Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Gorilla Ship (Ralph M. Like/Mayfair, 1932)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran us a movie we’d recently downloaded from, Gorilla Ship, a Ralph M. Like production from 1932 released through the Mayfair studio, one of the short-lived indies that didn’t make it through the Depression, and a company that seemed to make nothing but cheap, tacky, formulaically plotted and indifferently directed movies. I had hopes for this one, though, because of the director, Frank Strayer, who made some quite interesting films in the early 1930’s (including two horror classics, The Vampire Bat and Condemned to Live) before settling down at Columbia in 1938 as the director of the long-running Blondie TV series. I also was curious about what sort of film it would be just based on the title — I presumed it would be a movie actually involving great apes, either gorillas that were on the ship and escaped and threatened passengers and crew or a ship that sailed to a location with a large gorilla population and whose crew had some nasty run-ins with them.

It actually turned out to be a blatant ripoff of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf — George Waggner (who later produced The Wolf-Man at Universal) got credit he didn’t deserve for an “original” story and script that spent reel one establishing a romantic triangle between three overly rich people who’d known each other since childhood: Philip Wells (Wheeler Oakman), his wife Helen (Vera Reynolds) and her friend Dave Burton (Reed Howes). Through a series of scenes expressing upper-class excess — first at the golf course, then in Philip’s car (which looks big enough you could imagine him throwing a party in its interior) and finally in Philip’s home, we learn that Philip is pathologically jealous and is convinced Dave and Helen are having an affair. The three agree to take a voyage on Philip’s yacht, and then reel two suddenly cuts to a totally different story as we meet the crew of a ship captained by the fearsome “Gorilla” Larson (Ralph Ince, top-billed) — George Waggner actually had the chutzpah to rip off Jack London’s last name for his fearsome, sadistic captain, and merely changed the species of animal that gave him his brutish first name! We quickly find out Gorilla Larson is an S.O.B. because he throws his crew members down to the floor so often one of them is actually keeping a tally of how many times he does it, and when his cabin boy, Benny (Ben Hall), brings him his breakfast, he throws the coffee in his face because it isn’t hot enough. (If he’d thrown the coffee in Benny’s face because it was too hot, that would have been even nastier!)

We watch Gorilla’s ship sign up its crew (there’s an intimation that at least one of the sailors was shanghaied) in the dark in what can only be described as Murk-O-Vision, and then get underway — we finally see a stock shot of a four-masted schooner that Charles and I have probably seen in a thousand movies before this one, and at least that gets us literally out of the darkness into the light — and just when we’re beginning to wonder where Philip, Helen and Dave are going to fit into this story, Gorilla’s ship (whose name is never given in this film, though since Jack London called Wolf Larsen’s ship the Ghost we can assume it’s called the Spectre or something equally synonymous) picks up a man in a lifeboat and it’s Philip. Philip insists that he was out in his yacht with his wife Helen and their friend Dave, the boat exploded and he was the only survivor. Gorilla doesn’t believe him, and as Philip admits later, Gorilla is right: Philip deliberately scuttled his own boat to murder his wife and her (presumed) lover, but later on Gorilla’s ship picks them up as well — and it turns out Gorilla and Dave are old friends (how on earth did they meet and get to know each other?) and Gorilla decides to knock off Philip so Dave and Helen can be together. Only Philip steals a jewel box belonging to Helen and convinces Gorilla’s crew that the captain is protecting Helen only to get his hands on her jewels, and he starts a mutiny, aided by one of the sailors who has the hots for Helen and is convinced that Gorilla won’t let him rape her, but Philip will. Eventually Gorilla subdues the rebellious sailors and regains command of his ship just in time to mobilize the crew to fight a fire that’s started on board, and he sends Dave and Helen away in a lifeboat.

Gorilla Ship has a few good moments — notably some nicely atmospheric shots by director Strayer and cinematographer Jules Cronjager (whose nephew, Edward Cronjager, also became a cinematographer and actually had a far more illustrious career than his uncle!) — but mostly it was just boring, an anemic retread of a great story (though it made me more curious than ever to see the first sound version of The Sea Wolf, a 1930 film from Fox with Milton Sills as Wolf Larsen and Alfred Santell directing; Sills died right after it was filmed but, judging from the one movie of his I’ve seen — the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk — he was a genuinely charismatic and sexy leading man in an era, the 1920’s, when most of the male stars were either beefy types like Thomas Meighan or Valentino-esque androgynes; indeed, he looked enough like Errol Flynn it seemed appropriate that Flynn would play his role in the remake, which almost totally altered the plot but used some footage from the Sills version as stock) and as useless as every other film I’ve seen that bore the Mayfair brand.