Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Captain Hates the Sea (Columbia, 1934)

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

The film was The Captain Hates the Sea, a 1934 Columbia production that turned out to be the final film by John Gilbert, who’s become axiomatic of the great silent stars who were supposedly undone by the talkies. It’s true that Gilbert’s career did a big nosedive when sound came in — his first starring feature with sound, His Glorious Night, was a major flop and it got ridiculed both when it was new and later (it’s the movie that’s being parodied in Singin’ in the Rain in the scene in which Gene Kelly kisses his way up Jean Hagen’s arm saying nothing but, “I love you, I love you, I love you,” over and over and over) — but from the Gilbert talkies I’ve seen it’s also clear that his failure had nothing to do with his voice per se. The problem seems to have been that Gilbert didn’t know how to act with his voice, how to vary his inflections to convey emotions. In his book The Shattered Silents (which argued that Gilbert flopped in the talkies while Ronald Colman succeeded because Colman and his producer, Sam Goldwyn, realized that he’d have to cultivate a different image and shifted him from romantic melodrama to comedy, while Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg put Gilbert into a talkie debut all too similar to his heavy-breathing silents), Alexander Walker quoted a contemporary reviewer of His Glorious Night, Frank Daugherty of the trade paper Film Spectator, as saying that Gilbert’s “supposedly fiery speeches have all the amorous passion of an assistant director asking another … to stake him to a lunch at Henry’s.” Gilbert’s MGM contract (negotiated by MGM president Nicholas Schenck behind Mayer’s and Thalberg’s backs) finally ran out in 1933 with a Warnersesque drama called Fast Workers, directed by Tod Browning (of all people!), which cast him and Robert Armstrong as construction workers in love with the same girl (Mae Clarke).

Then Greta Garbo asked for him as her leading man in Rouben Mamoulian’s 1933 masterpiece Queen Christina after the studio decided that their first choice, John Barrymore, was too great a risk due to his alcoholism and memory problems; and the second choice, Laurence Olivier, tested but Garbo decided he couldn’t hold his own against her. In that film Gilbert wore way too much makeup — as if he were still thinking in terms of the slow and insensitive films used in the early 1920’s — but turned in a perfectly acceptable if hardly incandescent performance that doesn’t get in the way of what’s otherwise a great movie. Gilbert then fell into the hands of Harry Cohn, president of plucky little Columbia Pictures, who took great joy on the rare occasions when he could one-up MGM: in 1934 he signed opera singer Grace Moore after MGM had dropped her for being overweight, and made a movie called One Night of Love that despite its rather phony story (aspiring opera singer Moore hates her ruthlessly authoritarian voice teacher, Tullio Carminati, but eventually falls in love with him and they literally make beautiful music together) became a blockbuster hit, the most popular opera film to that time and for 17 years thereafter (until The Great Caruso). Cohn was evidently hoping that lightning would strike twice and he’d be able to give Gilbert a great comeback role — at least that’s how the director of The Captain Hates the Sea, Lewis Milestone, recalled it later when Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg interviewed him for their 1969 book The Celluloid Muse: “Cohn … welcomed Gilbert’s prospective rehabilitation and promised him star treatment, provided he behaved properly. But unfortunately Jack was a little too far gone. For a week he’d be perfect, and then he started drinking. That wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been for the fact that if he drank one day he couldn’t work the next, because by then he had ulcers and would vomit blood and be very ill.”

The legend is that Milestone thought that by casting Gilbert in a film that took place largely at sea — on an ocean liner which takes a cruise from New York to South America and then back — he could isolate him from all sources of alcohol and thereby keep him sober, but he didn’t reckon with the other members of the cast, including such celebrated imbibers as Victor McLaglen, Walter Connolly (who plays the titular captain that hates the sea), Leon Errol (who actually owned a bar in real life), Walter Catlett, and Alison Skipworth, who brought their own liquor supplies and cheerily shared them with Gilbert. In Bob Thomas’s biography Harry Cohn, there’s a story that Cohn got worried when Milestone’s ship sailed and remained at sea for weeks with no rushes back at the studio to show for it, and he sent a radiogram to Milestone reading, “Hurry up. The cost is staggering,” to which Milestone replied, “So is the cast.” What made the actual film seem bizarre in light of those legends is that if the intent was to give John Gilbert a script that would isolate him from booze and keep him clean, sober and on the way to both personal and professional recovery, The Captain Hates the Sea is about the last story Cohn and Milestone should have picked, because the whole movie is about drinking! Gilbert plays, essentially, himself — he’s called “Steve Bramley” and he’s just bombed out of a career in Hollywood (though as a writer, not an actor), and as his part begins he’s in a taxi being taken to the dock by his fiancée Gerta “Gert” Klangi (Tala Birell). He’s breaking their engagement while assuring her that he’s sober and is going to stay that way. Meanwhile, on board the ship former police officer turned private detective Junius P. Schulte (Victor McLaglen) greets his old friend, ship’s steward Mr. Layton (Leon Errol), and needless to say the first thing they and a third acquaintance of theirs do once they get on the ship is share a bottle! Steve shows up at their stateroom and the moment they offer him some Scotch, he makes a brief show of refusal but then pours himself a big tumbler — and he just keeps getting drunker and drunker all movie. About his only connection with reality is a phonograph record of Gert which she recorded and sneaked into his trunk (along with a pull-out phonograph to play it on), which fortunately keeps him from getting too deeply embroiled with the multiple vamps on ship.

The main vamp is supposed Boston librarian Janet Grayson (Helen Vinson), girlfriend of embezzler Danny Checkett (Fred Keating), who comes aboard the ship, using the name “Farraday,” with $250,000 in stolen bonds which he inexplicably gives her to hold for him even though she’s a crook herself — her aliases include Blanche Dilworthy and “Michigan Red.” There’s also a well-to-do couple, Mr. and Mrs. Jeddock (John Wray and Wynne Gibson), who seem to be happy, only he’s abusive and she’s a former prostitute who’s “outed” by Steve when he recognizes her as someone who serviced him professionally. And if that weren’t enough, there’s also a wealthy and aggressive widow, Mrs. Yolanda Magruder (Alison Skipworth, coming off here as even more of a distaff version of W. C. Fields than she did in their films together!), who’s after Schulte, while Schulte is after Janet, which is just fine with Danny because that presumably means she can seduce him into leaving them alone. There’s also a plot line involving a South American general, Salazaro (Akim Tamiroff), who’s going to his native country to foment a revolution — only as soon as he arrives he’s caught by the authorities and killed by a firing squad, a rather jarring plot twist that just sits in the middle of this movie and never gets resolved. In fact, the most bizarre thing about The Captain Hates the Sea is its sheer plotlessness: in the era in which most screenwriters took pride in their ability to “plant” the ending throughout the movie and give audiences clues along the way to how it was going to turn out, writer Wallace Smith — adapting his own novel — seems to revel in the unpredictability of his plot lines and his skill at keeping multiple story strands going, even though there’s almost no resolution of any of them. Indeed, The Captain Hates the Sea seems so much like a Robert Altman movie four or five decades early — the multiple plot lines, the ensemble cast (for something that was supposedly intended as a comeback vehicle for John Gilbert it’s surprising that he’s only billed fourth — after McLaglen, Gibson and Skipworth, in that order), the lack of conventional resolutions and the sense that the film doesn’t end so much as it just stops — it’s a wonder Altman didn’t remake it.

It’s also filled with marvelous character vignettes and some offbeat casting, including Walter Catlett as the seen-it-all bartender (once, when Gilbert gets into a fight with John Wray and Wray knocks him down, Catlett opens a trap door at the bottom of his bar and hands Gilbert a drink, which revives him and enables him to knock Wray out) whose rotating sign — announcing variously that the bar will close at midnight and will open at 8:30 (presumably a.m., the way these people drink!) — practically becomes a character in the movie itself. There’s also a weird cameo by the Three Stooges (Greta Garbo and the Three Stooges: one degree of separation!), who in 1934 were also MGM rejects who had just signed with Columbia for the long series of comedy shorts for which they’re best remembered, and who appear here as the ship’s band — Moe plays sax (either alto or C-melody, I wasn’t sure which), Larry plays piano and Curly plays drums (later for a more sedate sort of shipboard music Moe switches to violin and Curly to cello!) ­— and their presence is welcome even though they don’t get to do any slapstick and Larry is the only one who speaks. It ends with Steve and Gert getting back together even though he’s neither sobered up nor written the novel he had promised her he would write; Schulte pairing up with Janet, though it’s not clear whether he’s interested in her or the bonds (ya remember the bonds?); Danny setting off after Mrs. Magruder and her $7 million; and Captain Helquist wearily readying himself for the ship’s next voyage even though he hates the sea, thanks to his father and his father’s long beard (there’s a weird story about that I’m not even going to try to synopsize, though on the voyage there’s been a man with a long beard — Donald Meek, whom we’re used to seeing clean-shaven and here wears so patently phony a fake beard it reminded me of the hilarious scene in Buster Keaton’s Spite Marriage in which, as an aspiring but untalented actor, he desperately tries to get the hang of gluing false whiskers to his face with spirit gum — who supposedly reminds McLaglen of his long-hated dad), while any 1934 audiences who stumbled into theatres that were playing this film probably left scratching their heads and wondering, “What the hell was that?” It’s a film you want to like, partly because it’s generally well acted (though John Gilbert seems all too clearly to be playing himself!) and partly because it’s trying so hard to be sophisticated and “different” — and because much of the droll humor is actually genuinely funny — but it ends up a sporadically entertaining and engaging mess.