September 18, 2015
Down to the Sea in Ships (1922)
Grade: 46/100

Director: Elmer Clifton
Stars: Raymond McKee, Marguerite Courtot, William Walcott

What it's about. Set in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1850. Elderly William Morgan is a wealthy owner of a fleet of ships that hunt whales for their oil. Morgan, a devout Quaker, lost his only son in an accident at sea long ago.

Because it is a movie, Morgan has a beautiful grown and unmarried daughter, Patience (Marguerite Courtot). She wants to marry the boy next door, Allan Dexter (Raymond McKee), who has just returned home from college with excellent prospects in his family business. But Morgan forbids the marriage because Allan is neither a Quaker nor a whaler.

Instead, Morgan pressures Patience to marry Samuel Siggs (Jack Baston), a snivelling accounting clerk with greasy hair who claims to have been a whaler. But Siggs is instead in a conspiracy with ruffian Jake Finner (Pat Hartigan), who seeks to seize Morgan's ships and set course for San Francisco and the Gold Rush.

Meanwhile, Allan decides to prove to Morgan that he can become a whaler worthy of wedding Patience. He joins the crew of a whaling vessel with Jake Finner on board, who plots a mutiny against the captain. Events unfold in dramatic and unlikely yet foreseeable fashion.

How others will see it. Down to the Sea in Ships, which has little to do with the 1949 film of the same name, is best known today for the early appearance of Clara Bow, future star of It (1927) and Wings (1927), the first Best Picture Oscar winner. Clara Bow turned 17 in 1922, but her tomboy character appears a few years younger here, which suggests the filming took place circa early 1920.

The present movie is far too dated for most viewers, who might not be cognizant of the difficulty and cost of its production, especially the whaling scenes. Time has made the movie politically incorrect, and today we feel sorry for the hunted whale, tortured to death over hours. Viewers may also doubt whether killing a whale makes you more of a man than a mere college graduate, or whether a trace of Chinese ancestry makes a man "yellow" and unworthy of wedding a beautiful woman who has never left her house except to attend prayer meetings and ship launches.

The plot is predictable to anyone who has seen more than a few movies. It comes as little surprise that murderer, conspirator, and attempted child rapist Jake Finner receives Holy comeuppance, while heroic protagonist Allan Dexter gets the girl after completing the Herculean tasks of putting down a mutiny, harpooning a whale, and confronting both villains during the final reel.

How I felt about it. I am impressed by the cinematography of the ship at sea, particularly during the storm and the small boats pursuing the whale. We do feel sorry for the whales, but at the same time recognize the hardships of the sailors and their possibility of facing death at sea.

It is more difficult to endure the movie's hoary messages. Crime Does Not Pay are Hard Work Will Be Rewarded are forgivable, but does Patience have to do everything her overbearing and misguided father commands? Why does Allan have to forsake his education and training to prove his manliness at hard labor, like Roddy McDowall entering the coal mines in How Green Was My Valley, or Levin working the fields with his serfs in "Anna Karenina". Most distressing of all, is a man with Chinese heritage unfit to court a devout white Christian woman?

The films various dubious messages are delivered in heavy-handed and predictable fashion, as if the viewer has the comprehension of a 12 year old. Nevertheless, there is drama in the closing scenes, even though we are fairly certain how they will play out. We doubt that Jake Finner will choke Allan Dexter to death during the thunderstorm and take Morgan's fleet to the California Gold Rush, while Samuel Siggs marries Patience, who lives unhappily ever after and delivers part-Asian children.