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Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) (Blu-ray Review)

22 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

$34.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone.

The 1935 Oscar-winning first and better version of MGM’s Bounty extravaganzas is the only movie for which its three top-billed stars all received lead actor Oscar nominations — and now it’s the first black-and-white release from deep in the MGM archives that Warner Home Video has issued on Blu-ray. In general, I’ve always thought that vintage Warner Bros. titles have a visual snap that their MGM counterparts never had, so the result is slightly subordinate to Warner’s Blu-ray releases of, say, its own Casablanca or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. But make no mistake: Watching Bounty here is like watching it for the very first time.

In fact, I remember my first time (at age 10 or 11) very well. In addition to running current releases that had played downtown just weeks before, my neighborhood theater more than occasionally used to vary the program by bringing back movies from the ’30s and ’40s (30 Seconds Over Tokyo and The Yearling from MGM; Sergeant York and Yankee Doodle Dandy from Warner Bros., to name four). Thanks to a clever booker (or some arbitrary type who lucked into a brilliant pairing), Bounty played in a double bill with the then recent submarine drama Run Silent, Run Deep — two seafaring adventures with Clark Gable, one from his hunk period and another in his far more weathered twilight state.

And is Gable ever a hunk here. MGM got him to shave off his mustache (Her Majesty’s Navy wasn’t too keen on facial hair in 1787) and must have shelled out some of Louis B. Mayer’s mad-money for the best sunlamp around. Gable plays First Officer Fletcher Christian (“Miss-tah Crist-i-an,” I can always hear Charles Laughton’s Captain Bligh bellowing), and one can easily imagine the crew (substantially rounded up from local taverns and hoosegows) responding to his tough but fair authority more favorably than to Marlon Brando’s fop-dom in MGM’s 1962 remake of the famed fact-inspired source novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall.

The Christian-Bligh class differences aren’t played up to the degree they are in the Brando version, but they’re here. Early in the picture, Laughton’s Bligh refers to himself as “self-made,” which means he has his own ideas about how to run the ship. Childhood remembrances of Bligh’s managerial style (withholding of food and water, falsely accusing his men of theft) have remained with me over the years, but I had totally forgotten that the first thing we see him do is order the flogging of a dead crewmember. It’s the kind of gesture that does wonders to establish the essence of one’s character to an audience — and a good opening salvo to eventually inspire your crew to cast you and your lackeys adrift in a small boat (enjoy the coming storm, fellas). Whereupon, rebellious Christian & Co. take off for an island life of coconut milk and Polynesian maidens — until rude reality and Bligh’s miracle survival add a few impromptu chapters to the mutineers’ playbook.

Bounty’s two lead actors had, by coincidence, been Oscar’s two preceding best actor winners: Laughton for 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII and Gable for 1934’s It Happened One Night. It’s probably a measure of the high regard in which Laughton was held that MGM chose to top-bill him over the biggest actor on its lot, while relegating Franchot Tone (Bounty’s third best actor Oscar nominee) to subordinate billing. Tone plays a moneyed midshipman with political pull, one who likes and admires Christian but refuses to take part in the latter’s actions against Bligh (not that it saves him from a climactic court-martial). The movie has a partially happy ending involving Tone, one of the few instances where the storytelling goes soft. This plot turn — also some lame comedy relief involving an inept crewmember — are two of the few components that keep Bounty from being absolutely first-rate, but this is a shortcoming only on the highest level. So what is the best English-language movie of 1935 these days? Probably Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, given how its key competition at the time (John Ford’s subsequent backlash victim The Informer) was so overrated that that it may now be undervalued.

Bounty comes packaged in the same cardboard booklet that Warner reserves for its most important catalog releases, though the bonus extras are fairly paltry. But aside from an infrequently grainy shot here and there (a product, I’m sure, of the source material, not some slip-up), it really looks super on screen, and the soundtrack has more heft than I ever would have expected. The ’62 version (in which Trevor Howard almost matches Laughton with a vastly different interpretation) has been mentioned as a coming Blu-ray, and its grandiose production values, which helped MGM take a financial bath in the Pacific, will probably make it a release of “demonstration” caliber. And though one ever talks much of 1984’s Mel Gibson-Anthony Hopkins The Bounty these days, it isn’t a bad film (what’s more, a very young Daniel Day-Lewis has a major role). But no one is doing anything very distinguished with the Orion Pictures library these days, which could use some Blu-ray love on a lot of levels.

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