Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Hurricane (Samuel Goldwyn/United Artists, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago I screened for our friend Garry a movie that’s one of his quirky favorites: The Hurricane, the original 1937 version of this South Seas adventure tale/disaster movie produced by Sam Goldwyn, directed by John Ford and written by Dudley Nichols (whose presence on this assignment practically defines “overqualified”) from an “adaptation” by Oliver H. P. Garrett of a popular potboiler novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, who had written the book Mutiny on the Bounty from which MGM had made its popular Academy Award-winning blockbuster with Charles Laughton and Clark Gable two years earlier. The Hurricane (which was remade by Swedish director Jan Troell in 1979 but without the definite article in its title that time) is one of those stories that treads on the thin edge of risibility, and sometimes goes over, but also at times is genuinely moving. It’s also an odd combination of Hollywood racism and Hollywood anti-racism; it starts out on an ocean liner in the middle of the South Seas, where a young woman tourist is looking at a sandbar in the middle of the Pacific and wondering just how the South Seas islands got their reputation for awesome beauty when the one she’s actually staring at looks like nothing in particular. The person she’s standing next to on board the ship, Dr. Kersaint (Thomas Mitchell, about the only member of the John Ford Stock Company who made it into this cast — though one other actor in it worked with him on at least two other, far more illustrious projects; more on that later), explains that what she’s looking at is all that remains of Manukura (that’s how it’s spelled on the official synopsis for this film, though when the big romantic theme by Alfred Newman was spun off into a pop song that was a mega-hit for Bing Crosby, the title was “Moon of Manakoora”), once the most beautiful South Seas island of all until … At this point Dr. Kersaint starts narrating a flashback that will take up most of the movie, about the star-crossed romance between two of the locals, Terangi (Jon Hall) and Marama (Dorothy Lamour). They’d known each other since they were kids and fell in love once they hit sexual maturity, and they’ve just been married by the local missionary, Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith in a rather uncharacteristic role for him — one expects to see him as the staunch, imperious representative of the imperialist order, but instead he’s casually dressed and supportive of the natives even though he’s also there to convert them to Christianity), when Terangi’s job as first mate to Captain Nagle (Jerome Cowan in an unusually long and unusually sympathetic role for him, which is nice — he was a first-rate and ill-used actor who’s dispatched in the first reel of his most famous credit, the classic 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon) sends him to Tahiti.

There he gets into a bar fight with a character listed in the credits only as “Abusive Drunk” (William B. Davidson); the drunk threw some racist taunts at him and Terangi responded by punching him out and breaking his jaw. For this he’s sentenced to six months in prison, a sentence that grows to 16 years because he keeps trying to escape and keeps getting caught. But the real villain of the piece is the French governor of Manukura, DeLaage (Raymond Massey — I hadn’t realized just how extensively Goldwyn and Ford cast this movie against “type” until I started writing this; a man who had already played Sherlock Holmes on screen and three years later would play Abraham Lincoln is here an asshole villain who insists on upholding his sense of “honor” and “duty” to the French colonial system over simple justice), who insists on keeping Terangi in prison in Tahiti instead of pardoning him and allowing him to return home. DeLaage remains unmoved by the entreaties of Dr. Kersaint, Father Paul, Captain Nagle and even his own wife (Mary Astor — so this film features two actors who were in the cast of The Maltese Falcon four years later). The secondary villain is the sadistic commandant of the prison in Tahiti where Terangi is being held, who’s played by John Carradine in a virtual Xerox of his performance the year before as the sadistic commandant of the prison in Dry Tortugas off the Florida coast in Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (a much better movie than The Hurricane) the year before, though Carradine’s best-known role for Ford would come two years after The Hurricane as Preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath. As in The Prisoner of Shark Island, Carradine does such a good job of portraying total evil in his treatment of poor Jon Hall he’s scarier here than in a lot of his out-and-out horror movies. Terangi eventually escapes eight years after his incarceration — during that time his wife Marama has born him a daughter, Tita (Ku’ulei de Clercq), whom he’s heard about but never actually seen — and he manages not only to survive the 600-mile journey from Tahiti back home to Manukura on a one-person “warrior canoe,” his provisions limited to the cans he stole from a store in Tahiti during his flight and whatever fish he can kill on the way (there’s a scene in which Jon Hall skin-dives into the water going after a shark, only it turns out he attracts a whole school of sharks, and in one of the few scenes that challenged John Ford’s creativity as a director he does some effective suspense editing before Terangi gets back on board the canoe, unharmed and with the carcass of a shark he can eat to sustain himself the rest of the way), but miraculously he does so with only a thin moustache on his upper lip and just the hint of a beard on his chin. (Of course, a male stranded for days on the open ocean without any way to shave would have grown a full beard along the way.)

Alas, his return to Manukura happens just as the big hurricane is starting — the one that will demolish the island of Manukura and kill most of its inhabitants, native and colonial alike, though the DeLaages will both survive, as will Dr. Kersaint (well, he has to live in order to narrate the story to the woman on board the cruise liner at the beginning and end of the film) as well as Terangi, Marama and their daughter, who escape to another island to which no one goes because there’s a tabu on it (the tabu and the sharks seem to indicate that someone involved in writing this film and/or the source novel had seen the Murnau/Flaherty Tabu from 1931 — and almost certainly Ford and cinematographer Bert Glennon had, because the visual look of The Hurricane is very similar to what co-directors F. W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty and cinematographer Floyd Crosby, father of rock musician David Crosby, had created in Tabu). The Hurricane was an elaborate production for 1937 and visually holds up strikingly well today; Bert Glennon was a protégé of Josef von Sternberg and his association with Ford included The Prisoner of Shark Island and appears to be at least partially responsible for Ford’s curious flirtation with Expressionist camerawork (which began with The Informer in 1935 and ended with The Long Voyage Home in 1940) before he retreated to a more straightforward “look” in his films. Glennon shot just about every exterior in The Hurricane with a red filter, a device possible only in black-and-white which turns the sky almost black, brings out differences of shade in the foliage instead of letting it all register as murky gray, and adds so much not only to the mood of foreboding in the story but to the overall visual eloquence one wonders why anyone ever thought the movies needed color. (Garry tells me he’s seen a colorized version of The Hurricane, which I would assume would be a total disaster; grafting color on Glennon’s spectacular red-filter effects which were designed for black-and-white would probably produce something so murky as to be almost completely unwatchable.) The Hurricane was an unusually well-documented movie production for the time; when it was new Life magazine published a spread on it that revealed Goldwyn’s special-effects person, James Basevi, spent $150,000 building an authentic Polynesian village with a 200-yard-long lagoon and $250,000 destroying it for the final scene (which ranks alongside the destruction of San Francisco in San Francisco, the burning of Chicago in In Old Chicago, the sandstorm in Suez, the burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind, and the earthquake in The Rains Came among a number of quite spectacular disaster sequences in late-1930’s movies). It also indicated that director Stuart Heisler (who was credited only as a film editor) took a second unit to Pago Pago in American Samoa for backgrounds, and some of the Pago Pago scenes involved billed cast members, even though most of the outdoor scenes in Manukura were shot at Hollywood’s all-purpose stand-in for the South Pacific, Catalina Island.

More recent documents, including biographies of Goldwyn and the notes on the film in the American Film Institute Catalog, indicate what Goldwyn went through trying to cast the movie, particularly in finding an actor of the almost ethereal beauty and childlike innocence needed for the role of Terangi. He considered several actors, including Errol Flynn (you’ve got to be kidding!), Mala (the real-life Inuit who’d played his own race in MGM’s 1933 film Eskimo and a Polynesian in Last of the Pagans, also from MGM, in 1935), John Payne and Frank Shields, before settling on his contract player Joel McCrea. McCrea protested that he’d look like an Irish cop in the role, and finally Goldwyn settled on a young actor named Charlie Locher, who supposedly was discovered working parking cars in a garage but had some previous credits to his name, most notably a featured role in the 1936 serial The Amazing Adventures of the Clutching Hand (a remake of 1915’s Pearl White vehicle The Exploits of Elaine). Locher’s name got changed to Jon Hall — apparently a moniker he picked for himself because he’d discovered he was a distant relative of James Norman Hall, co-author of the novel from which The Hurricane was adapted — and both he and Dorothy Lamour became big stars, but not for Goldwyn: Hall decamped to Universal while Lamour went back to her home studio, Paramount, from which Goldwyn had borrowed her and where she’s best known today as the third point of the romantic triangles involving Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in the famous Road comedies. According to A. Scott Berg’s biography of Goldwyn, co-writer Charles Nordhoff read Oliver H. P. Garrett’s original script and decided Garrett had overdone the oppression against Terangi — Nordhoff said that he and Hall had “made a mistake in not sufficiently emphasizing the fact that the native hero was not a victim of injustice, but a victim of circumstance” — though that’s belied not only by the overall tenor of the story but the specific incidents, including the open racism on the part of Terangi’s tormentor that leads him to lash out with his fists and the racial hatred and the French officials’ need to enforce white privilege that keeps him in prison. The Hurricane is a racist film in that it depicts the Polynesians as childlike, innocent, unacquainted with Western notions of propriety and private property (in the opening scene DeLaage comes down hard on a native who’s “stolen” a canoe, in a culture that probably had a much looser definition of “ownership” and a greater tolerance of collective possession than his or ours), but it’s also an anti-racist film in that it’s white Frenchmen who are the principal villains and the whites who are sympathetic characters are the ones pleading with officialdom, in the person of DeLaage, to free the technically guilty but morally innocent Terangi.

The Hurricane was also the second and last film John Ford made for Goldwyn (the first was an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel about medical ethics, Arrowsmith, in 1931 — a story so modern in its conflicts between honest science and the pharmaceutical industry’s agenda, and between actual doctors and the health-care industry, it could and should be remade today), and it’s become legendary how Goldwyn went to the Catalina location to tell Ford to shoot more luscious cheesecake close-ups of Dorothy Lamour and Ford responded by clenching his fist and pointing it at various sections of Goldwyn’s anatomy, each time suggesting he would move his camera (or his fist) even closer to Goldwyn’s face. Ironically, after that show of defiance against his producer, Ford complied; in both cheesecake and beefcake The Hurricane is an unusually sexy movie for 1937, at least partly because the Production Code Administration was looser towards displays of skin from native people (or actors playing them) in exotic locations like the South Seas than players representing ordinary urban or rural Americans. The Hurricane is a fascinating film because some of it is almost risible, while some of it is both visually and dramatically powerful; according to Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg, it was Ford’s idea to bring Dudley Nichols onto the project, and Nichols’ main contribution was not writing additional dialogue, but quite the opposite: cutting much of the verbiage in Garrett’s script so the movie played more like a silent film, with visuals rather than words telling its story — to great effect. The Hurricane is an oddball movie, both in its combination of romantic melodrama and disaster film (though at least it’s one of the rare disaster films that contains enough sympathetic characters we actually root for them and want to see them survive — some of the 1970’s disaster movies, most notably The Poseidon Adventure, had such repulsive characters we couldn’t want to see them start dying!) and its vivid contrast between silly dialogue and eloquent visuals — but it certainly holds up as worth seeing if not as one of the all-time classics of the era.