Monday, September 17, 2012

Sea Devils (RKO, 1937)

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

The film was Sea Devils, an unusual 1937 RKO vehicle for Victor McLaglen and Preston Foster (reuniting the two male leads from John Ford’s multi-Academy Award-winning 1935 film The Informer) that story-wise was your typical macho men fighting over a woman piece of tripe but gained novelty from the fact that out of all the branches of the military service writers Frank “Spig” Wead (a World War I aviator who was crippled in both legs in a plane crash and thereafter went from flying planes himself to writing about people who did; between them he and John Monk Saunders basically created the clichés of the aviation movie and Wead was eventually the subject of a biopic, The Wings of Eagles, in which John Wayne played him), John Twist and P. J. Wolfson could have set their story in and around, they chose … the Coast Guard. William “Medals” Malone (Victor McLaglen) is an irascible officer aboard the Coast Guard cutter Taroe; at some time before the main action begins he must have been married, or at least involved in a serious relationship with a woman, because he has a daughter, Doris (Ida Lupino, midway between her native British accent and the American one she learned after years of making films in the U.S.). An obnoxiously vain ladies’ man in the Coast Guard, Mike O’Shay (Preston Foster, acting with considerably more spirit than usual — enough that this is one movie of his I didn’t sit through wishing James Cagney had been playing his part, even though it would have been a better movie with the Warner Bros. team for these sorts of roles, Cagney and Pat O’Brien), puts the make on Doris, much to her initial disgust — and also her dad’s, since he’s already picked out the man he wants her to marry: a quiet, bookish Coast Guard seaman named Steve (Donald Woods) who’s studying to take the test for the Coast Guard’s officers’ academy because he thinks that only if he can get to be an officer and get the higher pay therefrom will he be able to afford to marry Doris.

Needless to say, Mike seduces Doris (in a decorous Production Code-approved way) away from Steve, and Medals reacts by requesting that Mike be assigned to the Taroe, where Medals orders him to do the nastiest, most makework jobs on board he can think of. The Taroe gets sent to Alaska to test new explosives aimed at blowing up icebergs so future ships in those lanes don’t meet the fate of the Titanic (1937 was the 25th anniversary year of the Titanic disaster and the Titanic is actually mentioned in the dialogue), only there’s an accident caused by Medals and Mike getting involved in one of their periodic brawls and Steve, trying to stop the explosion since the brawlers have let their escape boat go adrift, is blinded and severely wounded in the process. The crew returns to home base and Mike is indicted and tried in a court-martial — where Medals and he get into yet another brawl that leads to Mike’s conviction and sentence to the brig, while Medals is demoted and decides to retire. There’s also the poignant character of Sadie (Helen Flint), who owns the local bar at which Medals does most of his drinking (every time he walks in the bartender slides him either a beer or, later in the movie, a shot of whiskey, and he says, “Put it on the slate” — we get the impression that by now he probably owes her something approaching the entire production budget of this film — he also hits on her for money to redeem his medals when he’s had to pawn them, and he strings her along with promises of marriage).

Anyway, just before Medals’ retirement is scheduled to take effect all the Coast Guard personnel in the area are called on to do rescue work in a severe hurricane that has, among other things, put a yacht in imminent danger of foundering and drowning her whole crew. Mike escapes from the brig so he can be part of the rescue effort, and Medals also shows up; the two of them rig a “short line” — basically a long rope with a sort of canvas saddle in it that can hold a person; by having each yacht passenger get in this contraption and hauling the rope back and forth, the Coast Guardsmen are able to save all of them by getting them off the boat one by one, but with Mike and Medals both on the yacht and the mast about to collapse, which will render the short line useless, Medals knocks out Mike, puts him in the saddle and saves him at the cost of his own life. There’s a postlude five years later in which Mike and Doris have had a son and Mike has nicknamed him “Medals” and is teaching him to box. RKO made quite a few attempts to poach on Warners’ territory in the mid-1930’s but this is one of the very best of them, perhaps because Frank Wead was one of the screenwriters; aided by a sterling directorial effort by Ben Stoloff — who for once gave a film the fast pace of a Warners product instead of the usual pokiness of an RKO melodrama, the writers create genuinely conflicted characters (though there are a few wince-inducing fallbacks to the old clichés) and the movie is both attention-keeping and genuinely fun in a way few RKO products of the time (outside of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals) were.