Friday, January 3, 2014

Pre-Code Parade: THE SHIP FROM SHANGHAI (1930)

It looks like it should have been a Lon Chaney vehicle and it nearly was. Under the title of "Ordeal" it was announced as Chaney's next film for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the summer of 1929, but by August, when production began on a ship wired for sound -- it was hyped in early 1930 as the first all-talking picture filmed at sea -- Louis Wolheim had been signed for the lead role as the film's heavy. Wolheim is known today just about entirely for the next film he made, All Quiet on the Western Front, but he'd had a solid career in silents as a grotesque sort of he-man. The role has Chaney written all over it: a brute with a fragile psyche who longs to turn the tables on his betters. You can see how it had been meant to develop Chaney as a man of a thousand voices, since Ted the Steward must be obsequious toward the passengers on the yacht he serves, but is mockingly vulgar while gossiping with the dumb Swedish cook, and later raves through delusions of grandeur ("I'm a kind of god!") when he takes control of the crippled ship after a storm. In the end, like many a Chaney character, Ted really longs for the authentic love of a woman, but the villain of The Ship From Shanghai does nothing whatsoever to earn it. I don't know whether Chaney was reassigned by the studio or turned the part down himself, but I suspect that he would have seen that there was nothing sympathetic about Ted, the role leaving him no opportunity to play for pathos as he liked.

Compared to some Chaney films, Ship strikes a modern note by treating Ted as a psychologically sick man. When a dowager passenger diagnoses him as a paranoiac with a "king complex," we sense from cues that Wolheim has given us that she's on to the truth. Resentful of his subservient status, Ted gloats over every petty victory he can claim over his employers, celebrating wildly, with the dumb cook as his audience, when one of the passengers promises to be more careful about leaving cigarette ashes on dinner plates. Rather than tragic, Ted is just plain crazy, as the climax proves. He has tricked the rest of the mutinous crew, except for the cook, to abandon ship so he can make the rich passengers his private playthings. His most coveted plaything is Dorothy (Kay Johnson), whom he coaxes into a private dinner (and more) with a promise to spare the rest of the passengers. She is compliant but cold, and that won't do. Ted wants real passion from her, and it comes in the form of scorn as she calls him a madman and a loser. Improbably, this outburst breaks him. He races toward a mirror and starts yelling at himself, finally smashing the glass with his fists while crying, "They've beaten me!" At last he runs on deck and throws himself to the sharks. Wolheim gives the thankless part everything he's got but it probably didn't boost his chances to be the Next Lon Chaney when the first one died later in 1930. As it happened, Wolheim himself didn't long outlive his real triumph in All Quiet. Like Chaney, he was a cancer victim, dying just a year later.

Some people's first thought on seeing Ship From Shanghai might not be "Why isn't Lon Chaney in this?" but "Did Spielberg see it?" That's because it opens in the title town with a Chinese jazz band performing "Singing in the Rain." It put me in mind of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and at its best Ship has the authentic pulp feel that Temple of Doom strives to emulate.Wolheim's on that same wavelength, and so's Ivan Linov as the big, dumb Swede ("I been think so" is his catchphrase), but the good guys let the film down. The problem is, these seagoing swells pretty much are how Ted sees them: a pack of upper-class twits, none of whom ever really earns audience sympathy. But at the same time, Ted's too obviously a lunatic for people to identify with his class warfare, so it's hard to imagine audiences having a rooting interest in any of the characters. Charles Brabin (Beast of the City, Mask of Fu Manchu) directs efficiently and atmospherically, if not innovatively, but he can't do anything with the climactic confrontation but show Wolheim and Johnson screaming at each other monotonously. Maybe Chaney and Tod Browning behind the camera could have whipped this material into shape, but it was not to be. The best you can say about the film we have is that it illustrates the potential that might have been realized by other hands and other faces.


Van Ramsey said...

I LOVE pre-code talkies, especially Warners/First National Vitaphones. I recorded this film from TCM and haven't watched it to the end yet, but I got a kick out of one line...early in the movie when Ted is describing his disdain for the wealthy passengers to the cook, it sure sounds like he says "They f**k like cats!" Major victory for the writers if that line did, in fact, sneak through.

Jeff Conner said...

I was so wanted to see this film, but my DVR erased it! I have been reading the book the film is based on and it's great. Does anyone have the film? Argh!

Samuel Wilson said...

Jeff, you're in luck. TCM is running it again on March 28 at 1:45pm EST as part of a birthday tribute to Louis Wolheim.

Van, I don't remember that line but I may watch again on the 28th to see if I catch it.