Film Title: The Captain Hates the Sea
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Talkie
- Victor McLaglen
- Wynne Gibson
- Alison Skipworth
- John Gilbert
In 1934 after the successes of Grand Hotel (MGM 1932) and Shanghai Express (Paramount 1932), Columbia boss Harry Cohn decided to bank on a similar format: a group of strangers, with secrets, interacting in a self-contained environment. He chose screenwriter Wallace Smith to adapt his own novel The Captain Hates the Sea for the screen and enlisted Lewis Milestone who already had two Oscars as Best Director to his credit (Two Arabian Nights, 1927 and All Quiet on the Western Front, 1930) to direct.
The man in charge of the San Capador is Captain Helquist (Walter Connelly) who rails at reporters as the picture opens, “I detest the sea. . . . I’d like to see any damn-fool women and children beat me into a lifeboat. . . .I’d break them in two with my bare hands.” Among the passengers boarding the San Capador for its voyage from Los Angeles to New York is Steve Bramley (John Gilbert), an alcoholic who has bombed out as a Hollywood screenwriter. He hopes to sober up on the trip and begin his novel. Also a passenger is Junius P. Schulte (Victor McLaglen), a retired cop now working as a private investigator. He hopes to track down $250,000 in bonds stolen by Danny Checkett aka Danny Farraday (Fred Keating) who boards at the last possible moment. On board as well are Mr. and Mrs. Jeddock (John Wray and Wynne Gibson): a seemingly distinguished couple, Mrs. Yolanda Magruder (Alison Skipworth): a widow reportedly worth $7,000,000, General Salazaro (Akim Tamiroff): a South American revolutionary, Bostonian Janet Grayson (Helen Vinson): a librarian on vacation, Major Warringforth (Arthur Teacher): a retired British officer, Josephus Bushmills (Donald Meek): a man with a troubling beard, and Judge Griswold (Claude Gillingwater): a sour old man if ever there was one. Rounding out the crew are the ship’s steward Layton (Leon Erroll) and the ship’s very busy bartender Joe Silvers (Walter Catlett). And The Three Stooges are the ship’s band. Really. Of course on this kind of cinematic trip not all the characters turn out to be quite what they seem by journey’s end. One passenger will be revealed as Blanche Ditworthy aka “Michigan Red”, who is secretly in cahoots with another passenger pulling a scam. Another we find out was called “Goldie”, a lady with an unsavory past now trying to make good. Two men will vie for the attentions of the beautiful librarian. One passenger will attempt suicide and another will be executed at a port of call. Another will be thrown in the ship’s brig and ultimately make a startling transformation. And two unlikely guys will each get an unlikely girl.
The Captain Hates the Sea is populated by a wonderful gathering of the kind of character actors that only the studio system was able to afford. Besides their top-name stars, studios also kept a roster of character actors that were liberally loaned between studios. These were performers that audiences may or may not have recognized by name, but they remembered their faces as they appeared in scores of pictures. Victor McLaglen (Schulte) would win the Best Actor Oscar the next year for his performance in John Ford’s The Informer. Ford used him regularly and he worked continually in films and television until his death in 1959. Alison Skipworth (Mrs. Magruder) was a British actress with many Broadway roles to her credit. She found lots of work in Hollywood in the 1930s, usually as a comedic dowager. She is probably best remembered as W.C. Field’s foil in a number of films. Arthur Treacher (Major Warringforth) was the quintessential British butler in many, many films (including several with Shirley Temple) and ended up as Merv Griffin’s sidekick on The Merv Griffin Show in the late 1960s. Claude Gillingwater (Judge Griswold) also played opposite Miss Temple in several films as the crabby old man that must be made to see the joy of living by picture’s end. Leon Erroll (Layton) made 163 films and may be best remembered for his role in a series of “Joe Palooka” films in which he played the part of Knobby Walsh, a part he took over from former Stooge Shemp Howard upon his death in 1937. He would star in that series of films until 1950. Walter Catlett (bartender Joe Silvers) was a busy actor in films, perhaps making his most indelible mark as the voice of J. Worthington Foulfellow in Disney’s animated classic Pinocchio. Donald Meek (Bushmills) would appear in scores of films playing generally timid characters. Walter Connolly (Captain Helquist) was a favorite of director Frank Capra and also in 1934 played the harried father of Claudette Colbert in that year’s Best Picture winner It Happened One Night.
But The Captain Hates the Sea is best remembered today as the final film of silent screen icon John Gilbert. One of the top box office stars of his era, he watched as his popularity declined abruptly after his talkie debut in His Glorious Night five years earlier. Today there still exists a notion that his voice was too high-pitched for talking pictures. A viewing of The Captain Hates the Sea and his dark 1932 film Downstairs should disprove that theory. His performance in this film is very, very good and, had his life and career continued, shows us the kind of character roles that he might have comfortably and memorably stepped into. John Gilbert died of a heart attack in 1936.
The film has never been released in any format for home viewing. That is really too bad. It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s a solid, very enjoyable film. It features some of the screen’s finest character actors and again proved, sadly for the last time, that John Gilbert remained a charismatic screen presence and a fine actor.
Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, in her terrific biography of her father Dark Star (1985, St. Martin’s Press) states: “The picture was largely ignored by the press and public. Critic Otis Furgeson, noting that Columbia seemed to have lost heart very early after having made a boldly different sort of movie, called it the ‘absolute best neglected picture of two years.'” More irony than out-and-out comedy, it should play very well to modern audiences. This one is well worth catching when it shows up in one of its infrequent cable television broadcasts.
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