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.