They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and some life experiences beg to be made into stories. Mister Roberts is one of those. Originally a novel by Thomas Heggen, it was published in 1946, premiered as a play in 1948, and released as a film in 1955. The story takes place very late in the war. It follows the adventures of the titular character who’s stuck aboard a cargo ship, the USS Reluctant, and who, along with his shipmates hasn’t seen any action. They’re so thrilled with this non-development that they call their ship “The Bucket.” How Mister Roberts came to be is a story in and of itself, but for clarity’s sake, it’s probably easier to start with the plot as it appears in the movie.
Mister Roberts opens with a couple of announcements: Because a cigarette butt was found in the Captain’s pet palm tree, no movies again tonight. It’s a day for certain companies to air their bedding. Last but not least, it’s cargo day on the Bucket, and no one’s happy. Doc (William Powell) always gets a gaggle of men on cargo day feigning sickness, because no one wants to help load, and his method of dealing with it is passing out aspirin.
The boredom on the Bucket is thick enough to slice.
Most restless of all is Lieutenant Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda), who’s been trying for months to get a transfer to active duty. He wants to be on a destroyer, and he’s going to get there, by hook or by crook. Doug gets along with his fellow crew members just fine–in fact, they treat him like a cool older brother–but he feels he’s been shut out of the war.
The men pass the time by looking through their binoculars at the nurses showering in their quarters onshore, only to scatter when they see the Captain (James Cagney) coming. It doesn’t stop them from returning to their ogling as soon as the Captain has vacated the deck. He barely ever emerges from his cabin, except to water that potted palm tree, which he won for the Bucket being the best cargo ship in the fleet. Everyone knows the Captain is very precious about this palm tree, which will become more important later.
Also cabin-happy is Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon), who’s in charge of laundry and morale. He’s rather girl crazy, and when Doug goes ashore, Pulver goes with him on the pretense of procuring more aspirin for Doc.
Yep. Pulver procures more aspirin for Doc, all right, but he also scores a date with a pretty blonde nurse, who he invites back to the Bucket. She later shows up with five more nurses in tow. It’s all very chummy until the ladies take a peek in the binoculars.
The guys are glum, but then Doug announces they’ve been assigned to Elysius, a tropical paradise, and granted shore leave for the entire time they’re docked there. When the Bucket pulls up to Elysius, it’s everything the men are hoping for. Canoes full of natives paddle out to greet them and shower them with leis and kisses.
The Captain puts the kibosh on shore leave at first, though, because he’s mad about Doug trying so hard to get transferred. He also wants to be an admiral, and he thinks Doug’s discontent makes him look bad. The Captain basically bribes Doug into letting the men go have fun if he’ll stop writing letters to the higher-ups. Doug reluctantly accepts.
Well, the men have fun. A little too much fun, actually–they all get totteringly drunk, and are brought back to the Bucket by a miffed MP and a no-nonsense shore patrolman. One guy even brings a goat onboard. Unfortunately, the Captain gets chewed out by the island’s commanding officer, Admiral Wentworth, because some of the men broke into the French Consulate while others roughed up some Army personnel, and voilá, the Bucket’s liberty is over.
The whole lot of transgressors stands in front of Doug with sorry-not-sorry looks on their faces, and the Captain is incensed. He orders Doug to make the men toe the line. No more loosey-goosey. Everyone has to do their share or face the consequences. Doug goes from being one of the guys to being the Captain’s reluctant henchman. Doc and Pulver are concerned because Doug is suddenly robotic and more severe.
However, things are happening. Victory has been declared in Europe, and the Bucket’s beleagured crew has a few tricks up their sleeve. Not to mention, Doug has a stare-down with the Captain’s pet palm that will lead him to do something drastic and revolutionary.
The author of Mister Roberts had quite the war experience. As in, not much. He was stationed aboard the cargo ship, the USS Virgo for fourteen months and never saw action. Cargo ships were incredibly valued by active duty troops, as they brought food, supplies, and, most importantly, mail, and naturally, it behooved these ships to stay out of harm’s way. Ergo, Heggen was always tantalizingly close to the fighting, but never in on it, so although he took part in a necessary service, he was basically an outsider looking in.
Boredom led Heggen to write what would become Mister Roberts. It started out as a series of vignettes with a working title of “From Tedium To Apathy and Back Again, With An Occasional Side Trip Into Monotony.” As a Reader’s Digest editor with a degree in journalism, Heggen was well-familiar with the written word, and his cousin, Wallace Stegner, encouraged him to expand his bits into an episodic novel. Although it was fictionalized, many of the incidents in the novel were true to life. The Bucket never seeing action? True. The crew peeking at the nurses in the showers? True. The Captain’s pet palm tree? Also true. Like Heggen, Doug Roberts was a cargo officer, except that the book ended differently (Sorry, all–not gonna give any spoilers.).
Again, Mister Roberts was published in 1946, and despite mixed reviews, sold about a million copies over the next three years. Suddenly flush with success, Heggen looked to adapt it for the stage, and with the help of playwright and director Joshua Logan, crafted the play, which ran from 1948 until 1951, with Henry Fonda playing Mister Roberts. The play was a massive hit, garnering the first Tony for Best Play.
As soon as the play became popular, Hollywood started sniffing around, eager to bring the show to the big screen. Since the Production Code was still a thing, the play’s colorful-but-authentic language was toned down and some parts snipped, such as when Doug and Doc talk about the rumor that Pulver got five women pregnant in one night.
There was talk of putting Marlon Brando or William Holden in Henry Fonda’s part, since Doug was supposed to be in his twenties, but in the end, Fonda recreated his role for the movie. The film was shot at Midway Island aboard a fishing vessel. John Ford directed, but was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy after Ford suffered a gallbladder attack. Then LeRoy was replaced by Joshua Logan, who had directed the stage play.
It was probably just as well, since Ford clashed during production with James Cagney and Henry Fonda. Ford threatened Cagney that the two of them would tangle…ahem…backsides, which made Cagney angry. Fonda took issue with Ford for giving Jack Lemmon more screen time. Cagney called Ford’s bluff, and Fonda stood his ground when Ford took a swing at him in Fonda’s dressing room. Ford couldn’t stand that both Cagney and Fonda had the upper hand, and as Cagney said, “He was so…mean to everybody. He was truly a nasty old man.”
Cagney may have been getting on in years, but he was not a man to be messed with. Neither was Fonda, who knew a thing or two about standing up for himself.
Like the book and play, the movie was a major success, topping out as the third most popular film of 1955. There were, of course, people who preferred the play, but they were apparently in the minority.
Sadly, Thomas Heggen would never live to see Mister Roberts made into a feature film. He was found dead in his bathtub on May 19, 1949 after taking some sleeping pills. Some thought it was suicide, but there was no suicide note. According to the Des Moines Register, Heggen’s friends and family believed Heggen took some sleeping pills and then fell asleep in the tub, where he drowned. He wasn’t quite thirty years old.
Mister Roberts remains a well-loved play and film, still revived in playhouses and remade for TV. Americans famously love underdog tales, and Heggen’s story fits the bill nicely.
Sherwin, Mary, editor. Comedy Tonight! Broadway Picks Its Five Favorite Plays. New York and Garden City, New Jersey: 1977.