Transatlantic (1931, William K. Howard)

Transatlantic is a pre-code Modern Marvels Melodrama. Set in some fascinating technological, man-made invention or creation, a varied group of characters get together and have some drama. Sometimes there’s a murder, sometimes there’s not. Transatlantic has a murder. Unfortunately, it takes its sweet time getting there too, which gets frustrating; the film doesn’t even run eighty minutes, and it’s got at least fourteen minutes of artistically null montage padding.

I need to specify that montage padding is artistically null because the film’s third act has artistically potent montage padding. Transatlantic’s editing is fascinating; for most of the film’s runtime, it seems like editor Jack Murray and director Howard are doing a lousy job filming the script. Howard can’t direct the script, and Murray can’t cut the dialogue. It’s real obvious; lead Edmund Lowe has a bunch of desperate one-liners to close scenes, and no one can get them right. They’re painful.

Thankfully, even Transatlantic knows not to overuse (too much) a device.

The film’s got exquisite Art Deco production design, and even when Murray’s cuts are obviously between location second unit footage and the sound stage, the film’s visually impressive. Howard never goes too wild with the action set on deck; Transatlantic takes advantage of it only looking like an ocean from the water. Set most of your action in dining halls and staterooms; it’s like you don’t have to be on an ocean liner at all.

After an eight-minute opening boarding montage, the film quickly establishes its cast and their situations. First, there’s kindly old lens grinder Jean Hersholt. He’s European; he came to the United States, worked for years, saving his money, and now he’s taking daughter Lois Moran back to see the Old Countries. He invested his money with banker John Halliday, who’s also on board. Halliday’s traveling with his wife, Myrna Loy (who isn’t, it turns out, young enough to be his granddaughter), but wants to cat around with Swedish dancer Greta Nissen.

Loy knows about Nissen, causing her distress, but she’s also the money in the marriage, so Halliday doesn’t want her going too far.

Finally, there’s Lowe. He’s the Gentleman Thief skipping the States, so he doesn’t have to testify against a pal. He’s not working this trip—when fellow criminal-type Earle Foxe offers him in on a score, Lowe turns him down flat. Lowe takes an interest in Loy’s martial distress (they once knew each other, all very obscure) while also befriending Moran and Hersholt. Especially Moran.

Lowe’s medium charming. If he could deliver his zingers, if Howard could shoot them, if Murray could cut them, he’d be high charming. A compelling performance in Lowe’s part would entirely change Transatlantic, which usually suffers from a lack of performance personality.

Luckily, around the halfway point (in the film, not the voyage), Howard, Murray, and cinematographer James Wong Howe start showing off. There are two Nissen dance performances; the first isn’t any good, the second’s got dynamite shots and cuts. It’s a precursor to the superior third-act action sequence, which has Lowe tracking the bad guy through the ship’s bowels. Gunfights, fisticuffs, chases, all sorts of things. It’s a movie-saving finish.

Lowe’s okay, Loy’s not good, but she’s sympathetic, and Halliday manages to be an effective creep while also not giving a good performance. It’s inconceivable he and Loy are married, but he also can’t sell his hard-partying grandpapa behavior. Moran’s middling, ditto Nissen. Though Moran’s at least got some moments. Nissen does get that good dance scene. Hersholt’s bad.

Billy Bevan plays Lowe’s steward, who can’t stop repeating the same description of ocean liner life. The film hangs on to the bit so long, and through so many unfunny uses, it finally works in the end.

Kind of like the movie.

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