Nautical But Nice
THE CAPTAIN HATES THE SEA is a kind of Grand Hotel of the ocean waves. I was curious about it because Lewis Milestone’s early thirties work is so dynamic and experimental — RAIN, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT and THE FRONT PAGE together give the lie to the popular idea that cinema got staid when sound came in. It undoubtedly did for some filmmakers, but Milestone seems to have been liberated by it. The challenge of moving the camera despite the demands of the microphone energized him, and a filmmaker who seems to have been fairly conventional (THE RACKET, TWO ARABIAN KNIGHTS) during the late silent era suddenly turned into a kind of crackly Scorsese. Or am I wrong?
Like Mamoulian, however, Milestone was quick to settle down into a more conventional approach — the explosive moments in his later films are commonly repeats of the highlights of ALL QUIET — all his subsequent war movies re-use the fast tracking shots along the trenches, for instance. But as late as OCEAN’S 11 he could still purvey moments of visual beauty — that film’s final shot is a breathtaking evocation of rat pack cool, making up for the not very inspiring 126 minutes preceding it. At any rate THE CAPTAIN is very elegantly shot, smoothly combining its location and studio material, but it isn’t a dazzling tour de force like RAIN. Nor does it aspire to be.
The titular captain is Walter Connolly in his best dyspeptic mode — he ran away to sea after dunking his dad’s beard in the soup. Now he’s tormented by his troublesome passengers, his inebriate chief steward (Leon Errol) and Donald Meek, whose long beard and careless posture over his broth presents a perennial temptation to repeat the sins of his youth.
Also aboard is an all-star cast with John Gilbert at the top and the Three Stooges at the bottom. What Milestone has set out to do here, which was probably just as hard as inventing expressive sound cinema, is integrate the acting styles of Gilbert, Connolly, Victor McLaglan, Akim Tamiroff, Luis Alberni and the Stooges. He does it!
McLaglan is particularly impressive — not stifled, but holding back in key moments to create striking muted effects. He still does his patented Victor McLaglan face at times (co-star Helen Vinson matches it by putting the edges of he sharp little teeth together in a feral grin, lips sucked back — the pair of them look set to go for each other’s throats) but he avoids the mawkish grotesquerie that was so often his stock-in-trade.
Gilbert’s performance should be studied by anyone tempted to believe he actually had anything wrong with his voice. Not only that, he should be studied by students of effective screen acting. In silents he was often callow. In QUEEN CHRISTINA he seems a touch hysterical. Here he’s solid, wryly humorous and he rivets the attention. His character is a washed-up alcoholic writer, supposedly taking a cruise to dry out. While discussing his new state of sobriety, he carries on soaking up the straight scotch (“Never bruise liquor!”) as before, a study in better living through denial. Since Gilbert had booze troubles of his own, the comedy (it’s all played for laughs) comes across more poignant than funny, but Gilbert seems to be aiming in that direction. There’s a melancholy to him that was probably inherent by this point in his life and career.