Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Souls at Sea (Paramount, 1937)

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

I ran Charles the last movie in the wildly misnamed Universal/Turner Classic Movies boxed set Universal Rarities: Films of the 1930’s (all four films were actually produced by Paramount in the 1930’s but then, along with the rest of Paramount’s pre-1950 output, were sold to MCA Television in the mid-1950’s and then absorbed by Universal when MCA took over Universal in 1962). The box is full of anomalies — at least when TCM first started advertising it, all four films were advertised as DVD premieres even though one wasn’t (Mae West’s 1934 vehicle Belle of the Nineties, which was first issued on DVD a decade ago: not only did I buy that issue when it first came out, but the cover graphic is the image that comes up for the film when you look it up on, and while three of the films are comedies (Belle of the Nineties, the 1932 film Million Dollar Legs with Jack Oakie and W. C. Fields, and the 1937 comedy/musical Artists and Models starring Jack Benny), the fourth and last — the one we watched last night — was in a totally different genre. It was Souls at Sea, a 1937 melodrama from director Henry Hathaway based on a script by Grover Jones and Dale Van Every from an “original” story by Ted Lesser. The film opens with one of the most convoluted disclaimers I’ve ever read, a bit of legal C.Y.A. that quite frankly seems in retrospect more imaginative than anything the credited writers dreamed up for the film itself: “This story was inspired by dramatic incidents disclosed in a trial for mass murder on the high seas which a century ago made legal and maritime history. The characters in this picture, however, are not to be confused or identified with actual persons.” Then the picture fades in on the image of Barton Woodley (George Zucco) in an office in Philadelphia dictating a letter to the British government and then breaking off his dictation when he hears that the verdict is about to come in in the trial of Michael “Nuggin” Taylor (Gary Cooper), who’s accused of killing 20 people aboard the ship William Brown. Woodley saunters into the courtroom just as Taylor is found guilty and remanded for sentencing the next day — and he walks up to the judge in the case and says he has special information that will alter the result in the case if the judge agrees to hear it. Though 100 years from 1937 is 1837 — well after the American Revolution — the breezy insistence of this Brit that an American court will do whatever he tells it to made me wonder (and think for the first reel or two) that the setting was actually pre-Revolution when Pennsylvania and the other 12 original states were still British colonies — though later there are enough pictures of American flags (a version with 30 stars on it, which would put this in the 1840’s), eagles and whatnot to establish that whenever this film is taking place (the American Film Institute Catalog says 1842), it’s well after the U.S. became an independent country.

Zucco’s character then narrates a flashback that begins with Taylor and his buddy Powdah (George Raft) aboard the slave ship Blackbird, which has just picked up a cargo of 600 Africans off the coast of what is now Nigeria (we know that because the characters mention having visited Lagos, now the capital of Nigeria) and is heading back under the command of Captain Granley (Stanley Fields), not only a slaver but a vicious sadist who gets his kicks going into the ship’s hold and beating the slaves just for the hell of it. Director Hathaway, who’s already handled genre shifts from a courtroom melodrama to a maritime saga, shifts gears again and shoots these scenes as Gothic horror, with lots of luscious shots of bare Black male chests and chiaroscuro lighting that makes us see Granley as not only an asshole but almost literally a monster as well — so much that when some of the slaves grab his whip, use it to pull him into the hold, overpower him and beat him to death, we’re actually rooting for them. (At least the 2012 audience is rooting for them; in a much more racist age like the 1930’s white audiences might have read the scene as a reprehensible but still “civilized” white guy being murdered by bestial savages.) Before he expires, Granley appoints Powdah as the replacement captain and Taylor as his first mate, responsible for making sure the Blackbird makes its rendezvous with the slave traders in Savannah, Georgia. (It was my understanding that the U.S. slave trade was abolished in 1808 and no further slaves were imported from Africa to the U.S.; the slaves between 1808 and 1865 were all offspring of ones imported before that. Are we supposed to believe that there were bootleg slave traders still out there in 1842?) Taylor convinces Powdah to sail by a British port where an anti-slave trade patrol boat is stationed, convincing him that they can out-sail the patrol boat if it gives chase; instead Taylor deliberately steers the boat towards the beach, lets out the slaves, then allows the patrol boat to catch the Blackbird, and Powdah — who admits that even though he signed on as a sailor, he’s afraid of water (sounds like a Village People punch line!) — and Taylor end up hung from their thumbs by the halyard until they reveal what happened to the slaves.

The two sailors from the Blackbird are taken to Liverpool, where it’s revealed that every time Taylor has signed onto a slave ship, either it ran aground before it reached the post where it was to pick up its human cargo or it had some sort of incident along the way in which the slaves were allowed to escape. The prosecutor, naval lieutenant Stanley Tarryton (Henry Wilcoxon), and his business partner Pecora (Tully Marshall), buy a ship called the William Brown and, though pretending to be opposed to slavery, Tarryton plans to use the William Brown as a slaver and work the late Granley’s old route. Tarryton takes his sister Margaret (Frances Dee, who looks like she would have been far more comfortable if her real-life husband, Joel McCrea, had played Cooper’s role) on board the William Brown as it sails to the U.S., and naturally Taylor and Margaret fall in love — as do Powdah and Margaret’s maid Babsie (the interesting actress Olympe Bradna, sadly wasted here) — and the film, which up until the Liverpool scenes has been a reasonable and sometimes genuinely exciting action piece, turns into Souls at Sea: The Soap Opera as Margaret yields to Taylor’s diffident charms (of course he’s diffident — Gary Cooper is playing him!) even though loathing his slave-ship connections, of course not knowing it’s her beloved brother (who naturally is trying to keep her and Taylor apart) who’s the real slaver. What’s more, there’s a middle-aged couple who are immigrating to the U.S., and they have a daughter named Tina (the usually salty Virginia Weidler, here turned into a Shirley Temple wanna-be — she even gets a song to sing, the appropriately named “Susie Sapple,” by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, veteran Paramount songwriters who also supplied the film a mock sea shanty called “Hang Boys Hang”) who offers to give Taylor the music box her father hand-carved for her. While she’s fetching it, she knocks over an oil lamp and sets the ship on fire, and since in addition to everything (and everyone) else it’s carrying a store of explosives and munitions, it blows up, destroying all but one of the lifeboats, and in order for anyone to survive Taylor has to take charge of who gets in and stays in the lifeboat so it doesn’t capsize and kill everybody.

When one of the ship’s masts falls on top of the lifeboat, Taylor has to organize himself and Powdah (who’s lost his girlfriend in the catastrophe, though Taylor’s survives — that’s the difference between being a star and being a second lead for you!) to get the mast off the lifeboat and to decide who lives and who dies, which Taylor does by shooting some of the lifeboat passengers to preserve the lives of everyone else. The film then cuts back to the framing sequence of the trial, and based on Woodley’s account that Taylor wasn’t a slaver at all, but a secret agent working with him to bust the slavers, Taylor’s attorney asks the judge to reverse the jury verdict and order a new trial, the prosecutor (Porter Hall) agrees, and Taylor and Margaret end up together. In the introduction TCM host Robert Osborne filmed for the entire box — it’s seen at the start of Million Dollar Legs if you select the option to watch it — Paramount intended Souls at Sea to tap the audience for maritime melodramas that had made the 1935 MGM film Mutiny on the Bounty a smash hit, but it’s neither as good a movie plot-wise nor as well cast. Mutiny on the Bounty had a true story that wasn’t being fictionalized or pussy-footed around at the behest of the studio’s legal department, and as overwrought as Charles Laughton’s performance as Captain Bligh was, it works as a personification of overwhelming evil (Trevor Howard, in the 1962 remake with Marlon Brando — a much underrated movie — was much more believable as just a strict disciplinarian captain but didn’t have quite the almost supernatural force-of-evil aspect of Laughton’s performance), and Clark Gable was quite credible in a period role as Fletcher Christian (as he was later as Rhett Butler!) even though his acting lacked the Queer nuances Brando brought to the role.

Warner Bros. tried to tap the period maritime adventure market with Captain Blood, the film that launched Errol Flynn on his superstar career, and while Flynn’s movies got better later on Captain Blood was still a stirring film, much better than Souls at Sea. I’ll give the makers of Souls at Sea credit for using the slave trade as the MacGuffin — and for presenting it as unquestionably evil — at a time when most depictions of the Peculiar Institution on film were the suffocatingly romantic ones of pro-Southern eve-of-the-Civil-War stories like Jezebel and Gone with the Wind (am I the only one whose skin crawls at the scene in Jezebel that shows that poor little Black slave kid whose only apparent function is to pump and manipulate the huge fan that keeps Bette Davis cool?) — but it’s a problematic film that turns dull and stupid through most of the William Brown’s voyage and gets interesting again only when the fire breaks out aboard ship and it becomes a life-and-death struggle not that different from the various films of the Titanic story. (Ironically, in the real-life story on which the film was more or less based, it was an iceberg, not a fire, that sank the William Brown, but perhaps Paramount avoided icebergs because that would have made this film seem too close to the Titanic story.) Gary Cooper is actually well suited for his role, though it’s ironic to see him on trial for his life a year after he underwent a judicial proceeding to adjudicate his sanity in Frank Capra’s film Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and his long silences — it’s not until the flashback scenes that we hear him speak at all — couldn’t help but remind me of that wartime broadcast in which he did a radio appearance with Bing Crosby and Harpo Marx, represented himself as Harpo’s interpreter and said almost nothing but “yup” and “nope.” (Not surprisingly, the high point of that show was Bing singing “My Blue Heaven” with Harpo accompanying him on harp.)

But George Raft is almost ludicrously miscast, saddled with an unattractive hair style and obviously ill at ease in a non-contemporary role (as were two more recent actors Hollywood tried sticking into period pieces, the late Heath Ledger in A Knight’s Tale and James Franco in Tristan + Isolde) — and, being George Raft, he hemmed, hawed and even tried to break his Paramount contract to get out of having to play Powdah. Among the people Paramount considered to replace him were Lloyd Nolan and Anthony Quinn, but given how well Humphrey Bogart did in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon after Raft turned those films down, perhaps Paramount would have been better advised to borrow Bogart from Warners for the role. The official cast lists for the film include an actress (Viva Tattersall) playing Queen Victoria, but the entire sequence taking place at her court was deleted before release — as were several other scenes, which may explain the film’s rather choppy continuity as it seems to lurch from one dramatic incident to another. Paramount sent out press releases to the effect that they rented an actual sailing ship for long shots of the William Brown and sought crew members with experience on sail-propelled vessels, while the close-ups were done with a set of a quarter-deck in a giant tank of water on the Paramount lot. But the original plans to make Souls at Sea a big road-show attraction like MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty were abandoned and the film was severely cut down to just 92 minutes in length (the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty ran 132 minutes at a time when anything over two hours was considered a super-deluxe production!), and Souls at Sea emerges as one of those frustrating movies that’s too good to be entirely dismissable but nowhere near good enough to be considered a classic. It did have a connection with comedy, though; three years later, reaching for a title for their last film for the Hal Roach studio, Laurel and Hardy parodied this title and called their movie Saps at Sea, though its plot (Laurel and Hardy take a vacation on a derelict vessel, tied to its dock, to get Hardy over a nervous breakdown) was not a spoof of Souls at Sea and had nothing to do with this film.