Operation Petty Officer
The only way I can describe "Mister Roberts" is by mentioning another war movie because "Mister Roberts" sits in the middle between a war movie and "Operation Petticoat". For those who have never watched "Operation Petticoat" that means we have a lot of humour and comical characters, from a dictatorial Captain to the Seaman with the gift of the gab and an eye for a pretty pair of pins. But there is the other side to the movie and that is the actual war side as we have Lt. Roberts tired of being on a cargo ship and desperate for action before the war is over. And the two work well together delivering plenty of laughs, plenty of unforgettable characters but never forgetting the drama of war.
Lt. Roberts (Henry Fonda - Fort Apache) is popular amongst the men and loathed by the ships Captain because there is nothing more that Mr. Roberts wants than to leave the quiet of the cargo ship and be transferred to a battleship. But despite loathing Roberts, Captain Morton (James Cagney) won't let him go because Morton is ambitious and Roberts is good at what he does which leads to plenty of issues especially as Morton is hard on the ships crew, forcing them to wear shirts in the blistering heat and banning liberty. Also aboard the boat is Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon - Glengarry Glen Ross) who has managed to lie low for the 14 months he has been there and never had to speak to Morton, preferring to wheel and deal his way though life making it as easy as possible.
For the most "Mister Roberts" is a comedy and in a way it is slightly typical such as when we see the crew ogling nurses with the use of binoculars. But it doesn't matter that much of the humour is predictable, such as when the men finally get liberty and end up in trouble, because with many of director John Ford's regular actors it all works. These actors such as Ward Bond and Philip Carey all know what they are doing and deliver the expected naval camaraderie you expect.
But then there is the more purposeful humour and that starts with the running battle between Roberts and Morton as Roberts is desperate to get off the boat and into action. Much of this humour works because of James Cagney's delivery of lines as the dictatorial Morton but it is hilarious seeing Roberts wind Morton up and end up in an argument. And of course we also have the humour of Pulver especially when he tries to chat up the group of nurses the men have been luring over.
Now all that humour makes "Mister Roberts" a lot of fun but it also has some drama as we see how Morton's tyrannical way of controlling the crew affects them, from petty squabbles over silly things to Mr. Roberts himself starting to lose it. I won't say too much about the story because it is actually very simple but none the less important and paves way for a surprisingly emotional ending.
What is for certain is that "Mister Roberts" is very much an actor driven movie and Henry Fonda who also appeared on stage playing the same role brings his character to life. Fonda makes Roberts breathe; we can sense his frustration, his loyalty to the men as well as the strange pleasure from winding up Captain Morton. Talking of which James Cagney doesn't have a lot to do but his voice and phrasing is so brilliant that it is impossible not to laugh. And I could go on because Jack Lemmon, Philip Carey, William Powell and Ward Bond amongst many all play their characters well.
What this all boils down to is that "Mister Roberts" is a lot of fun with plenty of humour but at the same time is has heart and the simple storyline is the perfect vehicle for all the humour.