The Narrow Corner runs seventy minutes; it speeds along. Robert Presnell Sr.’s script has somewhat lengthy, complicated scenes where he tries to fit in information. The movie doesn’t need all that information–the subplot about Reginald Owen translating a Portuguese epic poem–because director Green isn’t going to do anything with it.
The film has a somewhat peculiar structure–it starts with an affably odious South Seas captain, Arthur Hohl in a half great performance. He’s to set sail–for a year–with a single passenger Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Fairbanks is on the run, but it’s all hush hush.
Once they’re underway, things skip almost immediately to Hohl and Fairbanks bringing Dudley Digges onboard. Digges is a doctor who’s grown tired of his particular island and wants passage somewhere else. Hohl’s got a stomach ailment, leading to non sequitor burping throughout the film.
Narrow Corner never builds the relationship between Hohl and Fairbanks. It starts to build one between Hohl and Digges, but soon gives it up. Digges and Fairbanks’s relationship is going to be important (ostensibly) for the third act; it would’ve been nice if Presnell or Green cared. They don’t. Digges is underutilized in Narrow Corner. His acting style is a lot quieter than Hohl or even Fairbanks. He gives the film its weight.
Only it’s off and on because once Digges is onboard, the ship goes into a storm and Fairbanks has to captain her all himself. Nihilist Hohl sleeps below as the first-time seaman is on helm. And Digges is busy with his nightly opium (while pre-Code, Narrow Corner still doesn’t delve into that subject at all).
The storm sequence has phenomenal editing from Herbert I. Leeds and some great special effects. The film doesn’t have good projection shots, but all the other effects are excellent. Including the miniatures for the seafaring action–the storm or when the ship has to navigate a treacherous reef.
The success of the storm scene should let the film coast for a bit. And it does, but that bit is only a few minutes because Presnell and Green rush to introduce some new characters. The ship’s anchored off an island. Fairbanks thinks it’s uninhabited, so does a nude swimming scene. The great lengths the film goes through to hide Fairbanks from the torso down behind scenery is amusing but only because it’s so distracting. Presnell and Green severely overestimate the dramatic traction they’re getting out of implied nudity.
Turns out the island isn’t uninhabited, but it’s actual a Dutch settlement. There are (unseen) plantations around and a variety of new cast members. They’re all related. Owen the poem translator is father to Patricia Ellis, who meets naked swimming Fairbanks and immediately enchants him. William V. Mong is Owen’s father-in-law. Mong’s an old man (in a lot of old age makeup) who used to be a scumbag South Seas captain like Hohl. But now they’re rich.
Ralph Bellamy is Ellis’s secret fiancé. It doesn’t end up being clear she knows they’re engaged. Her character is exceptionally problematic. Ellis doesn’t do a great job with it, but there might not be a way to do a better one given how the part is written and how events unfold.
Once Fairbanks meets Ellis and Bellamy, Narrow Corner starts running toward the finish. Sure, it’s only the beginning of the second act, but Presnell can write long enough scenes to fill the runtime. Fairbanks and Bellamy become buddies, with Fairbanks even moving into Bellamy’s huge empty (and mostly) unseen estate. Narrow Corner occasionally will hint at wanting to examine the cultural situation–all the white people, regardless of their station, exploiting the native peoples–but then Presnell thinks better of it and moves along.
It’s too bad, but not unexpected. Narrow Corner is light on character development. Fairbanks doesn’t really get any. He just doesn’t talk much. When he does have a monologue, it’s therefore important. It’s the meat of the part. Fairbanks does okay with it. He’s got three big reveals; two of them are identical in content, which is its own problem. The first monologue is to Ellis; Fairbanks narrates a flashback. The flashback, shown in an awkward split screen, has some well-cut action and probably Green’s most engaged direction. A prologue might have given things away but it also would’ve given Fairbanks a better arc.
The other two monologues–including the third act one, which is nowhere near as dramatic as anyone pretends–are from Fairbanks to Digges. Digges is trying to tell Fairbanks something about the world. Fairbanks doesn’t care. See, Ellis is throwing herself at him and even if Fairbanks does think Bellamy’s swell, a man’s just a man.
If Ellis’s writing were better, if her performance were better, if she and Fairbanks had any chemistry, everything would be different. Instead, Narrow Corner is a nicely acted, adequately directed, half attempt at grand melodrama. All of the actors could excel if the script would just give them the opportunity. Even with the monologues, Fairbanks doesn’t have a better part than anyone else. Worse, in fact, than Digges. And almost Hohl; with the exception of banter with Mong about who’s the more odious white man South Seas captain, Hohl gets zip in the second half of the movie.
Inglorious given he started it.
But still. Not bad at all.
Directed by Alfred E. Green; screenplay by Robert Presnell Sr., based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Herbert I. Leeds; music by Bernhard Kaun; produced by Hal B. Wallis; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Fred Blake), Dudley Digges (Doctor Saunders), Arthur Hohl (Captain Nichols), Patricia Ellis (Louise Frith), Ralph Bellamy (Eric Whittenson), Reginald Owen (Mr. Frith), Willie Fung (Ah Kay), and William V. Mong (Jack Swan).