George Bancroft falls, or rather, dives for Betty Compson in Docks of New York.
Friday, April 8, 2011
THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928)
We think of the 1970s as a unique period when actors could become stars and even leading men without conventional good looks. But when you consider George Bancroft's rise to stardom in the 1920s the Seventies don't seem quite as unique. Bancroft was a beefy lout who got his big break past the age of forty; think of a Wallace Beery, if you know your classic Hollywood, with perhaps more sex appeal. Bancroft owes his place in movie history to Josef von Sternberg, who cast him as Bull Weed in the proto-gangster film Underworld. Star and director teamed up again a year later for a film that even more strongly anticipates the visual style of film noir, but in the service of a virtual fairy-tale romance of the waterfront, with Bancroft as the leading man. He plays Bill Roberts, a stoker eager for a night on the town when his ship pulls into port. He gets grief beforehand from his supervisor Andy (Mitchell Lewis), who orders him and his pal to clean up their filthy work area (they shovel coal into furnaces) before going ashore, and warns Bill that he'll lose his job if he comes back drunk. The work delays Bill long enough that he reaches the pier just as someone leaps off into the water. This suicide attempt is a bravura bit of pictorial business by Sternberg. We see the woman's reflection in the still moonlit water as she stands at the edge of the pier. We see the reflection leap and disappear from view. Moments later, the surface is dappled with little splashes, then overrun with ripples from the woman hitting the water.