Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Down to the Sea in Ships

A good six years ago, I gave the old one-paragraph mention of the 1949 movie Down to the Sea in Ships. It's back out of the vault to run on FXM, tomorrow morning at 7:55 AM and again at 6:00 AM Friday.

Lionel Barrymore plays Bering Joy, captain of a whaling ship that's returning to New Beford MA in 1887 after a long voyage at see. Serving as cabin boy was Bering's grandson Jed (Dean Stockwell), who is getting to the age where he could become a full-fledged member of the crew, and is willing to move his stuff to the forecastle as a result. (Jed's parents are both dead, so Grandpa is his guardian.) But there's a problem, in that being at the age to join a crew means he's also at the age where he's subject to showing he's up to the educational standards the state has set, and if he can't show that, he's going to have to go to school. On land.

Bering wants to go out for one more voyage, with his grandson, but in addition to the problem of Jed's schooling that Bering is thoroughly unfit to provide, there's also the issue of his age and infirmity. (Barrymore is not in his wheelchair here, but on crutches and presumably having a double do any number of long shots that have him standing without crutches.) The insurance company doesn't necessarily want Bering going out to sea, and whaling company boss Harris (Harry Davenport) is offering a generous retirement.

Bering is a force of nature, however, and he's able to convince the whaling company to let him go, as well as to get the headmaster of the school to fudge Jed's grades. Apparently, Bering had had the headmaster on the previous voyage and gave him the profoundly good advice that he wasn't suited to a seaman's life. But with times changing, Bering is going to get a new first mate in Dan Lunceford (Richard Widmark). Dan went to college, and learned modern ways of being a ship's captain much in the way that people went to ag schools to learn about scientific agricultural managment.

Bering isn't too happy to have this "scientific" college guy on board with him, but he realizes there's a silver lining. Jed still needs his education, and in Dan, there's a guy with an education, so Bering gets Dan to teach Jed basic education. Dan isn't so pleased with the arrangement at first, either, because Jed isn't a particularly apt people thinking he only needs to learn that which is necessary for working on a ship.

Eventually things work out between Dan and Jed. Perhaps they work out too well, because Jed, not having a living father, is in strong need of a positive, capable role model. He finds that in Dan for fairly obvious reasons, and when Bering realizes what's happening, he gets nervous about it. This is doubly so when one of the small boats with Jed on it gets lost for several hours and Dan defies Bering's orders to deal with the situation.

There are all sorts of other problems, of the sort you can expect on a boat as well, with the biggest one being that since they're going to the Antarctic to catch whales, they have to deal with icebergs, something which would destroy those old wooden ships even more surely than they destroyed the badly-designed metal Titanic.

Down to the Sea in Ships was filmed in California and the waters off the coast, but other than that and the lack of Technicolor, the movie is one that fits in well with the grand old tradition of the Hollywood adventure story. Barrymore is surprisingly good, since I wouldn't have expected a man confined to a wheelchair to be able to handle the role. Widmark is in an early starring and good-guy role, and already shows that he had a range greater than the criminal heavies that would mark his early career. The supporting cast is good, too, with Cecil Kellaway as the cook and Harry Morgan among the crew members.

Down to the Sea in Ships is available on DVD courtesy of Fox's MOD scheme. There's an earlier silent movie by the same name with a different story that's on DVD, and also availalbe on Youtube since it's in the public domain. I'll be getting around to it at some point.

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