Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Thunder Afloat (MGM, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Thunder Afloat, a title which meant nothing to me except that the word “afloat” indicated it would have something to do with sailing or seafaring. It turned out to be a 95-minute production from MGM in 1939 — originally scheduled for release in October of that year but moved up to September 15 after World War II was declared in Europe and the isolationist strictures that had hamstrung Hollywood’s efforts to deal honestly with the world situation were starting to crumble. One imdb.com reviewer claimed there was actually a clause of the Neutrality Act passed by Congress that forbade the movie studios from making films sympathetic to one side or the other (the reviewer said “this law clearly violated the U.S. Constitution,” but actually it didn’t; in 1912 the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that movies were strictly “a business” and therefore were not covered by the First Amendment, and it wasn’t until 1953 that the Supremes reversed that and said films were a form of “speech” within the meaning of the First Amendment), with the result that before 1940 the only major-studio production to deal with the evils of Nazism was Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and even that one focused on the German-American Bund and its attempts at espionage and subversion in the U.S. rather than an exposé of Nazi rule in Germany itself. Anyway, Thunder Afloat got around the prohibition (whether legislative or simply the studios’ own self-censorship for fear of alienating a still largely isolationist movie-going populace) by setting its story during the First World War, when German U-boats were (at least according to this story) not only sailing up and down the U.S. coast but boarding and blowing up tugboats and other light vessels — one wonders why they were bothering with boats too small to carry cargo, since the whole point of the U-boat war in the North Atlantic in World War I, as in World War II, was to sink ships large enough to be carrying supplies and war materiel to the anti-German countries.

It begins with tugboat owner/captain John Thorson (Wallace Beery, overbearing as usual; in his finest film, Flesh, director John Ford got the performance of a lifetime out of him by creating a character that was supposed to be overbearing but also giving him enough naïveté to be bearable and even somewhat likeable) looking over his derelict tugboat — it hasn’t quite sunk yet but it looks well on its way, and the ancient hand pump and leaky hose available to him and his daughter Susan (an appealingly spunky performance by Virginia Grey) to bail it out aren’t doing much to get the water out of its hold so it can be refloated. The boat is called the Susan H., and Thorson feels particularly connected to it because he built it himself by hand — all except the engines — and his daughter was born on it, while her mom died when she fell overboard it and was washed out to sea (which makes one think he would rather have been rid of the thing than cherished it!). Thorson is convinced his boat was sabotaged by rival tugboat owner/captain “Rocky” Blake (Chester Morris, who as William K. Everson once pointed out was giving James Cagney-style performances before Cagney himself ever made a film; the fact that MGM didn’t promote him as their alternative to Cagney probably kept him from potential superstardom) so that Blake could beat him out of a major contract. When the U.S. gets involved in World War I and German submarines start patrolling the New England coast (where this film takes place, on a marvelous series of sets that look like old woodcuts of sailing villages), Thorson decides to eliminate the competition by tricking Blake into joining the Navy — only when his own boat is boarded and exploded by a German sub crew headed by Carl Esmond as the U-boat’s captain (TCM was actually showing this one as part of a salute to the little-known Esmond!), he’s determined to get his revenge by joining the Naval Reserve and blowing up German subs.

The bulk of the movie is a Warners-style proletarian drama — it’s mostly along the lines of the movies James Cagney and Pat O’Brien made together, differing mainly in using the older actor, Beery, as the one who’s challenging the Navy’s rules, regulations and discipline, and the younger one as his commanding officer who’s trying to harness Thorson’s talents while getting rid of his attitude and making him follow Navy rules. At one point Thorson sails away from the other two sub-chaser vessels in his convoy (it’s not clear from the apparent size of these craft on screen whether they qualify as boats or ships) and chases a sub on his own, but he doesn’t have enough depth bombs to sink her and ends up with the sub’s captain literally lassoing him and dragging him underwater. For this he’s busted from captain down to ordinary seaman and ordered to paint ships, and he’s humiliated and ready to desert when “Rocky” catches him and assigns him to a so-called “mystery ship,” which is supposed to look like an ordinary fishing trawler but is really a ruse to lure the German sub (the same one) out of hiding: the trawler has a secret radio transmitter inside so when the sub attacks it, its radio operator can call to the sub chasers and they can come in and sink it. The Germans spot the trawler but also find the hidden radio equipment and take Thorson hostage, thinking that the Americans won’t dare sink the sub if one of their own is being held on board — and where I thought this was going was that Wallace Beery’s character would sacrifice his own life to make sure the German sub that sank his tugboat several reels earlier went down with all hands. Instead the Navy takes the sub intact and captures its crew alive, Thorson is rescued and restored to the Navy’s good graces, and in the final frames “Rocky” and Susan Thorson end up in a clinch even though there hasn’t been a hint of any genuine romantic or sexual interest between them up to this point.

Thunder Afloat has the problem of any Wallace Beery movie — especially one in which he’s the star — and that’s Wallace Beery: his bellowing line delivery and old-salt attitudes (his early-talkie successes in Min and Bill and Tugboat Annie got him typecast in these crusty-old-captain roles) quickly get tiresome, while the physical displays of affection between him and Susan border on the incestuous at times (but then I just heard the song “Sweet Little Sis” from 1929 on the Grey Gull Rarities reissue CD and its lyrics had me wondering, “What is this — Die Walküre, the jazz version?”). But it also had a real-life Navy officer, Commander Harvey Haislip (a name I’d seen before on films as a technical advisor), actually involved in co-writing the script (the story with Ralph Wheelwright and the script with Wells Root), and a movie that put some unusual “spins” on the general clichés of Navy films. It wasn’t a cheap “B” either; the female role was originally offered to Barbara Stanwyck and the Chester Morris part to Franchot Tone (and though Stanwyck would have been even better Virginia Grey is quite good, capturing the character’s butchness to perfection), the production budget was $1 million (at a time when that was a substantial amount of money to spend on a film) and the crew did location shooting outside Annapolis as well as off the Coronado coast.