7 February 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
The TV series "Mister Roberts" was a sitcom based on the same source material as the famous film (and stage play). The TV series is only occasionally funny, and it never offers the dramatic conflicts of the play and the film. Still, this is an interesting example of how an ongoing TV series has entirely different story demands from a one-off movie or stage play. The original novel, play and film 'Mister Roberts' are largely concerned with the efforts of naval officer Roberts to get out of his safe posting aboard the U.S.S. Reluctant (a cargo ship in the Pacific during World War 2) so that he can receive a transfer to hazardous duty in a combat zone. In a TV series, we know that this transfer will never happen because we need to keep Roberts aboard the Reluctant for each week's TV episode.
Also, the original novel 'Mister Roberts' and its stage adaptation were rather startling (at the time) for their bawdiness, entirely appropriate to the story's theme of sex-starved sailors on extended sea duty. As a TV series in the mid-1960s, 'Mister Roberts' has no chance of any real sexual content ... so we get nothing to compare with the famous incident (in the novel, play and film) in which the sailors use a high-powered telescope for some long-distance voyeurism, spying on the nurses' showering facilities on a beach several miles away.
What we do get in the TV version of 'Mister Roberts' is some slapstick sitcom humour, and it's not bad of its kind. Probably the funniest episode in this sitcom is 'Oh, Captain! My Captain!' in which Captain Morton (the Reluctant's C.O.) is replaced by a German spy who is his exact double. The ship's captain is played by veteran character actor Richard X. Slattery, a former cop who actually looked like one. In this episode, the real captain and the fake captain confront each other in double-exposure. We can tell which one is the German because he wears a monocle and speaks in a hokey German accent. The German spy has planted a time bomb aboard the Reluctant, concealed in the captain's palm tree. This is fairly funny if one recalls the significance of that palm tree in the original novel.
Bland actor Roger Smith gives a bland performance in the lead role as Mister Roberts. Some of this isn't Smith's fault: his character has been deprived of his major motivation (the desire to transfer to a combat posting) so Roger Smith hasn't much to do here except act as straight man to his galley-west shipmates.
George Ives, a character actor who deserved to be better known, is quite good as Doc, the ship's medical officer. Ives's underplayed performance occasionally seems to be inspired by William Powell, who played Doc so brilliantly in the movie version.
The real hit of this series is Steve Harmon, an actor otherwise unknown to me, as Ensign Pulver. Harmon is brilliant in this role. He has a naturally comic face and a gift for physical comedy, and his characterisation as Pulver owes absolutely nothing to the performances of Jack Lemmon or David Wayne in the previous versions. Harmon plays Pulver as a conniving lecher who's totally incompetent, with a permanent look of wide-eyed innocence on his face.
The interplay between the lead actors is excellent. One episode features an hilarious scene between Ives, Slattery and Harmon in which Doc is trying to perform a psych test on the Captain while using Pulver as a control. The problem is that Pulver is fixated on sex, so all his answers are skewed accordingly.
Just occasionally, this series managed a realistic depiction of daily routine aboard a military ship. In one episode, Roberts and Pulver manage to get hold of a live hen. After months of powdered eggs and other Navy prog, the two officers are delighted at the chance of regular access to real eggs. They smuggle the hen into their cabin, somehow silencing her clucks while she furnishes them with eggs. But then word gets out, and all their shipmates want eggs too. How does it end? Here's a clue: "Chicken overboard!"
'Mister Roberts' had a nice theme tune, vaguely nautical ... and much is made of the dilapidated appearance of the un-seaworthy rustbucket U.S.S. Reluctant as she ploughs the sea lanes. But this sitcom fails to blend its comedy with the urgent desperation of war and the deadly boredom of wartime routine. There wasn't a truly great military sitcom until the arrival of 'M*A*S*H' (the hilarious Sergeant Bilko series wasn't very military), and the TV 'Mister Roberts' inevitably suffers in comparison to the splendid film version and the even better stage play. I'll rate this series 6 out of 10.