PORT OF SEVEN SEAS (1938), like a lot of MGM “class” product, throws together a mismatched collection of megatalents with strong material and kind of hopes for the best. I slotted the DVD-R in, with Fiona’s approval, on account of the director being James Whale. As the film went on, Fiona mostly drifted off to tweet on Twitter, and I stayed for the Preston Sturges screenplay. But I could see why she didn’t stay with it: something just doesn’t work about this movie.
The source material, Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of MARIUS, FANNY and CESAR, filmed in the early 30s by Alexander Korda, Marc Allegret and Pagnol himself, is in some ways an odd match for Sturges, with its salt-of-the-earth characters, but in other ways pretty sympatico — there’s a blend of raucous comedy and dewy-eyed sentiment which does have some common ground with the author of CHRISTMAS IN JULY and (especially) THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK. And Sturges’s script, basically concentrating on the middle part of the story, is very funny in places, at least as I imagine it on the page.
The bruised codfish.
James Whale’s sense of humour was very distinctly his own, mining veins of gallows wit and camp long before they were fashionable or even widely recognized. It doesn’t have much to do with Sturges at all, or with Pagnol, and he seems to have treated the film as an assignment and invested little of himself in the movie. Central to his discouragement, it seems, was the casting of Wallace Beery as Cesar. A loud, brash, sentimental proletarian, Beery’s persona is just right for the loudmouthed, quick-tempered but good-natured Marseilles saloon-keeper… but unfortunately he was a silent movie star whose relationship with dialogue was always somewhat rudimentary. He can talk convincingly enough (the blubbery lips move, and intelligible noises emerge), but he doesn’t have a way with a line. And there are so many lines here…
“Now, now, it’s nothing to faint. I remember my cousin Bella on my father’s side — no, it was my mother’s side — she used to faint every day — sometimes twice a day! — in fact, she fainted so often we never knew whether she was conscious or not.”
(Sturges obviously liked this rhythm, because in CHRISTMAS IN JULY he repeats it: “I make mistakes every day, sometimes several times a day. I’ve got whole warehouses full of mistakes!”)
Strange trapezoid head of Morgan safely contained in derby.
One aches for William Demarest to step in from the wings, kick Beery in the pants, and steal his role. But that isn’t going to happen. Instead we have Frank THE WIZARD OF OZ Morgan to show how it should be done. Beery’s main co-star, he has form with Sturges material, having been excellent in THE GOOD FAIRY (“Did you see his eyes? Like angry marbles!”), and though he dithers and faffs comedically with his lines, they get well and truly delivered. Into the right slot.
“I had a friend like that once: his brain began to soften. Everything in there started to melt, and at the end, when he would shake his head to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ you could hear it, splashing around in there. It went, ‘Flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop.’ Oh! It was very gruesome!”
[Skeptical] “What an unusual malady.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Of course! Certainly I believe you! Because I had a friend, even more unusual. Instead of softening like your friend, my friend’s brain hardened. Yes, it began to evaporate, to dry up.”
“Really — you don’t say so?”
“Absolutely. Little by little it shrank to the size of a pea, a fried pea. So when he walked down the street, this little brain of his would bounce around in his skull and make a noise like a bay’s rattle.”
“Ugh — horrible!”
“Yes, especially when he walked on cobblestones.”
[Suddenly indignant] “I don’t believe a word of it! Monsieur Panisse, it grieves me to say so, but I think you’re a liar.”
“Of course I am, what about you?”
With Whale contenting himself with shooting coverage, we still have some really impressive soundstage docks, and Beery is pretty good at the necessary schmaltz — I usually prefer his bellowing to blubbering, but here the natural order is reversed since he makes such heavy weather of the talk (and Sturges’s actors would say how easy his lines were to handle, because they flowed). Maureen O’Sullivan makes a rather well-spoken young fishmonger, and John Beal as Marius doesn’t stand much of a chance since the early part of the story, which would establish him in a sympathetic light, has been lopped off.
All available sources suggest that the later Joshua Logan version of FANNY is an even bigger snore, so interested parties are referred to the French originals, starring Raimu as CESAR, Orane Demazis as FANNY and Pierre Fresnais as MARIUS, which constitute quite a moving epic, part comedy and part soap.