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Mister Roberts (1955)

Warner Bros. publicists dubbed Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan’s Mister Roberts “the happiest play that ever played.” Things were certainly happy at the box office, with the film becoming the third-highest earner of its year. But that wasn’t the case off screen, where the production ended the 16-year friendship between star Henry Fonda and director John Ford.

The title character played by Fonda is the cargo officer on a World War II supply ship. He dreams of active duty, but his requests for a transfer are routinely blocked by the ship’s tyrannical captain (James Cagney). Also on board are the fatherly ship’s doctor (William Powell) and the immature young Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon), who spends most of his time hiding from the captain.

Fonda had created the role on stage, but Warner Bros. executives wanted to cast a younger, more bankable star until Ford insisted on using Fonda. Once production started, however, the two clashed over Ford’s attempts to broaden the play’s humor. Since Fonda’s agent, Leland Hayward, was also the producer, Ford had to toe the line, to which he responded by drinking heavily until a gallbladder attack pulled him off the film after he’d shot most of the exteriors. Mervyn LeRoy took over with Joshua Logan stepping in to direct two scenes without credit. For all the turmoil, however, the film was a major hit and brought Jack Lemmon the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

d. John Ford & Mervyn LeRoy, 121 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics