Sunday, November 11, 2012

DVR Diary: MOBY DICK (1930)

After Rin-Tin-Tin, John Barrymore was probably Warner Bros.' biggest star of the silent era. With the arrival of sound, the studio must have felt confident that in Barrymore, famed for his stage work before he went before the camera, they had an ace up their sleeve. He actually was in their first Vitaphone feature, but 1926's Don Juan had only a musical soundtrack, and Barrymore did not speak. That same year, he starred in The Sea Beast, a free adaptation -- to put it mildly -- of Moby Dick. That was still a silent, but Warners must have been pleased enough with it to produce a talking remake four years later. This time the movie went by the novel's name, though it was no more faithful to Herman Melville than The Sea Beast was. It isn't perfectly faithful to The Sea Beast, either, and that's probably a point in the sound film's favor.

As the star, Barrymore doesn't play Melville's point-of-view, audience-identification character Ishmael, but the book's most famous character, Captain Ahab. Following Sea Beast, the 1930 Moby Dick makes Ahab Ceeley the protagonist, indeed the hero of the story. We meet him as a harpoonist on the whaler Mary Ann, returning to New Bedford after years at sea. Ahab is the Douglas Fairbanks of the 19th century, cutting capers atop the mast as women watch admiringly. There's something slightly insane about him already, but I can't tell whether that's in the script or Barrymore's unrestrained contribution to the film. The Great Profile is good with the dialogue, naturally, but he does too much with his eyes, as if still stuck in the silent style of movie acting. Or he may have been blotto throughout the production. Whatever the problem, it seems hard to believe -- the star being 48 years old also has something to do with this -- that winsome Faith (Joan Bennett) would dump Ahab's priggish, lubberish, yet far younger brother Derek (Lloyd Hughes) for the old salt. It happens, however, but in a departure from the core text -- The Sea Beast, that is -- Derek doesn't follow Ahab out to sea to sabotage his career and his romantic prospects. For most of Moby Dick, Derek is simply a sullen, sulky presence, as if realizing he doesn't belong in the story, having been invented for The Sea Beast rather than by Melville. Somehow Ahab manages to get his leg gnawed off by the white whale without Derek's help. When he returns, peg-legged, to New Bedford, Faith flees in horror from him in a moment of weakness, and here Ahab acquires his obsession to avenge his lost hopes upon the whale.

While quantitatively less deviant from the novel than The Sea Beast, the 1930 Moby Dick nevertheless misses no opportunity to completely miss any points Melville meant to make. In the novel, Ahab as captain of the Pequod is an employee of the merchants who paid for the ship and its provisions; his hunt for the whale is before all else a transgression from his obligation to his employers. In the movie, he is outright master of his own ship, which is not the Pequod, having bought it in Singapore. While in the novel Ishmael and the rest of the crew are there of their own free will, in the talkie Ahab is obliged to shanghai a crew of rabble in New Bedford, improbably including his brother, after most of his terrified men jump ship. They have no other task than to hunt the whale, so there's no reason for anyone to try to dissuade him -- so long to most of the novel's dramatic tension. Instead, Ahab finally has it out with his brother, who assumes falsely that he's been singled out for torture, and in cinema's ultimate blasphemy against literature, kills Moby Dick singlehandedly -- his harpoon strikes from on board the whale draw forth gushers of black Pre-Code gore -- and then returns home in triumph to claim his love.

Movies have always taken liberties with literature, if only because cinema necessarily has different narrative rules and possibilities. It's not impossible for a movie to stray far from its literary source and yet remain a good movie. The best example of that I can think of, for American literature, is Michael Mann's adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans. At the opposite extreme sits Roland Joffe's adaptation of The Scarlet Letter. While Lloyd Bacon's Moby Dick is, as I said above, an incomparable travesty of Melville's story, as a movie it comes a little closer to Mann than to Joffe. For an early talkie it's a visual treat, thanks to Robert Kurrle's photography of an impressive New Bedford set and special effects that are mostly not bad. There are some well-executed process shots of Ahab's harpoon boat pursuing the whale, and the production only falters when it has to introduce a fake whale that looks like a Macy's Thanksgiving balloon to pursue live actors in the water. Barrymore may be too over-the-top from the start to convince as a romantic lead, but once the origin-story half of the film is over he's entitled to be as crazy as he needs to be. The star may have appreciated the handicap of his age, since here and in the following year's Svengali he seems more determined to be the next Lon Chaney than to be a great lover. He's supported by a remarkable cast of grotesques as his crew -- boy, did they have faces then! -- led by Noble Johnson (of King Kong fame) as Queequeg, Ahab's sidekick here instead of Ishmael's. As Derek, Hughes is too much of a wet blanket to be a compelling antagonist, and the filmmakers may have toned down the character's villainy for that reason. Bacon's Moby Dick may be a travesty, but being motivated by showmanship rather than political correctness, as was the case with Joffe's Scarlet Letter, it's forgivably fun to watch, amusing rather than offensive in its brazen deviance from Melville. If you know what to expect going in -- or if you have no familiarity with Moby Dick whatsoever, you may find this an entertaining picture on its own terms.


Judy said...

I'd love to see this one - thanks for posting this, Samuel, as I've been wondering about this film for ages and how it differs from 'The Sea Beast'. A shame that JB never got to play Ahab as envisioned by Melville, but from what you say this is well worth watching anyway.

Samuel Wilson said...

Judy, it's been something like 25 years since I saw Sea Beast so my memories of the silent aren't great, but I remember Derek being much more of a villain the first time around. The talkie retains a bit of business I remembered from the silent during the big fight between Derek and Ahab where Derek's unable to pitch Ahab overboard because the captain has his peg leg wedged into a hole on deck. Barrymore was at the right age to do an authentic Ahab but Hollywood simply wasn't ready for it.