Sep 27, 2016

On DVD: John Barrymore in a Pre-code Version of Moby Dick (1930)

"Call me Ishamael." Herman Melville's opening line to Moby Dick is one of the most famous first sentences in English literature, and yet, when a large volume of the book is opened to the first page in the credits of this pre-code take on the novel, there is no Ishamael in sight. The man himself never even makes an appearance.

Making its DVD debut from Warner Archive, Moby Dick (1930), starring John Barrymore and Joan Bennett is one of those adaptations that is better appreciated if you don't concern yourself too much with the source material. As a window into a classic literary work it flops. As a slick, efficient Warner Bros adventure and romance it's great entertainment.

It is more accurate to say that this version of Moby Dick is a remake of the silent The Sea Beast (1926), which also starred Barrymore and was very loosely based on the book as well. Both films keep a couple of Melville's characters, the whaling ship and Ahab's quest for vengeance, but little else. Instead of an exploration of class, social and religious issues, you get a romance, some comic sketches and a couple of action scenes.

The opening scenes introduce a playful, mischievous Ahab who has a way with the ladies. Unlike the novel, he has yet to lose his leg to Moby Dick. As he alights on the dock after a long sea journey, in a perfectly pre-code moment, the randy seaman asks a young woman her age. When she says she will be eighteen next Wednesday, he leers, "see you next Wednesday."

Ahab then proceeds to get drunk and steal his brother's girl, Faith (Bennett), who doesn't seem to have gotten the memo about being in a relationship in the first place. He wins her by drunkenly staggering into church and flirting with her as she plays a pump organ, the hymns blurring and spinning on the book page in front of him. Seemingly unconcerned by his alarming behavior, Faith promises to wait three years for his return from the sea so that they may be married. A certain whale puts the brakes on that romantic plan.

Moby Dick provides Barrymore with many excellent opportunities to be a ham, and while he takes full advantage, he also knows when to reign himself in. Particularly in his scenes with Bennett he becomes more reserved, indicating that he has finally found a woman with whom he doesn't need tricks. He finally feels that being himself is enough and he portrays that realization with subtlety.

It is the action that really makes this film pop though. A pair of exciting whaling scenes have great, scary effects, made all the more believable by the terror of Barrymore and his shipmates. While the whale has an undeniably rubber and paper-mâché look, it is still frightening to see it looming over Ahab and his mates. In another shocking moment you get the astonishing spectacle of The Great Profile plunging a harpoon into a whale's back, laughing maniacally while torrents of blood gush over him.

While the production speeds along with the typical efficiency of a Warner Bros pre-code, it has a pleasing visual flair. Scenes are filmed with an eye for detail, like a lovely low shot of the ladies' full skirts peeking out from the pews during the church scene, or an elegant overhead view of Ahab sliding down a rope from the top of a ship's mast. While director Lloyd Bacon was never known to be a great stylist, he would often grab small, interesting moments like these, a bit of flair that I have always thought to be unfairly overlooked in the non-musical parts of musicals he made with Busby Berkeley in particular.

The supporting cast is pleasing, though with few stand-outs. Bennett is sweet and determined, but a bit wooden as Ahab's beloved and Lloyd Hughes makes as little impression as he is meant to as the peg-legged captain's brother. Noble Johnson is given predictably moronic lines as the Polynesian shipmate Queequeg, which is disappointing, because he is a magnetic presence and could clearly have done much more with the role.

The DVD image is mostly clean and clear. There are some scratches, most of them minor, though there are brief moments when a swirl of scratches appear on the screen. This isn't a pristine copy, but highly watchable.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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