Chains

SLAVE SHIP (1937) is a uniquely horrible thing. A Hollywood drama “about” the slave trade, it has a slave ship captain as hero and no black characters of any kind. The black faces are treated as cargo by the movie as much as they are by the white characters. And at the climax, they’re all chained together and tossed overboard.

Admittedly, the film intends to create suspense out of this and make you hope that the chain will be cut and the drowning stopped. But it still shows you dozens of screaming people dunked in the drink, never to be rescued. And this is spectacle. If they were white civilians in jeopardy, we all know the rescue would have to come much sooner, maybe even before the first fatality. Who movies make disposable tells you everything you need to know about their priorities.

(Warner Baxter pauses to exchange words with Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Allan before walking, slowly, to the rescue.)

Tay Garnett directed this, sad to report. Zanuck produced, which strikes me as revealing.

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4 Responses to “Chains”

  1. Everett Jones Says:

    A review on IMDB, headlined “a funny story about Slaveship” (!), reads, “My grandmother Gladys Lehman and her partner Sam Hellman were brought in to rework the script as WF was notoriously drunk and not getting it done- they finished their work and sent the script to Zanuck for final approval- the note they got back was ‘Can we make this movie without the Negroes?’ DZ”

  2. Wow. I wonder if he meant making it without any black characters, because if for, he got his wish. The mute extras are entirely secondary to the plot, and we’re meant to be more worried about Baxter getting in legal trouble.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    It’s one thing when movies hedge on moral issues; it’s something else when they drag them center stage and ignore them.

    Civil War films tended to ignore actual slaves, except as a concept. “The General” is entirely about Going To War and being a Hero; it’s as deliberately empty of meaning as being a college athlete. Then you had films set after the war where former slaves remained in the service of their beloved Massa (akin to loyal valets sticking with their impoverished aristocrats). This is the heart of the case against Disney’s “Song of the South”, where the post-war plantation is a sort of paradise filled with singing field workers. The only real reminder this is post-war is that Uncle Remus is fired and kicked out of his cabin. The curious Bing Crosby vehicle “Birth of the Blues” celebrates the great white musicians who made black music respectable. Eddie “Rochester” Anderson is Crosby’s manservant, lending the boss money and beaming with pride over how Crosby making his heritage marketable.

    Thinking of the Barrymore vehicle “When a Man Loves”. Barrymore abandons the priesthood for the woman he loves; in the end he incites a shipful of prisoners to break loose and rape the female prisoners so he can escape with his beloved. It’s an unsettling film; you feel that it neither approves nor disapproves of anything that happens. It just puts it out there with abundant melodramatic and visual excess: Barrymore joyously ripping off his vestments, then Barrymore and the male prisoners all half-naked and shiny as he works them up to a primate frenzy. Did women thrill to this?

    Compare to the MGM “Madame Bovary”, which takes a tone of righteous condemnation towards everything and everybody: animalistic rural folk, hypocritical middle class folk, heartless rich folk, and an amoral heroine who betrays and is betrayed at every turn. Early on it’s proposed that she was corrupted by cheap romantic literature, but that’s merely one more random condemnation. It’s framed by James Mason making a fiery case for it being Real and Important, but what’s the point? The movie wants us to be outraged at everything, presumably including ourselves.

  4. Jonathan Rigby on Facebook was just talking about how, in Hammer films, the toffs are generally depraved and corrupt, the middle class are frequently hypocrites and the working class are lecherous drunken bozos.

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