The Captain Hates the Sea (1934)

Toronto Film Society presented The Captain Hates the Sea (1934) on Sunday, March 24, 2019 in a double bill with The Lost Squadron as part of the Season 71 Sunday Afternoon Special Screening #9.

Production Company: Columbia Pictures. Director: Lewis Milestone. Producer: Lewis Milestone. Screenplay: Wallace Smith, from a Novel by: Wallace Smith.  Continuity: Arnold Belgard.  Cinematography: Joseph August.  Film Editing: Gene Milford.  Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff, Louis Silvers.  Costumes: Robert Kalloch.  Initial Release: October, 1934.

Cast: Victor McLaglen (Junius P. Schulte), Wynne Gibson (Mrs. Jeddock), Alison Skipworth (Mrs. Yolanda Magruder), John Gilbert (Steve Bramley), Helen Vinson (Janet Grayson), Fred Keating (Danny Checkett), Leon Errol (Layton), Walter Connolly (Captain Helquist), Tala Birell (Gerta Klangi), Walter Catlett (Joe Silvers), John Wray (Mr. Jeddock), Claude Gillingwater (Judge Griswold), Emily Fitzroy (Mrs. Victoria Griswold), Donald Meek (Josephus Bushmills), Luis Alberni (Juan Gilboa), Akim Tamiroff (General Salazaro), Arthur Treacher (Major Warringforth), Inez Courtney (Flo), G. Pat Collins (Donlin), Tony Casten (Mong), B.B. Creary (Quartermaster), Geneva Mitchell (Miss Hackson), George Villasenor (Andrecito), Frank Walsh (Sailor), Fred Watt (Deck Steward),The Three Stooges: Moe Howard (Orchestra Saxophonist & Violinist), Curly Howard (Orchestra Drummer), Larry Fine (Orchestra Pianist).

Before I talk about today’s film, I have a side-story that I thought I would share with you from a book I am currently reading called Hitler in Los Angeles by Steven J. Ross.  There’s a small connection with regard to the headlining star, Victor McLaglen.

Victor McLaglen, who began his career in British films in 1920, moving to Hollywood in 1925, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1935 for his role in John Ford’s The Informer, appeared to be well-liked.  He was born in England, most probably in London on December 10, 1886, was one of ten siblings which included only one sister, and whose father was a Protestant Bishop, originating from South Africa.  Four of his brothers became actors.

However, one of his brothers, Leopold McLaglan, who changed the spelling of his last name to differentiate himself from his actor brothers, was a self-proclaimed world jiu-jitsu expert, winning the world’s championship in 1907, publishing four books instructing readers in jiu-jitsu, bayonet warfare and hand-to-hand combat.  In 1920, Leopold wound up in LA and co-starred in the film Bars of Iron.  Leaving for a decade, he returned in 1930 in the hopes of following in the footsteps of his five actor brothers.  However, what Leopold also was known for, was a first-class con man and fascist, which infuriated his most famous brother.  When Victor let this be known amongst the small-knit community of Hollywood, Leopold filed a $900,000 lawsuit charging him with slander and defamation of character.  The case was thrown out of court.

Our story begins in 1937.  When fascist organizations were rising in the U.S., a Los Angeles spy, Chuck Slocombe, who had infiltrated a local Nazi organization was introduced to Leopold at a dinner meeting.  The storm troopers who attended this dinner loved McLaglan, for not only had he built a fascist organization in England, but he was currently teaching Nazis and White Russians how to kill through Jiu Jitsu.  Over time, he expressed his desire to seek revenge against Jews, especially Hollywood Jews and hoped to do this by hiring hit men to target for slaughter leaders in the movie industry, the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and Christians who were in line with their ideologies.  These people included Jack Benny, James Cagney, Eddie Cantor, Charles Chaplin, Sam Goldwyn, Al Jolson, Fredric March, Louis B. Mayer, Paul Muni, Joseph Schenck, Gloria Stuart, Sylvia Sidney, William Wyler and Walter Winchell.  He planned for these assassinations to occur all on the same day while releasing information involving Jewish control of the navy.  The plan was to stuff dynamite with shrapnel, give the hired Nazi and Russian assassins the addresses of those to be murdered, while McLaglan planned to be out-of-town the night of the killings.  They knew the death of these famous people would attract world-wide attention and hoping most Jews would then want to flee the country, McLaglan told Slocombe that he would arrange to hire a fleet of trucks to catch anyone trying to escape through the different depots in the city.

Chuck Slocombe was able to foil these plans when he met with the Los Angeles district attorney Buron Fitts.  Leopold McLaglan went to trial on February 28, 1938 but was only found guilty of attempted extortion, a much lesser conviction of attempted murder.  He was sentenced to five years in prison but was granted probation on the condition he take the first ship back to England and never again set foot on American soil.  But since the Judge did not trust him to leave, he sentenced him to an additional year in county jail, which would be suspended the day he left for England.  Probation came at the request of his famous brother Victor, who, anxious to be rid of Leopold, agreed to pay his $500 fine and his ocean-liner ticket back to Liverpool.  Back home, Leopold continued to profess his innocence, insisting he had been working for the British, recruited to spy on the Japanese while living in the States.  He was never believed and died on January 4, 1951.

But about the film with such a humourous title.  I first watched The Captain Hates the Sea a number of years ago and think about it from time to time, especially when I’m reading about or watching other films starring John Gilbert.  This was his last film and he died shortly afterward.  The more I learn about the people who made movies, especially the actors and actresses, the more I realize just how difficult their lives could be.  Most of them had come from very humble beginnings.  Of those people, some came from single parent homes and some of those people were abused as children in one way or another.  Many of them had very little formal education and although I believe to be an actor, a person has to be quite intelligent and observant, a lot of these people felt insecure and inferior even when making the effort to educate themselves.

Even after reading Eve Golden’s well-written biography on Gilbert, it’s hard to know why a person acts the way they do.  He had a hard time staying married to any of his four wives and I got the impression that he hadn’t much to do with either of his two children although he didn’t live long enough to see much of his second daughter whom he had with Virginia Bruce.  In a nutshell, for most artists and Gilbert specifically, I think that whenever a picture of his failed, or when the studio didn’t put him in the right role after a success, he found it affected him negatively and profoundly.

So with regards to The Captain Hates the Sea, it’s interesting that the last role he plays is an alcoholic writer.  Lewis Milestone, the director, sought him out for this part.  Why him in particular?  Notorious type casting?  Helping someone he thought was a great actor?  Why did Milestone go to the lengths he did to cast Gilbert?  And when shooting began, why did John Gilbert fall off the wagon so easily?  I don’t think it was actually the role itself, but the team of actors who themselves were heavy drinkers.  I think we should keep our observant eye open to see if we can detect when Gilbert is acting intoxicated or if he has truly imbibed while working.

There is quite an array of actors in this film; lots of subplots going on.  The Three Stooges play musicians in what I believe is their second feature film, their first being Meet the Baron (1933).  Their comedy shorts began the same year in May, probably near or around the same time The Captain Hates the Sea was being shot.

The Production Code came into effect July 1, 1934.  Although this film was released in November of that year, it would have been in production earlier and somehow much material seems to have gotten past the censors.  And that’s a good thing.  So, I hope you enjoy this film!

Introduction by Caren Feldman

In June of 1934, Jack told interviewer Gladys Hall, of Movie Classic, “I have been on the screen for twenty years and I have managed to squeeze out of it complete unhappiness. Today I can’t get a job. I mean exactly that. I-can’t-get-a-job. Four short years ago, I had a contract calling for $250,000 a picture. Today I can’t get a job for $25 a week or for nothing at all. It doesn’t make sense, but there it is. What am I to do? People advise me to go to Europe. What for? I don’t want to go to Europe. I don’t even want to go to Honolulu. I want to work. I want the simple right of every creature that walks the earth—the right to earn my own living.” As if in response, a small miracle occurred. The phone finally rang with a movie offer. Jack’s old friend Lewis Milestone had gone to bat for him with Harry Cohn, president of Columbia Pictures. Milestone had a part in a picture he was planning that he thought would be absolutely perfect for Jack, and he convinced Cohn to give Jack the chance. He telephoned Jack and asked him to come to the studio for a test. Suddenly Jack was scared to death. A test? What if he couldn’t pull it off? What if he got sick again? And the thought of going from Louis B. Mayer to Harry (Get-in-the-fuckin’-bed-or-get-lost) Cohn could not have been comforting.

But Milestone would not allow Jack to beg off: “It made me mad to see Jack sitting there going to rot. He had everything right there; all his talent, everything, and no one was using it. It wasn’t hard to convince Cohn. Cohn had no use for Louis Mayer. He hated the bastard and he really enjoyed the idea of making Jack a big star again just to show him. Cohn did the same thing with Clark Gable. Mayer got mad at Gable for telling a reporter that Mayer paid him not to think, and he punished him by lending him to Columbia. They called Columbia the “bargain basement” but we were turning out some pretty good pictures. Well, Cohn put Gable together with Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night and won all the Academy Awards. Gable went back to MGM a bigger star than ever, and Mayer almost died. Anyway, Cohn thought he’d do the same thing with Jack. But I couldn’t get him to go down for a test. He was really gun-shy. Metro had nearly destroyed him. He had no confidence left at all. Finally I promised I would shoot the test at six o’clock in the morning. Nobody around to see him, just ourselves and a skeleton crew. I didn’t think he’d show up, but he did and he made a hell of a good test. Cohn agreed it was fine and signed him for the picture, The Captain Hates the Sea. Cohn said to Jack, ‘If you behave yourself, stay sober, and do your work, you’ll be a star again. I’ll bet my shirt on you. It’s up to you.’ Well, Jack dried up almost immediately. He told me he had a good night’s sleep for the first time in months. He showed up ahead of time in the morning looking great.”

“A lot of the action took place on an old boat that was moored at San Pedro Harbor. The story was about a newspaperman who’s trying to stop drinking and get a book written. That was Jack. In the beginning he says good-bye to his sweetheart, gets aboard the cruise ship, and sails away. She’s going to meet him in New York. It’s the usual voyage story, little dramas between passengers. Jack’s novel never gets written and he weaves off the boat in New York an unrepentant failure. It was a nice little movie. But we had a terrible time shooting it. We took the old boat away from the dock and sailed it around the harbor, and around, and around. The weather was bad and the people were sick. Meanwhile, just about every drunk in Hollywood managed to get a job on that picture. There was Walter Connolly, Walter Catlett, Fred Keating, Leon Errol, and Victor McLaglen. They all kidded around and played endless practical jokes. Jack started out with every good intention but it was hopeless. There was more wet stuff flowing inside the boat than out. There was one delay after another. Finally, Harry Cohn wired me: HURRY UP, THE COSTS ARE STAGGERING. I wired him back: SO IS THE CAST. We finally finished the damned thing. Jack did a good job, despite being drunk most of the time. When he wasn’t drunk, he was being sick at home. He had bleeding ulcers and sometimes fever and hallucinations—raving out of his mind. When it was over, Jack knew Cohn would never hire him again. He was too much trouble.”

Walter Connolly had promised his old friend Ina Claire that he would keep an eye on Jack during the picture. Since Walter was known to take a drink himself, he decided he’d better farm out the responsibility. He asked his good friend Carole Lombard, also under contract to Columbia but not in the picture, to be Jack’s guardian angel. Carole tried her best to keep him sober. She hovered about his dressing room and made outrageous passes at him whenever distraction was required. She would pour out drinks and then consume both of them herself. Carole probably kept Jack a good deal more sober than he would have been otherwise, but her task was next to impossible. Jack’s role called for him to drink almost constantly. The character he played is the first to arrive in the ship’s bar each day and his cabin is almost as fully stocked. No matter how often Lewis Milestone set out bottles filled with colored water, some member of the cast would toss them overboard and replace them with the real stuff. Jack’s character was supposed to have a buzz on almost all the time and he did.

Jack’s performance, however, was remarkable. He suggests drunkenness only by an understated swaying and a sad smile that occasionally flickers across his face. Of all his talking pictures, The Captain Hates the Sea is the closest to today’s movies in terms of content and treatment. It is a wry, cynical film, not so much a comedy as an irony. Walter Connolly, as the captain, sets the mood in the beginning by saying, “I detest the sea…. I’d like to see any damn-fool women and children beat me into a lifeboat…. I’d break them in two with my own hands.” For all the boozing, Milestone found Jack to be the same finely intuitive actor he’d always been. Even his back could be extremely expressive. Milestone gave him one long, tender sequence played almost entirely with his back to the camera. Alexander Walker wrote of it in his book Stardom: “Gilbert must have savored, and may even have inspired, the irony of the moment in The Captain Hates the Sea when the writer unpacks his cabin trunk and finds that his wife has brought him a new suit for the voyage—a rather flashy ‘ice cream’ suit for tropical wear, which reminds him of his palmier days in Beverly Hills. Gilbert eyes it hollowly for a second, then puts it back in the trunk; and with an undertone of contempt for all it represents to him, he quips, ‘I know I lived in Hollywood, but after all you got to remember I came from Chicago.’ For a man whom the talkies supposedly ruined, he managed to have a caustic last word.”

The picture was largely ignored by the press and the public. Critic Otis Furgeson, noting that Columbia seemed to have lost heart very early after having made a boldly different sort of movie, called it the “absolute best neglected picture of two years.” Alexander Walker wrote, “Gilbert was drinking heavily throughout the shooting, and his very slightly swaying stance in scene after scene conveys the unsettling feeling that he is not just acting drunk, though his voice comes through unslurred and dryly cynical. In place of the old romantic fire, he had developed a raffish, Errol Flynnish charm. With his slightly fuller face, he could almost pass for Flynn’s double. The picture ends with his wife collecting him on the quayside when the cruise ship docks again. ‘Did you stop drinking?’ she asks him. ‘No.’ ‘Did you start your book?’ she asks. ‘No,’ he answers again. And that was the last heard on the screen from John Gilbert.”

Dark Star: The Untold Story of the Meteoric Rise and Fall of the Legendary John Gilbert by Leatrice Gilbert Fountain (1985)

A potential savior came in the unlikely form of Harry Cohn, the wild man of Columbia Pictures. Abrasive, autocratic, and opinionated, he was feared and hated by many of his stars. (A beloved Hollywood legend has it that—at Cohn’s well-attended funeral—Red Skelton quipped, “Give the people what they want, and they’ll turn out for it!”) Harry and his brother Jack headed Columbia Pictures, which by the early 1930s was known for comedy shorts and low-budget fare, some of which succeeded admirably (most notably Frank Capra’s superb and critically acclaimed The Miracle Woman, Platinum Blonde, American Madness, Lady for a Day, and It Happened One Night). Columbia built up such baby stars as Jean Harlow, Barbara Stanwyck, and Carole Lombard, and propped up the waning careers of Jack Holt, Monte Blue, Laura La Plante, and Lew Cody. So it is not surprising that Harry Cohn made it his mission to revive John Gilbert’s career. It helped matters that he hated Louis B. Mayer like poison and envied MGM’s huge budgets and stable of stars—if he could succeed with Jack where Mayer had failed, so much the better. Cohn was Mayer’s evil twin: coarse and vulgar, he would delight in Jack’s filthy “mother” stories and nose-picking characters.

Director Lewis Milestone brought Jack’s dilemma to Cohn’s attention. Milestone had never worked with Jack but was eager to try: he had recently helmed such great films as All Quiet on the Western Front and The Front Page, and had coaxed out what was probably Joan Crawford’s greatest performance, in Rain. “I know Jack very well,” Cohn’s biographer Bob Thomas has Milestone saying. “I’m convinced he can come through with a performance…. It’s a gamble, but a good gamble. Everybody in town is kicking Jack, now that he’s down. Here’s a chance to prove them wrong.” Cohn agreed to screen test Jack, which in itself might be seen as a slap in the face to such a huge star. But Milestone urged him to swallow what was left of his pride and do it: “I’ll do everything I can to make it easier for you in this test. If you want, I’ll shoot it at six in the morning. We’ll be finished by eight o’clock, and you can be out of the studio before anybody knows about it.” Jack aced the test, and a delighted Cohn signed him in June, 1934 to a five-year contract—with options, of course, for Columbia to drop him at any time.

His debut with Columbia was a comedy-drama called The Captain Hates the Sea; kind of a floating Grand Hotel aboard a California to New York cruise ship. The titular sea-hating captain was played by gruff character actor Walter Connolly; his motley passengers included a detective (Victor McLaglen) and his prey (con artists Fred Keating and Helen Vinson); a roguish dowager (the delightfully vulgar Alison Skipworth); a South American revolutionary (Akim Tamiroff); an unhappily married ex-hooker (Wynne Gibson, in a particularly moving turn); and assorted passengers and crew played by the reliably entertaining Donald Meek, Leon Errol, Walter Catlett, Claude Gillingwater, and Arthur Treacher. Jack—billed fourth—played an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter working on a novel, seen off on his trip by his sadly hopeful society girlfriend (Tala Birell).

Harry Cohn told Jack, “If you keep your nose clean on this picture, I’ll see that you get work. I’ll go to bat for you with every producer in town.” Jack’s nose was not kept clean. Much of the film was shot aboard a ship in Los Angeles Harbor, which became a floating bar. Fellow cast members Connolly, McLaglen, Errol, and Catlett were, if not full-fledged alcoholics, heavy drinkers, and Jack kept his vow to stay dry for exactly one week—longer than the character he played, who started belting them back as soon as he got on board ship. As if that weren’t enough, The Three Stooges were in the film, too, playing cameos as orchestra musicians. According to The Los Angeles Times, Larry, Moe, and Curly provided “good, clean fun” on the set by pushing each other off the steamship and pretending they couldn’t swim, further holding up production. Some scenes were shot in the studio, but many sequences had to be filmed at sea, aboard ship: weather interfered, and so did the cast’s drinking. (Jack was so ill by this time that a day of imbibing led to at least a day at home from bleeding ulcers.) “He was a quiet, strange man,” recalled sound engineer Irving Libbott, “and he drank all the time.”

The Captain Hates the Sea is a brisk, entertaining B-movie; a nice mixture of wise-cracking comedy and dark drama, with some terrific performances. Jack is noticeably wobbly on his feet, but he is playing a drunk, so it is hard to tell where real life and acting intersect. He does make his Steve a sad, charming loser; a sort of late-career F. Scott Fitzgerald type. For a post-Code movie (the Hays Office began a major censorship crackdown in mid-1934), it also got away with an eyebrow-raising number of lewd lines and shocking situations. And it was a bittersweet last glimpse at John Gilbert for audiences. The year before, John Barrymore played an exaggerated version of himself in MGM’s Dinner at Eight: Larry Renault, a washed-up, alcoholic ex-matinée idol. And here was John Gilbert as a Hollywood refugee, unapologetically drinking himself into cheerful oblivion. Despite its charm, this ship sank upon release in October, 1934. “Something went agley with The Captain Hates the Sea,” wrote The New York Times. “It had a workable story, a good cast, a fine director…. Yet the final result, as set before its audience last night, is an indefinite, round-about, and generally meaningless production…. Some of the things that happen are funny,” the reviewer admitted, “and some are tragic.” But, he felt, “some are just dull, as trying to understand what Mr. Gilbert is supposed to be doing.”

Jack’s Columbia contract was quietly allowed to lapse. “It’s too goddam bad,” said Cohn. “But if a man wants to go to hell, I can’t stop him.” And by 1934, most friends agreed that Jack did indeed want to go to hell. “I’d like to be sixty-seven instead of thirty-seven,” he told Gladys Hall. “It’s horrible to think that life has ended before it should have got into midstream.” He spent his days, he sighed, “sitting here on this hill watching the panorama of the sky in which I take no part.”

John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars by Eve Golden (2013)

Notes compiled by Caren Feldman

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