Warner Baxter is one good actor. I’ve only seen him in one other film, but he’s great in The Prisoner of Shark Island. Baxter’s got a depth to him–he builds on it, adds to it, throughout scenes and throughout the film. Shark Island is about the physician who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg–and is an idealized portrait of the physician, which is unimportant–and almost everything in the film happens to Baxter… and when he actually has to do something for himself, it’s a big something.
Shark Island is another pre-World War II John Ford film. This John Ford is the one who made The Informer, not the one who made The Searchers (but it is the same Ford who made Stagecoach). Color didn’t change Ford too much, since the post-WWII cavalry trilogy are not the same Ford as this film and at least one of those is black and white. The Shark Island Ford is the one who did exciting things with confined space and people’s place in that space, as opposed to the later Ford, who did things with open space and the place of people in that space. That sentence has two “that” spaces, I hope it makes sense. Since Shark Island is from the 1930s and it’s from Fox, it has a certain feel to it. It’s filmic. Fox films from the 1930s don’t have the crispness of an MGM or Warner picture. Ford perfectly creates a 1860s time period too. It’s lushly rural for the Maryland scenes and then the scenes on the prison island are spacious but confined. With Shark Island, you get the feeling Ford didn’t know what he was doing and he was trying things. Ford is the most confident filmmaker I’ve ever seen, so seeing him exert himself and succeed is interesting.
He does get quite a bit of help from Nunnally Johnson’s screenplay. Johnson went on to write The Grapes of Wrath for Ford, which might be the last of this period of his career. Regardless, Johnson is unsung superstar. The Prisoner of Shark Island has a number of conversations and they’re these beautiful moments–even if they aren’t the defining conversations of the film, which are beautiful too–but these conversations are perfectly paced and rich. They’re rich. They’re full of living character. Ripe with it. Having Gloria Stuart as the wife makes a lot of the film work. Without her, it wouldn’t work as well. Stuart’s wonderful in the film. There’s also a great performance by Ernest Whitman, who was black and got fourteenth billing instead of fourth (which he deserved). Then there’s John Carradine as a sadistic prison guard. He’s so good and Ford knows it. He gives Carradine these awesome creepy angles, something a later Ford wouldn’t have done.
I guess Shark Island never had a VHS release in the United States–but Fox Movie Channel shows it a couple times a year (probably not for President’s Day, though it would be interesting–the film presents Lincoln as a humane, soft-spoken, decent person, which modern Americans certainly don’t find appealing in a president). I watched the Masters of Cinema release from the UK, which (for once) didn’t have any noticeable PAL speedup. It’s a good film to see, for both Baxter and Stuart, but particularly for Ford.