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Friday, July 24, 2009

THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (1936)

The first film John Ford made at 20th/Fox with new studio head Darryl F. Zanuck as his official producer was this solid bio-pic from a tight Nunnally Johnson script about Sam Mudd, the country doctor who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after the Lincoln assassination. Any historical doubts are ignored to focus on the harrowing military trial & incarceration of the good doctor. And accordingly, Ford’s work is less personally distinctive and more ‘well-made’ than usual, which explains why this finely realized work is less celebrated than it deserves. Warren Baxter is unexpectedly effective as the victimized doc, though his on-and-off Southern accent caused an early rift between Ford & Zanuck. The film now has its own historical interest in the racial attitudes on display which run the gamut from enlightened to cringe-inducing.* But this bleak look at the dangers of rushing to justice and the balance of political expediency versus the power of the truth would be treated with more complexity (and finesse) by Ford in his post-WWII films.

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Speaking of cringe-inducing, this film gives a good idea of Zanuck’s horrible taste in film scores before he got wise and hired Alfred Newman to run all things musical @ Fox. (The old Hollywood scuttlebutt was that Zanuck got his musical advice from his barber while getting shaved.) Even so, someone could have mentioned that the film’s theme song "Oh, Maryland, My Maryland’ might be mistaken for ‘O, Tannebaum.’

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