Wednesday, November 26, 2008


The silent 1922 epic movie "Down to the Sea in Ships" looks more like a documentary about the whaling business and the religious practices of Quakers than a nail-biting melodrama about a young man who desperately wants to wed his childhood sweetheart. Today, director Elmer Clifton's seafaring saga is primarily remembered as "It" actress Clara Bow's theatrical film debut at age seventeen. The Whaling Film Corporation produced this vintage adventure and they lensed it on location at New Bedford, Massachusetts. Of course, by the time that "Down to the Sea in Ships" was produced, the whaling industry in America was on the decline because oil pumped out of the ground had replaced whale oil in most instances.

The authenticity of several sequences at sea is noted in the opening screen credits which praises the work of both cameramen A.G. Penrod and Paul H. Allen "who, in small boats, stood by their cameras at the risk of their lives to photograph the fighting whales." Literally, "Down to the Sea in Ships" reenacts the practices of New England whalers. Fans of "Flipper" may not enjoy the scene where the hero harpoons a dolphin, and the animal enthusiasts may regard the whale harvesting techniques are barbaric. Unfortunately, restored though the film is, it looks terrible and can be a real chore to watch for those that aren't accustomed to silent cinema. Moreover, you have to pause to read some of the lengthy title cards, some of which contain allusions to Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." However, on the whole, "Down to the Sea in Ships" proves to be a rewarding experience, more for its realistic depiction of religion and whale fishing than its melodrama.

"Down to the Sea in Ships" takes place in mid-19th century New Bedford. Thomas Allan Dexter (Raymond McKee) loves Patience Morgan (Marguerite Courtot) but her devout father, whaling ship-owner William Morgan (William Walcott), forbids her to marry any man that isn't a whaler. Early in the film we learn during a Quaker worship service that anybody that marries anyone that is not a Quaker is expelled and ostracized. A college graduate, Dexter refuses to let a little thing like not having served as sea aboard a whaling ship to prevent him from having Patience. Meanwhile, Jake Finner (Patrick Hartigan) and Samuel Siggs (Jack Baston) scheme to undermine Morgan's business. First, Siggs masquerades as a Quaker so that Morgan will hire him as an accountant, while Finner signs onto Morgan's whaling ship so that he can steal it. At the same time, Siggs sees the hand of Patience with her father's approval which is almost assured because Siggs has great references. You see, old man Morgan's son perished in a whaling accident and he wants grand children so he compels Patience against her will to betroth herself to the villainous Siggs. Siggs fears Dexter and Finner drugs the young suitor and shanghais him for the voyage. As it turns out, this works out to Dexter's advantage.

Similarly, Morgan's granddaughter Dot Morgan (Clara Bow) has a crush on Jimmie (James Thurfler), the cabin boy. Dot disguises herself as a boy and sneaks aboard the ship, only to be discovered by Jimmie after the vessel has gone to sea. Unbelievably, Dot remains hidden below deck in a cloth covered box until the evil Finner finds her. Finner kills the captain and takes over the ship, but Dexter recovers the ship from Finner and imprisons him. The whalers catch a whale and Dexter is instrumental in harpooning the beast and bringing it back. The scene where Dexter's boat capsizes after the whale attacks it is fabulous stuff, especially when the real-life shark swims into view and menaces the men as they scramble back into their boat. Eventually, the sailors exhaust the whale and return to the ship with it.

Film historians and film buffs will enjoy this glimpse of the past. The film covers the themes of man versus man, man versus society, women versus society and their confining role in society. For the record, this version of "Down to the Sea in Ships" has nothing to do with 20th Century-Fox's 1949 whaling saga starring Richard Widmark, Dean Stockwell and Lionel Barrymore.

Interestingly, director Elmer Clifton worked as an assistant director to the famed D.W. Griffith on "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance." One of his more notorious films that he helmed was the 1937 cautionary movie "Assassin of Youth," also known under the title "Marihuana!"

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