The DVD Report #703

Mister Roberts, which has been given a sparkling 4K restoration by Warner Archive for its long overdue Blu-ray release, was a film of many firsts.

The 1955 film was Henry Fonda’s first in seven years. It was James Cagney’s first film, except for cameos, in which he was not the top-billed star in a quarter century. It provided Jack Lemmon with his first Oscar nomination and his first win. Conversely, it was William Powell’s last film. It was also the first film for which John Ford shared billing with another director

Fonda left Hollywood for the Broadway version of Mister Roberts in 1948 after co-starring with John Wayne in Ford’s 1948 film Fort Apache, the first in his cavalry trilogy, which also includes 1949’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and 1950’s Rio Grande. For the length of the play’s run from February 1948 – January 1951, Fonda played the cargo officer on a supply ship in the Pacific toward the end of World War II who repeatedly has his requests to transfer to a combat ship turned down by his captain. The role won him a Tony as did the play and its writer-director Joshua Logan.

Fonda’s opening night Broadway supporting cast included William Harrigan as the captain, Robert Keith as the ship’s doctor, and David Wayne as a young ensign who does his best to avoid the captain as much as he avoids work. Cagney, Powell, and Lemmon had those roles, respectively, in the film.

Ford was brought in to direct the film by Fonda who had been directed by him in some of his greatest roles in Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, My Darling Clementine, and The Fugitive, as well as Fort Apache, but the two had a falling out over the making of the film which led to Ford’s dismissal after punching Fonda in the face, covered up at the time as Ford’s having to leave for health reasons. He was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy (Quo Vadis).

Mister Roberts was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, but Fonda was surprisingly left off the year’s list of Best Actor nominees. Cagney made the list albeit for Love Me or Leave Me, while rising star Lemmon, as stated, was not only nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category but won. The film had also been nominated for Best Sound.

Audio commentary imported from the film’s 1998 DVD release is provided by Jack Lemmon.

Lemmon is also represented by five comedies made between 1954 and 1964 for Columbia that have been newly released on Blu-ray by Sony.

The oldest among them is 1954’s Phffft, directed by Mark Robson, in which Judy Holliday and Lemmon play a divorcing couple in the film that was promoted with the tag line, “don’t say it, see it.” Jack Carson and Kim Novak add to the frivolity in this 1950s reimagining of The Awful Truth.

1957’s Operation Mad Ball pairs Lemmon with Kathryn Grant, the future Mrs. Bing Crosby, in a World War II comedy co-starring Mickey Rooney, Ernie Kovacs, and Dick York under the direction of Richard Quine.

1962’s The Notorious Landlady, also directed by Quine, stars Kim Novak in the title role of a woman suspected of murder with Lemmon as the junior American diplomat who falls in love with her. Fred Astaire co-stars as Lemmon’s boss, with Lionel Jeffries and Estelle Winwood adding to the merriment.

1963’s Under the Yum-Yum Tree and 1964’s Good Neighbor Sam, both directed by David Swift, were films Lemmon was forced to make against his wishes due to contract obligations with the studio. Under the Yum-Yum Tree does the actor no favors playing a lech who tries to break up a young couple played by Carol Lynley and Dean Jones. Edie Adams, Imogene Coca, and Paul Lynde co-star. He fares slightly better in Good Neighbor Sam opposite Romy Schneider in which he poses as her husband in an inheritance scam.

Lemmon’s Mister Roberts co-star William Powell stars in another Blu-ray new release given a 4K restoration by Warner Bros.

1936’s Libeled Lady was one of four major films Powell starred in that year, three of which co-starred Myrna Loy. The Oscar-winning The Great Ziegfeld and the beloved After the Thin Man, an upcoming Warner Archive Blu-ray release, were the others. Powell himself was nominated for an Oscar for the one he didn’t make with Loy that year, My Man Godfrey, opposite his former wife, Carole Lombard.

Libeled Lady, like Grand Hotel, was one of a handful of films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar without receiving a nomination in any other category. Originally planned to star Marion Davies and Powell, the script was revamped by MGM, beefing up the roles of two supporting characters so it could be made as a vehicle for four stars.

Jean Harlow, who was engaged to Powell at the time, was given top billing as the longtime girlfriend of ace reporter Spencer Tracy, while second-billed Powell played the famed author brought in by Tracy’s newspaper to compromise the Davies, now Loy, character who had been libeled by his newspaper and was suing for $5 million, a sum that would have ruined the paper. Walter Connolly, in for Lionel Barrymore, plays Loy’s millionaire father in the famed screwball comedy.

Harlow, who would die the following year at 26 before she could marry Powell, deftly handles her romantic and comedic scenes with both Powell and Tracy but is at her best in the confrontation scene with Loy that leads to the film’s conclusion. Loy, who was third-billed after Harlow and Powell, but ahead of fourth-billed Tracy, is also a treasure, the women outshining their male co-stars this time out.

This week’s U.S. Blu-ray releases include Diary of a Mad Housewife and Puzzle of a Downfall Child.

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