Friday, May 23, 2014

making a case for Logan's "Ensign Pulver"

Guilty pleasure, anyone?

Joshua Logan, who directed "Mister Roberts" on stage and helmed certain uncredited sequences for the John Ford-Mervyn LeRoy 1955 film version, got the bright idea of continuing Thomas Heggen's beloved story by speculating on what happened to Ensign Pulver (the Jack Lemmon character, natch) after Mister Roberts (Henry Fonda) died in combat.

The result was 1964's immediately forgettable but strangely likable "Ensign Pulver" with the Lemmon-esque Robert Walker Jr. (the lookalike son of Robert Walker) assuming the title role.

In this incarnation of the life aboard what Heggen affectionately dubbed "The Bucket," Walter Matthau inherits the William Powell role of Doc and Burl Ives takes over for James Cagney as Captain Morton (a character that was simply billed as "The Captain" in the '55 film).

The plot is negligble, but wait!  Get this incredible supporting cast:

-Kay Medford, always wonderful, this time as a tough head nurse who meets her match in Matthau's Doc.

-Millie Perkins as a young nurse and potential love interest for Ensign Pulver.

-Diana Sands and Al Freeman, Jr., hilarious as two rather worldly south-seas natives.

-Jack Nicholson (yes!), James Coco, Tommy Sands, Jerry Orbach, James Farentino, Larry Hagman, George Lindsey, Gerald O'Loughlin, Peter Marshall and Dick Gautier as assorted sailors on The Bucket.

"Ensign Pulver" is an excellent example of a film that's not especially good but that has a cast that makes it worthwhile.

Case in point: Matthau and Medford,who have impressive comic/sexual chemistry in a ship-to-shore sequence which doesn't even have them in the same frame together. They make a dream team. It's too bad that they never got to make a film in which they sparred face-to-face.

"Ensign Pulver" marked a reunion of sorts for Medford and Gautier, both of whom appeared in the original 1960 Broadway production of "Bye Bye Birdie" - Medford as Mrs. Peterson (Dick Van Dyke's mother) and Gautier as Conrad Birdie.  They were passed over a year earlier by George Sidney for his 1963 film of the musical. Maureen Stapleton (quite good) and Jesse Pearson (quite bad) replaced them in the movie version.

Logan's movie may be negligable, but I will forever appreciate his nimble casting of "Ensign Pulver" - and particularly for correcting Sidney's slight and coming through for both Medford and Gautier.

Note in Passing: Dick Gautier would also be reunited with Dick Van Dyke for Bud Yorkin's astute, hilarious marital comedy, "Divorce, American Style," in which he essays the role of Van Dyke's divorce attorney.


Kyle said...

Talk about a forgotten film. I avoided this movie for decades, but now I have a desire to see it - if only for Al Freeman, Jr. and Diana Sands.

Thom said...

Here's some controversy for you...

For some time, I've been of the opinion that 'Ensign Pulver' is a more successful film than it's predecessor ('Mister Roberts') simply because as a modest early 60s comedy, it doesn't promise much, but delivers a great deal. For one thing, the film is genuinely funny. Matthau is marvelous in a performance that seems largely inspired by the comedy of Sandy Berman. Also, the climactic surgery scene may not be very sophisticated, but I can still quote most of the dialogue word for word.

Now consider 'Mister Roberts,' in which the confusion behind the camera (Ford, LeRoy, Logan?), and the fact that Lemmon manages to steal the film out from under Fonda causes the whole project to go slowly out of focus. As a result, the pathos of the film's final moments almost seems phoned in from another picture. In contrast, the climactic scene between Ives and Walker in 'Ensign Pulver' is remarkably effective, and reveals a depth to the main character that was scarcely imaginable when the story began.

I don't mean to demean 'Mister Roberts.' From a cultural standpoint, it's certainly an important film. However, I think that 'Ensign Pulver' is grossly underrated, and deserves, at long last, to be appreciated on its on terms.

Thom said...


The previous post should have read -

"Matthau is marvelous in a performance that seems largely inspired by the comedy of SHELLEY Berman."

I guess my mind was morphing him with the memory of the late, great Sandy Baron.

Not a bad hybrid, that...