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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

"Mister Roberts" (1955)


When Henry Fonda played the good guy his characters weren't just exemplars of honor--which in the wrong hands could veer to the treacly and pious--they were a tangible image of what we hoped we could be if faced with the same circumstances.  Here he's a frustrated WWII Navy lieutenant stationed on a mind-numbingly boring supply ship far from any real action in the Pacific Theatre. All he wants is some form of military purpose and meaning to his naval service. But make no mistake, this is no existential mood piece. It's a cleverly funny and poignant take on the toll war can take on the serviceman's psyche, clearly laying the foundation for "M*A*S*H" fifteen years later. Fonda's surrounded by a stellar cast of shipmates: a bafoonish martinet of a commander (James Cagney), the ship's wise doctor (William Powell), and the sex-starved Ensign Pulver (Jack Lemmon, who almost steals the movie in an Oscar winning turn). Fonda played this role for two years on Broadway, fitting it like hand in glove. Watch as he makes it all seem so effortless, even ultimately as he--damn him!--makes us care so much when a gut-punch ending breaks our hearts.


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