Tag Archives: Jack Dennis

Below the Sea (1933, Albert S. Rogell)

Below the Sea really should be good. It’s got a great–somewhat startling when viewed today–opening, it’s got excellent special effects and Albert S. Rogell has some fantastic composition. But it all goes wrong.

The opening is set in 1917 on a German U-boat. It’s carrying gold through the Caribbean and gets sunk following a battle with an American ship. Why the ship’s carrying gold is never explained–not in English anyway. That startling opening is the lack of English. The whole scene on the U-boat plays in German, which makes Below the Sea very different and very unexpected. The prologue’s just great.

Then the descent begins. Frederick Vogeding–the U-boat captain who survives–teams with deep sea diver Ralph Bellamy to recover the gold. There’s a useless sequence with their first attempt to get it, which fails. What’s so strange about this part of the film is how it’s just a time waster. It’s got some impressive storm at sea special effects, but there’s no narrative value.

But it’s a lot better than what follows.

For all the great shots Rogell can compose, he can’t direct actors. Vogeding’s the only principal who turns in a good performance. Fay Wray and Bellamy are both terrible. When their romance begins, their performances only get worse. Writer Jo Swerling seems to think his characters are charming, but neither are. Swerling establishes Bellamy early on as a violent, murderous thug. Exactly the protagonist one wants to spend a movie with. Wray’s character is just annoying and poorly written; she’d be likable if Wray’s performances was any good.

The film’s moderately watchable just because of the treasure hunt aspect, with the fine underwater photography and the nice special effects sequence at the end–Bellamy, in diving suit, versus a giant octopus (to save Wray, of course)–the gravy. And Rogell never disappoints in terms of composition. He’s always framing something beautifully, but the movie just gets worse and worse.

The predictability is a real problem, but worse is the lack of interest in the film’s story. While the treasure hunt aspect is the main plot, there’s a rather interesting subplot about scientific exploration of the ocean. Maybe it isn’t interesting, maybe it only is compared to the terrible romance.

And the romance is a real problem. Wray is presented as a headstrong, independent woman–who needs the rough and tumble Bellamy to break her of that independence. The lack of sympathy the movie tries to kindle for Bellamy is kind of interesting, but not really worth any examination or consideration. Every chance the movie has to excel, it fails. The script’s poor, the leads who should be good are quite the opposite and the director doesn’t seem to know what’s going on.

It’s a disappointment to be sure, but I’m not sure if it’s surprising for anything other than the bad performances from Wray and Bellamy, both of whom I expected to be good. I don’t even want to think about how badly they failed chemistry.

That German language opening, however, is real interesting.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Albert S. Rogell; written by Jo Swerling; director of photography, Joseph Walker; edited by Jack Dennis; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Ralph Bellamy (Steve McCreary), Fay Wray (Diana Templeton), Frederick Vogeding (Captain Von Boulton), Esther Howard (Lily), Paul Page (Bert Jackson), Trevor Bland (Horace Waldridge) and William J. Kelly (Dr. Chapman).


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Barricade (1939, Gregory Ratoff)

Barricade is a nice bit of pre-World War II propaganda, one of handful of ones supporting the Chinese government. The film lays it on rather thick, with heart-warming flag moments, frequent prayer, and reminders to the audience there are some people in the world worrying about more than a run in their stockings. Except the movie only runs around seventy minutes and it’s got nice sets and a lot of action, so the preachiness isn’t a significant problem. The biggest problem is Alice Faye, who’s tolerable maybe fifteen percent of the time. The rest… well, knowing the film only runs seventy minutes makes her scenes easier to tolerate.

It also helps almost all of her scenes are with Warner Baxter, who’s dependably fantastic. The nice production values and his leading man performance carry most of Barricade. There’s a hurried story about Baxter’s alcoholism and its effect of his job as a reporter and there’s an annoying bit about Faye being on the run for murder. Apparently, Barricade had massive, story-changing, role-excising cuts and its a good thing. The film’s a bore with interesting sets until the last half hour, when Mongolian bandits have the Americans under siege.

Ratoff shoots those sets really well and then when the action hits, he comes through even more. The scenes are tensed and paced well and Baxter’s running the show, so everything works–at least until the movie takes a break and reintroduces its silly elements. These silly moments are signaled by Faye’s return to the center stage, whether it’s her ludicrous woman-on-the-run story or her somewhat less ludicrous (by the last half hour) romance with Baxter.

Charles Winninger plays the America consul protecting Faye and Baxter, and his performance is a little more than the film deserves. While Baxter can manage the romance, comedy and action elements, Winninger is quite affecting and his scenes suggest the film has potential beyond what it’s realizing. It’s got some fine production values and–it’s like they had the sets, but shot the wrong script on them.

But whenever it’s looking too good, Faye pops up again and she brings it all back down. As a propaganda template, Barricade doesn’t really signal what would come during the war (it doesn’t end with the flag waving over the end title card), but it knows how to make the common elements work. In some ways, because the heroes are all down-and-outers (Winninger’s consul’s been forgotten by Washington), it’s a little more effective. But Faye and the script really drag it down….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Gregory Ratoff; written by Granville Walker; director of photography, Karl Freund; edited by Jack Dennis; music by David Buttolph; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Warner Baxter (Hank Topping), Alice Faye (Emmy Jordan), Charles Winninger (Samuel J. Cady), Keye Luke (Ling), Willie Fung (Yen) and Leonid Snegoff (Boris).


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