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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

THE SEAS BENEATH (1931)

The only thing John Ford did better than make movies was hold grudges. John Wayne famously made his shit list for most of the ‘30s, so too this film’s leading man George O’Brien. After making him a star in THE IRON HORSE/’24, Ford pretty much cut him dead after this fourth collaboration, finally calling him back for FORT APACHE in ’48. Maybe the break soured Ford on this excellent naval mission pic; or maybe it was being forced by his producer to use an incompetent actress as leading lady.* Viewed without Ford’s contrarian slant, the film’s a surprisingly tough sea-going yarn, uncommonly vigorous & uncommonly action-oriented for an early Talkie, if not without some stiff joints from the vagaries of location shooting at the time. O’Brien captains a WWI navy boat, disguised as a merchant vessel in hopes of baiting a deadly German U-Boat into showing itself for battle. A surface attack would allow an American sub, moving in tandem, to lay in with torpedoes. Ford manages this on the high seas, with hardly a faked shot, and Dudley Nichols’ script does a super job mixing in neat comic riffs between the shipshape duties. As one of the German officers, Jon Loder is a standout; so too, Steve (Gaylord) Pendleton as a junior office stranded in a port town who sneaks onto an enemy boat in the film’s most daring sequence. Everything else is helped by having the Germans speak German, and by casting really young kids as sailors. And no overplaying allowed by Ford. Even the blathering Irish humor gets the door slammed in its face. Literally. Sure, the film’s a period piece, but also a treat.

READ ALL ABOUT IT: *At least, that’s what Ford says in Peter Bogdanovich’s book JOHN FORD/UoC Press.

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