Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Captain Calamity (Grand National, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was a 1936 production from Grand National called Captain Calamity, which I was interested in mainly because it was shot in color — at a time when many of the major studios still feared to tread the path of color, but not Grand National, the pluckiest of indies, which may have saddled the world with dreck like Reefer Madness (it wasn’t released under their auspices but was clearly produced by them — the giveaways are the personnel and especially the reference to Any Old Love, the fictitious film made by James Cagney’s character in his Grand National musical Something to Sing About) but also grabbed Cagney for two films when a court decision (later reversed on appeal) briefly freed him from Jack Warner’s sweatshop and clearly was shooting for major-studio status. The color is credited to an in-house process called “Hirlicolor” (after Grand National’s studio chief, George Hirliman) but judging from internal evidence was probably Cinecolor (an early-1930’s process which managed to get convincing blues before Technicolor did and also did a decent job on white and Latino skin tones even though it was a bit weak on everything else).

What I hadn’t realized was that Captain Calamity would prove to be a real gem, a minor movie but nonetheless a continuous one-hour delight which showed that though the term “camp” might not have existed yet, the idea of camp — of simultaneously exploiting the clichés of a genre and making fun of them — was alive and well at Grand National in 1936, courtesy of writers Gordon Ray Young (story) and Crane Wilbur (screenplay), director John Reinhardt (who before this seems to have worked on Spanish-language movies exclusively — indeed, he shot an alternative Spanish-language version of Captain Calamity called El Capitan Tormenta) and composers Jack Stem and Harry Tobias, who came up with four songs for star George Houston to sing (one gets the impression Grand National was aiming this at least in part to Nelson Eddy’s audience), including an adaptation of the old sea shanty “What Do We Do with a Drunken Sailor?” The plot casts Houston as the title character, t/n Captain Bill Jones, who runs a schooner called the Marigold in the South Seas when he isn’t putting into ports like Tapia (which really existed) or exploring islands like Quica (which I don’t think did — the only context I’ve heard the word “cuica” is as a Brazilian percussion instrument). At one point he gives a fellow named Carr (Barry Norton, the male lead in the Spanish-language Dracula and the juvenile in Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day) a ride on his boat, and Carr gives him a Spanish doubloon, which he says he was keeping as a “lucky coin” but which has proven unlucky for him.

Jones throws the coin overboard but his first mate, Mike (Juan Torena), dives for it and retrieves it, and later when they put into Tapia — otherwise broke — Jones is able to bluff his way into all the food and drink he and his crew can consume, and all the supplies they need for their trip to Quica, by pretending that’s just one coin out of an entire Spanish treasure he’s discovered and salvaged. Naturally this attracts the attentions of a lot of shady people, including trader Joblin (Louis Natheaux) and bar owner Mamie Gruen (Margaret Irving, Margaret Dumont’s social rival in the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers), along with her slimy boy-toy Samson (Roy d’Arcy, the villain in John Gilbert’s films The Merry Widow and Bardelys the Magnificent), all of whom plot to steal the (nonexistent) treasure from Our Hero. Of course there’s also a Bad Girl, Annana (Movita Castaneda, the heroine of the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty, billed — as she was in Bounty — only by her first name), and a Good Girl, Madge Lewis (Marian Nixon), niece of Dr. James Kelkey (Crane Wilbur, who’d got his start in films as the male lead of The Perils of Pauline before branching out into writing) — and at the end Madge ends up with Our Hero after the other guy he’s presumably been taking her to turns out to have got married to someone else already. And did I mention that veteran character actor Vince Barnett is in it as the comic relief?

Aside from offering lots of luscious shots of the male cast members with their shirts off — this may have one of the highest beefcake quotients of any 1930’s movie — Captain Calamity is a delight from start to finish, a romp through the South Seas movie clichés by a group of filmmakers who didn’t take them seriously and didn’t expect the audience to, either. It’s got three reviews on, one from someone who saw the same things in it Charles and I did and two from people who roasted it as just another bad movie — don’t these people have any sense of humor?