by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
After Sherlock Holmes Charles suggested we run another item from the Barrymore box, but I didn’t feel like two silent movies in a row and instead picked out something from an earlier, and far more massive, boxed set he’d given me as a present, the Ford at Fox box 20th Century-Fox released in late 2007 as a tribute to John Ford’s work at the Fox studio (which contains quite a few, though hardly all, of his most important films). We had abruptly broken off our exploration of this box back in March 2008, and after a chance remark from Charles about it I decided to crack it open and pick up where we’d left off: with Ford’s first film after the intriguing 1930 prison-based comedy-drama Up the River, starring Spencer Tracy in his first feature film and Humphrey Bogart in either his first (according to imdb.com) or second (according to Todd McCarthy’s biography) feature film.
The next film up was the 1931 production Seas Beneath, which Ford’s biographer Tag Gallagher rather wrote off (“dreadful acting and splendid photography … an instructive failure”) but which turned out to be quite good once you got beyond a rather creaky opening and two stars in the leads vastly underqualified for their roles. Set in August 1918, Seas Beneath deals with Navy commander Robert “Bob” Kingsley (George O’Brien) and his assignment to command a so-called “mystery ship.” This is a three-masted, sail-driven schooner whose crew consists of Navy reservists — all except the gun crew, who are experienced naval gunners — and whose mission is to sail into the Canary Islands (off the coast of Morocco and held by Spain, though Morocco has been claiming them since it won independence) and attract the attention of the feared German U-boat U-172, which has been responsible for sinking much Allied shipping.
The “mystery ship” is supposed to be disguised as a merchant vessel — the crew are dressed in plain clothes instead of uniforms (and O’Brien’s tight-fitting dungarees show off far more of his anatomy than the usual male attire in a 1930’s film, a bonus for certain viewers) and their state-of-the-art gun is hidden under a housing on deck whose walls are tied with lanyards (the shipmodeling.net Web site defines a lanyard as “a short piece of rope made fast to anything to secure it or to use as a handle, used to secure the shrouds and stays and for firing flintlock guns”) that can be untied in a hurry, thereby causing the walls to fall away and the gun to be exposed for use. The theory is that the sub will try to sink the “mystery ship,” but will surface and use its guns to do so rather than wasting a torpedo on such a puny target — and once it gets within range the mystery ship will be able to hit it with its own gun and sink it.
There are some cornball comedy antics, notably involving crew chief Mike “Guns” Costello (Walter C. Kelly) and his attempts to climb the masts the way he did 20 years earlier — which, predictably, end with him overboard, until the ship finally gets to the Canary Islands and puts to port, where Kingsley warns the crew not to drink or fraternize with the women. Both Kingsley and his ensign, Dick Cabot (Gaylord “Steve” Pendleton — no relation to Nat Pendleton, who’s also in this movie albeit in a much smaller role), break the commander’s own rule; Kingsley starts dating a blonde named Anna Marie (Marion Lessing) while Cabot goes after nightclub singer Lolita (Mona Maris, who does a quite good turn with a song called “My Loves” in a sequence that looks like Ford had carefully studied the opening cabaret scene in Sternberg’s Morocco, made the year before). Both women, it turns out, are German agents — Lolita takes Cabot to her room, gets him so drunk he passes out, then sees the U.S. Navy insignia inside his hat and rifles through his wallet to see his identity papers and confirm he’s really a U.S. servicemember and not a merchant seaman. As for Anna Marie, she’s the brother of U-172’s commander, Von Steuben (Henry Victor), and even when she’s taken prisoner and held on the “mystery ship” she keeps trying to signal the U-boat to stay away and not fall into the Americans’ trap for it.
Much of the movie is surprisingly action-less, and (at least in the U.S. version) there is no music score except for a couple of cheesy themes over the opening and closing credits — the German release stuck on bits of Wagner as underscoring — but the film manages to stay interesting largely due to magnificent photography by Joseph August, the realism of shooting at sea (though they just went as far as the shores off Catalina and one shot in particular — of the gun pointing up the screen to indicate it’s ready for use — looked to me like a studio interior with a process-screen sea as backdrop) and a surprisingly literate script by Dudley Nichols, who did a better than usual job for a film like this of depicting the clashes between duty and love that motivate both characters. (I wondered for a while if the absence of music helped this film or hurt it; it gives the film a far starker and more classical “feel” than the 1943 film Action in the North Atlantic, similarly plotted though set one war later, in which the soundtrack is such a continuous assault of explosions from guns, torpedoes, depth charges and Max Steiner’s music that one cherishes the sequence in which both the sub and the merchant ship it’s trying to sink go into radio silence as a blessed rest for one’s ears!)
All of this makes it even more regrettable that Seas Beneath didn’t have stronger actors in the lead roles (Mona Maris, who had earlier appeared with Humphrey Bogart in a feature called A Devil with Women and would come out of retirement in 1984 after 30 years off screen to play a bitch grandmother in a marvelous Argentinian film called Camila, easily takes the acting honors here). George O’Brien starred in two of the very best films of the late silent era — Ford’s Three Bad Men and Murnau’s Sunrise — but he seems hopeless as a talkie actor, falling flat for the same reason John Gilbert did: there’s nothing wrong with the basic timbre of his voice but he doesn’t have a clue how to act with it, how to vary the pitch and inflection of his speech to reflect and express emotions. Marion Lessing is simply incompetent; John Ford said later that he hadn’t wanted to use her, she’d been forced on him by the studio, she’d tricked the studio bosses into thinking she could speak German — which she couldn’t — and he’d originally wanted Marguerite Churchill for the role.
If (and it’s a very big “if”) she could have worked past her accent (the character is supposed to be German but able to speak perfect American-accented English), Marlene Dietrich would have been ideal for the part — just as the role of the commander cried out for Cary Grant (who was still in New York doing stage work and film shorts) and got George O’Brien. Both these dubious leads seemed lost in Nichols’ oddly moving closing scene, in which Kingsley swears eternal love to Anna Marie and she, anticipating The Third Man nearly 20 years later, walks away from him and chooses her brother and her country over her lover (explaining, in a quirky Nichols-ish way, that the losing country in the war will need her a lot more than the winning one!).
I think Seas Beneath got in the Ford at Fox box because it’s the earliest extant film Dudley Nichols wrote for John Ford — at least the first one that survives with its soundtrack intact; an earlier one, Men Without Women, exists only in the alternative silent version released for the handful of theatres that still hadn’t wired for sound in 1930 — but it’s a considerably better film than its meager reputation in the Ford critical canon would indicate, and it rivals James Whale’s 1931 Waterloo Bridge (made the same year about a different front in the same war) as a film that manages to be interesting and a directorial tour de force despite a weak pair of leads. If only Seas Beneath had met the fate of Waterloo Bridge and got remade with an incandescent star and a director at least close to the skill level of the original one!
Other bits of trivia about Seas Beneath: the schooner used had previously been filmed in the 1930 version of The Sea Wolf (starring Milton Sills, who’d previously starred in the silent version of The Sea Hawk and proved every bit as sexy as Errol Flynn in the sound quasi-remake) and would be used again in a film called The Painted Woman; and John Loder, cast as one of the German navy officers, demanded — and got — $1,000 above his salary for agreeing to have his hair close-cropped in proper German military style.