Saturday, 5 January 2019

JOHN FORD'S THE SEAS BENEATH

In need of some antidote to being forced to sit through Love Actually on Christmas Day, on Boxing Day I settled in to watch something I'd never seen before, John Ford's 1931 submarine drama, The Seas Beneath.

Actually, to call it a submarine drama is an exaggeration. It's set during World War I, and the US Navy is sending a 'mystery ship' toward the Azores, a three-masted schooner which disguises a modern cannon and some machine guns, in order to lure U-172, the Germany's most effective submarine into a trap. The mystery ship is also towing along a submarine, for which it is playing the tethered goat.

The story, after some sea-going scene-setting, takes place in a small Spanish port, where the crew of the mystery ship and the officers of U172 are both in town. The bar scenes are right out of a pulp novel, but what makes it interesting is that the exotic dark-haired Spanish singer (Mona Maris) and the owner are both working for the Germans. Maris lures innocent Ensign Cabot into her clutches, slips him a Mickey Finn, and confirms that he is a Naval officer, not a merchantman. Meanwhile, the American captain Bob Kingsley (George O'Brien) has met lovely blonde Anna Marie, who just happens to be the sister of Baron Ernst von Stueben, commander of the U-172 (the bloody undersea Red Baron) and the fiance of his first officer. After the two meet cute, O'Brien proceeds to the same bar as his ensign, where he winds up sitting at the next table to the first officer, who immediately recognises the Naval Academy ring O'Brien is wearing. By this point, the whole mystery ship cover appears pretty much blown.

After a bit of excitement, which results in Cabot being killed, Anna Marie cast adrift with some local sailors in a lifeboat, and OBrien realising she is a German spy, the U boat homes in on the mystery ship. Then it gets a bit tricky. U-172 surfaces, and with its cannon hammers away at TMS. But the American cannon, earlier extolled as the most modern beauty, remains out of range of the sub. So our suspense is built on whether the Yanks will sink before they get a shot at the sub. Repeatedly.

But here's the thing. Why does O'Brien wait to release HIS submarine to sink the German? Once they have it at the surface, it's fair game regardless of whether it's in range of his cannon; worse, if his cannon were effective the sub's obvious response would be to dive and become a more difficult target for the Americans. I spent a lot of time trying to figure this one out and could not.

Not to give too much away, but it then appears the German officers are all going down with the ship, but it turns out none of them are. And despite declaring their love, Capt. Bob and Anna Marie go their separate ways, patriotism and all that.

It's not vintage Ford, but it does have its moments. There are a number of actors and tropes that will show up in Ford's later films (not least script writers who are Navy men) including the young sailors drinking milk in the bar, and Chief Petty Office 'Guns' Costello (Walter C Kelly in the Victor McLaglen role complete with tall tale bragging). The name Guns reminded me of Ward Bond as Chief  'Boots' Mulcahy in They Were Expendable. That's another film about small boats playing a big role, of course. The physical link between the two films is Harry Tenbrook, who plays Winkler (uncredited) in this one, and then plays a rare credited role as 'Squarehead' Larson, the former cook on USS Arizona, in They Were Expendable. He wouldn't play another credited role until he was Cookie in another naval story, Mr. Roberts, a decade later.

George O'Brien was a former sailor, who apparently was boxing champ of the Pacific Fleet during World War I. He was a key part of the first two of Ford's cavalry trilogy, playing Major Collingwood in Fort Apache, whose wife (Anna Lee) refuses to call him back when his transfer comes, knowing he has his honour to redeem, and Major Allshard in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, who sends John Wayne's Capt. Brittles to escort his niece and wife East. He's also a Major in Cheyenne Autumn, which was his last film.

Nat Pendleton is easily recognisable, although uncredited, in his usual Palooka part. You'd have to look harder and faster than I did to spot Ford's brother Francis is a bit part. But you will probably recognise the Baron, played by Henry Victor, who is the strongman in Freaks, and is Schultz, the assistant to 'Concentration Camp' Ehrhardt, in To Be Or Not To Be.

But the women are probably the most interesting facet of this sea story. Marion Lessing is Anna Marie, and I am sure her performance signified more in 1931, with its very stagey quality, than it does now, but she isn't really that sort of archetype you'd expect would get to O'Brien. Mona Maris, an Argentinian who had some interesting parts in B movies and serials, is much more 'modern' as Fraulein Lolita (not kidding), a mix of Dietrich and Raquel Torres maybe. This is pre-code, of course, and she is pretty obviously more than a singer/dancer, willing to do anything for a price.And, with a heart of gold: she has a nice moment when she kisses the passed-out ensign she has just betrayed.

This was probably more exciting then than it was now, and it would probably have been a great story for one of the adventure pulps. It holds up well enough as a B picture, and there is enough of Ford's touch to make sure you aren't bored, even while you're trying to figure out what Bob sees in Anna Marie or why that sub doesn't just attack U-172 when it's got the chance! It's a better love story than Love Actually, actually.

No comments :