The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ensign Pulver

Released in 1955 in movie theaters after a successful run on Broadway, Mister Roberts is a WWII classic of a cargo supply ship thousands of miles from the fighting in the Pacific dealing with the extreme boredom of the war.  Henry Fonda plays the titular character in one of his most memorable roles, James Cagney plays the captain who might as well have a bullseye on his back, and Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his part as Ensign Pulver, the morale and laundry officer.  It's a classic for a reason including one of the more moving endings to a movie.

Naturally with all that going for it, especially the ending wrapped up with a nice, tidy bow, a sequel was made with the same characters played by different actors.  If that's not a recipe for success, I don't know what is.  The result is 1964's Ensign Pulver, an unnecessary sequel if there ever was.  My complaints about sequels is that usually they're just money generators.  The few good ones are those that build on the original, whether it is answering unsolved questions or plot lines or finding a new direction to go.  'Ensign' falls short of either, basically continuing the story Mister Roberts started.  The only problem? There was no need to continue it.

It's in the waning months of WWII in the Pacific and far from the battle and action is a supply cargo ship off a small island with no strategic purpose at all, the ship's commander, Captain Morton (crooner Burl Ives), still insisting on doing things as if they were near the front. In the process, he drives his crew crazy with all of his punishments and strictness.  Ensign Frank Pulver (Robert Walker Jr.) is content to ride out the war without causing as much as a wave, but even he is finally pushed too far. With some help from the on-board medical officer, Doc (Walter Matthau), Pulver begins to plot against the captain, each plan more ridiculous than the next.

Fairly or unfairly when looking at a sequel with a different cast than the original, you're going to compare.  So before a word is spoken here, 'Ensign' is swimming against the current.  Jack Lemmon or Walker Jr.?  Tut-tut, that's a stupid question.  James Cagney or Burl Ives? Cagney going away.  Matthau is the one improvement I thought over William Powell's Doc, but a 33% isn't that good overall.  More than anything else though, the biggest problem here is basically a retelling of the story from Mister Roberts.  Pointless much?  Sure, there's more comedy, but that's not necessarily a good thing.  Just because a movie is popular doesn't mean it deserves a sequel, and this one's pretty bad.

In a supporting role in the original, Jack Lemmon is a scene-stealer, and overall the cast has a great dynamic.  Stepping into the Pulver role, Walker Jr. just isn't up to the task.  The character is whiny, self righteous, and shrill to boot, an unlikely trio of character traits for someone we're supposed to be rooting for.  His Pulver goes on rants that the crew don't think much of him while minutes before he was content to stay in his bunk and ride out the rest of the war with as little personal interaction as possible.  He's given the most coincidental love interest as well, a pretty nurse named Scotty (Millie Perkins), but that never amounts to much. It's hard to blame Walker Jr. for not being Jack Lemmon, but I'm going to do it anyways.  He's no Jack Lemmon, and we're moving on.

An immense man physically, Burl Ives did his fair share of movies while also recording countless songs and albums as a singer.  He could be a good actor, but this part is too cartoonish overall.  It's just one thing after another where as an audience we're pushed to the point where you just want someone to shoot him.  Ives also has a scene where his shirt is off, and let me say this, most unnecessary, uncomfortable topless scene in a movie ever.  Matthau as Doc is typically strong, the one man who the captain may listen to, and he doesn't do that too often.  His part provides some laughs in an otherwise bland attempt at humor.  Also in the cast is Larry Hagman, Tommy Sands in a good part as a sailor trying to get a leave home, and a young Jack Nicholson in one of his early movies as Yeoman Dolan.

A rehash of a popular story is one thing, and the first hour is halfway decent just because of the subject matter, but the story crashes into a brick wall about 60-plus minutes in.  Ives' Captain is washed over board in a storm, and Pulver jumps in to save him.  Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, Pulver and the Captain are awash at sea in a small raft.  When they do find out the captain may be dead, the crew celebrates in a fashion that makes The Village People's 'In the Navy' look incredibly heterosexual.  The twists and plot points in the last hour are those of a madcap 1960s comedy, not a halfway decent service comedy.  All the stops are pulled out with some Pacific native stereotypes, and a dozen or so coincidences too many. The ending tries to do a 180 and get all serious, but that never really comes together.  So moral of the story? Steer clear of this one, stick with Henry Fonda and the original.

Ensign Pulver <---TCM trailer (1964): * 1/2 /****

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