Sunday on Turner Classic Movies, you will get to see one of my all-time favorite movies – and its misbegotten sequel. While the sequel isn’t very good, if you’ve never seen it – and if you’re a fan of the original – it’s worth watching for the train-wreck fascination of it.
The first movie is “Mister Roberts” (1955). I played a minor crewman, Gerhart, in a stage production of the play in Tullahoma some years back. I love the play, and I love the movie. I can’t believe that any of you have never seen it, but just in case (and because I love Explaining Things) I’ll summarize.
Lt. (jg) Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda, who originated the role on Broadway) is the cargo officer on a ship in the safe part of the Pacific during the last year of World War II. He feels as if he should be in combat, as if he would be doing more good in the heat of battle. But he’s stuck on a cargo ship, interceding between the exhausted crew and the merciless, small-minded captain (James Cagney). The crew adores him. He has two confidantes in the ship’s doctor (William Powell) and Ensign Frank Pulver (Jack Lemmon). Pulver, like the crew, looks up to Roberts, and is always boasting about how he’s going to play some prank on the captain or stand up to the captain in some way. But he lacks the courage to follow through.
Fonda, Cagney, Powell and Lemmon are all perfect, and the story is a great one.
That brings us to “Ensign Pulver” (1964), released nine years after the original. I have to admit I’ve seen parts of it but not the whole thing. But, from what I have seen and from the general critical reaction, I think I’m justified in saying this isn’t anything close to the original. Like “The Sting 2,” it’s got an entirely different cast trying to play some of the same characters. Robert Walker Jr. (“Charlie X,” for you fans of the original “Star Trek”) spends the movie not being Jack Lemmon in the title role. Burl Ives spends it not being James Cagney as the captain, and Walter Matthau (!) spends it not being William Powell as the doctor. Dolan, one of the crew, is played by a young Jack Nicholson (!!). The cast includes the master of the Hollywood Squares, Peter Marshall, playing a character named Carney; Larry Hagman; and George “Goober” Lindsey.
“Mister Roberts” airs at 7 p.m. Central (8 for you Easterners) on Sunday, while “Ensign Pulver” follows it at 9:15 (10:15). The first one is required viewing; the second is an optional curiosity.
By the way, there was a live TV performance of the stage play in the 1980s which was surprisingly good (not Henry Fonda good, but few things are). Robert Hays of “Airplane!” fame played Mister Roberts, with Charles Durning as the captain, Howard Hesseman as the doctor and Kevin Bacon as Ensign Pulver. The TV version preserves the slightly saltier language of the stage play. It’s also quite a bit better than “Ensign Pulver.”