Saturday, February 11, 2012

Killers of the Sea (Raymond Friedgen/Grand National, 1937)

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

The film was Killers of the Sea, a 1937 documentary from producer-director Raymond Friedgen and released through Grand National (whose trademark, a giant clock on the side of a building with the hands “wiping” in the company’s name, was one of the most attractive of the classic Hollywood era), which is set in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Florida and features Wallace Caswell, Jr., whose father was a fisherman in those waters and who learned his true calling at an early age when a shark attacked dad’s fishing net and Caswell, Jr. got into the water, wrestled it, and killed it with his knife — though not before the shark had torn Caswell père’s net to shreds and thereby jeopardized the family’s income. The film is 48 minutes long and in black-and-white but otherwise looks pretty much like a standard-issue nature documentary from TV in the 1950’s and 1960’s, complete with a young Lowell Thomas as narrator.

It shows Caswell (a basically attractive man except that he’s prematurely bald, which about midway through the movie is explained by one shark attack which didn’t go according to plan: the shark took a big piece of Caswell’s head and part of his skull had to be replaced by a metal plate, which was covered over by skin but hair couldn’t grow back from the skin he had left) and his crew (two of him are African-American, including a fellow called Evolution Henderson who’s the only crew member who’s given his own voice double, speaking silly lines in the racist stupid-Black stereotype of the day; the other Black crew member is as anonymous as the white ones and performs his duties on board Caswell’s schooner with the same cool professional competence as the white guys). We’re supposed to believe a) that these are super-talented fishermen and b) that by taking out the predators of the sea (including porpoises as well as whales — there’s a long sequence in which the crew are trying to catch what the narrator refers to as a “bottlenose whale” but what is clearly a bottlenose dolphin on screen) they’re helping the ordinary rank-and-file of Gulf fisherfolk by killing off the predatory species that are existential threats to the teeny fish they catch great numbers of in their nets for processing into fish oil, fish paste or heaven knows what — and yet in the first 20 minutes of the movie, both a marlin and a bottlenose “whale” get away from Caswell and his crew and his 0-for-2 batting average hardly impresses. (His record does get better later on.)

Much of the footage of this film may have been faked — Charles thought the octopus sequence looked particularly unreal — and it’s one thing to go after sharks (despite the rotten press they’ve received over the years — I remember an article written about the time of the release of the movie Jaws pointing out that of the 218 known species of sharks, only 15 were dangerous to humans — they are genuinely fearsome predators and, as Caswell had learned personally well before he made this film, they can fight back) but quite another to see him attacking not only dolphins but also giant turtles, both endangered species today. There’s an attempt to suggest he’s bringing ’em back alive, but that’s belied by the absence of any visible facilities on his surprisingly small ship to keep an aquatic creature alive long enough for the boat to put into port and offload it. It’s an interesting little curio but little more, and I’ve seen considerably more compelling nature films made even earlier than this one (like Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North and the Merian Cooper/Ernest Schoedsack Grass and Chang), but it’s still an odd little movie even though much of it seems horrendously politically incorrect these days!