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of the Movies and Personalities of the Golden Age of Hollywood

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Films of Henry Hathaway: Down to the Sea in Ships

In 1949 Henry Hathaway made one of the best movies of his long career. In it, his three stars, Richard Widmark, Lionel Barrymore and Dean Stockwell (and for that matter, most of the supporting cast) each gave one of his own best performances. Down to the Sea in Ships is in fact one of the finest movies ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system, and almost nobody has ever heard of it.

I know I run the risk of overselling the product here, but I simply don't understand why Down to the Sea in Ships isn't one of the best-loved movies of all time. When the talk turns to the great seafaring stories of the screen -- Treasure Island, Mutiny on the Bounty, Captains Courageous, Moby Dick et al. -- it's a mystery to me why Down to the Sea in Ships never comes up. If there are such things as flawless movies, and there surely are, Henry Hathaway's Down to the Sea in Ships is one of them.

I say "Henry Hathaway's" to distinguish this picture from the other Down to the Sea in Ships, from 1922. That one made a star out of Clara Bow, and curiously enough, it's available on home video -- no doubt because it's in the public domain, while Hathaway's picture is still under copyright and quarantined in the 20th Century Fox vault. In the 1960s and '70s it was the other way around: Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) was gone and long forgotten, but if your local TV station had a decent film library and you were willing to stay up till two or three in the morning, you could count on seeing Down to the Sea in Ships (1949) two or three times a year. 

Before we leave the subject of Clara Bow's breakout vehicle for good, let's get one point clear: Wikipedia says that the 1922 picture "was remade by Twentieth Century Fox in 1949," but -- well, that's Wikipedia for you. (Whoever wrote the article didn't even know that it's "20th Century Fox," not "Twentieth.") In fact, there is no connection whatsoever between the two pictures -- other than the fact that they both deal with whaling ships out of New Bedford, Mass., and they both take their title from Psalm 107:23 ("They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters..."). These aren't two versions of the same story, they're two different movies with the same title; henceforth, when I use the title, I'll be talking about only one of them.

Fox chief Darryl Zanuck first set out to produce Down to the Sea in Ships in 1939 -- if not this picture precisely, at least one with this title and setting. Things got as far as sending a second unit crew into the waters of the Gulf of California to shoot background footage. But when World War II made it impossible to shoot on the open sea, or even in California's harbors, the picture went on a back burner. 

After the war, Zanuck reactivated the project and handed it over to producer
Louis D. ("Buddy") Lighton and director Hathaway. Both men were working for
Fox now, but they had been paired before in the 1930s at Paramount: Lighton
had produced the Shirley Temple vehicle Now and Forever, The Lives of a Bengal
Lancer, and Peter Ibbetson, all of which Hathaway directed.

The first draft of the script was by Sy Bartlett -- that's him at right -- born
Sacha Baraniev in Russia (now Ukraine) in 1900 but raised in America from
the age of four. Originally a newspaper reporter, he became a screenwriter
for various studios in the '30s, but he was noted more for hobnobbing
in Hollywood society, hosting Sunday barbecues, and the occasional
gossip-column appearance. He served with the U.S. Army Air Corps
during World War II, then returned to Hollywood and a job at Fox.
At the time that he took his first cut at Down to the Sea in Ships,
Bartlett's most memorable work was still ahead of him: he later
turned his wartime experience into the novel and screenplay
Twelve O'Clock High (1949) for director Henry King
and star Gergory Peck.

Music historian Jon Burlingame (in his notes for the movie's soundtrack CD) says Bartlett's script underwent a rewrite by John Lee Mahin -- shown here (on the left) in a rare acting stint in Hell Below (1933) with Robert Montgomery. Like Bartlett a reporter-turned-screenwriter, Mahin already had a number of major credits on his resume, many of them -- including Red Dust, Treasure Island (1934), Test Pilot, Captains Courageous and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) -- for Hathaway's mentor Victor Fleming.

Without access to what records might be in the 20th Century Fox archives, it's impossible for me to say exactly how credit for Down to the Sea's script should shake out -- which is a pity, because the script is a truly masterful piece of work; if the picture ever gets the kind of attention it has deserved for over 60 years, maybe someone will shed some light on the subject. The writing credit on screen reads "Screen Play by John Lee Mahin and Sy Bartlett; From a Story by Sy Bartlett," which matches the general drift of the two writers' careers: story was Bartlett's long suit, dialogue Mahin's. Making an educated guess, I'd say Bartlett was responsible for Down to the Sea's distinctive blend of rousing adventure and psychological acuity, Mahin for the unerring cadence and vocabulary of the speech of 19th century New England whalermen. Or it may have been more complicated than that; Mahin gets top billing on screen, which suggests that his rewrite probably amounted to more than just touching up the dialogue.

Down to the Sea in Ships opens in New Bedford in the summer of 1887. The whaling ship Pride of New Bedford returns from a four-year voyage under the command of Capt. Bering Joy (Lionel Barrymore), the best whaler on the New England coast. He's just about the oldest, too, though he shows no signs of being ready to retire from the sea. The reason for that is his 11-year-old grandson Jed (Dean Stockwell), the youngest in a line of the whaling Joy family that extends back "mighty nigh two hundred years." Capt. Joy, though still on crutches from an injury that kept him bunk-ridden for much of the voyage, is unwilling to retire, at least until Jed is thoroughly brought up in the ways of the sea and can continue the family tradition. Jed himself is (if you'll pardon the expression) entirely on board with this; he loves the seafaring life, the only life he's ever known. He's spent the last four years -- nearly half his life -- as his grandfather's cabin boy, and is now eager to ship out again as an apprentice member of the fo'c'sle crew.

Unfortunately, the decision may be taken out of both their hands. The whaling firm's insurance company refuses to cover Capt. Joy; moreover, Massachusetts law will not allow Jed to return to sea unless he can pass an exam covering the four years of schooling he missed while he was away. Fortunately, a sympathetic school superintendent (Gene Lockhart, in a warmhearted cameo) fudges Jed's test results rather than disappoint the captain.

And a tentative compromise is reached on the insurance issue when Capt. Joy is persuaded to sign Dan Lunceford (Richard Widmark) as first mate. The firm's president (Paul Harvey) says Lunceford is a promising young seaman who only needs some experience under a master mariner like Capt. Joy, but the captain isn't fooled: he realizes that Lunceford, who has a master's license, is being foisted on him at the insurance company's behest, to be in a position to take command of the Pride of New Bedford if age or infirmity should overcome the old man.

For his part, Dan Lunceford doesn't care much for the look of Capt. Joy, nor for his sneering at Lunceford's "book-learnin'" and his college degree in marine biology; only a sweetening of his percentage of the voyage's profits persuades the younger man to ship out with Capt. Joy after all.

Once the Pride of New Bedford is out to sea, Capt. Joy plays his trump card. He tells Lunceford that he sees "the hand of Providence" in Lunceford's presence on board. Jed was allowed to ship out, he says, only on the condition that his studies be continued, and Capt. Joy is hereby assigning Lunceford, in addition to his regular duties as first mate, to be Jed's tutor during his off-duty hours. In this way, the crafty old mariner intends to kill two birds with one stone: he'll see to Jed's education, and he'll keep Lunceford too busy to undermine his authority.

Lunceford has no choice but to accept the assignment, but he does so with ill grace. Resentful at what he regards as essentially a babysitting chore, he is impatient, sarcastic and dismissive. Resentful in turn, Jed is obstreperous and uncooperative. Lunceford decides Jed is just as ornery and pigheaded as his grandfather, and he give up the lessons as a waste of his time.

Stung, Jed applies himself and in time surprises Lunceford with answers to all the questions that had stumped him before. Lunceford suddenly approaches his duties as tutor in earnest, tailoring lessons more carefully to Jed's quick and lively but unsophisticated intelligence. As the friendship grows between Jed and Lunceford, Capt. Joy begins -- rightly or wrongly -- to fear that his grandson's respect and affection are drifting away from himself and attaching themselves to Lunceford; he responds to the unexpected competition by looking more carefully at Lunceford's ideas, which he had formerly dismissed as not worth his attention. All this happens even as the Pride of New Bedford roams the waters of the South Atlantic, stalking and taking whales.

That's about as much of the plot as I care to go into here; better that you should discover the rest for yourself. Down to the Sea in Ships isn't available on home video, but it does surface (pun intended) from time to time on the Fox Movie Channel, and it's worth seeking out to discover how the three-generation, three-way relationship of Capt. Joy, Jed and Dan Lunceford plays itself out against the background of a perilous voyage contending with the forces of nature and the leviathans of the deep. Each of the three discovers qualities of strength and character in the others that he either never suspected or did not properly value at first. Each brings out the best in the other two, and allows the other two to bring out the best in him.





All this, mind you, while the movie does not skimp on action and high adventure. There are scenes of whale chases and boats lost at sea, suspenseful and beautifully shot (Joe MacDonald) and edited (Dorothy Spencer), with excellent special effects (Fred Sersen and Ray Kellogg). Capping it all is a climactic sequence in which the Pride of New Bedford runs aground on an iceberg in the fog near the horn of South America...








...with the crew desperately struggling to free themselves and repair the damage before the sea pounds their ship to splinters against the unforgiving ice. Not to mince words, it's an absolutely brilliant action/suspense set piece. Amazingly enough, it was shot entirely in a soundstage tank on the Fox lot, but it's spectacularly convincing and harrowing for all that.

Down to the Sea in Ships was Lionel Barrymore's last starring
role, on loan from MGM. Once, when introducing Barrymore on a
1939 radio broadcast, Orson Welles referred to him as "the
most beloved actor of our time." It was probably an exaggeration,
but not by much; Barrymore's stock in trade was playing
cantankerous old codgers with hearts of gold. Ironic, then,
that the only role for which he's widely remembered today is
Old Man Potter in It's a Wonderful Life, one of the most thoroughly
heartless characters in the history of movies. In his own day
Barrymore was more closely identified with wise old Dr.
Gillespie in MGM's Dr. Kildare series, and with his annual
holiday performances as Ebenezer Scrooge on radio. In fact,
Barrymore had been slated to play Scrooge in MGM's A
Christmas Carol (1938) until he broke his hip in an auto
accident. That injury landed him in a wheelchair, then
advancing arthritis kept him there for the rest of his
career -- until Down to the Sea in Ships.

Henry Hathaway remembered, at first, a testy working relationship with Barrymore. As he told interviewer Polly Platt:
He had everything wrong with him, most of it in his head...I said, "You're not sick, you're just destroying yourself...I have no sympathy for you. You're a glutton, you drink too much...You want to destroy yourself, you're really doing it."
Is this callousness or tough love? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. Hathaway had a reputation for being tough on actors. His side of it was simply that he refused to mollycoddle them; he expected actors to report to the set ready to work. He also remembered the day they finished shooting Barrymore's scenes:
We finish the picture, he walked off the set. No wheelchair. No crutches. And he came to me and said, "Mr. Hathaway, I want to tell you, you did more for me and for my life on this picture than ever happened to me before. From my father or my mother, or from anybody. I was just simply sitting there and waiting to die."
Hathaway went on to say that they remained friends for the rest of Barrymore's life. In any case, whatever the validity of Hathaway's recollection, the evidence is there on screen: Barrymore responded -- whether out of spite or chagrin -- by giving one of his strongest performances in years. For once he's not merely being wheeled around the set acting crusty (although in his more physically active shots he was often doubled by assistant director Richard Talmadge).

I don't mean to minimize the genuine pain Barrymore surely suffered, but that wheelchair must have been a real convenience for a man who had never been all that crazy about being an actor to begin with. In youth, his real interests were in painting, writing, and composing music, but the pressure to enter the family trade (and the money to be made from it) kept him on stage, screen and radio for nearly sixty years. The role of Capt. Bering Joy was a recognizable "Lionel Barrymore type," but it was also a complex and vigorous character betrayed by age and ill health, and Barrymore the self-described ham connected with it on a more profound level than almost any part he ever played. He deserves to be remembered for this performance as much as -- indeed, more than -- for the unalloyed wickedness of Henry Potter. 

Down to the Sea in Ships was Richard Widmark's fifth movie, after his sensational debut as the giggling psycho killer Tommy Udo in Hathaway's Kiss of Death (1947). In the intervening three pictures, Widmark played a woman-beating gang lord (The Street with No Name), a murderously jealous bar owner (Road House) and an underhanded western outlaw (Yellow Sky). The studio realized he was in danger of being typecast as a succession of nutjobs, sleazeballs and unsavories (because he played them so well), when what the studio really needed was another leading man. Casting him as Dan Lunceford was a conscious effort to help him segue into more sympathetic roles. It worked. Widmark went on to be one of Fox's most stalwart leading men, playing good guys (Slattery's Hurricane, Panic in the Streets), bad guys (No Way Out, O. Henry's Full House) and guys in between (Pickup on South Street, Don't Bother to Knock) -- until, like many other stars, he went free-agent in the mid-1950s.

In Down to the Sea, Widmark is top-billed, although he doesn't appear until half an hour in. His Dan Lunceford is the character who goes through the most self-surprising changes in the course of the picture. After all, Jed is an adolescent coming of age, and changes are to be expected, while Capt. Joy, though seemingly set in his ways and defiantly so, proves to be flexible, open to change, and willing to learn -- when he thinks nobody is watching and he can do it without losing face.

Capt. Joy blusters, but it's Dan Lunceford who is most nearly arrogant at the outset; part of the reason the captain scoffs at Lunceford's education is that he senses Lunceford is more than a little puffed-up about it. For his part, Lunceford treats Capt. Joy with an exaggerated politeness that stops just short of insolent sarcasm. (Capt. Joy: "You may have noticed that most of my crew generally sign on again." Lunceford [drily]: "Out of affection no doubt, sir.") His sarcasm towards Jed's lessons, on the other hand, is undisguised -- at first. In time, he comes to realize he has misjudged them both, especially the captain. By the end he's telling Jed that his grandfather is "more of a man than you or I could ever hope to be." It's an admission Lunceford could hardly have imagined making when the voyage began.

And then there's Dean Stockwell. Stockwell's first screen role came in 1945, when he was eight years old, and he's still working today -- which means that his career has now lasted longer than Lionel Barrymore's or Richard Widmark's. When I screened my print of Down to the Sea in Ships for some friends, one of them said, "Dean Stockwell was a revelation!" She was familiar with Stockwell as an adult actor, and knew he had started as a child star, but had no inkling he was ever as good as he is here. ("He was marvelous," remembered Hathaway, "just a great actor. Intense little guy.") My friend was right: Dean Stockwell's performance here is a revelation, easily (at the age of twelve) the best of his career -- and for an actor whose resume includes Gentleman's Agreement, The Boy with Green Hair, Compulsion, Long Day's Journey into Night, Blue Velvet, and the TV series Quantum Leap, that's saying something. Jed Joy is the fulcrum upon which the plot of Down to the Sea in Ships pivots, and in Stockwell's performance we see him grow from an uncertain, sometimes petulant child into the makings of a fine, strong young man -- he seems even to grow taller as the story progresses (and it's all in his acting; the shooting schedule wasn't that protracted).

Jon Burlingame says that Down to the Sea cost $2.5 million, one of Fox's most expensive pictures of 1949, and that despite good reviews and high expectations ("...so engrossingly done that the box-office appeal should be sturdy," said Variety, "...dotted with tremendously moving scenes that will stick in the memory."), it failed to break even. Not an unfamiliar story in the history of Hollywood.

I've been dancing all around something here, and I might as well come right out and say it: Down to the Sea in Ships is a masterpiece. It's not one of those "miracle pictures" I've talked about before, like Peter Ibbetson or A Midsummer Night's Dream. Making it was no departure for the Hollywood studio system; on the contrary, pictures like this were right up Hollywood's alley. If there's a miracle here, it isn't that it was made in the first place, but that it turned out so well in the end.

Henry Hathaway never worked with a better script; for that matter, neither has anyone else. Whether the credit goes mainly to John Lee Mahin or to Sy Bartlett -- or some magical, once-in-a-lifetime chemistry between the two -- Down to the Sea's script is nothing less than a work of genius. It's a rousing sea adventure, a sharp-eyed psychological study, a near-documentary reconstruction of the 19th century whaling trade, and a subtle examination of the customs and dynamics of a shipboard community in the age of sails. Nearly every line is memorable, every scene layered with nuances that reward repeated viewings. Even the name of the ship -- Pride of New Bedford -- is pregnant with symbolism: the many facets of pride, as both virtue and vice, is a major theme that runs through the story and all three of the central characters. This superb text inspired everyone who touched it -- Hathaway, his actors, photographer Joe McDonald, editor Dorothy Spencer, composer Alfred Newman, everyone -- to give it the best of their considerable abilities. The result of their efforts is (I say it again) a flawless movie. Not a work of art, perhaps -- perhaps -- but of such a high order of craftsmanship that it's all but indistinguishable from the real thing. 

If you ever get the chance to see Down to the Sea in Ships, don't pass it up. I've never shown it to anyone who didn't love it. I guarantee it: this is one of the greatest movies you never heard of.


For my other posts on director Henry Hathaway, see:
          "A Genial Hack," Part 1 
          "A Genial Hack," Part 2: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine
          "A Genial Hack, Part 3: Peter Ibbetson
          Films of Henry Hathaway: The Shepherd of the Hills

2 comments:

charlie brown's evil twin said...

if only you'd know how difficult it is to have proper information on Hathaway..and they call it superinformation highway! And I saw "From hell to texas" and I can't understand how it is not more renowned..thank you for these great articles!

Jim Lane said...

Thank you for the good word, CBET. You're right about From Hell to Texas; if it had been made by Ford or Hawks, it would be in all the textbooks. It's a good candidate for another post on Hathaway.

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