Excerpt reblogged from A World of Film:
From the getgo, Ford wanted to shoot the bulk of the movie off of Midway Island, where several years before he had been wounded while shooting b-roll for The Battle of Midway, a World War II documentary. When the production first approached the Navy about cooperating with the production, the Navy turned their backs, citing the Captain’s sociopathic character as “detrimental to their image”. Ford responded by going directly to the Chief of Naval Operations and thus, secured the use of the USS Hewill, which stood in for the fictional Reluctant, along with permissions to film at bases on Midway and on the Hawaiian island of O’ahu.
For a young Jack Lemmon, being cast onto this film as Ensign Pulver was the biggest break of his career. Lemmon had many stories to tell about his work on the picture, some of which he recounts on the film’s DVD audio commentary. Among the many stories, he remembers having his screen test spliced to the end of dailies on one of Ford’s earlier movies, just to get him to watch it. On developing his character, Lemmon described Ensign Pulver as “not needing a great deal of research”, “you just kind of get the guy” he said, “you don’t even have to understand the Navy to play him.”
During the production of the film, Lemmon started a long-time friendship with Cagney, which lasted until Cagney’s death in 1986. Years before Mister Roberts, Lemmon starred in live television. In one particular performance, Lemmon decided to play his character ‘left handed’ for one episode, to see if anyone would notice. No one did, neither his wife ‘nor the director of the show. A few years went by and when Lemmon finally met Cagney at the airport before heading out to Midway, the first thing Cagney asked was “Are you still fooling people into believing you’re left handed?” As Lemmon and other people have noted about Cagney, this is an example of Cagney’s ability to observe human behavior and adapt these observations to enhance his own performances.
“Pappy Ford” used to pull tricks on his actors. As Lemon said, “he was famous for it.” He used to try and trick actors into giving the performances he didn’t think they were capable of, and many actors used to resent him for it. One incident had Ford telling Cagney that he wanted him ready at 6AM sharp for a scene. At the last minute, Ford would send an assistant to inform him that he didn’t need to come in at all This would go on for many days. Cagney recognized the behavior, as it had been described by other actors who had previously worked with Ford. He knew was Ford was up to. When Cagney’s first shoot day finally arrived, Ford attempted to catch him and Lemmon off guard, by sending an assistant to inform them an hour before the new call time. Cagney and Lemmon were smart about it and to prepare for this possible circumstance, they secretly rehearsed the entire script, front to back, so that Ford would get an actual performance and not a forced reaction. Lemmon believed that actors have to be in control of what they’re doing but Ford felt if the scene was thrown at them, it would bring an added element that couldn’t be “performed”. Ford told Lemmon at the end of this day “that was damned good work.” Ford never tried to pull this stunt again, at least, not on this film.
[Read more at A World of Film]