Monday, 26 April 2010

Reap the Wild Wind (1942)



Moral and emotional nuance. Intricate characterisation. An ambiguous ideal of masculinity and a revolutionary woman’s place in a man’s field of labour. A dark portrait of assailed conscience in a world of inherent corruption and inhumanity. None of these phrases immediately bring the name of Cecil B. DeMille to mind, but they’re nonetheless present in this film, although everything is subordinate to the flagrantly romanticised interests of DeMille’s personalised brand of historical hogwash. Saddled with some right silly comic relief, including a ventriloquist’s dog, Paulette Goddard singing gritty shanties to the disapproval of Charleston society matrons, and getting spanked by Ray Milland as a prelude to being dumped overboard to prevent her marrying John Wayne, Reap the Wild Wind takes a while to find its sea-legs. DeMille’s usual narration at the opening pompously relates the coming shenanigans to the security of the United States and Manifest Destiny, before offering up a portrait of slavery-riddled, propriety-shackled antebellum Dixie that’s very pretty and very bogus.


Once Reap the Wild Wind gets on with things, however, it’s quintessential escapism, made with the usual overripe intensity that was DeMille’s gaudy capability, and his delectable eye for physical detail. The recreation of period Key West, haunted by wreckers and sea salts and thugs and villainous dandies, is an eye-delighting landscape, full of memorable faces and impossibly lush Technicolor costuming and set d├ęcor. This was the first film to ever gain an Academy Award for special effects, although the effects are uneven: the underwater photography, shipwreck scenes, and the famous giant squid are fascinating, but there’s an amusing number of all-too-obvious sky-cloths behind bobbing models throughout.


Reap the Wild Wind is also the most entertaining of the several films, including Wyler’s Jezebel (1938), made to provide an actress who felt cheated of playing Scarlett O’Hara a chance to practise her Ah Dee-clairs, Goddard in this instance, playing Loxi Claiborne, the tomboyish, tricky, ardent inheritor of her father’s salvage business who’s introduced casting off her plum petticoat and broad hat in favour of boots and jersey to ride out to the rescue of a wrecked ship’s crew. DeMille’s love of tough, rule-breaking heroines was always however counterbalanced by a firm inevitability of their being punished for their wily ways. Goddard had earlier played a wild half-caste femme fatale in DeMille’s disastrous North West Mounted Police (1940), and here she took centre stage with an energetic, saucy performance, if one that still sees her squashed between disparate types of dashing gentleman, and at last humiliated in her wrongheaded choice.


Loxi falls for Captain Jack Stuart (Wayne), who seems her ideal of manhood, a man she rescued from the debris of his ship after his first mate Widgeon (Victor Kilian) conspired with arch-villain King Cutler (Raymond Massey) to ride the vessel onto a reef. Worried that Jack will be keelhauled by the ship’s owner, Commodore Devereaux (Walter Hampden), and especially by Devereux’s right-hand man, the slick lawyer and lady’s man Stephen Tolliver (Milland), she takes advantage of a trip to Charleston to woo Tolliver and soften any ill-feeling he might have against Stuart. Her efforts work too well, as Tolliver, who seems to embody everything Loxi has contempt for, soon wants to marry her. Loxi creates constant stirs by refusing to conform and act her part, except when it suits her, but that finally proves a dangerous game as she helps turn a confused, serious situation finally into a fatal one.


Tolliver nonetheless defends Stuart against Devereaux’s outrage, and secures for him the command of the line’s new steam vessel, the ‘Southern Cross’, on condition of Tolliver’s being able to prove him innocent. But through a series of misunderstandings, not aided by Loxi’s scheming and assumption-making, Stuart ends up disillusioned and signing onto Cutler’s side, plotting to wreck the ‘Southern Cross’. What should be a ticket to a nefarious fortune is however impeded when the possibility arises that the wreck cost the life of Loxi’s cousin Drusilla (Susan Hayward), who was romancing Cutler’s younger brother Dan (Robert Preston) and stowed away to return to him.


Loxi is trailed by a rotund maid (Louise Beavers) whose looks and mannerisms are patently copied from those of Hattie McDaniel’s great Gone With the Wind character but with all of her strong points removed, to instead spend most of the film being freaked out by Stuart’s pet monkey, a stand-out amongst a proliferation of minstrel caricatures. Nonetheless, some of DeMille’s faintly discernible Lincoln Republican background idealism is present as Cutler, as well as a wrecker (argh!) and lawyer (eek!), is also branded a slave trader, who promises to make Stuart rich by giving him a ship to fill with “black ivory”, suggesting an underlying darkness to the storybook portrait of the old south, the economy of which seems, here, to float on the sea and on a wealth of exploitation and violence. DeMille took care to avoid upsetting anyone by making sure that Cutler is written off as a "bad Yankee" by the captain of Loxi's salvage ship, Philpott (Lynne Overmann): "I'm a good one," he adds smartly. The actual story, however, suggests less Margaret Mitchell than DeMille's riposte-cum-supersized remake of Hitchcock's interesting Jamaica Inn (1939). It's worth noting that the screenplay was co-written by Hitch's regular collaborator Charles Bennett, and Alan Le May, who would later write the book that provided the basis for the great Wayne vehicle The Searchers (1956).


As usual, it’s sharkish profiteers and sleazy manipulators who are the villains, white-anting a noble, burgeoning culture. There’s the usual cameo by an historical figure, here, David Farragut (Milburn Stone), when he was still a lieutenant, to bring these shenanigans in line with a coherent sense of national narrative. Tolliver becomes a combination secret agent and Perry Mason, as he travels to Key West to investigate Cutler’s operation with Federal backing, and then prosecutes Stuart for conspiring in the wreck. He soon proves to possess enough brawn and rectitude to more than match up to Jack. Cutler proves however as effective at Stuart’s defence as he is an overlord of crime, killing off witnesses and painting Tolliver in turn as the true villain who planned the wrecks. Massey plays Cutler with plummy relish in one of his best villainous roles, smiling his leathery smile with the satisfied sadism of a cat who's just eaten the pet canary. Preston, as Dan, radiates such a ludicrous virility it's a wonder he doesn't drip refined testosterone.


“Put him on the beach, see how he takes it,” Devereaux decides, to test Stuart’s mettle, a test that proves finally too much, especially when he thinks Tolliver means to taunt him, and although Wayne gets some choice tough-guy lines – “Shut up about her, or I’ll tear the jaw out of you!” – they start to sound intriguingly hollow as Stuart’s moral core collapses. He not only fails himself and gets Drusilla killed but also dashes Loxi’s conviction, so strong that she sabotages her own ship to stop Tolliver intervening before Stuart can get the ‘Southern Cross’ out of port. The finale offers, of course, a chance for tragic redemption before death by calamari and tidal wave. It’s not very deep character tragedy, but it’s nonetheless still definitely character tragedy, and one of Wayne's most unconventional and uniquely fragile roles. Errol Flynn, not such a stranger to darker, more neurotic if still two-fisted characters, was originally slated for the part. Milland, although required to wrestle his way through some rather desultory early scenes, manages also to rise to the occasion in playing a dapper gent who can mix it up with pirates.


It’s to DeMille’s credit that he wrings as much flavour and tension out of an extended court room sequence, with the sweat-stained denizens of the galleries and sense of nerves fraying in a humid, claustrophobic balm, in a room designed to feel like a vice closing on the protagonists, as he does out of the long, amusing scene when Cutler sets some thugs on Tolliver and friends to shanghai them away on a whaler, requiring Loxi and Stuart to help him fight off a collective of very ugly mugs and then selling the defeated heavies off in what was supposed to be their place. The seagoing scenes are gorgeous and well-detailed, making this a must for anyone fond of seafaring flicks, and the finale, in the tottering, endangered wreck of the ‘Southern Cross’, is excellently visualised, if weighed down by a certain contrivance. Even if it’s a lumpy mix, it’s still a good ride when it gets down to business, and DeMille’s sense of pictorial style – replete with fanciful wipes to propel scenes, teeming and painterly master shots, and soaring crane work to absorb his meticulous mise en scene – is impossible to deride.

7 comments:

Marilyn said...

Death by calamari! You're in rare form, Rod. This is a wonderfully written review that makes me feel like I've seen the whole rip-snorting affair. And what a scenery-eating cast--Preston, Massey, Goddard, and Wayne. These screen shots make it look as sumptuous as you describe. I must admit that I'm a sucker for the kind of histrionics DeMille can produce. I can't wait to dig this one up. Thanks!

Roderick Heath said...

I'm quite surprised you haven't seen it, Mare. Be warned, the first half, as I've said, is very lumpy, but the film's qualities outweigh its defects: it's one of the most undeniably beautiful-looking Technicolor films of the '40s. I actually want to see more DeMille, but I find a lot of his movies oddly hard to find considering what a pop-culture cache his name has.

Marilyn said...

So many movies, so little time...

I've got a couple of his films from the 30s - The Sign of the Cross (pretty good!) and Cleopatra with Claudette Colbert. Also the silent Ben-Hur. Let me know if we can be of assistance.

Marilyn said...

Oops scrath Ben-Hur. I was thinking 10 Commandments. But if you still want it, let me know.

Roderick Heath said...

Yeah, both of those are high on my list of wanna-sees, and also The Crusades and Samson and Delilah (which I have seen part of, but not for a long time). He was of course an uneven filmmaker - nothing could make me sit through North West Mounted Police again, an Union Pacific is a mess.

Patrick said...

I saw Reap the Wild Wind not that long ago and find that I've already forgotten a good bit of it, remember that I wanted to like it, but I think the tone shifts in the two male characters put me off of it. I think I want to see John Wayne be the hero.

Samson and Delilah actually has some decent bits, I think the technicolor was quite good. I think I liked Union Pacific, it's appalling how much of these movies slides out of my brain....

Roderick Heath said...

I saw this as a kid several times and even with such familiarity the first half has always tended to fuzz out in my brain too, for reasons I've outlined above. But I've always dug that Wayne played the less than heroic character here. It's unexpected and rather cool.