Watching Mister Roberts Again
Mister Roberts originally was a book of short stories covering the WWII experiences of a young Navy man, Thomas Heggen, who'd had experience as a journalist before and after WWII. Houghton-Mifflen published the book and they named it Mister Roberts due to a character named Roberts in each of the stories thereby tying them together. The book was not a failure but didn't bring in the big bucks, nope, that didn't happen until Heggen collaborated with Joshua Logan and turned Mister Roberts into a Broadway smash--and then My Gosh Almighty how the moulah rolled in, and Heggen, who was a good-looking dude became the toast of Manhattan and a playboy of sorts, wining, dining nightly; yet, success didn't bring Heggen peace of mind because Heggen still deep inside himself wanted desperately to be thought of as a successful writer like his hero Hemingway. Houghton-Mifflen bought Heggen's book of short stories as a "first book" and as usual in those days, "first book" contracts demanded another book at least almost immediately, some contracts demanding at least three "next" books, but those second books had to come over the transome fast and they had better be bestsellers, too, or, hey, those advances would have to come back home to Big Daddy. Well, old Tom Heggen discovered to his dismay that though Mister Roberts had written itself, the next book wasn't happening--hell, Tom couldn't even think of anything to write about--he was stun-gunned by writer's bloc--and though he tried, nothing came out of his typewriter, NOTHING, he couldn't even hit the keys to even begin anything even babble even nonsense, he just could not write.
Now, I must be honest, I never read Mister Roberts. The first I heard of it was when I was working in my brother's bookstore in my hometown as a teenager--and I remember my brother and his book-smart cronies not discussing the book but discussing the movie, which was playing at the time across the street from the bookstore at the Paramount Theater--I could look out the window from my perch behind the cash register in the bookstore's magazine stand and tobacco shop and have staring back at me making my eyes water the Paramount's neon-loud marquee, and I have imprinted on my brain that Mister Roberts marquee, starring Henry Fonda, Jack Lemon, Jimmy Cagney, and William Powell (playing a drunken doctor--a perfect role for old guzzlin' Bill Powell, a good man, even when he was drunk), and I remember those discussions about that movie and they were all about whether the depictions of the Navy in this movie were identifiable by these guys and then I put 2 + 2 together and realized these guys were all Navy vets from WWII, including my brother--AND, that also like my brother, they'd all done ship time in the South Pacific, my brother in the Mariana Islands, others of his crowd had been on Guadalcanal, and one guy had been on a Navy supply boat that followed the attack fleet into Iwo Jima. They weren't discussing Mister Roberts as a piece of great literature but rather they were relating to it in terms of Tom Heggen's getting his Navy experiences in line with their Navy experiences in those same South Pacific seas. My brother was even in the South Pacific when the end to WWII in Europe (VE Day, for you folks who have no idea what I'm writing about and really that's what I'm writing about--you'll figure it out) came, he was on a ship, too, just like the sailors in Mister Roberts. Also just like these characters in this movie, my brother and his pals served time on supply vessels just like those guys with Mister Roberts...oh the parallels go on and on.
Later, after I graduated from college and I was married and trying myself to be a successful writer after one of my heroes, yes, that same Ernest Hemingway, my wife entered a contest in which as the third-place winner she won every top ten book on the New York Times Bestseller List for a year and in the first delivery of books to her, she received this book called Ross and Tom. I also knew Ross Lockeridge not for his novel but for the movie Raintree County with Monty Clift and Liz Taylor (Liz offered Monty sex all the time but Monty was a closet gay--Liz seemed to attract a lot of closet gays--remember Malcolm Forbes? How gross of me to bring such reality up in a discussion of fiction), a fascinating movie--oddball enough that Monty and Liz turned in sterling "weird" performances--yep, a psycho-deep ballad-type overwritten novel, and it was a TOME of a book, too. Ross and Tom is a really sad story; here, you can read a book review of the book in this link to a post on Tom Heggen from The Grumpy Old Bookman's blog:
What's No Longer Interesting
I have watched the movie Mister Roberts more than once. The first time I saw it was on a date with the underage-for-me girl, first date, to see it at that very same hometown Paramount Theater up in the balcony. This girl was hot and I'd been tryin' for weeks to talk her into a date, the poor sweet innocent thing! So I took her to see Mister Roberts. I don't remember a damn thing about that movie then, though I'm sure we did watch some of the movie, but no, I don't remember the movie just the girl and boy howdy do I remember her; she never dated me again after that date!
I don't remember seeing the movie again until I moved to NYC in the beginning of the wild and free seventies. I got a job with Time-Life Films back in those days and one of the projects I worked on was the Mobil-sponsored Masterpiece Theater series hand-in-hand with the BBC and Public Television--PBS, who ran these Brit-made teevee productions and they became the most watched PBS shows EVER, especially The Six Wives of Henry the VIII and Elizabeth R. One time at a meeting at the PBS offices over in the Henry Hudson Hotel at that time I saw this dude I had known when I worked briefly for Publisher's Weekly at R.R. Bowker who told me all the great movies the PBS station in NYC, Channel 13, was getting the rights to (at the beginning all PBS stations were Channel 13 because that was the high-channel preserved for "educational television"--there's a joke, right, Marshall McLuhan? (And I'm sure we've all forgotten the Canadian sociologist and his "the Media is the massage" message!)) One of the movies PBS acquired at that time was Mister Roberts and in keeping with PBS's tradition of being the rerun champions of all teevee, Mister Roberts has been shown on PBS at least once-a-year for the last umpteen years and sometimes twice a year, like Bringing Up Baby and who'd'a ever thought Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy would one-day become half-forgotten whoevers in Hollywood memories.
I know I've watched Mister Roberts several times, I know too much about it, you know, I can remember scenes and famous lines and shit, "Whooooo done it! Whooooo done it!"--every tinhorn impersonator to appear on Ed Sullivan's show did that line from that movie, Jimmy Cagney's lines. But until tonight--I'd never really WATCHED it! Never. I mean I watched it solid and uninterrupted through tonight and I finished it until the true "The End" and I came away from it both amused and sad. It had its moments of hilarity, yes, but it had its sadness, too; and for me, you know what that sadness was? For me it was the fact that not many people are left alive who give a good shit about WWII and its stories, its writers, its movies any more. My brother's dead, his cronies are all dead; I still have a cousin alive who was in WWII when he was 16, but otherwise, even the hometown WWII heroes of my younger days, including one of my cousins, are long forgotten, their graves melting away gradually in a pool of weeds in some neglected corner of some long-passed-by cemetery somewhere. And why should anyone give a great god-damn about WWII? EXCEPT, there are people my age who were alive and kicking during WWII; we were kids, yeah, but come on, we're still alive, and we all had grandfathers, dads, uncles, brothers, cousins who were in that war and a lot of us had family friends and members who perished in that war--and thinking back on my remembrances of WWII and thinking, shit, I, too, now think back on that war and it seems all mildewy and rotten in my memory--you know, aged like an old book stored away in an attic somewhere--maybe all yellowed, maybe a little waterstained; hell, some of the pages might even be missing--and who knows who'll ever read it again, if anybody?
My brother became a very "successful" writer--he had his niche--but he never until his last book wrote about his experiences in WWII--and in his last book he did tell a couple of WWII stories but they were humorous and not war-like at all--they were funny, incidences of a comical kind same as those in Mister Roberts that happened to him as he ventured around the South Pacific then ending his Navy career in China running a Chinese whorehouse for Navy officers. My brother never talked serious about his WWII experiences--except, he did that day in his bookstore with his old Navy cronies--he did that day, but never again that I remember.
Too bad the truth of WWII aren't taught to our young people. When our phony never-elected "president" makes funny insinuations about a coming "World War III" we should all rise up on the millions upon millions of dead bodies from that long-ago now war--thousands upon thousands of American young men and even women lost any chance at the American Dream defending the American warlords and corporate war machines that bailed old Franklin Roosevelt's ass out of a Repugnican-caused Depression in both campaigns of that war--and millions upon beastly millions of Europeans lost their lives--20 million Russians; 6 million Jews were extremely cold bloodedly murdered; 4 million homosexuals, gypsies, invalids also systematically murdered; plus millions upon millions of Japanese, two whole Japanese cities of over 150,000 people each were rendered to ashes by the US dropping the first-ever nuclear bombs on an innocent people--BUT, ladies and gentlemen, think of this, the Japanese have suppressed that war in their collective memories--to the point they are militarizing again! The Germans have tried very hard to suppress their collective memories of that war--Germany, too, once again has an army. Britain who hung on the brink of extinction for a while there--until the US joined them as allies--yet, the Brits are suppressing that war; hell, look how fast Tony Blair stuck his nose up Bush's foul buttcrack in following us into both Afghanistan and Iraq (never forget these are both "WRONG" wars--and think about it, only Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel are saying they would end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan immediately were they elected; plus both are for the immediate impeachment of Bush--all Bushes) and look how Britain has nuclear weapons already but they aren't a threat to Israel and thereby the USA like Iran is--Iran who doesn't even have nuclear weapons (the Israelis are still insisting Iran is making nuclear weapons) a threat to Israel who has some say over 100 nuclear weapons though Israel maintains a pompous, God's-chosen-people attitude about whether they have nuclear weapons or not, but, of course they do, even a dumbass knows that; yet Israel is not a threat to Iran! Hooo boy the hooey. And Bush's old warped and now worn-out Pappy was in WWII--though he did prove himself a coward of the worst kind when he bailed out of his downed plane before all his crew had escaped--against military orders, Captains stay with their planes until all their crew are safe--as a result, one of Pappy's boys was killed in that crash. Pappy however used his rich-boy privilege (remember, Pappy Bush's Pappy and his old rotten Grandpappy made fortunes off doing Hitler's banking and investment handling--you don't believe that? hell it's an open record--Bush's Grandpappy had a Congresional indictment against his for dealing with Hitler--that also happened in World War II) to weasel out of the mess. HYPOCRISY. It really took hold in this country after WWII when our WHITE leaders got so pompous and dictatorial and went about making mad statements about how powerful we were and how devastating we would be to any country who would dare defy our WORLD control--we devised an image of ourselves as the World's Policemen--yep, there was only one way to go and that was our way after WE declared ourselves the independent winners of WWII and began to colonize the world with our banking system and our corporate reconstruction schemes. HYPOCRISY 1, that all men are created equal under the US White Constitution. HYPOCRISY 2, that this is a democracy. We don't even have one man/woman, one vote in this country; remember the Electoral College! It ain't democratic, folks. HYPOCRISY 3, that the USA is now the "true land of dreams and hope"--why our symbol, the mighty eagle, held both nuclear weapons and peace offerings in his (it has to be a male) talons--and hey, it was now up to the rest of the world to chose which US eagle they wanted to kiss ass up to or they wanted to challenge. HYPOCRISY 4, that the Good Ole USA is a nation of peace--BULLSHIT. The USA is all WAR. HYPOCRISY 5, that World War II was a righteous war. Whoopee, we're all gonna DIE.
Sorry, Mister Roberts, but after all these years, I don't find anything humorous about WWII anymore; especially Hollywood's version of it.
for The Daily Growler