The Sea Wolf (1941) Directed by Michael Curtiz. Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield (104 min) Restored DCP.
A brutal sea captain rescues shipwreck victims and then grinds them to his will, using John Milton’s credo for Lucifer as his guide, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” A nautical film noir adapted from a Jack London novel, shot in the style of German Expressionism and directed by Casablanca’s Curtiz, “Filmed at the onset of the Nazi power grabs in Europe and the beginning of the war, in this allegorical pic the captain is depicted as a malevolent dictator, like Hitler, who uses cruelty to keep his subjects in line and promises to make his loyal subjects rich with lies about obtaining stolen riches” (Ozu’s Movie Reviews).
Jack London was born in 1876, and spent his youth working on ships at sea. When gold was discovered in the Klondike, he bought a grubstake, and tried to strike it rich. After a freezing cold winter of despair, he returned home to San Francisco to write. London was a pioneer of writing magazine fiction. After short stories and a novel about the Yukon were published, London wrote The Call of The Wild in 1903 and The Sea Wolf in 1904. He based the character of Captain Larsen on a real sailor he had known, Alexander MaLean, but the character of Humphrey Van Weyden shares experiences with the author. The book was a massive best seller, and London became one of the first global literary celebrities. He was a progressive thinker, radical in his support for unions, socialism and the rights of the workers. The remainder of his life was one of wealth and fame, although it did not stop his adventurous wanderings. Little Emmanuel Goldenberg read The Sea Wolf in The Saturday Evening Post at age 11, never dreaming that one day he would play the “wonderful character” Wolf Larsen (Robinson 26).
John Garfield, Ida Lupino and Edward G. Robinson
The Sea Wolf is still an exciting read. The descriptions of shipboard life and of the moody ocean are terrifying, fascinating, and speak of authentic shipboard experience. Humphrey Van Weyden is rescued in San Francisco Bay when his ferry boat has an accident, after a visit to a friend in Sausalito. Just the terror of the Bay in the fog and the cold choppy waves makes one grateful for the Golden Gate Bridge. Wolf Larsen does not look like Edward G. Robinson, he resembles more closely a Nordic god, blond, handsome, tall and possessing great muscular strength.
“Sometimes, I think Wolf Larsen mad, or half mad, at least, what of his strange moods and vagaries. At other times, I take him for a great man, a genius, who has never arrived. And, finally, I am convinced that he is the perfect type of the primitive man, born a thousand years or generations too late and an anachronism in this culminating century of civilization. He is certainly an individualist of the most pronounced type. Not only that, but he is very lonely. There is no congeniality between him and the rest of the men aboard ship. His tremendous virility and mental strength wall him apart. They are more like children to him, even the hunters, and as children he treats them, descending perforce to their level and playing with them as a man plays with puppies. Or else he probes them with the cruel hand of a vivisectionist, groping about in their mental processes, and examining their souls as though to see what soul-stuff is made” (London 59). Van Weyden’s attraction, repulsion almost, to a modern reader has an edge of homoeroticism, as he discusses his rippling muscles and noble brow. Maud Brewster is no prostitute in the book, but a writer and a poet! Grrr, men writing movies. She and Van Weyden escape in a boat, sailing for Yokahama, Japan, but end up on an island where they have a quasi-romantic interlude, learning to survive and clubbing seals for pelts and meat. They primly cohabit in separate huts, in spite of the cold. This subplot loses track of Wolf Larsen’s story, which is the book’s most compelling.
Jack London’s rugged adventure stories have been filmed many times, and few would dispute this is the best version of The Sea Wolf. Warners had been trying to assemble a cast for several years. The studio paid David O. Selznick $15,000 for the story rights for Paul Muni to star in 1937, but he turned it down. George Raft was offered the John Garfield part, but didn’t want to play a secondary role. Extensive tests cast Ida Lupino, at a moment her Warners career was heating up. The Production Code Office said her character could not be a prostitute, or called a “slut.” She would instead play “a fugitive from justice” (Donati 70). Robert Rossen’s psychologically acute screenplay emphasizes Larsen’s sadistic tyranny. He wanted it to evoke the contemporary political situation, as the Nazis were bombing Britain as filming began. “The ship serves as an allegory for Nazi-occupied Europe, while, as Robinson noted in his autobiography, Larsen himself is a Nazi in all but name. Curtiz’ preoccupation with merciless rascality as a warning to American audiences about Hitler, stronger and more persistent than in the works of other Warners directors, ended only when it became submerged in American patriotic themes” once the US entered the war. (Robertson 148).
Edward G. Robinson rarely got to be the top billed star, and certainly it was unusual for him to have a part of such complexity. He was about to walk out of his contract to demand better parts, when the studio offered him A Dispatch fron Reuter’s and The Sea Wolf. “No actor could ask for more—no actor nearing fifty, that is” (Robinson 241). The Sea Wolf was filmed in a gigantic studio tank (which you can still visit on the WB Studio Tour!) on which Michael Curtiz had just shot The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn. The five foot deep tank cradled a 150 foot three-masted schooner to play the Ghost. A $38,000 rocking mechanism was paired with a gyro camera designed by cinematographer Sol Polito, who used the studio’s brand new fog generators with a distinctive flair. The superb musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold adds to the atmosphere. This was six months before The Maltese Falcon, considered the first Film Noir, but this film with its eerie dread and dramatic chiaroscuro certainly foreshadows the style. Curtiz had a masterly sense of how to build character in midst of a tension-filled atmosphere.
Cinematographer Sol Polito lines up a crane shot.
The character played by John Garfield was added in, changing the romantic pairing from Maud and Humphrey Van Leyden. He and Ida Lupino some melancholy romantic interludes. Lupino enjoyed working with Garfield, “He was wonderful and I loved him. He and I were like brother and sister” She also admired his progressive political beliefs and a rebellious attitude which matched her own (Donati 70).
Edward G. Robinson was the 5th actor to play Wolf Larsen in The Sea Wolf. Before him there was Hobart Bosworth (1913), Noah Beery, Sr (1920) Ralph Ince (1925) Milton Sills (1930) and after him, Barry Sullivan (1958) Charles Bronson (1993) Stacy Keach (1997) Thomas Kretschmann (2008) Sebastian Koch (2009)—at least! Surprisingly, although they were all under contract to Warner Brothers, it was the only time he would work with either Ida Lupino or John Garfield.
Edward G. Robinson exploded onto the screen as the gangster Little Caesar in 1931. Although the film may seem slow paced to modern eyes, Robinson’s performance, as a criminal slaughtering his way up the ladder of success, is still scintillating. He was born Emmanuel Goldenberg in Bucharest, Rumania, in 1893 and arrived in the US when he was nine. His love of acting revealed itself early when young Manny gave what was considered to be the longest Bar Mitzvah speech in the history of his Lower East Side synagogue. He was drawn to acting soon after, and studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in NYC. He was encouraged to change his name and chose Edward G. Robinson, keeping his initials and adding the de rigueur Anglo-Saxon surname. He honed his craft in stock, but in looking for jobs in New York in the ‘teens remarked, “In those days I would go for an interview and find myself competing with this other chap who would always be younger and taller, and much handsomer than I. I would recognize immediately that the producer wasn’t particularly sympathetic and I learned to say, out of intuition, ‘I know I’m not much on face value, but when it comes to stage value, I’ll deliver for you’” (Parish 17). Robinson worked steadily on Broadway throughout the 1920s, and made his first talkie (he’d been in one silent film) at Paramount’s Astoria studio in New York. Irving Thalberg of MGM brought him to Hollywood in 1930 and he stayed, eventually signing a contract with Warner Brothers, offering him the role of Caesar Enrico Bandello, Little Caesar. Most leading men don’t look like Robinson. He always maintained that his looks, rather than being a handicap, kept him from being cast in the bland romantic parts that were often the lot of the usual leading man. The reverse was also true, in that handsome actors were kept from playing parts that were perfect for him. As wonderful as he is in this role, it’s worth remembering that he was never nominated for an Academy Award.
Ida Lupino was sometimes called “the poor man’s Bette Davis” which meant, essentially, that she was offered first choice of roles if Davis refused them. She had some spectacular parts through the 1940s, but after leaving Warner Brothers, she spent most of her career behind the camera, as one of the few women directors of the classic Hollywood era. She was born to be in show business, her family had been in the theater since the Renaissance, and her father, Stanley Lupino was considered to be one of the best actor comedians in Great Britain. She grew up backstage, writing and performing, and studied in London at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She acted in British and American films, but her first big hit was in the Victorian-set Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, with Basil Rathbone as the great detective, and then acted as the spirited Cockney guttersnipe opposite Ronald Colman in Rudyard Kipling’s The Light That Failed. It was because of her rapturous reviews in that part that she was given They Drive By Night. She won an Oscar nomination and a co-starring part with Bogart in his next film, High Sierra. After this trio of films, she was anointed Hollywood’s Hottest Star. Writer William Saroyan said, “Give Miss Lupino something to act in and there’s a 50-50 chance that she will be the finest actress in the world” (Donati 72).
John Garfield, was born Julius Garfinkle on the Lower East Side of New York, “born to be a mug of a gangster, if ever a guy was” (Hannsberry 261). His mother died when he was seven, and he was left pretty much on his own on the streets. He was enrolled in P.S. 45, a school for tough street kids, but one of his teachers directed him both towards Golden Gloves boxing and an acting career. After high school he studied acting and made his Broadway debut in 1932, afterwards joining the Group Theater, which inspired him. He had a small part in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy, and was spotted and signed to a Warner Brothers contract. In his screen debut, Four Daughters, his performance was riveting (catch it on TCM sometime, he’s amazing in a formula picture) and after being nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, he continued his WB career sometimes in programmers, but sometimes in strong, distinctive parts, like Pride of the Marines, in which he played a real life veteran blinded during WW II. He received rave reviews for The Postman Always Rings Twice, the New York Times wrote he “reflects to the life the crude and confused young hobo who stumbles aimlessly into a fatal trap” (Hannsberry 264). Garfield was blacklisted during the HUAC era, as were many members of the Group Theater, even though there was no specific accusation. One of his friends said, “He was a street boy with a street boy’s sense of honor, and when they asked him to give the names of friends at parties, he refused…The blacklist killed him” (Shipman 229). He died at the age of 39 from a heart attack due to a childhood bout with scarlet fever. At his memorial service he was eulogized, “He came like a meteor, and like a meteor, he departed” (Hannsberry 270).
Alexander Knox made his Hollywood film debut as Humphrey Van Weyden. He was born in Ontario, but moved to England for classical stage experience. He appeared with many of the stage icons of his day, like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. He made a couple of films in England, but when WW II began, he came to the US. After several notable stage roles, he came to Hollywood, where he was cast in The Sea Wolf. I can’t help but wonder if he was cast partly because he was not a WB contract player, and that would intensify his feelings of being isolated, much like his character. Most of his parts were understated, serious professional men, and his most remembered role was as Woodrow Wilson, for which he won an Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar. He was blacklisted by the HUAC and afterwards returned to England.
Robinson and Alexander Knox
The press preview was held on an ocean liner sailing between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Because Warners showed it as half of a double feature with The Sea Hawk, which is a very long film, 14 minutes was cut from The Sea Wolf, which, thanks to a nitrate print at the Museum of Modern Art was restored to its original length for last year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival. We present the restored version tonight.
“The Sea Wolf is one of Michael Curtiz’ finest pre-Casablanca masterpieces, and one of the most complex films in his entire catalogue” (Nollen 201). “In its performances and its somber, mysterious atmosphere, The Sea Wolf is a masterpiece” (Thomas 32).
The Cinema of Edward G. Robinson by James Robert Parish and Alvin H. Marill, The Films of the Forties by Tony Thomas, City Boys: Cagney, Bogart, Garfield by Robert Sklar, Ida Lupino by William Donati, The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz by James C. Robertson, Warners Wiseguys by Scott Allen Nollen, All My Yesterdays by Edward G. Robinson, The Sea Wolf Signet Classic 100th Anniversary Edition by Jack London with an Afterward by Ben Bova, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sea-Wolf, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_London, Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry