In 1955, while Henry Fonda prepared to reprise his role as Mister Roberts, the title character in director John Ford's film adaptation of Thomas Heggen and Joshua Logan's 1948 hit Broadway show that starred Fonda, Marlon Brando was also studying to play the part.
"Unknown to Fonda, Warners had thought William Holden or Marlon Brando would be better box-office and had consented to Fonda only when Ford threatened not to make the movie unless they did so" (Gallagher, Tag. John Ford: The Man and His Films).
Brando's working copy of the published play, complete with his hand-written annotations and bookplate, zipped in and out of the marketplace last week and a collector, wallet now $2750 lighter, is very pleased to possess this gem.
On the front free-endpaper Brando wrote:
"the focus should perhaps be that he wants to get off the can and away from the captain rather than persue [sic] the fulfillment of a neurotic compulsion to do his share. He seems to be driven, by some kind of guilt feeling, into his frantic effort to get into the bullets."
On the front paste-down, Brando notes that on page 45 Mister Roberts "confirms his irrationality on the subject and makes him [?] ambitious, compulsive and and [sic] not derived from a source of time, nobility of character or refinement of moral principle."
Brando's Method acting process is evident as he dissects Mister Roberts to get inside the character's head and determine his motivation. Brando also circled the character's (his) lines in the play, and his inked marginalia is found throughout.
Let us now pause to get them colored lights goin' and contemplate the preposterous notion of Marlon Brando portraying Lt. Doug Roberts, a college-educated naval officer who has earned the love and respect of his crew while engaging in a personal war with the U.S.S. Reluctant's commanding officer, Lt. Comd. Morton, the crew's nemesis and Roberts' bête noire. Casting, thy name is catastrophe.
Brando would have required a broom up his butt to portray the firmly centered, of inner strength, quietly commanding Roberts that Fonda so wholly yet lightly embodied and had won a Tony award for his Broadway performance. It helped that Fonda had been a Navy officer aboard ship during WWII. Brando could have captured the character's heft but not his casual, understated and contained force. That was Henry Fonda's hat-trick as an actor. It was not Marlon Brando's, whose vulnerabilities were visible as klieg lights on stage and screen. You sensed Fonda's inner frailties, you saw Brando's on a billboard. For instance:
James Cagney (as Capt. Morton): No. You're a smart boy, Roberts. But I know how to take care of smart boys. I hate your guts, you smart college guys! I've been seeing your kind around since I was ten years old... working as a busboy. "Oh busboy, it seems my friend has thrown up on the table. Clean up that mess, boy, will'ya?" And then when I went to sea as a steward... people poking at you with umbrellas. "Oh, boy!", "You, boy!", "Careful with that luggage, boy!" And I took it. I took it for years! But I don't have to take it any more. There's a war on, and I'm captain of this vessel, and now YOU can take it for a change! The worst thing I can do to you... is to keep you right here, Mister, and here is where you're going to stay. Now, GET OUT!
Marlon Brando as Mr. Roberts: Stella!!
James Cagney as Capt. Morton: [on the loudspeaker in reference to his "missing" palm tree... ] All right! Who did it? Who did it? You are going to stand sweating at those battle stations until someone confesses! It's an insult to the honor of this ship! The symbol of our cargo record has been destroyed and I'm going to find out who did it if it takes all night!
Brando as Mister Roberts: How 'bout cuttin' the re-bop? Be comfortable. That's my motto up where I come from. Well, I guess I'm gonna strike you as being the unrefined type, huh? A Yale man, not Harvard. I coulda been a contender instead of a bum on a cargo ship, which is what I am. It was you, Capt. Morton, it was you...
Thank God John Ford made Warner Brothers an offer they couldn't refuse.
A wonderful provenance for this book: from the collection of Brando's '60s lover and later employee, L.A. actress and screenwriter, Pat Quinn, who starred as Alice in Alice's Restaurant (1969).
Brando material with annotations related to acting rarely finds its way into the marketplace; it is scarce, kept, coveted, and only deaccessioned with great reluctance.
[BRANDO, Marlon]. HEGGEN, Thomas and Joshua Logan. Mister Roberts. New York: Random House, 1948. First edition. Octavo. 162 pp. Illustrations. Blue cloth. The copy of Marlon Brando, with his notes.
Images courtesy of Royal Books, with our thanks.