Moby Dick (1930) (DVD Review)3 Oct, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars John Barrymore, Joan Bennett, Lloyd Hughes.
Just four years after The Sea Beast, John Barrymore strapped on that wooden leg again (albeit not literally) to re-play Captain Ahab in an abbreviated epic that one IMDb.com chatter rightfully calls “stupid but fun” — an assessment that more or less sums it up, though I might even be a little more charitable here. I haven’t seen Beast, a 1926 silent hit, and general consensus seems to have it that the surviving prints look as if they’ve gone mano-a-mano with a white whale themselves. But from what I understand (starting with Clive Hirschhorn’s 1987 coffee-table tome The Warner Bros. Story), this even cheekier talkie remake is the better picture and even elicited a response at the time that was somewhere between critical tolerance and critical success to go along its box office success.
The cheekiness begins by putting Herman Melville’s purloined title right out there on the marquee as a real-deal Moby Dick — though, in keeping with a script that apparently doesn’t vary that much from the earlier film’s, this is not the rendering that your college lit prof told you about, unless maybe he or she had dropped a tab of LSD just before class. Wearing a perm or wig one can imagine on, say, the late Gene Wilder’s head, Barrymore (a real-life 48 here) plays Ahab as the most prominent gangster-of-love in New Bedford, Mass., until a minister’s daughter (Joan Bennett) settles him down a bit before two bad breaks put him over the edge. Prominent among the last is the title creature itself — which, even in this much modified rendering, knows full well the part of Ahab’s anatomy it’s going to eat. The other is Ahab’s own duplicitous brother played by Lloyd Hughes, a better actor than the secondary stiffs in early talkies sometimes are. He has his own designs on Bennett’s aptly named “Faith” and isn’t above misrepresenting her affections for Ahab when the seaman (not yet a captain here) comes out on the wrong end of the usual Moby mayhem and begins to regard himself as repulsively and irredeemably maimed.
There are obviously two ways to react here. One, of course, is on the travesty level; while watching, my mind kept going back to a favored “Leave It to Beaver” episode (among the last in the long series run) where the Beav gets into deep trouble for making a book report on The Three Musketeers when his reference point was the Allan Dwan-Don Ameche-Ritz Brothers version that Fox filmed in 1939 with musical interludes that Dumas didn’t quite envision. The other is to block out the title and enjoy a surprisingly acceptable primitive talkie about whaling on which obvious production care was taken — simply pretending that Warner had called it something else (even Moby Kevin would have been a step in the right direction).
Yet if this were this a more anonymous effort, the narrative would still come off as a little on the choppy side; this is a “big” picture that runs just 78 minutes (which, on the other hand, means that director Lloyd Bacon’s pacing rarely falters). Barrymore arguably aside, the most impressive component is the New Bedford production design of docks and taverns, peopled with actors who literally have 19th-century faces because this is a 1930 release full of middle-agers or at least younger folk who aged prematurely the way that so many did not all that long ago. (I can never get over that Spencer Tracy was only a real-life 50 in Father of the Bride, which is what that tavern life could do to you). The aquatic pursuit scenes are quite obviously rear-projected, though the preponderance of ocean spray and/or rain during the chases — atop a very worn, if watchable Warner Archive print — keeps us from getting a truly sustained look at Moby himself. I recall Vincent Canby’s New York Times review of 1979’s Meteor, in which I think he compared the title floater to a huge loaf of bread. There’s something of that here, though the scale is impressive; whatever its construction components, this studio-conceived creature makes Barrymore look like Billy Barty (whose most bulls-eye career casting was as the title lead in 1987’s Rumpelstiltskin) when you see them next to each other.
By the way, a friend just asked me who plays Ishmael — thinking, perhaps, of the bang-up job Richard Basehart does in the 1956 John Huston screen version that had a Ray Bradbury script. Matter of fact, Melville’s narrator isn’t even in this variation, though African-American actor Noble Johnson (of King Kong, The Most Dangerous Game, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer and various films for John Ford and Cecil B. DeMille) does take a stab at Queequeg without too much embarrassment, though his characterization is something along the movie-Ahab expressed sentiments of, “you’re a standup guy for a heathen.” Given that 1930’s The Man from Blankley’s only exists in partial form, Moby Dick is, by default, stage legend Barrymore’s oldest surviving talkie, and the movie makes clear that he had it as a dialogue-delivering presence right off the bat (well, he came by it honestly enough).
Barrymore is much better as Ahab than the famously miscast Gregory Peck in the Huston film (where Huston himself should have had the role) — though, in fairness, I’ve only seen that version a couple times since catching its original release in theaters as a 9-year-old after reading the tie-in comic book I owned (even it may have been more faithful to Melville than this Bacon conception). I’m anxious to get a fresh look at the Huston take (and its Oswald Morris photography) when Twilight Time brings it to Blu-ray later this year. Sounds like someone’s viewing room double-feature in the making, given the reasonable running times of both films.