Greatest Film Scenes
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Mister Roberts (1955)


Written by Tim Dirks

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Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Mister Roberts (1955)

In director John Ford's and Mervyn LeRoy's war-time comedy-drama - it was about the interactions of the crew of a WWII re-supply cargo ship (the USS Reluctant) in the South Pacific in the spring of 1945 who were brought together to face up against and defy their tyrannical ship captain (James Cagney). The screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Joshua Logan was based upon the 1946 novel and the Tony Award-winning 1948 Broadway play.

Director Joshua Logan helmed Warner Bros' sequel Mister Roberts, Ensign Pulver (1964) starring Robert Walker, Jr. (as Ensign Pulver), Burl Ives (as the Captain) and Walter Matthau (as 'Doc'). Shortly later, an NBC-TV show titled Mister Roberts aired as a series of 30 episodes from 1965-1966.

  • in an early scene, cargo officer Lt. Douglas 'Mister' Roberts (Henry Fonda) was speaking about his disgust early one morning to his ship's physician Lt. 'Doc' (William Powell in his last film); Lt. Roberts was portrayed as a well-liked officer who reluctantly served on the WWII naval cargo ship 'bucket' USS Reluctant (known as "The Bucket") that brought combat ships supplies such as TP, toothpaste, paint, soap, and other items
  • the quick-witted, highly-educated Lt. Roberts was fed up with the uncouth Lieut. Commander 'Captain' Morton's (James Cagney) palm tree (given as a reward for efficiently moving the most cargo): ("I looked down from our bridge and saw our Captain's palm tree! Our trophy for superior achievement! The Admiral John J. Finchley Award for delivering more toothpaste and toilet paper than any other Navy cargo ship in the safe area of the Pacific"); the tree became a detested symbol of the Captain's authoritarian rule and his undeserved reputation
  • Roberts, who was well liked by the entire crew, pined for real war action and yearned for a transfer into a combat zone, but was never granted a transfer by the stubborn and jealous Captain, who refused to sign and approve transfer requests: ("Well, I don't want to be here, I wanna be out there. I'm sick and tired of being a lousy spectator")
  • another character was the cowardly and lazy, prank-playing, womanizing Ensign Frank T. Pulver (Oscar-winning Jack Lemmon), the laundry and morale officer
  • Mister Roberts complained to and confronted the tyrannical and pompous "Captain" Morton when blackmailed to refrain from continually writing letters to the Navy Department to request a transfer off the ship, in exchange for 'liberty' shore leave for the crew: (Captain: "There's a war on and I'm Captain of this vessel. And now you can take it for a change. The worst thing l can do to you is to keep you right here, Mister! And here is where you're going to stay! Now, get out!" Mister Roberts: "What do you want for liberty, Captain?" Captain: "You are through writing letters ever." Mister Roberts: "Okay." Captain: "And that's not all. You're through talking back to me in front of the crew. When I give an order, you jump!")
  • at their next stop, the male crew was anxious and itching to be granted shore leave after more than a year aboard the ship (after spotting nurses on the dock), but the Captain insisted that only Roberts and Ensign Pulver would be allowed onshore to pick up supplies; during his shore leave, Pulver convinced Lieut. Ann Girard (Betsy Palmer), one of the visiting nurses, to meet him later onboard the USS Reluctant
  • in a humorous scene, Lt. 'Doc' and Lt. Roberts mixed up a home-made batch of simulated scotch (from water, Coke, and a "drop of iodine for taste", and "one drop of hair tonic for age") for Pulver's R&R aboard ship rendezvous; Pulver was pleased with the results: ("Smooth! That dumb little blonde will never know the difference!") and then sang to himself: ("She won't know the difference. She won't know the difference....She'll never know the diff-er-ence''); however, the plan of seduction with the "jungle juice" failed
  • Lt. Roberts assessed Pulver as "likeable" but also accused him of being disorganized: ("There's no getting around the fact, you're a real likeable guy, but...well, l also think you're the most hapless, lazy, disorganized and, in general, the most lecherous person l've ever known in my life"); Pulver complained: ("l am not!...I'm not disorganized for one thing!")
  • another of Pulver's pranks was his cock-eyed scheme on VE Day to explode a homemade firecracker (made with a toilet paper roll and "fulminate of mercury") under the Captain's bunk: ("We're gonna heave a firecracker under that old man's bunk and BAM, BAM, BAM. Wake up, you unpatriotic old slob. It's VE Day. Did you ever see such a hand-painted, hand-packed firecracker in your life?"); but his plan backfired when it prematurely blew up the laundry and caused an overflow of soapy suds throughout the ship's corridors; Pulver gave the excuse that a steam pipe broke
Pulver's Disastrous VE Day Firecracker Scheme - Soapy Explosion
  • with the war soon coming to a close, Roberts gave up hope that he would ever serve combat duty; he gave a salute to the Captain's revered palm tree before heaving it off the ship, causing an incensed Captain Morton to vow to find the culprit: ("All right! Who did it? Who did it? You are going to stand sweating at those battle stations until someone confesses! It's an insult to the honor of this ship! The symbol of our cargo record has been destroyed and I'm going to find out who did it if it takes all night!")
  • the Captain faced a 'show-down' with 'Mister' Roberts - but forgot to turn off the PA system as he accused Roberts of breaking his promise to him; the crew was able to listen to the Captain's strong-armed tactics and dastardly bargain with 'Mister' Roberts (about the crew's shore leave in exchange for an end to his letters), and as a result, the crew had renewed respect for their officer for sacrificing his own ambitions for them
  • weeks later, the crew helped to forge a transfer request for Mister Roberts (including the Captain's forged signature), and Roberts was successfully transferred to a combat ship; Roberts was deeply moved when he was presented with a handmade medal shaped like a palm tree and inscribed: "Order of the Palm, for action against the enemy above and beyond the call of duty"
  • Pulver was promoted to Roberts' vacated position as cargo officer, and the Captain brought in a scrawny replacement palm tree for the deck
  • there were two concluding letter-reading scenes (both read by Ensign Pulver for the crew) with the first letter from 'Mister' Doug Roberts (written three weeks earlier) who was now serving his new assignment on board the USS Livingston during the Battle of Okinawa, including his statement that he would rather have his old crew's hand-made Order of the Palm medal than the Congressional Medal of Honor: ("Doc, I've been aboard this destroyer for two weeks now, and we've already been through four air attacks. I'm in the war at last, Doc! I've caught up with that task force that passed me by. I'm glad to be here. I had to be here, I guess. But I'm thinking now of you Doc, and you Frank. And Dolan, and Dowdy, and Insigna and everyone else on that bucket. All the guys everywhere who sail from Tedium to Apathy and back again, with an occasional side trip to Monotony. This is a tough crew on here, and they have a wonderful battle record. But I've discovered, Doc, that the unseen enemy of this war is the boredom that eventually becomes a faith and therefore, a terrible sort of suicide. And I know now that the ones who refuse to surrender to it are the strongest of all. Right now, I'm looking at something that's hanging over my desk. A preposterous hunk of brass attached to the most bilious piece of ribbon I've ever seen. I'd rather have it than the Congressional Medal of Honor. It tells me what I'll always be proudest of - that at a time in the world when courage counted most, I lived among 62 brave men. So, Doc, and especially you, Frank, don't let those guys down. Of course, l know that by this time, they must be very happy because the Captain's overhead is filled with marbles. And here comes the mail orderly. This has to go now. l'll finish it later. Meanwhile you guys can write too, can't you? Doug")
  • during the second letter reading, this one from Pulver's friend Fornell (also on the USS Livingston), Pulver was stunned by the news that Mister Roberts had died in action during a kamikaze raid: ("Mister Roberts is dead. This is from Fornell. They took a Jap suicide plane and killed everybody in a twin 40 battery and went right on through and killed Doug and some other officer, in the wardroom. They were drinking coffee when it hit")
  • with a determined and resolute look on his face, Pulver tossed the Captain's replacement palm tree off the ship's deck into the water, entered the bridge, banged on Captain Morton's door, and finally stood up to him - with the film's final line of dialogue about his complaint that the movie to be shown that night had been cancelled: ("Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I just threw your stinkin' palm tree overboard! Now what's all this crud about no movie tonight?"); obviously, the spirit of Mister Roberts would live on in Pulver

Resolute Pulver

Tossing 2nd Palm Tree Off Deck

Pulver to the Captain: "I just threw your stinkin' palm tree overboard"

Crazed Sailors Viewing Nurses on Shore

Lt. 'Mister' Roberts with Lt. 'Doc' Complaining About the Captain's Palm Tree

Ensign Frank T. Pulver (Jack Lemmon)

Lt. 'Mister' Roberts Complaining to Captain Morton (James Cagney)

'Doc' Mixing Up Home-made Scotch ("Jungle Juice")

Visiting Nurses Aboard the Ship Given a Tour by Pulver

'Mister' Roberts Heaving Captain's Palm Tree Off Ship

Pulver's Reading of 'Mister' Roberts' First Letter

Pulver After Reading the Second Letter: ("Mister Roberts is dead...")


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