by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The movie was The Yankee Clipper, a film from the tail end of the silent era (1927), produced by Cecil B. DeMille’s company and released through Producers’ Distributing Corporation (PDC), DeMille’s second attempt at being present at the creation of a major studio. Alas, it didn’t turn out anywhere near as well as his first (he was part of the Lasky Feature Play Company that eventually became part of Paramount); within two years after it opened with DeMille’s film The Volga Boatmen (which starred William Boyd, also the star of The Yankee Clipper even though his enduring fame would be for the series of Westerns he starred in as Hopalong Cassidy in the late 1930’s and 1940’s), his investors went behind his back and negotiated the sale of his studio to Pathé, which in turn would shortly be absorbed by RKO.
DeMille couldn’t direct The Yankee Clipper himself because he was busy working on The King of Kings, and the writing credits are typically convoluted for the late silent era — Denison Clift for “story,” Garrett Fort and Garnett Weston for “adaptation” and John W. Krafft for titles (I guess DeMille’s personal favorite writer, Jeanie MacPherson, was too busy on King of Kings too), but DeMille’s personality shines (or dulls) all the way through this movie even if he had no more than an executive role in getting it made. It opens with a series of portentous titles shown over a shot of a rolling sea — explaining how the U.S. let go of its hard-won supremacy over the sea and only now (in 1927) was it getting it back, then announcing that this movie would show how the U.S. became king of the seas in the first place over its long-term rival, England — and then it shows first the court of Queen Victoria and then the White House office of president Zachary Taylor. It soon develops that British Lord Huntington (Louis Payne) has built a new ship, the Lord of the Isles, which he expects will be the fastest thing on the seas and cut the trading time between the U.K. and Foochow, China — only Hal Winslow (William Boyd), son of American shipbuilder Thomas Winslow (Burr McIntosh), has built an even faster ship, the Yankee Clipper, and the two ships and their crews meet in Foochow, where Chinese tea trader Louqing (or whatever his name was; imdb.com doesn’t list him as a character) makes them a deal: they’ll race their ships from Foochow to Boston, and the winner receives not only a monopoly on the Chinese tea trade for their country but also the loser’s ship.
Complicating all of this is the inevitable romantic triangle between Hal, Huntington’s daughter Lady Jocelyn (Elinor Fair) and her fiancé Paul de Vigny (John Miljan, one of only three cast members of The Yankee Clipper whose career survived into the talkies; Miljan’s sound films mostly cast him as the same sort of oily villain he plays here). Before providing live accompaniment to this showing at the Organ Pavilion in San Diego’s Balboa Park, Dennis James joked with the audience that they should feel free to cheer the hero and hiss the villain — and Paul as a character provided lots of pretexts for audience hisses. We get his number early on when we see him with his Chinese mistress Wing Toy (played by the legendary erotic dancer Sally Rand, though in this movie she’s only seen fully clothed — in the 1934 film Bolero she performed her famous fan dance, or at least as much of it as she and Paramount could get by the Production Code Administration even during the period of loose Code enforcement commonly, though inaccurately, described by movie critics and buffs as “pre-Code”), telling her that he has to marry Jocelyn to get his hands on her family’s money but that Wing Toy remains the only girl he loves.
He gets worse: thanks to an obnoxious plot contrivance both he and Jocelyn end up stuck on the American ship as it sails, and since an oceangoing boat race is not the most intrinsically exciting spectacle in the world Paul’s machinations to sabotage Hal’s ship provide most of the film’s dramatic interest: he cowers in an isolated room when the ship hits a typhoon off the coast of South America (one the British ship is lucky enough to miss) and he hides the ship’s all-important casks of drinking water, thereby fomenting a mutiny — and doing absolutely nothing when lecherous seaman Portuguese Joe (played by Walter Long with two big earrings that make it look like he quit the film business to become Mr. Clean, though in fact he survived into the sound era and played villains in the Laurel and Hardy movies and was also Miles Archer to Ricardo Cortez’s Sam Spade in the 1931 film of The Maltese Falcon) tries to rape Lady Jocelyn — of course it’s Hal that saves her from the Fate Worse Than Death.
Though DeMille didn’t direct this movie personally, it probably would have been better if he had; the person who did, Rupert Julian, made some memorable films but, like Ray Enright in the sound era, seemed always to be sucking off some more talented filmmaker who worked on the same project (Erich von Stroheim on The Merry-Go-Round, Lon Chaney and Edward Sedgwick on The Phantom of the Opera and DeMille here). Had DeMille directed this personally, it still would have been as melodramatic as all get-out but it would have had an energy and drive it largely lacked under Julian; as it was, it was a fun but formulaic movie that at times looked like a beta version of the James Cameron Titanic — one could readily imagine Boyd, Fair and Miljan playing the parts Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Billy Zane had in Titanic. I suspect this film was chosen less for its intrinsic value as entertainment than for its having been a personal project of Dennis James, who recorded an accompaniment for the Flicker Alley DVD release they were showing and announced before the show that this was one of the few silent films for which the original score survived.
Remember that “silent” movies were almost always accompanied by something — a full orchestra in the largest theatres in the big cities, an organ in a theatre that couldn’t afford an orchestra, a string trio in a theatre that couldn’t afford an organ and a piano (usually a ratty old out-of-tune upright) in a theatre that couldn’t afford a string trio. The major films of the silent era usually had scores especially composed, or at least prepared, for them — often liberally filled out with pre-existing songs that related to the subject of the movie (here we got to hear “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” “Sailing, Sailing, Over the Bounding Main” and other similarly “nautical” numbers) — and a few silent-era composers, notably Hugo Reisenfeld, continued into the sound era as composers of background scores. Most of the silent-era scores no longer exist — leaving James and others to cobble together accompaniments based on existing music from the early 20th century and improvisations resembling what a theatre organist would have played when these films were new — but this one did, and I could see how James would be thrilled by playing a film and getting this close to what 1927 audiences heard as well as saw.
Frankly, if they wanted to show a silent film that took place at sea, I could have thought of a number of better ones, including the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk (a good deal closer to the plot of the Rafael Sabatini novel than its nominal 1940 remake with Errol Flynn — and with a star, Milton Sills, who certainly held his own in the looks, sexiness and charisma departments with Flynn), the 1922 Down to the Sea in Ships (an early credit for Clara Bow, though it’s mostly a male-oriented action film about whaling), Moran of the “Lady Letty” (Rudolph Valentino’s action vehicle for 1922 and one in which he’s far more butch than the androgynous “sheik” image he got stuck with then and has been stereotyped as since) and perhaps the best silent film made about sailing ships, Douglas Fairbanks’ 1926 production of The Black Pirate, also distinguished by being only the third feature shot entirely in color (two-strip Technicolor) and the first with a major star.