What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the “Fondathon” movie blog-a-thon. In short, it’s a celebration of all things “Fonda” in the movies. This is an event hosted by Sat In Your Lap; this is the first time I’ve been a part of a blog-a-thon he has hosted, and hopefully it won’t be the last.
But this one is a “double feature.” This post is also a part of something called The Box Office Jocks Blog-A-Thon: This is a blog-a-thon dedicated to actors who were once athletes or famous athletes who appear in films. It’s also hosted by Return to the 80’s and yours truly Dubsism.
In this case, “Mister Roberts” features a cameo as an island tribal chief by Duke Kahanamoku. If you’re not familiar, Kahanamoku won gold medals in swimming at the 1912 and 1920 Olympics, as well as a silver in 1924, losing to the gold to Johnny “Tarzan” Weismuller.
Kahanamoku’s presence would also qualify “Mister Roberts” for our upcoming “Cops” blog-a-thon, as he served 13 consecutive terms as a sheriff in Hawaii from 1932 to 1961. In other words, Dubsism and friends are going to be home to lots of interesting movie blog-a-thons in the future, so you will want to keep tabs on our Movie Blog-a-Thons page for breaking news!
Picture it… the South Pacific in the waning days of the Second World War. The USS Reluctant, a United States Navy cargo ship also not-so-affectionately called and her crew are stationed in the South Pacific. The plot revolves around the conflict between the ship’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Morton (played by James Cagney) and the executive/cargo officer Lieutenant Junior Grade Roberts (played by Henry Fonda), Morton is an “old salt” career Navy man who worked his way up the ranks g from the very bottom, whereas Roberts is a college-educated man brought into the service for the war.
Morton is overly eager for promotion, so much so that he rides the crew to not quite “Captain Bligh” levels, but enough to the point where Roberts clearly plays a role shielding the crew from the harsh and unpopular Morton. The problem comes when when Roberts wants to get off the cargo ship and get into the “real war.” Roberts repeatedly requests a transfer, which Morton is forced by regulation to forward to his superiors. But despite the fact Morton resents Roberts for being a “college boy,” he knows that Roberts is the reason the Reluctant and it’s crew are getting recognition for the job they do. That’s why even though Morton is required to forward Roberts requests, he refuses to endorse them, which means that they are always rejected.
Between this and the increasing tension amongst the crew, “The Bucket” becomes a cauldron just waiting to boil over. Everything comes to a head when the crew is granted liberty, because once the Reluctant reaches it’s port of call, the prototypical South Pacific island paradise, Morton holds the crew hostage by denying them permission to go ashore. Morton confronts Roberts about a recent transfer request which mentioned “disharmony aboard the ship.” Morton then tells Roberts that his transfer requests are endangering Morton’s chances for promotion, and that unless he agrees to stop submitting such requests, Morton will not let the crew off the ship.
Roberts makes the deal for the sake of the crew, but the fact that he now has to toe Morton’s line damages his relationship with them, because they are unaware of what Roberts did to get them the much needed liberty. Morton takes another step toward becoming a comic version of Captain Bligh by letting the crew believe that Roberts is cracking down on them in an attempt to get a promotion.
This goes on until the pivotal point of the movie, the “Palm Tree” scene. Morton was given a palm tree by a port director as a token of appreciation and he diligently cares for it, meticulously watering and maintaining it. Fueled by angst at the idea the war is nearing an end and that he may never reach his goal of seeing actual combat, in one of the great acts of defiance in movie history, Roberts grabs the prized palm tree and chucks it overboard. Morton becomes apoplectic when he discovers what has happened, and he takes little time deducing Roberts is the culprit. He calls Roberts to his quarters, but Morton forgets to turn off the microphone to the public address system, thus broadcasting the resulting argument throughout the ship, whose crew now knows about the deal Roberts made to get them liberty.
Even though this movie was made over sixty years ago, because of the plot twists involved in the ending, this is the part where I remind you I religiously avoid “spoilers.” That’s because if you haven’t seen this movie, find it and watch it. If I were to make a list of my top five favorite Henry Fonda films, there’s no way “Mister Roberts” doesn’t make the cut. Not only is this one of his finest performances, but you can’t go wrong with the cast. You already know about Fonda and Cagney, but throw in William Powell as “Doc” and Jack Lemmon as “Pulver” and you have a can’t miss classic.
Speaking of spoilers, if you like me, you spend the whole movie wondering why Lemmon’s “Pulver” even exists; his light comic relief doesn’t really add much until the closing scene. Then it all makes sense.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
This is part analogy and part pre-cursor to another blog-a-thon I’m hosting later this year called “No Reviews, Tell Us Your Story.” This blog-a-thon is not so much about the “Siskel and Ebert” treatment; I’m not looking for reviews. Instead, this blog-a-thon is all about sharing our connections to our favorite films, because we all have them. Sometimes, those connections are to films which are not favorites, yet we bond with them nevertheless. I mention it here because what I’m going to do for that blog-a-thon and my sports analogy here have a common theme; teachers.
Raise your hand if your introduction to participating in sports came by way of a P.E. (physical education) teacher. Even if it didn’t, it doesn’t take much to picture the prototypical guys I’m going to mention here. Think back to your days in junior-high school P.E. The stereotypes abound for P.E. teachers, but two that stick out amongst them men are the dick who that everybody hated because he hated everybody. Then, there was his complete opposite.
In this case, picture your typical junior high school somewhere in the Pacific time zone.
Now, picture our aforementioned two typical P.E. teachers.
First up is Mr. Brzenski. Here’s guy who hated his lot in life, and took it out on pretty much anybody around him. You know the type. He’s divorced, his kids are grown and probably hate him too, he’s balding and he has a gut suggesting he’s replaced his family with a nightly 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon. He’s a snarling, hard-ass type who treats everybody like something you’d scrape off your shoe, unless you’re a blossoming 14-year girl who looks good in a pair of gym shorts, in which case he’s a heavy-duty dose of super creepy. At one point in his life, you knew he had aspirations of being a high-school football coach or what ever else guys who end up as junior-high P.E. teachers had dreams of becoming. You know he had a hat stashed away somewhere that said “Coach” on it, just like James Cagney’s “Lieutenant Commander Morton” kept the hat of a full commander in his lockbox.
His comic foil came in the role of Mr. Berkowitz. Affectionately known as “Berky,” he couldn’t have been more of a polar opposite from Mr. Brzenski. “Berky” was fresh out of
school, therefore the beasts known as the public school system and the teacher’s union hadn’t digested his dreams and desires yet. As such, Mr. Berkowitz wasn’t so far away from his early teen years to have forgotten what a truly awful time that was. The boys liked him because he would bet you a soda if you could beat him in a free-throw shooting contest. The 14-year girls Mr. Brzenski wanted to leer at flocked to “Berky” because of his blond hair and boyish good looks. On top of that, in much the same way Mister Roberts understood the drudgery of the crew of the Reluctant, Mr. Berkowitz had an empathy for the perils of the pubescent.
Instead of standing around sweating in his Sans-a-Belt shorts with a whistle protruding from his porcine face like Mr. Brzenski, “Berky” might have in much the same way Mister Roberts understood the drudgery of the crew of the Reluctant, Mr. Berkowitz had an empathy for the perils of the pubescent.
That’s why Mr. Brzenski hated Mr. Berkowitz.
One day, “Berky” was gone. At first nobody knew why, but the scuttelbutt came out that Mr. Brzenski had friends in administration with the school district and somehow got “Berky” in trouble with the school board. Instead of fighting it, “Berky” said “Screw this,” packed up his one bedroom apartment and got another job two towns over. This didn’t help Mr. Brzenski’s popularity at all, and much like the crew of the Reluctant, the cauldron started to boil. While we weren’t on a U.S. Navy “Bucket,” there was nevertheless a “palm tree scene” coming; a spontaneous moment of pure rebellion.
In terms of being a sadist, Tomas dé Torquemada had nothing on Walter Brzenski. While there is no proof dodgeball was invented during the Spanish Inquisition, you know dé Torquemada would have appreciated it. One day, I noticed that the Brzenski version of dodgeball always seemed to end up with the big, jocky kids pounding on the weak nerdy and defenseless, and worse yet, he seemed to get his kicks off blowing his whistle every time some defenseless kid got blasted.
To this day, I don’t know what made me do it, but instead of sighting in on some poor bookworm, I wound up and rocketed my ball straight into Mr. Brzenski’s face, his whistle knocked out two of his teeth. Naturally, I bought some big trouble for that, but it was worth it. My “Mister Roberts” was gone, and I “Pulver”-ized the face of the guy who made that happen.
The Moral of The Story:
This story takes place in 1977. The Mr. Berkowitz of this tale was born David Berkowitz, and this was the year another David Berkowitz slathered that name with infamy for being the “Son of Sam” serial killer. Our David Berkowitz was so well-liked and respected that even in the savagery of junior high school, NOBODY ever made a comment about his namesake.
Unlike a rose, a Berkowitz with the same name wasn’t “Berky.”
Lt. Cmdr. Morton, Mr. Brzenski, and the other David Berkowitz were all dicks nobody liked. Don’t be a dick.
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I, for one, totally believe Dodgeball was invented during the Inquisition. Also, I appreciated your description of “Mr. Brzenski” – I was rolling my eyes and laughing at the same time. Dodgeball and a Brzenski-like teacher = good times in middle school.
It’s time to see Mister Roberts again.
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I just love this movie so much! James Cagney would be a great PE teacher kids would hate! In fact he kind of reminds me of the hated gym teacher in my middle school! He was fired they year after I left!
I saw this movie only once, about 30 years ago. I remember liking it though. I think the sequel, Ensign Pulver, was pretty good too. The problem with that sequel is that instead of Jack Lemmon, Ensign Pulver was played by Robert Walker Jr, who is best known (by me anyway) as the creepy Charlie in an original Star Trek episode.
Walker Jr, also slapped around Linda Evans in a episode of “The Big Valley.”
THat was a great article – fascinating! And I didn’t know until now about Kahanamoku, he may have lived such an interesting life!
Thanks for hosting this fun event!
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