2017-07-02

sovay: (Viktor & Mordecai)
I am going through one of the stretches where I feel like everything I do is wasting people's time, not helped by the fact that I am behind on everything except my literal paying job obligations due to essentially ceasing to sleep in June. It is exhausting. I don't see any way through it except to write things and accustom myself to the idea that they will be whatever they are, however I feel about it. So—

Thanks to [personal profile] nineweaving and her access to Harvard's libraries, I have gotten hold of John Russell's Far Wandering Men (1929) and can report with some amazement that both the best and the worst elements of Bert Glennon's Girl of the Port (1930) appear to be Hollywood's responsibility. I am having trouble settling on an appropriate emotional response. Sending flowers seems overly forgiving as well as pointless, what with both of the screenwriters being dead, and sending ghosts a bag of flaming dog poop seems unwise.

For better or worse, "The Fire-Walker" is much slighter than Girl of the Port—it's of a piece with the rest of the collection, whose stories are in a mode that might best be described as strange anecdotes. They are told in a pulpy raconteur's style, with a strong sense of place, frequent outcroppings of eye dialect, and characters that on the whole are drawn more vividly than deeply; there is not always a direct narrator, although there is a consistent narrative voice and I guessed the author's nationality wrong because of it. (Russell was American. According to his obituary, he spent time in Panama, Peru, and the unspecified "South Pacific," but he was born in Iowa and died in California and either way was definitely not any kind of British, writerly diction and recurring origins of his white characters notwithstanding.) The portrayal of non-white characters is completely unpredictable, anywhere from teeth-numbingly racist to thoughtfully sympathetic. Only the last story in the book is supernatural, although irony plays a principal part in a number of them. If you read any of Russell's earlier collection Where the Pavement Ends (1919), you'll get the idea. I enjoyed the stories, but I would not call them a threat to Kipling, Conrad, or Richard Hughes. It was immediately obvious, however, why a good half-dozen of them were adapted for film: it is unfair to call them sketches or scenarios, but they are great id-hooks of characters at transformative moments in their lives or passing comet-like through the lives of others and their anecdotal nature makes them an ideal length for B- or even A-pictures in the age before two and a half hours became an ordinary runtime. They don't require condensing. If anything, they invite elaboration, which is where RKO ran into trouble with Girl of the Port.

Remember when I said that I thought this story would work just fine with the villain as a wealthy white planter? Yeah. McEwen in "The Fire-Walker" is "T. V. McEwen," known locally as "Tavua" and otherwise no more native than either the drunken young derelict he enjoys tormenting or the "Sydney-side bar-maid" who stands up to him; the narrative compares him more than once to Simon Legree, a hearty, red-faced, "big, jovial and hateful man" who carries a riding crop like a swagger stick and dresses at all times as though he's just come in from the fields, hands-on, self-made, and proud of it. His motives are exactly what I thought they would be without the race-baiting of the screenplay, bruised ego and smiling malice and the need to throw his weight around. There's no suggested hypocrisy or irony in his frequent expression of racist sentiments, just common or garden colonialism. The copra-and-sugar planters of Fiji are described early in the story as "generally large, loose and broad-minded individuals whose only prejudice is in favor of allowing the native races to carry the white man as a burden" and the reader understands that McEwen differs only in that he's willing to let his fellow white people bear the costs of his temper and humors, too. When he finds himself on the wrong end of a thrashing, it's simple turnabout for his treatment of others, native workers included. Speaking of whom, the short story is terrific about Kalita. He's significantly less hampered with cod-pidgin than his film counterpart and more importantly he's a viewpoint character, Tui-qalita the hereditary chief of Beqa Island who "served proudly and honorably from Taranto to Flanders" with the Fiji Contingent in World War I. He has his own opinions, his own reasons for helping or hindering or doing nothing at all about the white characters. Russell does call the sulu "the proper dress of his race," but he's a serious character even wearing the "old woolen uniform" of his army days with "the impassive, bronze eagle face and something of the wire-drawn, wire-limbed quality of a Roman legionary." When this Josie calls him "Corporal," it's not a joke. He does her the favor of taking Jamison over to Beqa—out of McEwen's reach, she hopes, though she's wrong—because of it. Similarly, when McEwen calls him a "dam' black loafer . . . a blasted liar . . . shirking again," it's just another strike against the planter because the reader already knows that Kalita is smart, well-traveled, self-respecting, and totally unimpressed with white people. His confrontation with Jamison over Josie, McEwen, and the symbolism of firewalking is considerably more eloquently argued in "The Fire-Walker." I'm not saying the story is the apotheosis of anti-racism for 1929, you understand, but it is sure the hell better on this front than the film.

Which is a shame, because it turns out that the entire hurt/comfort angle—Johnny's experiences in World War I and consequent struggles with PTSD, self-loathing, and drink—was also invented whole-cloth for the film and "The Fire-Walker" is weaker for its absence. The equivalent character in Russell is Jamison, a vague, gentle, not especially mysterious beachcomber who has spent the last five months earnestly trying to drink himself to death in "McDougal's Hotel, in the town of Suva, in the Fiji Islands" because of a love affair gone wrong. Like his film descendant, he can be persuaded to sing "Whiskey Johnny" in return for free booze, but it's not a nickname and the disputed niceness of the last verse has nothing to do with the fight he has with McEwen, which in any case he doesn't remember the next morning. He does, later that day, in a rare moment of lucidity, try to persuade Josie not to endanger herself with McEwen for his sake: "The poorest possible reason!" And she does her best not to, though the one brief glimmer she gets of what a sober, focused Jamison would look like—"grave and kindly, with the potential of tempered steel"—encourages her enough to confide in him the reasons she fled Sydney, which involve questionable taste in boyfriends and a murder. The narrative views them with complementary tenderness and irony, sitting hand-in-hand in the billiard room at the back of McDougal's with the sun shafting through the inappropriately clerestory windows: "Neither of them was more than twenty-three years old . . ." That's the most characterization we get for either of them, really, beyond physical descriptions like Jamison being "a tall young man—but a battered tramp of the far spaces if ever there was one" or Josie's "funny little voice" possessing "the same tinkling clarity of a small bell rung out." I am a little sorry the film dropped the idea of her having a past she's running from as much as Jamison/Johnny from his, but all things being equal I am significantly less interested in men brung low by women than I am in men who are fucked up for just about any other reason and the story's tighter, choppier timeline forces me to take most of their relationship and pretty much all of his regeneration on faith. Girl of the Port's Johnny and Josie live together for two months; they are not in love to begin with and the audience can track how it evolves between them, through conversations and housework and affection and trust coming in place of pity and gratitude. Jamison and Josie in "The Fire-Walker" have three significant interactions over the course of a week and walk off into the sunset together. Even the stakes of the climactic firewalk are simpler as originally written—for Jamison, it's the inspired, reckless gesture of a man with nothing to lose, not a facing-down of personal demons as it is for Johnny. I do like the story's low-key ending, in which the known particulars of the affair dissolve into myth as the narrator shrugs and steps away:

But later when Josie and Jamison stood apart on the green sward of Beqa Island in the Fijis, under its blue skies, near its rippled shore: what happened between these two afterward was surely the essence of a shilling romance—the Beachcomber and the Bar-maid: The Duke and the Damsel in Distress—fact, fancy and fantasy all alike, and all quite true.

I can't see that flying in Hollywood, though. I mean, it didn't. For the record, I think it is just as stupid that Jamison's woman who done him wrong, the "mistress of hearts" known as "the Contessa, the Lady Cleo," should drop by Fiji just in time for the finale of "The Fire-Walker" as it is that Johnny in the last five minutes of Girl of the Port should turn out to be aristocracy with a yacht, but I suppose these things happen in the countries of melodrama.

The screenwriting credits for Girl of the Port are interestingly split: Beulah Marie Dix is credited with the screenplay and Frank Reicher with the dialogue, with a notice in a November 1929 issue of Variety explaining that the latter was loaned to RKO by Pathé "to write and direct dialog" for the production, which was then going by the title of The Firewalker. [personal profile] spatch has suggested that while neither writer can have been blameless, I may be able to blame Dix specifically for making McEwen a "half-caste" and Reicher for the casually high levels of racist language. That seems plausible to me, based on their respective jobs. I just wish I didn't have to choose quite so obviously between the blander, more racially reasonable version of this narrative and the version where the protagonists are complex and personable enough to care about and also repeatedly racist douchecanoes. I wish the screenwriters had thought to introduce the war trauma and left all the bonus racism out. If they had been going to transfer anything from page to screen with perfect fidelity, I wish it had been Russell's Kalita, whom Duke Kahanamoku really deserved. Instead we get this strangely amplified version, with higher peaks and lower troughs, and I don't know why I expected any aspect of this movie, even the relationship of source material to adaptation, not to be confusing. I'd love to read studio notes on the process, but I'd be surprised if there are any outside of archives—my curiosity notwithstanding, I don't think there's much call for scholarship on Girl of the Port. Four online reviews do not exactly a cult reputation make.

So, that happened. I got some decent adventure reading out of it. I remain impressed and frustrated by everything about this film. Tagged for Patreon as a follow-up to the review.
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