Monday, September 26, 2011

Phantom Ship (Hammer/Guaranteed, 1935)

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

The film was Phantom Ship, which Charles had downloaded from for two reasons: it was based on the real-life mystery of the Mary Celeste (a derelict ship from New York which was found off the coast of Gibraltar in 1872 with no sign of any crew members, living or dead, on board) and Bela Lugosi was in it. It had some things going for it — like a good cast (including Arthur Margetson, later in the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes in Washington and the Orson Welles stage musical based on Around the World in 80 Days, as the Mary Celeste’s captain, and Dennis Hoey — also in the Rathbone-Bruce Holmes movies, as Inspector Lestrade, and Gibson Gowland, McTeague in Stroheim’s Greed, in supporting roles) and marvelously atmospheric and Gothic cinematography by Eric Cross and Geoffrey Faithfull, along with a few chilling moments by screenwriters Denison Clift (who also directed) and Charles Larkworthy, notably a sequence in which in order to avoid a punishment from the captain, a crew member leaps off the mast and goes overboard, and of course the captain refuses to turn the ship around and rescue him. Alas, the script pretty much ignores most of the reality behind the Mary Celeste and also some of the more common myths about it (many of which stem from a short story Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote and published about the incident in 1884, just 12 years after it happened) in favor of some pretty hoary old seafaring-movie clichés. In the film the captain, Arthur Briggs (Arthur Margetson), takes along his newly married wife Sarah (the personable Shirley Grey) on his trip after having just won her hand over the rivalry of his best friend, also a captain but one who was willing to stop going to sea and buy a chandler’s (candlemaker’s) shop if she’d married him instead of Briggs. The real Briggs, unlike the movie one, had been married long enough to have had a two-year-old daughter and he took both wife and daughter on his ill-fated trip.

The movie blessedly avoids some of the supernatural explanations that have been offered for the Mary Celeste’s fate but also runs roughshod over the known facts and essentially degenerates into a pretty interminable movie (even though the extant version, the U.S. release, is only 62 minutes long, cut down from a now-lost 80-minute version) in which the plot, to the extent there is one, is the hoary old chestnut about the ship with a maniac on board who’s murdering the other crew members. There’s a hint that the captain and his missus sneaked off before the ship was discovered and everyone else on board died, and in the movie (unlike in real life) some of the corpses of the crew members are found on board by the ship that comes across the wreck and salvages her (though in later court proceedings the salvagers only got one-sixth the value of the Mary Celeste’s cargo — several barrels of pure wood alcohol to be used to fortify wine: that in itself is something of a surprise because I hadn’t realized fortified wine — wine containing additional alcohol added during the bottling process rather than just the alcohol that forms normally during fermentation — existed in the 19th century — indicating there was some suspicion among the members of the Admiralty Court in London that they had been pirates who overpowered the Mary Celeste’s crew and took the cargo by force); also the ship’s lifeboats were destroyed by person or persons unknown early in the voyage, whereas in the real case they were discovered intact and unused.

It’s not much of a movie, and between Shirley Grey singing a couple of songs and accompanying herself at a small organ, and a crew member cranking out sea shanties and accompanying himself on an accordion, it almost qualifies as Mary Celeste: The Musical — and as for Lugosi, this is yet another movie in which the filmmakers wanted his name but didn’t want to wait around for him to learn a long part phonetically, so they cast him as drunken, derelict sailor Anton Lorenzen, a.k.a. A. Gottlieb, and gave him just a few English vocables and grunts here and there, while they made him up to look so disheveled he’s more pathetic than scary. When he’s discovered early on in New York by a tavern owner who puts him on the Mary Celeste because he’s been hired by Briggs to find him a crew by any means necessary, the two reminisce about how he used to be a person of far more impressive stature and dignity than he is now — and I couldn’t help but think, “Yes, my hair was dark then, it was greased back, and I used to have this really cool cape I liked to wear … ”