02 December 2006

Somewhere East of Catalina

Those who were visiting Catalina Island, just off the California coast, in early Autumn of 1928 likely wouldn't have been much surprised to see the assembled First National cast and crew as it was a frequently used locale for filming. However, they surely would have been intrigued by what looked to be a flotilla of queer ships that had, somehow, been plucked from far distant harbors and tossed into the waters alongside the Catalina isle isthmus.

Standing out among the odd assortment of vessels was the bedraggled flagship of this makeshift fleet, the time-worn but still graceful Southern Cross, said to have been the personal yacht of the late King of Belgium, Leopold. Less easily identifiable except to former sailors and sea men was an old tramp steamer that was destined to be wrecked for the film's climax, a flat barge used exclusively for the cameras and lights, three powerful speed boats that darted back and forth between the vessels and acted as taxi-boats between the location and San Pedro and, lazily bobbing up and down among everything were fourteen Asian sampans.

If the lineage, correct name and identification of the vessels were a matter for debate among curious onlookers, the star of the film that was in production could have easily rattled it all off --- and what's more, probably would have enjoyed doing so immensely.

Richard Barthelmess loved the sea, loved boats and loved everything having to do with either, so I can't help but feel he was having the time of his life during those days off Catalina Island in September of 1928. Boats and vigorous activity everywhere about him, the sight and scent of the ocean, the work on a film he played a key part in developing, and at last his personal life was as perfect as he dared hope for. A troubled marriage and resultant divorce was behind him, and he'd since found a partner whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life with --- and, as it turned out, he did.

With an original story by W. Scott Darling, a screenplay by Bradley King and the direction of John Francis Dillon, "Scarlet Seas" began production in late 1928 and despite the location shooting, elaborate technical effects and an almost non-stop array of action sequences, the film would be ready for exhibition in just under four months --- and that included the composition and recording of a Vitaphone music and effects soundtrack.

By all account, the film was a swiftly paced, thrill-filled, small-scale contemporary epic of a hero sailor, cut-throat sea-going ruffians and thieves, a dance-hall prostitute with a heart of gold, and an imperiled and imprisoned pastor and his virginal daughter. With a nationwide release that coincided with the Christmas and New Year holidays of 1928, the film was exceptionally well attended by adults and children alike and proved so popular that it could be found being booked into theaters as late as September of 1930 --- a notable feat for a silent film with a synchronized soundtrack!

As you may have guessed by now, "Scarlet Seas" is a lost film --- a double loss really, as it not only seems to have been an absolute corker of a film that would boast the best of the worlds of silent and sound cinema, but it's also probably a film that Barthelmess would have much wanted to survive long past his career and life. Given that Richard Barthelmess died in 1963, it's disturbing to realize that chances are that as he was entering his final decade of life, the film elements for "Scarlet Seas" were busily destroying themselves, aided by neglect and profound lack of interest from the company that owned it.

Although it's impossible to accurately evaluate or describe a film we can't see, a combination of surviving elements, including a set of original Vitaphone sound discs in my collection, demands we at least try.

"Scarlet Seas" (1928) Excerpt 1

Excerpt 1: Following the main credits, the film opens with the title card: "Apia --- East of Suez." Apia, ghastly and ghostly. A seaport of shadows and weird blinking lights --- of humming guitars and brown maidens with flowered hair.

We're introduced to tramp sailor Steve Donkin (Barthelmess), as he arrives in the port of Apia --- a cesspool of failed existence. A man young in calendar years, but old in life's drab shadows. A wandering, godless man.

He enters the waterfront saloon --- a rollicking, ribald and ramshackle building held together by promises. There, amidst the din of drunken laughter and a resident band that hasn't heard nor learnt any new melodies since 1919's "Dardanella" swept the globe, he focuses on Rose (Compson) --- blond, brittle, hardened by life but, like Steve, not without the faint hope of something better. Their eyes meet, they're drawn to one another and Steve vows to conquest and rescue this pathetic woman, and in doing so, perhaps redeem himself too. (End of Excerpt 1)

Monkey shines are cut short by an incredibly violent fight spearheaded by a saloon thug who'd been sizing up Steve and felt threatened, although unsure why --- which infuriates him all the more. In the process of the fight, the saloon is all but wrecked --- and Rose is knocked unconscious, but Steve manages to fend off certain death and escape to his small ship, with Rose in tow --- and they put out to sea.

"Scarlet Seas" (1928) Excerpt 2

Excerpt 2: Some hours later, Rose awakens to the mournful sound of a sea shanty being played on a concertina. At first disoriented, she gathers together her shred of a dress, and pulls up herself onto deck, to see that the musician is Steve, battered and bruised but when he sees her, he smiles --- at first sheepishly ("How Dry I Am") and then broadly, for the first time since they've met. The film's "theme song" is, quite appropriately, introduced here.

Once again, quiet contemplation and flirtation is interrupted --- not by fists and broken bottles this time, but by darkening skies and gathering wind that, in but a moment is heavily upon the aged and frail wooden vessel. Ill equipped and manned by an imperfect crew, the ship begins to founder --- the sails being torn apart by the wind. (End of Excerpt 2)

Following a series of disastrous events aboard the ship that result in it being accidentally set ablaze, Rose is thrown into the sea --- and Steve follows suit of his own accord, and in good time too for the ship soon slips beneath the waves, and with it the crew. Hauling themselves into a surviving lone rowboat tossed from the ship, Rose and Steve manage to survive the storm --- and are the only ones from the ship to do so.

"Scarlet Seas" (1928) Excerpt 3

Excerpt 3: Exhausted they drift to sleep, but awaken to find themselves in new peril. On a dead calm and windless sea, with the sun ablaze and unrelenting in a cloudless sky --- they drift aimlessly, hungry, parched, growing increasingly desperate yet ultimately resigned to what they feel sure is a cruel death. (End of Excerpt 3)

Just when hope seems all but lost, a puff of wind --- clouds form slowly then quicker, and at last it rains and they're spared, for now, from their worst fear. Night arrives, and with it fog -- but with thirst quenched and minds cleared, they vow to pull out of this somehow, and when they do, to make one another their own. Then, almost miraculously, a ghostly vision emerges from the mist --- the prow of a ship! They call and signal as best they can, but no voices come in return --- no heads peer over the ship's rail --- as the hulk looms closer and closer. Grabbing hold of nets and ropes that hang from the side of the ship like a shroud, Steve pulls him and Rose aboard onto the top deck.

"Scarlet Seas" (1928) Excerpt 4

Excerpt 4: Their eyes meet a series of horrible, ghastly visions: A deck littered with dead, murdered and mangled bodies --- the corpses of the ship's slain crew hung from masts like game pheasants. A massacre, but enacted by whom? And, were the murderers still aboard? The scent of cooked food rising from below deck nearly sends Steve and Rose insane, but dare they make their presence known? Muffled laughter and oaths from below are heard --- and Rose recognizes the voices as belonging to the familiar ruffians and dregs of Apia. Risking everything, she and Steve climb below deck, where they're seen through the drunken haze of the thugs, and recognized --- and, incredibly, warmly welcomed --- as all thoughts of revenge have been tempered with food and alcohol. Rose's survival mode kicks in and she warms up to the leader, reverting to the audacious flirt she was when Steve first met her ("Dardanella," used as a leitmotif for Rose, is heard again here.) (End of Excerpt 4)

Although Steve's trust in Rose is shattered, another pressing situation arises. Steve is made aware of two passengers who escaped slaughter, a pastor and his daughter (Loretta Young) who are privy to the whereabouts aboard ship of a cache of pearls. It is the intention of the pirates to keep them alive until they find the loot, and then to do away with them and, as Steve realizes, both he and Rose too.

Steve is soon assured by Rose that her loyalties are still his alone and learns that she had, in fact, saved their life by feigning disdain for Steve and becoming her old self again for the benefit of the scoundrels. Planning --- plotting --- an idea! As the ship nears a port, Steve's scheme is put into motion with the help of Rose and the two other survivors, and --- following a carefully choreographed action & fight sequence, our wayward hero manages to win the day by sheer luck and pluck.

"Scarlet Seas" (1928) Excerpt 5

Excerpt 5: Extreme good fortune is bestowed with the arrival of a British ship that spots the vessel and survivors, and approaches to carry the four (and the pearls) to safety. Love's old promise is renewed between Steve and Rose. Safely aboard the rescue ship, as his beaming daughter looks on, the grateful pastor suggests that the performance of a ceremony of marriage is the least he can do in return. Close up of Steve and Rose embracing --- Fade Out, The End.

And there we leave, as last they were seen in theaters during Christmas of 1928, "a man who rocked the Godhead, a man who sneered at the law and laughed at decency, and a girl whose sum total of life was cheaper still, both pounded out by a romance that is both thrilling and admirable."


N_Phay said...

I'd skimmed this particular entry a couple of times in the past, last night I sat and read the whole thing through with the music extracts playing as I read, and I've got to say you've done a real remarkable thing, in that you've taken this super-obscure lost little piece and you've somehow brought it to life. Who could read this and not have images conjured up in their mind as they read and listened. Oh man, I really want to see this film, it sounds like it was a cracker.

Jeff Cohen said...

N_Phay: I can't think of any compliment on my efforts that could surpass yours, for you interpreted my intention and goal precisely, accurately and fully.

I'm delighted!