Before shooting the scene where Pulver identifies himself and tells Capt. Morton (James Cagney) that he's been on the ship for "14 months, sir", Cagney realized that he would have to rehearse the moment with Jack Lemmon again and again so he wouldn't burst out laughing during the actual filming. Lemmon agreed, and when the scene was filmed Cagney claimed he was just barely able to hang on with a straight face, even after all the rehearsal time.
When John Ford met James Cagney at the airport, the director warned that they would "tangle asses," which caught Cagney by surprise. Cagney later said: "I would have kicked his brains out. He was so goddamned mean to everybody. He was truly a nasty old man." The next day, Cagney was slightly late on set, and Ford became incensed. Cagney cut short the imminent tirade, saying: "When I started this picture, you said that we would tangle asses before this was over. I'm ready now - are you?" Ford backed down and walked away and he and Cagney had no further conflicts on the set.
John Ford and Henry Fonda had a falling out that led to Ford's punching Fonda in the mouth. It ended their sixteen year personal friendship and eight film professional relationship, even though Ford apologized to Fonda afterward. Fonda only appeared in one more Ford film after that, How the West Was Won, in a segment not directed by Ford.
The script contained a stunt in which a motorcycle goes off a pier, but the stuntman hired for it refused to do the stunt. So John Ford hired a bystander, a young Marine named Jack Lewis, who wasn't an experienced motorcyclist, but said, "Sure, I'll do it." The Marine Corps wouldn't let Ford pay Lewis the $700 he had offered, so Ford went into the nearby Hilton hotel and told the management that Lewis could drink in the bar on Ford's tab for the next year. Lewis went on to become an author ("Chosen Tales of Chosin;" "The Sandtrap Marines") and publisher of magazines ("Gun World") and trade paperbacks ("Gun Digest Book of Guns," etc.), but one who maintained friendships with many in the movie business, including numerous cowboy film stars.
William Powell's final film. Powell had marked difficulties retaining his lines, something that had not happened to him in earlier films, and this was one of the reasons why this was his final film appearance. Frail health, including bouts with cancer, plus a difficult Hawaii location shoot ultimately led to the actor's decision to retire.
At first the US Navy was not happy that the movie was to be made at all -- Capt. Morton (James Cagney) was not the kind of officer the Navy wanted the public to see -- and was going to withhold all cooperation with the filmmakers. However, John Ford, a former Navy captain, called on some of his friends at Navy headquarters in Washington to secure the Navy's cooperation.
Ensign Pulver tells the sailors to "flemish up the lines" as he gives the nurses a tour. "Flemish" is a nautical term meaning to tidy up lines (ropes) by making a Flemish coil, i.e. by taking the end of a line and laying it in a tight flat spiral on the deck.
The announcement for Sweepers is very close. On USS Ranger (CVA-61) from 1968-'70, the announcement was "Sweepers, sweepers, start your brooms. Get a clean sweep down fore and aft. Sweep down all lower decks, ladders and passageways. The fantail is/is not open." At sea, the trash would be dumped over the fantail so the ship's screws would chop it up and water log it so it would sink. The fantail was not open when planes were coming in for a landing. In the movie, they were told not to throw the trash over the fantail as they were not under way and the screws were not turning so the trash would simply float.
Jack Lemmon started a long-time friendship with James Cagney which lasted until Cagney's death in 1986. Prior to his appearance in his first film, years before, he started in live television. In one particular performance, Lemmon decided to play his character differently. He decided to play the character left-handed, which is opposite to his own way of movement. With much practice, he pulled off the performance without anyone noticing the change. This change even fooled Lemmon's wife at the time. A few years went by and Jack met Cagney on their way to Midway Island to film this movie. They introduced themselves, and Cagney chimed in, "Are you still fooling people into believing you're left handed?" They had a great laugh and a strong friendship was born.
Although he played the part of Lt. (j.g.) Doug Roberts on Broadway, Henry Fonda was not the first choice to recreate the role for the film version (the producers felt the 50-year-old Fonda too old to play the role). The producers first wanted Marlon Brando, but he was committed to another project at the time and could not get out of it. Then they turned to Tyrone Power. However, director John Ford insisted on Fonda; they had made several successful films together and Ford said that he would not direct the film without him. Since the producers needed the director with six Academy Awards to helm the film, they gave in. Ironically, once filming began, Ford and Fonda saw eye to eye on almost nothing. Fonda had played the character on Broadway for two years and felt he knew the character inside out. Ford had other ideas, and on his set you saw things his way or you saw the door. Eventually, the producers called a meeting with Fonda and Ford to clear the air, but rather than leading to a better working relationship, Ford sucker-punched Fonda at the meeting. Ford left the production soon after (Ford's gall bladder surgery was given as the official explanation). Mervyn LeRoy, and later Joshua Logan -- the director of the Broadway play -- took over directing duties and finished the film. The decision was made to keep Ford's and LeRoy's name in the final credits.
The Navy vessel that played the role of USS Reluctant (AK-601), "the Bucket," in the movie's exterior shots was a former U.S.Army Freight and Passenger/Freight and Supply (FP/FS) vessel, some of which were commissioned in the Navy following World War II. The USS Hewell (AG-145) is credited by the Navy as the ship assigned to the filming.
All but one of the Navy's AKLs were built as U.S. Army FP/FS type cargo vessels transferred to the Navy. As it was, an AKL carried a much smaller crew than the USS Virgo (AKA-20) and USS Rotanin (AK-108), both of which Thomas Heggen served on during the war. In the movie, Mr. Roberts says to Doc that there are "62 men" aboard which would have been far too many for an AKL.
Joshua Logan, who directed and co-wrote the Broadway production, was brought in to redirect some sequences which the producers felt that original director John Ford had captured ineffectively before he was taken off the project. Logan was credited as co-writer instead of co-director because it was felt that having three names listed as director would look silly in the credits. Both Logan and Henry Fonda felt that the film version did not have anywhere near the quality of the stage production.
Part of the movie was filmed at the Naval Air Station Midway, which was the last Allied-held base between Pearl Harbor and Japan during World War II, and the scene of one of the biggest air battles in history. John Ford was familiar with the area, having directed the documentary The Battle of Midway (1942), and Thomas Heggen served in the Navy at Midway during World War II.
A number of modifications to the AKL exterior appearance were made for the film. The "palm tree" was located on a "deck" built for the movie by extending the small deckhouse of the AKL and building movie set ladders to the bridge and main deck. The crew, when going below to their berthing compartment, are shown in the movie to be descending into the cargo hold.
Tige Andrews was in the original Broadway cast as a member of the ensemble (not as "Wiley," his role in the film). Besides Henry Fonda, he is the only actor who appeared in both the Broadway and film casts.
When Jack Lemmon accepted the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role, he was presented the Oscar by Eva Marie Saint. Eight years before, as an unknown actress, Saint had been replaced at the last minute in the Broadway cast of 'Mister Roberts' by Jocelyn Brando. By the time she presented Lemmon with the award, Saint had received an Oscar for her performance in the previous year's On the Waterfront (1954)...which also won an Oscar for Jocelyn's younger brother, Marlon Brando.
John Ford's dismissal from the film pushed him over the edge. He began drinking heavily, and was hospitalized in Hawaii for alcohol poisoning. Ford recovered enough to start shooting interiors back in Hollywood, but soon required gallbladder surgery.
The opening credits are shown over film of the camera closing in on the "Reluctant", but care is taken that none of the credits is displayed over the image of the vessel itself, which is always shown clear of any on-screen writing. Only in the subsequent prologues thanking the Navy and establishing the film's location is the ship obscured by credits.
During pre-production John Ford, himself a Navy veteran, toned down the play's more subversive content in hopes of getting Navy approval. Thus the movie elides the stage version's profanity and makes the villainous captain more comedic than evil. To compensate, Ford added broad slapstick comedy and expanded the role of Ensign Pulver
Jack Lemmon appears with Henry Fonda, and his character takes over Fonda's position of cargo officer when Fonda is transferred off the USS Reluctant. In the 1997 remake of 12 Angry Men (1997), Lemmon plays the same juror that Fonda played in the original 12 Angry Men (1957).
The second of John Ford's 1955 films. He used six actors who also appeared in the same year's The Long Gray Line (1955). Ward Bond, Harry Carey Jr., Martin Milner, Patrick Wayne, Philip Carey, and Betsy Palmer all were featured in both films. Furthermore, the lead actor in The Long Gray Line was Tyrone Power, who had starred as Mister Roberts in the London stage production of the play.
Although modern sources state that Mervyn LeRoy tried to direct the film the way he thought John Ford would have wanted, in a modern interview, LeRoy claimed that he changed the role of "Doc" from an alcoholic, as Ford made him, back to the original sober character in the play. Fearing bad publicity regarding his takeover of the directing reins, LeRoy said he hired his own press agent, Arthur P. Jacobs, who would later produce many feature films. According to modern sources, Joshua Logan also directed portions of the final film and directed the editing. However, in the opening credits, only Ford and LeRoy are billed as director. Although Ford received top billing, LeRoy's name, superimposed over a shot of the sea, is brighter and seems to shimmer.
In the scene where the men discover they can see into the nurses' quarters on the island, they decide one of the men should stand vigil with binoculars in the event one returns to shower. They commence their duty scraping rust. When the captain shows up to inspect their work, they make themselves busy to stay out of trouble. As Cagney's character turns his attention to the unsuspecting voyeur with the glasses and starts in that direction, they frantically start tapping their tools. They are sending the Dot, Dot, Dot- Dash, Dash, Dash- Dot, Dot,Dot Morse Code message for SOS.