Moontide (1942) Directed by Archie Mayo and Fritz Lang.  Jean Gabin, Ida Lupino, Thomas Mitchell (94 min)

A roguish longshoreman thinks he may have killed a man during a drunken binge (designed by Salvador Dali) and his creepy best friend (played by Scarlett O’Hara’s dad) tries to take advantage.  Broody working class hero Gabin’s first Hollywood film is a romantic film noir set in a dock side bait shack.

The script for Moontide was written by Willard Robinson, a character actor, out of boredom while on location for Brigham Young, Frontiersman. He may have thought he had an original idea, but the story closely resembles that of Josef von Sternberg’s silent film, Docks of New York.  Of course, this may have been an inadvertent appropriation, since Robinson would have seen the film in 1928.  Before tv, home video and repertory cinema, once a film was out of the theater, it was essentially gone forever.  But, the hero in the maritime trades, with a clingy pal, the depressed and homeless woman (clearly a prostitute in the 20s version, but unacceptable under the Production Code in the 1940s) and their reluctant affection for one another, all clearly derive from the earlier film.

If producer Darryl Zanuck, at 20th Century Fox, recognized this (although Hollywood memory is short) he may have considered this an advantage, a variation on the tried and true.  He paid Robinson $30,000, and gave the script to producer Mark Hellinger, a former newspaperman and connoisseur of the gritty.  Ida Lupino, at war with her studio, Warner Brothers, and looking for another good script after her triumph in High Sierra was attracted to this intense melodrama.

The script was adapted for the screen by respected American novelist John O’Hara. He was paid $1,250 a week, and apparently wanted to work on the project (Bruccoli 169).  But, director Fritz Lang disliked the script, as would leading man Jean Gabin, who complained to Zanuck about the script’s profuse dialogue.  O’Hara had sole screen credit, but both Hellinger and Nunnally Johnson doctored the script.  His main task was to supply a Hollywood happy ending.  Hellinger wanted to make a serious film, and Zanuck, head at Fox, only cared about a hit. “Every time I try for art, I fall on my prat” Hellinger ruefully conceded (Bruccoli 169).

For the film’s protagonist, Zanuck wooed France’s most magnetic movie star, Jean Gabin. Gabin’s career lasted over 40 years. Show business was in his blood as the son of cabaret entertainers. He began as a dancer in the Folies Bergère. His first film was in 1930, and he quickly rose to the top, fusing a potent blend of working class glamour and doomed romanticism in classic films like Pepè le MokoQuai des BrumesLe Jour se Lève and  Renoir’s Grand Illusion, cementing his exalted position in international cinema. “He was a romantic figure, an homme fatal, although usually fatal mostly to himself” (Vincindeau 62).  Gabin was in Hollywood in 1941, “among the eminent flotsam and jetsam washed up by Hitler” (McGilligan 283).   Soon, Gabin would desert moviemaking for the duration of the war, return to France and join the Free French Army.

This newspaper ad, saved in a scrapbook, is focused on communicating Gabin’s French stardom to American moviegoers, there is a pronunciation guide for his name (Gah-BAN) and the assertion, “He’s All Man!”

Gabin may not have spoken much English, and his allure may not have resonated with American movie goers of the day.  But, he was and is hallowed in French culture.  In his lifetime, his affairs, his food and wine preferences, his homes and his temperamental nature was the object of much speculation in the press.  French film stars of a younger generation, like Jean Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon and Gerard Depardieu have all claimed him as their cinematic role model. In France, he has his own museum, streets and schools are named after him and in 1999 a French newspaper voted him “actor of the century” (Vincnedeau 61).

Moontide was Gabin’s first Hollywood film.  He was not only escaping Hitler, but wanted to be in the US because he was having a passionate affair with Marlene Dietrich. She might have been the one who encouraged him to request Fritz Lang as his director for Moontide.  But, Gabin feuded with Lang after a contre-temps about Marlene Dietrich (Lang had been her lover, too). Or maybe, Lang fought with Zanuck because he refused to substitute a happy ending. At any rate, Lang worked for three weeks, and his footage was incorporated into the finished film.  Production shut down on December 12, and Lang was replaced with Archie Mayo, a more malleable Fox contract director.

Hellinger readily cast both Lupino and Thomas Mitchell, famous for his loveable Irishmen, in films like Stagecoach and Gone With the Wind, in a decidedly unloveable role. Perhaps the male friendship was supposed to invoke the camaraderie of the military, now looming before every American male of military age.  But, to a modern eye, the relationship seems to have a distinctly sexual undertone, with the love triangle centered not around Ida Lupino, but Jean Gabin.

Gabin was anxious to experience the seedier side of Los Angeles to help him play his role, and Lupino joined him on what would be a rather dangerous foray into downtown LA, where they had a close look at desperation and poverty.  “They began at a training gym for boxers, then drifted through bargain shops where the poor pawed over cheap items.  On the sidewalk they passed drifters, derelicts, alcoholics and prostitutes.  They passed in a skid row bar to observe the clientele.  A drunken ex-dancer accused them of slumming.  The woman stumbled through a dance routine, then in a sudden fit of anger, emptied a bottle of cheap perfume in Ida’s lap, ruining her dress.  The pitiful denizens of the bar returned to their booze.  Ida and Gabin continued their tour. In a park inhabited by winos, they studied a filthy elderly man, bearded and broken in spirit.  Lupino and Gabin had seen what they wanted” (Donati 89). These experiences would be clearly evoked in the opening scenes of the film.

Gabin played a Bogart-like working class loner, Humphrey Bogart himself even played the role in the Lux Radio Theater version of the film in 1945. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, called Gabin “the Spencer Tracy of French pictures” and “Charles Boyer from the other side of the tracks…You might almost think the lights and camera were working on a glamorous female star from the way they are concentrated on Mr. Gabin’s roughly handsome phiz.  You might suspect his drowsy eye, his tight lips and his thatch of grizzled hair were more important to the picture than the usual convention of a plot” (Biesen 85).

Supposedly the original plan was to film at the San Pedro Harbor for authenticity, forbidden by wartime restrictions after Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  But Lang was already complaining about filming on “an artificial indoor quay on the Fox lot” in November (McGilligan 283). His successor, Archie Mayo, shot on the set until February 1942.  Mayo complained that there were so many noisy planes patrolling overhead after Pearl Harbor that it made filming difficult (Biesen 86).  It would have been unusual for a film of that era to have been filmed on location, if it was possible to build a studio set, so this story seems to have been invented for publicity.  Instead a moody $47,000 harbor was created on the back lot, a shadowy, dream like environment that contributes greatly to the claustrophobic, unreal quality of the film. Moontide was nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar.

Mayo sought realism, at one point he had Lupino dumped below deck into a storage tank of live bait, which was realistically disgusting.  She also had to spend time in the water, which was filmed with an oily scum and dressed with watermelon rind and seaweed.  Prop men churned the water to make it oceanic.  Lupino got excellent reviews for her role of the “hash-slinger,” originally a despondent prostitute, and her career continued to rise. After a notable career as an actress, she became one of the only women directors in the Hollywood studio era.

A fan magazine glamour portrait of Lupino, significantly, not cheesecake, but in a modest day dress.

Gabin’s pivotal drunken binge was designed by Salvador Dali, a complete film enthusiast.  “The cinema was an ideal instrument for Dali’s anti-art platform.  Not only did it readily lend itself to the visual effects that interested him, but moreover, it was absolutely modern and accessible by the masses.  Presaging ideas that would motivate Pop Art in the 1960s, Dali embraced the ‘vulgar’ manifestations of cinema—specifically Hollywood slapstick, which he, like Buñuel, considered the cinema’s greatest poetic accomplishment” (King 14).

As Dali’s fame increased through his provocative paintings he began to think increasingly about working in Hollywood. He wrote in a 1937 essay, “Surrealism in Hollywood,”  “Nothing seems to me to be more suited to be devoured by the surrealist fire than those mysterious strips of ‘hallucinatory celluloid’ tuned out so unconsciously in Hollywood, and in which we have already seen appear, stupefied, so many images, of authentic delirium, chance and dream” (King 59).  He enthusiastically told André Breton that he had contacted three great American Surrealists, Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille and the Marx Brothers.  He even wrote a screenplay for the Marx Brothers, “Giraffes on Horseback Salad” unfilmable, of course, but he did send his favorite Marx Brother, Harpo, a harp with barbed wire strings, which Harpo enjoyed enough to pose playing for publicity photos.

By the time of Dali’s visit to the Marx Brothers in 1937, he was already quite well known.  His paintings were selling in galleries, one had been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, and he had been on the cover of Time magazine. In September of 1941, he had thrown an extravagant costume party in Hollywood and many Hollywoodites attended.  Perhaps it was here that the idea that he could supply sketches and paintings for Gabin’s hallucinations for the upcoming film Moontide was discussed. He was hired through his Los Angeles gallery, and would be paid $5,000.  It would be conceived “from scientific symbols that were at once Freudian, Surrealist and Dalian” (King 67). Shrewdly, it was negotiated that he would retain all the artworks he created for the studio. But, the studio owned his ideas, and could “add to, subtract from, arrange, revise, adapt, rearrange, make variations of said property, change the sequence” (Gale 170).

He designed three different versions of his dream sequence, and he presented his final one carefully typed in English for the studio.  He also did five drawings and three painting to illustrate.  He wanted to transform everyday objects into fantastical ones, and focused on an enormous sewing machine, umbrellas and a gigantic human skull. Dream sequences have always existed in films, but Dali wished to push the irrational side of them.  His images would be altered beyond his recognition.  “Dali’s visibility had led the motion picture industry to hire him, but ultimately it may have deemed his art too scary for the general public.  John Russell Taylor has suggested: ’It often seemed as though (foreign) intellectuals in Hollywood were not so much bought as bought off” (Gale 169).

These are two of the unused sketches Dali made for the drunken binge sequence.

Clearly, his anarchic spirit infuses the sequence which did make it to the screen. When I first saw this film, I knew only that it was a film noir—when I saw the dream sequence—so unlike anything in Hollywood films of the era, I was astonished.  Dali’s contributions may be uncredited, but they are unmistakable. In the end, it was not only Dali’s original imagery and sexual innuendo that scuttled his original plans, but his Fascist leanings, no longer remotely acceptable after Pearl Harbor.

“It was inevitable that Salvador Dali and Hollywood should meet.  By the 1940s, he was the most celebrated Surrealist, and Los Angeles was the world’s most popular entertainment capital, where the border between reality and fantasy merged.  But even alliances that at first appear so natural can encounter problems: such is the story of Dali in Hollywood” (Gale 164)


All images are from anonymous movie star scrapbooks, except for the production still, and the sketch from Dali & Film. Ida Lupino:  A Biography by William Donati, Stars and Stardom in French Cinema by Ginette Vincendeau, Blackout: World War II and the Origins of Film Noir by Sheri Chinen Biesen, The O’Hara Concern: A Biography of John O’Hara by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli, Dali, Surrealism and Cinema by Elliott H. King, Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan, Ilene Susan Fort’s essay on Moontide in Dali & Film edited by Matthew Gale.

c.MoviedivaNovember 2011