He was a nice-looking young actor who made his screen debut in a big commercial and critical success of the mid-1950s but was soon dead in a 1955 accident. No, I’m not talking about James Dean. But how many people even remember the name Robert Francis? It was Francis whose career got off to a grand start with “introducing” billing in The Caine Mutiny (1954). After three more movies, he died in a private-plane crash on July 31, 1955, two months before Dean. (It was Francis who was piloting the plane.) He was 25 when he died; Dean was 24. Though Francis was soon forgotten, it must have been startling in 1955 to lose, one right after the other, two of the screen’s promising newcomers. Tall, blondish, all-American-looking Francis was actually closer in type to Tab Hunter than he was to Dean.
In The Caine Mutiny, Francis essentially plays the main character, the young observer of all the action. Though basically an absorbing and solid film, it is also rather obvious in its effects. Edward Dmytryk’s direction isn’t tight or tense enough, and the film looks too colorful, too overproduced. It’s further marred by the soapy and generic love story between Francis, a young ensign (and a rich Princeton boy), and May Wynn, a mere nightclub singer. He is caught between love and his society mother’s disapproval.
Francis comes off as rather bland and uninteresting in his rather bland and uninteresting morale-officer role. The attention-getter here is Humphrey Bogart’s Captain Queeg, a by-the-book paranoiac, who seems to me too crazy too quickly. It’s a risky change of pace for Bogie, but his performance, though effective and even memorable, feels effortful (which is unusual for a Bogie performance). The best work comes from Van Johnson as the communications officer, the picture’s Fletcher Christian. There’s a happy ending for Francis and Wynn, but who even remembers that there’s a love subplot in this movie? Though he and Wynn are a superficial drag on things, it had to have been good for Francis to make his debut in a major Oscar contender. He was on his way.
The Bamboo Prison (1954) is a B-picture rip-off of Stalag 17 (1953), with Francis in the William Holden slot as a despised P.O.W. suspected of being an informer. This time the war is the Korean conflict rather than WWII, but, if you know Stalag 17, well, you can guess the rest of the plot (with the addition of some Cold War seasonings). But it gets sillier and more comic-booky as it proceeds. Though top-billed, Francis still seems a little too white-bread to be getting the push for stardom.
His final picture, John Ford’s The Long Gray Line (1955), was, like The Caine Mutiny, a prestige project, but it’s not one of Ford’s best, and it gave Francis his least significant role. It’s Tyrone Power’s vehicle, a West Point Goodbye, Mr. Chips with Power aging through decades as an athletic instructor who supports and nurtures several generations of cadets. Francis shows up very late in this overlong movie, even though he’s third-billed after Power and Maureen O’Hara (as Power’s wife). At the 100-minute mark, Francis at last enters, off to fight in WWII. The role is small and forgettable, but it must have been a big deal for him to be in a Ford film, however thanklessly. Power does a nice job, but it’s still an overanimated, forced (when “comic”), tedious, and sentimental work.
Finally, we come to the Francis movie that I want to talk about, the only one of his quartet that suggests his potential as a leading man. Three Rode West (1954) is one of numerous surprisingly fine B westerns of the 1950s, the genre’s peak decade. Directed by the talented Phil Karlson, it’s well shot, telling its story with potent visual compositions. Francis stars as the dedicated new doctor at a cavalry fort, a lieutenant who thinks of everyone, including Indians, as equals. He is a peaceful but strong young man, more interested in fighting malaria than Indians, which puts him at odds with anti-Indian captain Phil Carey. Francis is generally unwelcome at the fort, despite his upgrading of the medical facilities. It’s easily the best role Francis ever got, and the only time he is interesting enough to have you pondering his what-might-have-been future.
Donna Reed is the love interest, the visiting niece of the colonel. And May Wynn (Francis’ Caine Mutiny co-star) is the white girl raised by Indians. Francis bonds more with Wynn than with anybody at the fort. Perceived as a traitor for wanting to help the Indians, he’s something of a rebel, an anti-reservation activist. With Francis as the good guy, and commanding officer Carey as the villain, the movie has admirable ambiguities and sensitive gray areas that make it stand out from more standard westerns.
Francis was top-billed again, even over a post-From Here to Eternity Reed, but the push to make him a star would soon be over. Had he lived, he quite possibly would have vanished within a few years, but his untimely death leaves a question mark. Check out the unjustly obscure Three Rode West and see what you think.