The Sunday Intertitle: Quaker Boats

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I was reminded of 1922’s DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS by a Guardian article about whaling in the movies, prompted by Opie’s recent HEART OF THE SEA. There is a great deal of whaling — actual whaling, with actual whale death, in DTTSIS, which is not surprising I guess since it’s produced by the Whaling Film Corporation. Not, I’m guessing, a hugely prolific outfit. Though the intertitles quote Moby Dick (accurately, unlike those of THE SEA BEAST, an official adaptation with John Barrymore s a sexy Ahab, later remade as an even more ludicrous talkie), the company never even got as far as doing Melville. Perhaps they could have tried adding a whaling component into popular stories of the day?

Mass cetacean snuff footage is not the only thing that makes this hard to watch in places. The movie has a part-Chinese villain, “Samuel Siggs” (Jack Baston), a yellowface stereotype who goes undercover in whiteface to seduce the heroine while defrauding her father. So it’s about the yellow peril and miscegenation nightmares in Massachusetts.

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The other reason I’d heard of it is the presence of the juvenile Clara Bow, and here at least the film isn’t appalling. Bow is a screen natural from the first, shown scrapping with a little boy, and though she doesn’t apparently know how to make a fist when fighting (that would be unfeminine), she throws herself into the action in a blur of flailing arms, porcelain features contorted in feline snarl. Hooray!

Also — Clara in drag!

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By the end she’s properly girl, in summer dress in a field of flowers, but still untamed — popping up from the petals to startle her beau and make him break all his eggs. New Bedford’s first flapper is about to be formed.

I provoked hilarity n Facebook by reproducing the credit “Personally directed by Elmer Clifton,” a branding which even seems comic when used by Griffith or Stroheim. On the forgotten Elmer it’s ludicrous. But in fact Clifton’s work is very able, setting up the life of the Quaker whalers with ethnographic precision, expressive detail shots and elegant wides. He can’t find a way to reconcile the vigorous naturalism of young Bow with the slinking melodramatics of Baston, but then the whole concept of Baston’s character is a ghastly mistake anyway.

And here’s Mr. Clifton’s name again ~

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