in the 1950s. It is important to the character of the film that the captain is more of an idea than a person. He has to be seen at some points, but mainly he is just discussed. Thus, he is just Captain Morton, not Captain J. Cagney Morton. You don’t even know his first name. It doesn’t matter. He is just the selfish, egotistical, obsessed captain of the U. S. S. Reluctant, who happens to be the villain of this story.

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James Cagney gives a brilliant performance in this role. He is so convincing as the obsessed captain. I think this is the most unlikable role in which I have ever seen him. Even when he played gangsters, the roles had more depth, development, and pitiable qualities, so one ends up developing a strange sympathy for despicable characters. There is nothing to like or pity about Captain Morton. Of course I think it is a shame that he came from such a harsh environment as a child and that he was so underprivileged that he had to work as a waiter at age ten. Somehow, that element isn’t illuminated. He seems so embittered that I just don’t feel sorry for what he endured. He’s in charge now, and he is being far worse to his crew than people were to him. He encountered unsympathetic strangers; the crew must endure a calculating, dictatorial leader who has no regard for their personal feelings. I admire the way Mr. Cagney was able to produce real physical reactions in his acting. When he accuses Doug of throwing his palm tree overboard, he begins throwing a tantrum. He yells and waves his arms around. He gets so excited that his face actually turns a very bright shade of red. He starts to choke and cough. He does it so realistically that one gets the impression that he really needs a doctor. Anyone who has seen a certain famous rain scene from 1931 knows that he could choke with a realism that was without peer. He seems to have conquered involuntary bodily functions such as gagging and made them voluntary so that he could start them at will. Lots of actors can cry, but not many can choke so well!

Warner Bros. Presents over ocean

The Warner Brothers’ unique touch was not gone by 1955, even though all the brothers but Jack were gone. Jack had basically stolen the company from his older brothers Harry and Al in 1953, so he was the only one of the four founding  brothers to still run the company. That didn’t change the Warner touch much, since I think it was really Jack’s touch that was so distinctive. Mister Roberts has that definite Warner touch in all three aspects, goofy humour, excessive music, and vulgarity. There is quite a bit of silliness in this film, even during serious times. The background music is by Franz Waxman, and it is extremely dramatic. It sounds like symphony music that was written by a somewhat modern Russian composer, such as Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov or Modest Mussorgsky. It swells to extreme heights of intensity in moments which aren’t as terribly dramatic as the music suggests, then it completely stops without any warning. In more comical moments, it is overly bright and wild. It is also used to sway your emotions, as it always must be with the Warner touch. Sometimes I think Mr. Waxman went a little too far, since he almost reveals the plot with the sinisterness and drama of his music. However, it is effective in the fact that it makes you concerned, uncomfortable, and involved in the plot. In addition, each character has his own specific theme; sometimes multiple themes and melodies are played at the same time to enhance the effect.

Mister Roberts was released in 1955, the first year after Joseph Breen’s retirement from his twenty-year post as head of the Production Code Administration. He had contemplated retirement for several years due to ill health, but Eric Johnston, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, had been unable and unwilling to find him a good replacement. Since none could be found, Mr. Breen’s long-time assistant, Geoffrey Shurlock, became the head by default, as he always did in Mr. Breen’s absence during vacations and sick leave. Of course, Mr. Breen did not retire all at once on October 14, 1954. He had been retiring for a few years, since he began to be less and less involved with individual films. However, his presence was still there and still very important until his official retirement on his sixty-sixth birthday. In 1954 and in some instances before, you can see the hairline cracks which appeared whenever Mr. Breen wasn’t there all the time; however, there was just as distinct a Breen touch as a Warner touch, and it is obvious when it is present. In 1955, filmmakers were anxious to test the waters of the Shurlock Administration, although they knew what to expect. They had seen enough of Mr. Shurlock’s self-regulation during Mr. Breen’s brief absences to know that he missed a lot of things, that he didn’t really care much about the Code, and that he was a lot weaker than his former boss ever was. The change of 1955 occurred in two ways. Sometimes it happened because it would have happened in any year if Mr. Breen hadn’t been there to stop it, since the filmmakers weren’t trying to do something necessarily bad; they just didn’t have the taste or sense to cut some things out themselves. Sometimes it happened deliberately because the filmmakers knew that Mr. Breen was out and Mr. Shurlock was in charge; they knew he would tolerate a lot. This film was definitely in the second category. The Warner Bros. studio was not one which would be left behind in terms of immoral artistic advancement, so the Shurlock era had to be dramatically and noticeably welcomed in with un-Codish films. Mister Roberts was certainly a big leap down the road which led away from the Code.

Mister Roberts violates several sections of the Code, so let’s consider them one by one. Section I, Crimes Against the Law, is violated during the liberty on a South Sea island. I think the men are a little two riotously wild and drunken during their liberty. I don’t think it should be changed too much; it should just be toned down a little. In its current state, the sailors’ drunkenness is a little offensive, and it also gives a rather bad name to the United States Navy. This movie already is treading on dangerous territory by portraying such a corrupt naval captain; I don’t think the Navy’s pride should be antagonized by depicting all the sailors’ as lecherous, unruly savages. I think that the animosity between the Army and the Navy is exaggerated in the situation of the sailors crashing an Army party. The main change I would suggest is the elimination of a sailor’s line in which he refers to the soldiers as “army bums.” Section II, which concerns itself with amorous activity, is violated when the men are looking at the nurses bathing through telescopes, when Frank is planning to bring the nurse to his cabin, in several other scenarios and dialogues by and about Frank, and during the liberty. Section III, Vulgarity, is violated with the running gag of the captain getting sick to his stomach when Mr. Roberts defies him; Warner Bros. needed guidance to realize that the digestive system is not a proper subject for comedy. Section IV, Obscenity, is violated in the scene where Frank, Doug, and Doc make Scotch for Frank to give to a nurse; although a lot of it is through double-meanings, there are some passages of this dialogue which are obscene. Section V, Profanity, is violated with the use of some forbidden expressions. The other seven sections of the Code are not violated.

Footlight Parade was released on October 21 of 1933 and Mister Roberts was released on July 14 of 1955. Footlight Parade was released just under eight months before Joseph Breen’s time at the PCA began, and Mister Roberts was released exactly eight months after his time at the PCA ended. Twenty-two years passed between these films, yet they are not very different. Mister Roberts is in color, and some of the filming techniques are different, but James Cagney doesn’t look too different; also, he still displays his magnificent acting, which could be adapted to many different roles. Jack Warner and his touch also hadn’t changed; they had been confined and guided, but they were still the same, just waiting to break loose at any opportunity. In between the eight month buffer of each film, there is a twenty year island of morality, purity, and propriety, which is the twenty years of Mr. Breen’s Code enforcement. When you just look at the two Warner lakes of looseness on either side of the island, you would never guess that the island was there. If one just watched these films and had no knowledge of any other classic films, he would think that all classic films were rather racy; they weren’t as bad as modern standards, but they still were rather suggestive and somewhat dirty. Some pre-Code and Shurlock era films would not convey this feeling so clearly, but these two give one a very definite conclusion: when Joe Breen left Hollywood, he took the Code with him. By 1955, the Code and its principles were only memories; they were no longer real, working entities in the Shurlock era but merely ghosts which haunted some filmmakers and were ignored by others. The shadow of the Code era could still be seen on some films that were made in the 1950s and early 60s, but not on Mister Roberts. Even before I knew about the Code, I thought this film was rather dirty and, at times, embarrassing. This films shows that, as Mr. Breen feared, all the progress which had been made toward decency in films was lost when he left. It did not happen all at once, but, within five years, it was evident in almost every film. Few films show how quickly the decay began as clearly as Mister Roberts.

I don’t mean that I don’t like these films. I am very fond of Footlight Parade and Mister Roberts. I definitely prefer Footlight Parade for multiple reasons. Firstly, I love the 1930s, even in the pre-Code years. Secondly, I like to see James Cagney when he is young. Thirdly, this film is special as one of the few musicals he made. Fourthly, I generally prefer musicals to war films, although I do appreciate the lack of violence in Mister Roberts. Fifthly and most importantly, I find pre-Code films to be very encouraging. I am inspired and gladdened by the knowledge that, just eight months after all the indecency of Footlight Parade, Mr. Breen was in charge of the PCA, and Hollywood had begun a new era of morality. Mister Roberts, like many Shurlock era films, can be very disheartening, since it shows the first step toward the era of un-regulated entertainment and lawless, immoral films. It is the beginning of the end of all the things which made the Golden Era superior to all other times. From just these two films, the Code might not even have existed.

I know that, if the Code hadn’t existed, Mister Roberts would have contained blatant profanity, rampant obscenity, and any manner of other problems. It would have been something like films were in the 1970s, but maybe worse. It took the industry quite a while to really return to pre-Code immorality. If there had been no Code, filmmakers would have tried to top the most immoral pre-Code films like The Story of Temple Drake and Convention City with even more immorality. By 1939, there could have been the kind of wildness that was present in 1960s films; the only difference would have been the styles of clothing and the architecture. It is inaccurate to assume that, without the Code, films would have been like these two films throughout the period between 1934 and 1954. Filmmakers are discontent to remain at one level of indecency; they have to continually try to beat each other in the race to the bottom. Films follow the second law of thermodynamics: “All things are tending toward entropy.” Only intelligent self-regulation and a pointed moral resurgence can stop the snowball rolling down the hill to destruction. Only the Code can defeat the entropy toward which Hollywood is speeding!

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8 thoughts on ““Mister Roberts:” NOW: Eight Months After

  1. Pingback: The Large Association of Movie Blogs | Acting School 101 – May 2020 – Henry Fonda

  2. Pingback: Jack Lemmon’s Career and the Path of Shurlock Era Hollywood | pure entertainment preservation society

  3. Pingback: “The Sound of Music:” Mr. Breen’s Last Film; The Swansong of the Code | pure entertainment preservation society

  4. Pingback: The Blogathon Recap where the Thens meet the Nows – Realweegiemidget Reviews Films TV Books and more

  5. Wow…this is an absolutely awesome and interesting post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Thank you. But…I also owe you a huge apology…for some reason this post went to my Spam comments and I totally missed it. I rarely get comments going to Spam so not sure why this happened. I’m REALLY, REALLY sorry I’m adding it so late.
    Thanks so much for taking part in our Blogathon. Greatly appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: “Footlight Parade:” THEN: Eight Months Before | pure entertainment preservation society

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