by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
TCM showed Ship of Fools right after Judgment at Nuremberg last night because both films were shot by the great cinematographer Ernest Laszlo (who won the Academy Award for Ship of Fools), but there are other, deeper commonalities: both were produced and directed by Stanley Kramer, written by Abby Mann and dealt, in a way, with Nazism — only while Judgment at Nuremberg took place after the Second World War and with the attempt to pick up the pieces and assign guilt for the abuses of Nazism, Ship of Fools is set in January 1933, just before the Nazis took power in Germany, and was at least in part an attempt to go back to the origins of Nazism and show where it came from in the German character.
It began life as a novel by Katherine Anne Porter (who gets over-the-title billing in the credits — given how churlish people who are trying to establish screenwriters rather than directors as auteurs are about giving credit to the writers the screenwriters adapt in the first place — I remember one silly article crediting Double Indemnity to Raymond Chandler when he didn’t invent its plot, characters or situations: James M. Cain did — it’s always nice to see the creator of the original material a movie is based on get the kind of recognition he or, here, she deserves). Porter had a major reputation as a short-story writer but Ship of Fools was her only novel — and even here she used a multiple-plot structure; the story is really several interacting plot lines in which people who otherwise have no particular reason to encounter each other are thrown together in an enclosed environment, the sort of structure one might expect from a writer who wasn’t sure of her own ability to construct a novel with only one major plot line and set of characters.
Porter was 72 when Ship of Fools was published in 1962 and she drew on her experiences living in Mexico in the 1920’s and her experiences in the Communist Party as well as her friendship with a Nazi; she worked on the book for 20 years before she considered it ready for publication. As a movie, Ship of Fools is often compared to Grand Hotel, made 33 years earlier and also dealing with a group of people thrown together at random simply by their happening to be staying at the same place (and Grand Hotel also has a German setting and was based on a novel by a woman writer, Vicki Baum). The setting is the ship Vera (“true”), a German vessel that’s a kind of mixed liner and freighter setting sail from the Mexican port of Veracruz (“true cross”) to Bremerhaven in Germany with a scheduled stopover at Tenerife, Spain.
Among the passengers are 46-year-old American dowager Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh, in her last — and heartbreaking — film role), who tells us midway through the film that she acquired a fortune from a skirt-chasing husband after cleaning him out in divorce court; La Condesa (Simone Signoret in an Academy Award-nominated performance), who’s being taken back to Spain to serve a prison sentence for an unspecified crime; Rieber (José Ferrer), an unabashed Nazi who glorifies in what his party is going to do to eliminate “undesirable” specimens of humanity once they take power (which naturally provokes someone else on the ship to ask, “When you’ve eliminated all of them, who will you have left?”); Tenny (Lee Marvin), a baseball player who burned out of the major leagues because he couldn’t hit the outside curve ball and was reduced to working as a baseball coach in Mexico; Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley), a rich young woman and her painter boyfriend, David (George Segal), whom she’s keeping as a sort of gigolo; Glocken (Michael Dunn), a dwarf who delivers an opening and closing narration telling us that we all may be passengers on the ship of fools (and who points out to Tenny in mid-movie that there are nearly a billion people on the earth who don’t know what hitting the outside curve ball means and therefore won’t care that he can’t do it); Lowenthal (Heinz Rühmann), a German Jew who doesn’t believe the Nazis are a threat because he and most other German Jews think of themselves as Germans first and Jews second; a troupe of flamenco dancers led by Pepe (José Greco), who also pimps out the younger and more nubile female members of his company (and Greco’s performance in this role, though brief, is extraordinary: for someone with virtually no experience as an actor he really makes himself quite loathsome); and about 600 Spanish guest workers brought in to work the sugar cane fields in Cuba who are being sent home because the world price of sugar has plunged and the farmers are burning their crops rather than bothering to harvest them.
The ship’s staff includes a burned-out doctor, Schumann (Oskar Werner — who also got an Academy Award nomination, as did Dunn), and the young but already avuncular Captain Thiele (Charles Korvin, who holds his own against a passel of much better-known “names” in the cast), who passes the time on the routine voyage by playing chess with Dr. Schumann but also is cruel enough that he hoses down the Spanish guest workers when the paying passengers complain about how they smell, and takes away the carving knife of a Spanish woodcarver whose simple toy sculptures of animals seem to give David a heavy-duty inferiority complex when he realizes this simple, untrained peasant is a better artist than he is. Ship of Fools is a soap opera with pretensions — the lines about how the Germans, the people of Goethe, Beethoven and Bach, would never fall for the appeal of Rieber and his hate-filled agenda are the kind of cheap historical irony (written, after all, from a safe distance long after this particular story had its outcome) that attempts to be serious and moving but is only wince-inducing — and it doesn’t help that the actors achieve various levels of credibility in the task of convincing us they’re actually living in 1933 (Leigh, Signoret and Werner pull it off but Ashley in particular seems like a guest at a 1933-themed costume party) — but the love, and the sex, transcend the pretensions and make Ship of Fools an entertaining movie even if hardly the intense historical epic Stanley Kramer (whose own pretensions as a filmmaker all too neatly matched Porter’s as a writer!) was clearly hoping he’d made,
The film was made at an odd point in the U.S. film industry’s history and in particular its relationship to sex — the Production Code was still in force but there’d been enough amendments and cracks in it that the relationships between the characters could be depicted more or less honestly, and some people in the movie get laid while others do not for much the same reasons as apply in real life. Probably the most moving storyline is the one between Dr. Schumann and La Condesa — it certainly seemed to be the one that interested Kramer and screenwriter Mann the most! — a weird co-dependency evocative of the 1932 classic One-Way Passage between a doctor who has a weak heart himself (among the medical texts in his library is one called Diseases of the Heart and it’s strongly hinted that he bought that particular one to aid in his self-diagnosis) and a woman who’s on her way to prison — and the mutual dependency, including her drug addiction (which she’s counting on the doctor to supply legally) and their sexual attraction, are powerfully and honestly depicted.
Signoret’s performance somewhat overshadows Leigh’s, but it was still a good film for Scarlett O’Hara to go out on rather than having to make cheap Gothic horror movies or exploitation films like Trog for the last decades of her life. Indeed, the ending of her storyline seems to be steering Leigh’s character into Blanche DuBois territory — Tenny, tricked by one of Pepe’s dancers into coming into Mary Treadwell’s stateroom for sex, tries to rape her and we’re already waiting for the boys in straitjackets to come and lead her off while she babbles about how she’s always depended on the kindness of strangers, when — surprise! — she successfully fights him off (made possible by his being roaring drunk at the time) and preserves her virtue, what there is of it, for the nonce even though the warning that someday she’ll be reduced to hiring gigolos (a part she’d already played four years earlier in The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone) and listening to them tell her the lies she’s paid them to hear. Ship of Fools is an odd movie, not because it’s a bad movie with a good one trying to get out but because it’s aspiring to greatness and achieves goodness — it tries for Grand Statements about The Human Condition and achieves reliable Hollywood entertainment — but it’s still worth seeing.