Clarence Brown ended his long directing career with this poorly received, large-scaled MAYFLOWER bio-pic. It’s easy to see why the film was rejected, it reeks of good intentions & educational value; and while it freights a reasonable load of history, it’s also rigged with a juicy romantic triangle strapped on for show, like a useless jib. Yet, there’s unexpected life to the thing as Brown patiently builds real interest out of the conventional episodes and amorous foibles in Helen Deutsch’s carefully groomed script. Spencer Tracy, in his last romantic lead, is startlingly violent as the dour Captain, almost unfathomably hostile to his passengers & crew. And it’s the same oversized reaction that both draws & unnerves Gene Tierney, the proper, but unfulfilled wife of Pilgrim Leo Genn. (The eruptive passion may have reflected their personal involvement at the time.) A truly frightening attack against his own first mate (Lloyd Bridges) and an outpouring of grief at his own taciturn nature find Tracy making contact with demons he’d long avoided showing on screen, as if we were getting a look under the skin at the Ahab he never got to play. So, perhaps it’s worth putting up with a miscast Van Johnson and a level of British elocution from the supporting cast that would not have been out of place in the Royal Court. Things are less trying ‘below-the-line,’ with a Miklos Rozsa score that tweaks the Quaker ‘Simple Gifts’ hymn to fine effect, superb interior lensing from William Daniels (just watch Garbo’s man photographically hitting up Gene Tierney for a portrait) and a wallapalooza storm at sea from the effects department.* The cast even takes a cinematic curtain-call at the end; maybe they’ve earned it.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Back in the days of analogue special effects, ships at sea during a fight or a storm were about the toughest thing to fake. And techniques that barely passed in b&w looked even less convincing in color processing. So, a tip of the hat to M-G-M on this one. Where the heck were these guys when BEN-HUR was being shot in ‘59?