Director: Lewis Milestone
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The last time I mentioned John Gilbert in a review, it led to a lively discussion about why I was cracked not to give The Artist (2011) my full endorsement. The argument was good-natured, but I was dead serious about my objection to the propagation of myths surrounding John Gilbert, who seemed to me to be the model for George Valentin. John Gilbert was a very good actor with an enormously likeable screen presence, and the tragedy of his ouster by the studio bosses during the beginning years of the sound era, his rampant alcoholism replacing his screen career, and his fatal heart attack in 1936 at the age of 36 is one many latter-day fans like me still mourn.
I recently had the opportunity to view Gilbert’s last film on the big screen, the little-seen, almost-forgotten The Captain Hates the Sea. In it, Gilbert plays Steve Bramley, a character uncomfortably close to himself: an alcoholic reporter/would-be writer who can’t seem to get down to working on his first novel. His Greek chorus of a role lends a haunted quality to the assemblage of comic and tragic characters who come together in a Grand Hotel on the high seas to live out their personal dramas on the decks of a cruise ship bound from Los Angeles to New York City.
We are introduced immediately to the godhead of the story, Captain Helquist (Walter Connolly), who talks with two reporters about why he hates his job. He can’t stand being in charge of a cruise ship filled with the hoi polloi carrying on their sordid, uninteresting affairs. When asked why he went to sea to begin with, he tells a story of his long-bearded father who used to slurp his soup while resting his head on his bent arm; one day, the temptation to knock his father’s arm out from under him proved too great, and as soon as the old man had picked his beard out of his meal, he flung his son out to make his fortune. Naturally, this wonderful tale with echoes to Synge’s Playboy of the Western World must be played out for us—a passenger (Donald Meek) with a similarly long beard and identical table habits is seated on his right at the captain’s table by Helquist’s buffoonish first mate Layton (Leon Errol). The film is loaded with character actors who are adept at playing small parts indelibly, and this triumvirate of great character actors provides a great number of comic bits that liven the proceedings.
So, too, does the rich widow Yolanda Magruder (Alison Skipworth), another of the captain’s tablemates. The imperious matron blows into the dining room like a nor’easter and clamps her amorous attentions onto young sharp Danny Checkett (Fred Keating), whom private dick Junius Schulte (Victor McLaglen) pays Layton to seat with the captain so that he can make time with a beautiful woman of interest to them both, librarian Janet Grayson (Helen Vinson). This trio brings criminal intrigue on board. Schulte, a former cop, tangled with robber Checkett often during his career. Now, Schulte is working for a client to find $250,000 in missing bonds he feels sure Checkett stole. Janet, Checkett’s accomplice and would-be wife, has them hidden from both men. Games of hide and seek, crosses and double-crosses abound, as the essential humanity of Schulte and Janet plays against Danny’s light-hearted avarice. Schulte’s rescue of a woman overboard thrills Janet and turns her false romance with Schulte into the real thing.
One of the dark edges of the film comes from Steve’s onboard friend General Salazaro (Akim Tamiroff). Steve watches Salazaro, a revolutionary well known to the newspaperman, bid a tearful farewell to his wife and young son as he makes his way to yet another revolutionary hot spot. The men talk about the numerous uprisings in which the general has played a part, and the general tells him the most dangerous ones are the ones that succeed. He proves it later in the film when he is escorted by a member of revolutionary forces he planned to join and is executed, the revolution having ended before the general’s arrival. The story alludes to the continuous upheavals in a revolutionary Mexico that were in the news even when this film came out, and parallels the shifting loyalties of the much lighter love triangle at the core of the film.
Another dark spot involves the Jeddocks (Wynne Gibson and John Wray), a mismatched couple if ever there was one. Goldie was a hooker whom her husband decided to rescue from the gutter. A social climber, Jeddock is always criticizing his wife for her downscale style—a simple stumble on the gangway to the ship earns Goldie a severe tongue-lashing, and when she orders a sloe gin fizz and Schulte remarks that only hookers drink them, Jeddock hits the roof. We can assume sexual desire caused the union, and fear keeps Goldie in it, but it has made her desperate enough to think of suicide. When Jeddock goes on another tear, the captain has him clapped in irons—this is no Royal Caribbean cruise! A well-deserved, if somewhat implausible, reversal sets this marriage to right, at least as far as the audience is concerned.
In 1934, Victor McLaglen was the biggest name in the cast, ranking top billing and earning it with his comic performance that keeps the crime story fast-paced and entertaining. His mismatched clothes, notably anchored by a tartan wool golfer’s cap, make him a walking sight gag, but he seems comfortable in a dumb-like-a fox façade. Helen Vinson slips between her high-class librarian and lowdown chisler without a seam showing, and Fred Keating is a mesmerizing bon vivant who rolls with the punches and doesn’t seem half as interested in the money as in the adventure. New Columbia contract players Moe and Curly Howard and Larry Fine stumble around as the ship’s band, with Larry being the only Stooge with lines. The stereotypically dotty Englishman played by Arthur Treacher is delightful in his short time on screen, and he and Curly pull off a wordless gag that had me in stitches.
Underscoring it all is John Gilbert’s rueful performance. In his first scene, he steps out of a car that has carried him and his lover Gert (Tala Birell) to the ship. Gert is loathe to let him go, and even has a steamer trunk complete with turntable sent onboard for him with a recording she made professing her undying love. Steve is determined to quit drinking and start writing, but Gilbert looks like he’s actually been on a three-day bender when he says good-bye to Gert. Reports are that Gilbert and other cast members were drunk during most of the location shooting at sea, bored by delays caused by bad weather. The many, many drinking scenes in the film may have been an attempt to compensate for their frequent incapacity. On the other hand, filming on a real ship allowed for some intriguing and thrilling scenes, including the rescue. Milestone’s camera made the most of the depths and angles the location afforded and his fluidity overcame some of the meandering moments this juiced-up slice of life fell into.
Regardless of the circumstances during filming, the what-the-hell disillusionment of an alcoholic soaks Gilbert’s performance, as he watches from the sidelines with his jovial pusher, bartender Joe Silvers (Walter Catlett), ready with a bottle and a sarcastic crack. Just like Gilbert, Steve never gets his ambitions in gear, never puts away his shot glass, and never stops making us care.