|I Cover the Waterfront (1933)
Run time: 75 min
Genres: Drama | Romance
Director: James Cruze
Writers: Max Miller, Wells Root
Stars: Ben Lyon, Claudette Colbert, Ernest Torrence
This guilty, dockside drama holds up to Colbert’s fine performance as a girl torn between her duty to her father, a smuggler, and her love for a reporter on the verge of exposing her dear old dad. Considered pretty raw, in its day. Very entertaining!
Release Date: 19 May 1933 (USA)
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The presence of luminous Claudette Colbert lifts this standard and somewhat dreary effort to an entirely different level. Her shocking entrance has her buck-naked after skinny-dipping in the ocean, where Ben Lyon holds her bathing suit hostage as Claudette hides behind a boulder. She demands to know how he found her in this remote beach. He tells her that a neighbor with a telescope objected to her nudity. "It must have been a woman," replies Claudette. "Yes," answers Lyon, "no man would object."
Obviously, Claudette Colbert appears at the pinnacle of her legendary beauty, with her distinctive wide cheekbones complemented by her enormous eyes. Her wardrobe here is cheap yet sexy, often in tight sweaters, and her slim form cuts a glorious figure across the screen. She’s cute in the best sense, never self-conscious or cloying, and it’s easy to see why she’d take the nation by storm the following year in "It Happened One Night" and "Cleopatra." It’s a joy to even watch her make toast in an adorable bit of business when she catchs an errant glob of jelly from dropping onto the table. One of the sweetest ad-libs I’ve ever noticed, done with humor and style.
The movie itself offers other enjoyments too. Like the gnarled Ernest Torrance as Claudette’s sea-salty father, who smuggles illegal Chinese immigrants into port — sometimes inside the bellies of sharks! Naturalistic undertones abound when the viewer goes aboard this captain’s ship, where it’s an unfortunate incident when a Chinese man is chained and thrown overboard when the Coast Guard is spotted nearby. "He knew he was takin’ a risk," is how the Captain justifies his actions.
All-in-all a worthwhile effort, this movie has much to recommend it, although it is somewhat marred by annoying Ben Lyon as the lead. If another actor had essayed that role, perhaps Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, the entire movie could have been lifted to greatness.
This film was excellently directed by James Cruze, best known for 'The Great Gabbo' (1929) with Erich von Stroheim, and the Will Rogers vehicle, 'Mr. Skitch' (1933). Cruze died rather young, and has never been properly appreciated. Here he has made a gritty and realistic drama of the California waterfront with lots of harrowing location footage shot at sea showing the dangers of shark fishing. Apparently, great white sharks were hunted by harpoon from small rowboats, and here we see just how wrong this can go. The story is all about Claudette Colbert, here as radiant as ever she was, despite the fact that all the characters in the film including herself are morally ambivalent at best. Her father is a ruthless people smuggler who does not hesitate to throw a Chinese illegal immigrant overboard to save himself from discovery by the Coast Guard, but despite being this sort of character, he is powerfully played by character actor Ernest Torrence as someone entitled to our sympathy, and Claudette goes on loving him despite his crimes, which surely must have left some touches of mildew on her supposedly stainless character? As for her love interest, the dogged newspaper reporter played by Ben Lyon, who is sick of the waterfront and wants to go back to the sanity of Vermont, his own character flaws are wide enough to drive a rather large fishing boat through. All of these iniquities are glossed over, as we are encouraged to root for the romance of this couple, and we very quickly drown in the deep pools of Claudette's soulful eyes (which, by the way, has anybody ever noticed, are too far apart). This is absolutely not a sugary Hollywood drama. Its moral ambiguity possibly makes it all the more interesting.
For those who like "It Happened One Night", read = fans of great quotes, the boozer/ace/snoopy journalist flicks, or Claudette Colbert’s big doe eyes, it’s a must see film.
Add to that the titillating and graphic aspects of the film, which was made only one year before the 1934 amendment of the Hayes motion picture production code* and you have a film or media history lover’s paradise. I’m talking same-sex bed sharing, white people being restrained, graphic deaths, explicit techniques for breaking the law; the works.
That’s pretty much where the plot twists begin and end, but it’s enough to keep a viewer, uh, captive.
Anyway, the film is based on a book by a reporter who wrote about the shipping and fishing docks on the Pacific Ocean in the 1930s.
There’s unemployment and there’s the black market; there’s those who survive by any means necessary, and those who just sink for lack of work. And then there’s journalistic integrity somewhere in the hazy mix.
With an editor who won’t leave him alone because the leads are constantly rolling in, wannabe investigative reporter Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) can’t get a decent night’s rest from his waterfront beat. Forced to cover everything from bootleggers to herring stench, mob arrests to nude swimmers, he’s got no choice- he’d be out a job if he doesn’t jump when the boss says so.
His pantheon of sources, all characters, comes to include the daughter (Claudette Colbert at her sassy best)of his favorite mark for reporting: Eli Kirk, a kingpin of the docks and bootlegger extraordinaire.
Seeing his in with Kirk’s daughter, Julie, Miller dogs the seafarer, convinced he can pin him with illegal immigration of Chinese workers (whose lives are quickly extinguished by smugglers if the KGB-like Coast Guard should come their way, sirens blasting).
Miller’s editor, unlike the fish in whose bellies Kirk so often carries his bottles, doesn’t bite, reminding his ace that he needs to prove it with facts, not hunches.
So Miller sets out to use Julie, the captain’s daughter, to prove it.
Alas, as can be expected, love gets in the way. And he soon learns she may not bargain easily when it comes to her father.
Will Miller be able to unearth the smugglers and get the girl or will he lose his editor’s patience, steamy love affair, and his job in the process?
The movie’s got more life, wit, and zest in presenting determination and desperation by far than Grapes of Wrath (the movie).
*From Wikipedia: 1934 changes to the Code
The Motion Picture Association of America responded to criticism of the racy and violent films of the early 1930s by strengthening the code. An amendment to the code in June of 1934 prohibited any reference in a motion picture to illicit drugs, homosexuality, premarital sex, profanity, prostitution, and white slavery.
Although some aspects of the film don’t quite work, "I Cover the Waterfront" is a pretty good atmospheric drama with some good moments. The setting works very well for a story of suspense and crime, and the good story mostly makes up for the less impressive elements of the movie.
Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is reporter assigned to find interesting stories along the waterfront. His obsession is to prove that ship captain Eli Kirk is involved in a smuggling operation with an occasional murder thrown in. When Miller has a chance meeting with Kirk’s charming daughter Julie (Claudette Colbert), he seizes the opportunity to get information about her father. He quickly becomes enamored of Julie, and find himself with conflicting loyalties. Some of the story that follows is predictable, but there are some moments of tension and some good scenes.
The waterfront setting is done nicely, and it makes a good background to the events in the plot. It also includes an exciting and realistic shark-fishing scene. On the other hand, there are some features that are less effective or even a bit dated: for example, the very callous attitudes of all of the characters towards Chinese immigrants, and Miller’s irritating sidekick, who is supposed to provide comic relief by his habitual drunkenness, but who is really just an annoyance that contributes nothing whatsoever to the plot.
Overall, this is an interesting film despite a few flaws, and it is worth watching for anyone who likes films of the era.