sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-09-23 09:47 pm
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Now I'm through with the land and the land's through with me

[This post delayed two full days by the fact that we had no electricity, therefore no internet for stupid reasons. Also, I appear to have gotten sick on top of being sick. Happy autumnal equinox and break-fast Yom Kippur.]

I don't know what it says about me right now that my comfort viewing is Eugene O'Neill. But I loved The Long Voyage Home (1940) when I discovered it on TCM in 2008 and it looked even better in 35mm at the HFA in 2010 and it was just on TCM again, so I watched it. It remains one of my favorite movies, easily my favorite by John Ford and one of the best I know about the sea. The first time around, it reminded me at once of Kipling; it reminds me of Conrad now that I've read more of him. It's a few months in the life of a tramp steamer in the spring of 1940 and it's one of the movies I love so much, I have trouble talking about it. I might as well try.

Eugene O'Neill's theatrical debut was a one-act play called Bound East for Cardiff (1914), set in "[t]he seamen's forecastle of the British tramp steamer Glencairn on a foggy night midway on the voyage between New York and Cardiff" and memorably first performed in a former fishhouse in Provincetown in 1916. It was followed by three further one-acts set aboard the Glencairn, In the Zone (1917), The Long Voyage Home (1917), and Moon of the Caribbees (1918), each taking another snapshot of life in the tramp trade. I have mixed feelings about the Glencairn plays. They're atmospheric, character-driven, and absolutely soaked through with the sea; they're also riddled with eye dialect and emotionally uneven. For every unsentimental observation, there's a haul at the heartstrings or a heavy-handed irony. The two most plotted plays, In the Zone and The Long Voyage Home, are the most unwieldy. It's possible I'd have liked the cycle more if I'd discovered it before seeing the film, but coming to it afterward I found myself less attracted to the original material than professionally impressed by Dudley Nichols' successful braiding and strengthening of all four stories into an episodic but not patchwork script. Some of the changes are structural and expedient, like explicitly folding the action of the four plays into the same voyage and reordering their chronology so that the Glencairn moves from a comparative idyll in the Caribbean through the war zone of the North Atlantic before making port in blacked-out Blitz London. Others significantly alter the tone and import of the story, like the one I'll discuss under the cut because it's one of the reasons the film got my attention. The resulting screenplay has an appropriately oceanic rhythm, rising and falling without ever starting anywhere in particular or coming to a true close: we watch small stories crest and break and wash back into the daily life of the SS Glencairn, and the sea goes on around them and someone is always coming home. The tidal effect is reinforced by Richard Hageman's score with its alternating motifs of sentimental songs and chanteys, especially "Harbor Lights" and "Blow the Man Down." One is the wistful pull of the land and all the nostalgia it represents, the other is the recklessness of the sea, both exhilarating and perilous—the endless ebb and flood of the seagoing life. Other melodies make cameos as needed, sometimes diegetic, sometimes evoked through the soundtrack as though only in the characters' heads. Finally, visually, it's just a very beautiful film. Most of the scenes at sea are done with rear projection, but Gregg Toland gives the decks and the fo'c'sle of the imaginary Glencairn a documentary look with his deep-focus photography—a year ahead of Citizen Kane—shadowed as evocatively as film noir without ever sacrificing the heavy glitter of wet tarpaulins or the blank glare of electric light. Low-angle, wide-angle shots emphasize the claustrophobia of shipboard life, the close quarters and the isolation which the audience comes to take for granted along with the crew. Even when the camera moves abovedecks, a sight of the sky is little relief when it's a grey blustery squall or when it's crossed by the shadows of enemy planes. What we see of the land is shipyards, quays, cobbled rain-glistening streets and waterfront dives. The original plays make a point of the hard-luck, rootless lives of the Glencairn's crew, but John Ford and company have even less time for the romance of the sea.

They have time for the characters, though, without whom everything I've described would be evocative but static, like the portraits painted of the film during production. It's an entirely character-actor cast. The closest thing to a star in the ensemble is John Wayne and he's not the protagonist—there really isn't one, although there are five or six characters who come to center stage as the story shifts around them. Coming off the banner year of 1939, Thomas Mitchell is the best I've ever seen him as the bosun Driscoll, a burly Irishman with a singularly charming smile who can pat a crewmate on the cheek and punch him the next minute; that's a high-spirited brawling archetype, but the film then allows him to be seen as genuinely courageous, protective of his shipmates, and sometimes fatally wrong. Wayne underplays nicely as Ole Olsen, a sweet-tempered farmer's kid from Stockholm who always means to go back to his family, but always blows his pay on his last night ashore and has to sign on again to make the money for his passage home. Ian Hunter's Smitty is a mystery, a hard-drinking Englishman who signed on at Cape Town with the clothes on his back: no one knows much about him and he seems to want it that way. Arthur Shields' Donkeyman doesn't get a plot to himself, but he's the closest the film has to a philosophical center, the ship's oldest sailor and a bit of an oracle in wire-rimmed glasses and salt-stained denim. He never goes ashore. He has no illusions that his home is anywhere but the Glencairn.1 Ward Bond's Yank is a magician with smoke rings, not invulnerable. John Qualen's Axel plays the flute like a fiery Scandinavian faun. Mildred Natwick steals every second of her first screen role as a conflicted B-girl in a crimp's den straight out of "Paddy Lay Back." Even the Glencairn's captain is a person, with his acne scars and his receding dark hair; he's introduced not as the brass-buttoned emblem of his office, but a middle-aged man sweating in his shirtsleeves, fiddling with the wireless for news of the war. He's Wilfrid Lawson, a far cry from Alfie Doolittle. I enjoy the film just for the chance to watch these people all together, for once not in the background. They're given some really interesting things to do.

Take Ian Hunter, who as far as I'm concerned landed the role of a lifetime in Smitty. I've seen him in a handful of other movies and he's not bad in any of them, but he's simply not as interesting when he's Duke Theseus, or Richard the Lionheart, or a recurring romantic foil for Kay Francis.2 From nearly his first appearance in The Long Voyage Home, a tall hangdog man with a stubbled face that's more amiable than handsome at its best, we know something is up with Smitty. His well-educated accent does not match his shabby workingman's clothes; he's competent aboard the steamer, but he seems to belong to it even less than farm-bred Ole. At liberty in the West Indies, he keeps his distance from the brawls and liaisons of the other fo'c'sle hands and drinks himself steadily himself to blackout. Donkeyman offers him a sympathetic ear, but he doesn't take it. His crewmates have nicknamed him "the Duke" and Donkeyman calls him the only man aboard on whom the land's still got a hold. Obviously he's keeping a secret; the question is what kind?

With the addition of some linking material and the inevitable dilution of the Production Code, the film's first two episodes are more or less faithfully transferred from the stage. Moon of the Caribbees is a mood piece, contrasting Smitty's isolation with the drunken festivities of his sex-starved shipmates and the bumboat girls Driscoll sneaks aboard. Bound East for Cardiff narrows the focus to Yank, dying in his bunk with broken ribs from a brave act in a storm—unrewarded by the sea, which smashed him between its waves and the ship's hard steel. The events of In the Zone are where the screenplay begins most visibly to diverge, starting with new scenes in port in Baltimore, where the Glencairn takes on a cargo of munitions for the war effort. That same night, Smitty tries to jump ship and is brought back by local police. Already shadowed by Yank's death, the atmosphere of the Glencairn takes on a nervy edge of paranoia, not helped by newspaper articles about spies and fifth columnists, and it focuses itself on Smitty. The contemporary re-setting of the script actually sharpens the danger. The spring through the fall of 1940 was one of the Allied low points of the Battle of the Atlantic, the U-boats' "glückliche Zeit" after the successful occupations of Norway, the Netherlands, and France; the crew are keenly aware of the danger they're in, a British merchantman full of high explosives ("Load up an old hooker like this full of that blooming stuff and what is she? Just a bomb! A great big dynamite bomb!") without even the protection of a convoy. Now they must observe blackout restrictions and radio silence and a clandestinely plotted course and Smitty as odd man out starts to look suspicious even to the crew members who like him. What was he doing with the charts in the wheelhouse? What's he hiding in the little black box beneath his mattress? Didn't he violate the blackout, sending dots and dashes of light out across the water from a left-open porthole? Smith, is it, or Schmidt? I appreciate that no one character drives the witch-hunt—the details of German spycraft come from Barry Fitzgerald's pugnacious, self-important Cocky, with imaginative support from Joe Sawyer's Davis as that guy who just doesn't help, but even sympathetic figures like Axel have damning misinformation to contribute and it's Driscoll who finally decides how to handle the situation: "He'll go over the side, all right, but not till after he's had a fair trial . . . If Yank, God rest his soul, was here, he'd agree with me." The only character exempt is Ole, standing watch on deck while his messmates bundle a struggling Smitty below, bind and gag him and extract the contents of the fatal black box, prudently dropped in a pail of water beforehand in case it should explode. It's a packet of letters. The name on them is "Thomas Fenwick." Driscoll begins to read them out, relishing the chance to decode German secrets from what look like love letters, but it takes only two short excerpts before the banal, devastating truth becomes clear. He's not a spy, our mysterious Mr. Smith, he's a British naval officer cashiered for drunkenness who ran from his family with the shame; his wife writes him at every port asking him to come home, but he tells her it would be kinder to the children to let them think him dead. Damned from here to Eternity, indeed. He hangs like dead weight in their arms, nothing left to hide. It's the secret he would have died rather than let anyone know, and now it's the only thing they know about him. Ashamed of himself, Driscoll shouts angrily to restore normalcy; the crew unbind Smitty—Tom—and set a land speed record for making themselves scarce. On deck again, he's hailed by Ole, a friendly, ignorant figure upstage in the black-and-silver sea-fog night. What can he say? "All's well, Ole." I decided then and there that I would watch Ian Hunter read the phone book and on occasion I very nearly have.

In the stage play, Smitty's secret is more conventional: his fiancée broke with him because of his drinking and he took to the sea like so many disappointed men before him. Her last letter is an absolute rejection: "I lave you—the mem'ries; an' if ut is any satisfaction to you I lave you the real-i-zation that you have wrecked my loife as you have wrecked your own. My one remainin' hope is that nivir in God's worrld will I ivir see your face again."3 I find this backstory slightly schematic. It's not that O'Neill believes that the sea is an escape for Smitty, any more than it is for the rest of the Glencairn's crew, but there are clear lines in it and they are gendered. However qualifiedly, it reinforces the image of maritime life as a masculine refuge from women's hurts. By contrast, the woman's voice in Nichols' script is loving and supportive: "Dear, dear man, loss of a commission is not loss of life. There is no disgrace we can't go through together . . . Oh, Tom, Tom, you must come back to us." It's a small change, but I find its effects far more powerful and painful because it reveals Smitty's exile as self-imposed, a penance that's punishing his family just as much or more than himself; it makes him less of a tragic figure and more of an ordinary human fuck-up, which still doesn't mean he deserved to have his worst secrets stripped raw in front of a roomful of men who were ready to chuck him overboard a moment ago. This time around, it suddenly registered on me that the screenplay makes Smitty's alcoholism crucial to this episode. In the play, Smitty comes under suspicion because of his secrecy over the box of letters, his intense privacy that looks like unfriendliness, and the unexplained incident with the porthole, which for all we know someone else in the fo'c'sle might have forgotten about. In the movie, the audience knows exactly what Smitty was doing in the wheelhouse and how the porthole came to be left open—nervous as everyone else in the war zone and coping badly with it, he stole a bottle of liquor from the captain's desk and dropped the empty out the porthole afterward, just a beat slow to re-latch it so that it blinked on and off for a moment through the fog. His drinking is an actual liability on his part, not just a character flaw for the purposes of drama. I appreciate that sort of thing. I also appreciate Nichols deleting the quotation from Kipling's "Gentlemen-Rankers" in Moon of the Caribbees, because it's a sufficiently obvious parallel that lampshading it just feels awkward. Admittedly I say this as someone who has quoted Kipling in fiction myself.

I have still not figured out how I feel about the sudden character death that occurs in the film between the events of In the Zone and The Long Voyage Home. It is objectively a good death; I can't tell if we're intended to view it as redemptive or senseless or simply as arbitrary as anything else that happens on the sea. I wouldn't have included the overlay of the national anthem, but again that's because it feels as though it unnecessarily emphasizes a connection the audience can make for themselves. In any case, I understand its broader narrative function: it raises the stakes for the rest of the crew. After the scare of the war zone and the losses to either side, it becomes all but a sacred obligation to get Ole home safe to his family in Sweden. He's their innocent and their real outsider, their last lucky chance for someone to break the sea's grip and walk inland for good, like Odysseus. "He's going home, by djävul!" Axel cries. "You got no home, I got no home, none of us got a home but Ole." His tickets and his pay are sewn up in his coat; he promises to drink nothing stronger than ginger beer. Driscoll and the rest all swear to one another to see him safe on the boat to Stockholm. There's a shady little tout encouraging them into a particular bar and a floating hell called the Amindra bound for Valparaiso. It's going to take someone, because hell always does; the stage play and the screenplay disagree about whom. I agree with the screenplay, mostly because I think Driscoll would have thought it was worth it. He's Odysseus, too, turning back from the successful defeat of the brutal Amindra for one last jeering, triumphant chorus of "Blow the Man Down" when the sea's curse takes him. Donkeyman knows the end of the story, leaning on the rail as cloud-shadow crosses the deck like a curtain coming down. As many of them are home as will make it, by one road or another.

I don't know if any of this explains what it is that I love so much about the movie. Perhaps it's just that the sea will outlast everyone in the story, and everyone who watches it, too. It is full of spray and salt and time and the choices people make matter, but it matters more that the tide keeps coming around. It's full of loss and I find it deeply calming to spend time with. The internet tells me that Criterion has the rights to The Long Voyage Home. Is there a nicely restored DVD yet? No, there's streaming on Hulu. Damn it, Criterion. These are not equivalent forms of transmission. O'Neill supposedly had his own print and watched it until it wore out. I never want to have to imitate Eugene O'Neill in anything. This resolution courtesy of my supportive backers at Patreon.

1. He informed my poem "The Coast Guard."

2. I'm aware he's something more unusual in Strange Cargo (1940), and I know he made some British silents with Hitchcock and some quota quickies with Michael Powell, but I haven't seen any of them yet. I still think his work in The Long Voyage Home will hold up.

3. I warned you about the eye dialect. Be glad I didn't quote the character with the Cockney accent.
kore: (Default)

[personal profile] kore 2015-09-24 10:32 am (UTC)(link)
Have never seen this, but I love O'Neill's sea plays. (It's unfashionable to love him now, but I do anyway.)

Twenty-five bucks on DVD? Ouch!
spatch: (Captain Haddock)

[personal profile] spatch 2015-09-24 03:15 am (UTC)(link)
and memorably first performed in a former fishhouse in Provincetown

This, this is amazing. Not many playwrights start off so damn strong in set, setting, and verisimilitude.

[identity profile] 2015-09-24 06:53 am (UTC)(link)
I suspect this is not my kind of movie (because "an appropriately oceanic rhythm, rising and falling without ever starting anywhere in particular or coming to a true close" is a mode that tends to lose me) -- but man, I want to watch it just for that Smitty scene, because I go weak in the knees for that kind of thing. I've been torturing an NPC in the game I'm running with similar events, every sordid aspect of his life being dragged out for public scrutiny, and I'm a horrible person but it's been one of my favorite parts of the story. I would love to watch a good scene of that kind.

[identity profile] 2015-09-24 10:19 pm (UTC)(link)
I had no intent of denigrating that kind of structure, and yes, it clearly does have some plot. I just recognize that a good, well-built arc is the kind of thing I love, so things which deliberately eschew arc-iness tend to leave me feeling like . . . well, that was nice, but where did it go? I enjoy them most in the theatre, actually, because there I have to sit and watch and not get distracted by other things. Whereas at home, I'm liable to be lured away by the siren song of multi-tasking.

None of which has prevented me from putting it on as I type this. I will attempt not to continue poking at the internet when I'm done posting, so that I may pay attention.

(Really, what I want is to watch some old movie with you someday. I love the way you write about these things, and possibly being present for the actual watching would make me see the kinds of details I otherwise miss.)

What's his backstory?

. . . how much of an answer do you want? The fully detailed version would get quite long, and while I think it's interesting, I recognize that "gaming anecdote" is a category of narrative that is proverbially boring to outsiders, so I try not to inflict it unless I'm sure the audience cares. :-)

[identity profile] 2015-09-24 10:34 pm (UTC)(link)
Oh, spoilers are irrelevant, for a story which is mostly only known to its participants. As I think through how much spear shaft I need to supply for the point to reach the vitals, though, I suspect this needs to be a post rather than a comment. Look for that on my own LJ in a little while.

[identity profile] 2015-09-24 03:28 pm (UTC)(link)
Also, I appear to have gotten sick on top of being sick.
Oh man, I am so sorry.
seajules: (ocean meets sand counting crows)

[personal profile] seajules 2015-09-24 06:35 pm (UTC)(link)
I've been trying to find a way to see this movie since the first time I saw you mention it. This write-up only reinforces my commitment.

[identity profile] 2015-09-26 07:10 pm (UTC)(link)
I definitely approve of the change from dismissive lover to supportive life in the Smitty story--much better for all the reasons you say.

Your quick sketches of each of the characters are wonderful--I can see them all.

Will have to see the film, too.