Nether Regions: 03.22.11: Ensign Pulver
Posted by Chad Webb on 03.22.2011
This week we set sail with the sequel to the 1955 film Mister Roberts. Want to know how NOT to make a sequel? Watch this irritating movie, and as one character says, get "Pulver-ized"...
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Robert Walker Jr., Burl Ives, and Walter Matthau Directed By: Joshua Logan Written By: Joshua Logan Running Time: 104 minutes Release Date: July 31, 1964 Missing Since: Available Through Warner Archives Existing Formats:VHS and Warner Archive DVD Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Not Rare, Just Hard to Watch
File Ensign Pulver under sequels that did not need to be made. This was a follow-up to the 1955 film Mister Roberts, directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy. Many of the sub-plots were simply excised from the original Thomas Heggen novel Mister Roberts, and several were unused in the first film adaptation. Why this was put into production and released nearly a decade after the first film is mind-boggling. Silly, pointless, and poorly written, Ensign Pulver is one of those movies that does not need a proper DVD release.
Burl Ives relaxes as Capt. Morton while the crew suffers.
The story picks up a few weeks after the events in Mister Roberts, at the tail end of World War II. Spirits are low on the beaten down cargo heap the U.S.S. Reluctant, similar to the way it was before. Captain Morton (Burl Ives) is still unfairly cruel and strict to the crew. Everyone is hoping for something, anything to shake up the mundane routine. The "Doc" (Walter Matthau) is still the wise old mentor for the ship, eager to get his hands on whiskey. Frank Pulver (Robert Walker Jr.) is the laundry and morale officer on board, but he seems more concerned with sneaking alcohol on the ship and hanging up another pin-up in his room than helping anyone. The tension reaches its tipping point when crewmember Bruno (Tommy Sands) receives some sad news from home. His baby, whom he has yet to see, died accidentally. The Captain denies him leave, and everyone gets upset. Gradually this causes Bruno to become unstable. Meanwhile, the late Doug Roberts left Pulver some medical books to study with so now he has aspirations to be a doctor. This comes in handy when he gets stranded with the Captain on a lifeboat.
The worst aspect of Ensign Pulver is that it picks up as if the events in the first film meant nothing. Those are the worst types of sequels, and they can affect the legacy of the original. The storyline has no trajectory until Pulver and Cpt. Morton get knocked out to sea together, a sequence which in and of itself is ridiculous. The routine is that the Captain is mean and the crew complain and try to secretly break the rules. One of the more perplexing scenarios has Doc criticizing Pulver for not rebelling enough anymore. He had that one moment of triumph, but that's it. What makes the exchange odd is that despite the end of Mister Roberts, the crew in the sequel has no respect for him, yet Doc still expects Pulver to be the lone voice of opposition to the Captain? It makes no sense.
Another reason sequels that are pumped out too long after the original tend to be a bad idea is recasting. In this case, Robert Walker Jr. fills the shoes of Jack Lemmon, who had won an Oscar for his performance. That is a tough act to follow, and Walker is basically a scrawnier and more annoying version of Lemmon. I'm sure it was a substantial part for him, but he seems to have been instructed to imitate Lemmon, which comes off as cartoonish and forced. The gags Walker has to slap on an exaggeratedly happy face for are horrendous. His brothers, also fighting in the war, send him gifts. The one stationed in the Pacific gives him Japanese fireworks and the other, stationed in Germany, sends him a German luger pistol. He hid the fireworks in the ship's guns, and when the Captain orders everyone to man their battle stations after mistaking a slingshot hit to the buttocks as a bullet from the enemy, the fireworks burst out causing chaos. The gun is eventually threatened on the Captain. Later Pulver dives into the water and actually recites a line of dialogue in the middle of the dive.
Unfortunately Captain Morton is not portrayed by James Cagney, but who is the logical choice for a replacement? Well, Burl Ives of course. Cagney's Morton was a viciously smart taskmaster. Ives plays him as a leader who has raided the snack cabinet too often. Ives is a superb actor (See Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), but this is a perfect example of miscasting. He depicts the Captain as rotten on an inhuman level. To make matters worse, when he isn't preventing the crew from any and all forms of happiness, he is a bumbling and wacky caricature. Shockingly, Ensign Pulver does want the viewer to take the material seriously on occasion. Ives has a short scene of the Captain recalling a memory from childhood, as if Joshua Logan wants us to feel sorry for this character. The climax occurs when Pulver must perform surgery on Captain Morton, who has appendicitis. Yeah. I will say though that Ives has a blast being drunk during that segment.
Walter Matthau steps in for William Powell as the Doc, which is not nearly as weak a recasting job as the others, but Matthau and Powell approach comedy in different ways. Matthau plays Doc in a similar fashion to tone of the movie overall. It's all too goofy and playful compared to the seamless blend of drama and humor from the first adventure. The supporting cast includes some notable names. Jack Nicholson is Dolan, but most of his scenes were left on the cutting room floor. This was also Larry Hagman's debut as Billings. Otherwise you have Tommy Sands hamming it up as Bruno, Millie Perkins filling the eye candy void as Nurse Scotty, and Robert Matek making an impression late in the picture as Stretch. Director Joshua Logan gives a peculiar piece of direction when the crew is excited. Suddenly they turn into gymnasts who can execute somersaults, flips, and extraordinarily high dives into the water...all while wearing shorts that are extremely white and ride up their rear ends. When the Captain disappears, the characters act like they are trapped in McDonald's Playland.
Joshua Logan worked with plenty notable actors before Ensign Pulver, so it puzzles me that the performances here are so coarse and mediocre. This fits in with the majority of his resume as light fare. He has done a few musicals (South Pacific, Camelot), including the painful Paint Your Wagon with Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. That was Logan's final effort. Before that he stood at the helm for Marlon Brando (Sayonara), Marilyn Monroe (Bus Stop), and Anthony Perkins (Tall Story). There is nothing flashy about his direction, and that would have been fine, but of all war films at sea made in the 50's and 60's, of which there were oodles (The Wackiest Ship in the Army, The Caine Mutiny, etc.), Logan does little to distinguish this from the rest, whether it be story structure, setting, or characters. That's one of the major dilemmas regarding movies confined to ships. The director has an uphill battle in order to accentuate a precise identity. Logan was an uncredited director on Mister Roberts, but he did not pick up any sage-like advice from Ford or LeRoy (probably because Ford was arguing with Henry Fonda) because he not only fiddles with the returning characters excessively, his script has no foundation. We see the crew clown around and then the Captain gets his appendix taken out. The End.
Robert Walker Jr. snuggles next to his short-lived love interest Millie Perkins.
What made Mister Roberts so stirring is that the characters were keenly fleshed out and as a result the audience sympathized easier with the plight of the men. Logan's vision has Captain Morton as an over the top version of Satan, and the crew as a bunch of whiners who just want to drink booze, get girls, and horse around like toddlers on Red Bull. Over and over again, Ensign Pulver prompted me for repeated facepalms. One of my favorite scenes in Mister Roberts was when they made scotch. In Ensign Pulver, it's jungle juice, and as someone who has tossed back many types of jungle juice, the concoction here was reminiscent of disgusting dirty water with a purple tint. Logan's sequel is a perfunctory second trip that explores no new territory. The cast tries to deliver the lines with emotion, but their underlying boredom is evident, because this movie, like its own U.S.S. Reluctant, merely floats along desperate for a mission, a task, or any reason to exist.
I bought a VHS copy of this film before it had been released on the Warner Archive Collection. Since Warner Bros. has started that line of on-demand DVDs, I debated on whether or not those titles I was interested in reviewing fit into my column. Ultimately, I decided they are worth writing about from time to time because these titles are still not easy to come by. The prices are very expensive, and you cannot rent them. This Warner Archive copy goes for $20 on their site, and $25 on Aamazon. Trust me, this film is not worth that. Also, there are not many reviews of Ensign Pulver around, so now is the time to have one for IMDB readers to peruse.
Final Rating = 4.0/10.0
Below is a clip from the beginning of the film featuring Larry Hagman and Jack Nicholson.
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