Ensign Pulver (1964)
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I would like to point out that "Ensign Pulver" is not a remake of "Mister Roberts". Ensign Pulver is the same ship and same characters as Mr. Roberts only with different actors in the leads.
Burl Ives continues the role of Capt. first played by James Cagney. Robert Walker Jr. continues the role of Ensign Pulver first played by Jack Lemmon. Walter Matthau continues the role of Doc first played by William Powell.
Early in the movie, Doc notes that it has been only a few weeks since they found out about the death of Doug, Mr. Roberts(Henry Fonda). Pulver receives a package from someone who was on the ship where Mr. Roberts died. It is medical books that Mr. Roberts wanted Pulver to have because he knew he would like the dirty pictures.
This movie is much more of a comedy than "Roberts" and is alot of fun to watch.
Also in the crew you can spot George Lindsey, "Goober" from the Andy Griffith show, future TV game show host Peter Marshall, a skinny James Coco and a very young James Farentino.
Too bad this movie is not on DVD. Yet.
The setting here is the same as in the earlier classic -- a scroungy old Navy vessel on the fringes of the Pacific Theater late in World War II. This movie is built around Ensign Frank Pulver, the sidekick of Mister Roberts in the original movie. Unfortunately, Robert Walker Jr., who plays Pulver here, can't match the original screen Pulver, Jack Lemmon. It's almost like they're playing different people.
That's the main problem, I think, too much tinkering with familiar characters. The focus of "Mister Roberts" was the battle of wits and wills between the idealistic Roberts (Henry Fonda) and the embittered captain (James Cagney). But in this film, the captain (now played by Burl Ives) finds himself psychoanalyzed by Pulver. Cagney's captain was hard to like but easy to understand, while Ives' version is as complicated as a Tennessee Williams character.
And how about Doc? In "Mister Roberts," he was portrayed by an older actor, William Powell, in one of his last roles. A counterpoint to the captain, Doc was a man who had grown wise, not cynical, with age. Walter Matthau, though a fine actor, is a much younger Doc in this one, and one who's not particularly wise. He's just another madcap guy in a madcap crew.
"Mister Roberts" had a lot of wonderful laughs, but ultimately it was dead serious about World War II. If you've seen it, you know what I mean. But in "Ensign Pulver," the greatest conflict in history is just an excuse for humdrum hijinks. It's really too bad.
The movie was a sequel to "Mister Roberts", which was far superior and had humor but did not lose sight of the seriousness of the war situation everyone was in. This was just a wretched attempt at comedy that I had to turn off after fifteen minutes. There were a number of major acting stars, as well as actors who would become big stars later. But the best performers couldn't possibly have made this movie work.
Playing the roles of Ensign Pulver, Captain Morton, and Doc are Robert Walker, Jr., Burl Ives, and Walter Matthau. Walker is far more a callow youth than Jack Lemmon was in Mister Roberts. After that show of bravado where Pulver through the Captain's prize palm tree overboard, it's once again business as usual with the tyrannical captain going out of his way to be the meanest man on earth running this navy cargo ship, miles away from the action in the Pacific theater.
At first there's a lot more service type comedy than there was in Mister Roberts, but things do take a serious turn when Pulver and the Captain go overboard during a typhoon. Many days on a rubber raft and then on a tropic island make the captain open up and you get some insight why he's the nasty fellow he is.
Some other key roles are Tommy Sands who plays a sailor looking to get leave because his wife just lost their baby and Gerald S. O'Loughlin who gets temporary command of the USS Reluctant when Ives goes missing. In fact Ensign Pulver makes an addition to Mister Roberts in that the ship we see has a full complement of officers other than the four main characters from Mister Roberts. Look for Jack Nicholson in a small role as radioman Dolan and as per the civil rights era, Al Freeman integrates the crew which was not the case in Mister Roberts.
Walker gets a love interest in Millie Perkins an army nurse who sees him for the shiftless character he is and her supervisor is Kay Medford who has a very droll part.
Ensign Pulver is not a classic like Mister Roberts, but it is an amusing service comedy and holds up well today.
This movie is worth watching in our current era first with an understanding of what it meant to be at the time; a mildly distracting 90 minutes of celluloid. It's not bad really.
Second, the movie is worth watching by students of film/culture to note how moral ambiguity influenced 1960's Hollywood. In 'Mr. Roberts' Cagney has a great scene about why he hates 'college boys' yet there's nothing in the film that treats his character with sympathy.
In 'Ensign Pulver' it seems pains are taken to give the Captain a back story so he comes across as a scarred victim of an unfortunate childhood.
It just doesn't flow like the original. The gags are contrived and the cast have an appearance of knowing that they are competing against a successful precursor and try a little to hard. The result is a bit hammy.
What makes is bad? Well, all the seriousness of its predecessor has been stripped. Plus, the cast is mediocre. (Who could replace Jack Lemon and James Cagney?) This one is bad, bad, bad, though Jack Nicholson fans note that said actor has a smallish part.
Next, Ives refuses to allow seaman Tommy Sands (as John X. Bruno) shore leave, to comfort his wife and bury their suddenly deceased daughter. That's heartless. Walker captures some of the appeal Mr. Lemmon brought to the original film, but the three leads are miscast - Ives most obviously. The supporting cast is full of faces who would later become more famous; they are fun to place. Watch for a refueling plane to arrive with "Super Gal" painted on its side; probably inviting lawsuit consideration, she is the spitting image of DC Comics' "Supergirl" without the insignia.
***** Ensign Pulver (7/31/64) Joshua Logan ~ Robert Walker Jr., Burl Ives, Walter Matthau, Tommy Sands