Few movie stars experienced as rapid of a fall from grace as John Gilbert. MGM’s reigning star of the mid-to-late 1920s, Gilbert was among the most prominent silent film stars to fall victim to the coming of sound to motion pictures. Over the years, many theories arose on why Gilbert had difficulty adapting to sound. Depending on who you believe, either he was unable to adapt his acting style from the silent to sound medium, or his material was so weak that no one could pull it off, or MGM boss Louis B. Mayer ordered the sound engineers to sabotage the recording of his dialogue. After his disastrous 1929 talkie debut “His Glorious Night,” critics savaged Gilbert and audiences began to stay away from his films. Even his studio failed to provide him with the adequate directors and materials to justify his star power. Within four years, he was considered a washed-up has-been.
I never saw any of Gilbert’s sound movies except for his last MGM epic, the 1933 Greta Garbo drama “Queen Christina” (and, honestly, I barely remember the film). But recently I tracked down a bootleg video of Gilbert’s last movie: the 1934 comedy “The Captain Hates the Sea.” And much to my surprise, I could find nothing wrong with Gilbert’s voice. In fact, he gave one of the most wonderfully funny comic performances I’ve ever seen in a movie.
“The Captain Hates the Sea” was sort of a forerunner to “The Love Boat”: a mix of interconnecting stories taking place among the nutty passengers and wacky crew of an ocean liner. There’s a cat-and-mouse game between a private eye (Victor McLaglen) trying to pin a bond theft on a slippery crook (Fred Keating); they take turns pursuing a lovely lady (Helen Vinson). There is a neurotic nut (John Wray) who treats his ex-hooker wife (Wynne Gibson) with such a vituperative temper that she eventually exacts revenge with a blackjack (you go, girl!). There is also a Panamanian general (Akim Tamiroff) who coordinated a revolution in his country, but is returning to meet his own firing line fate. Oddball characters including a pushy matriarch (Alison Skipworth), a weird little man with a huge beard (Donald Meek) and a haughty Englishman (Arthur Treacher) pop in and out at odd moments. There is also the eponymous captain (Walter Connolly), who not only hates the sea but also his job and passengers, and he especially loathes his bumbling steward (Leon Errol). This is truly a strange mix of personalities, and they all blend together for a memorably odd trip.
And then there’s an alcoholic screenwriter who is sailing off with the goals of starting a book and forgetting a doomed romance. That character is played by John Gilbert, and he is such a remarkable presence that you have to wonder about all of the poor press he withstood about his voice. At least in “The Captain Hates the Sea,” there is nothing wrong with his voice. In fact, he uses it to wonderful effect for both comic and ironic purposes. Both purposes were put into use with my favorite line in this flick – when a bartender offers to put seltzer water in his drink, Gilbert pushes his hand above the glass and sternly warns: “Never bruise liquor!”
What is ironic about that line, and Gilbert’s role in general, was that the man was literally drinking himself to death. After “Queen Christina” ended his MGM contract, no studio would hire Gilbert and he retreated to his Hollywood mansion. He fell into a deep alcoholic decline, but possible salvation came when filmmaker Lewis Milestone contacted him for a role in “The Captain Hates the Sea.” Milestone had already lined up Columbia Pictures’ backing for the film, and Columbia’s infamous mogul Harry Cohn had no problems with Gilbert being in the cast. Milestone, in order to reassure Gilbert that he could do a talkie, coordinated a screen test which Gilbert passed with flying colors.
Sadly, Gilbert’s doubts on his abilities fueled a resumption of his heavy drinking during the production of this film. But perhaps because his character is a chronic imbiber, Gilbert’s somewhat shaky and boozed up physical presence (you can see it in his lack of ocular focus) does not seem problematic. If anything, it is a credit to Milestone to keep the tipsy actor on his mark and in his dialogue, and Gilbert (perhaps seeing more than a little of himself in the character) brings a stunning depth to what could’ve been a stock part. You can feel the self-loathing and self-pity in the character’s introspective moments, and yet when he is at the bar he is very much the liquored-up life of the party. When he makes the aforementioned “Never bruise liquor!” remark, he sounds like he is speaking from years of experience of shunning chasers from his booze. Whether he is acting or being himself, it doesn’t matter – it is a great and truly original performance.
Gilbert also shares a bit of screen time clowning with a trio of musicians who try (and fail) to offer tuneful entertainment. That trio is none other than The Three Stooges, who had recently joined Columbia. However, their stardom was not yet secured: they were billed next-to-last without any special guest status and they were not allowed to engage in any of their trademark knockabout (although Curly gets theatrically flustered when Gilbert joking tries to tutor him in drumming). The Three Stooges turn up again in a second scene, except only Larry has dialogue (and it would appear he is the leader of the threesome!). While Stooges addicts may want to seek out this film in order to complete their quest for viewing every frame of footage starring the team, it should be noted this is one of their least-typical appearances (Moe and Larry don’t even wear their usual zany hairstyles).
“The Captain Hates the Sea” was actually doomed to financial failure when Lewis Milestone unwisely decided to shoot the film on location on an actual ocean liner. At his insistence, Columbia leased a vessel and the cast and crew set sail off the California coast. But poor weather hampered much of the shooting, and when the sun was shining too many members of the cast (particularly Gilbert, McLaglen and Errol) were inebriated beyond the point of being amusingly drunk. When Harry Cohn began examining the production costs relating to the endless delays in filming, he sent Milestone a cable at sea which read: “Hurry up, the costs are staggering!” To which Milestone cabled back: “So is the cast!”
“The Captain Hates the Sea” failed to earn a profit (it ran too far over budget to recover its costs). The commercial failure was a blow to Gilbert, who was seeking a comeback. Yet despite this box office setback, Gilbert’s performance was noticed and appreciated, and he was still seen as a viable performer. He was reportedly being considered for starring roles in Ernst Lubitsch’s “Desire” and the Technicolor extravaganza “The Garden of Allah” but he died of a heart attack in 1936 at the age of 37, before he was able to redeem himself.
To date, “The Captain Hates the Sea” has never been commercially available on home video. I am not even certain if it’s even been broadcast on television (I am unaware of it playing on the small screen). There doesn’t appear to be any problems in clearing the rights to the performances or the Wallace Smith novel on which this is based, and most likely it was one of those flicks that just fell into oblivion because it did poorly at the box office. The bootleg I have seems to have been taken from a 16mm print, which is a bit grainy but otherwise perfectly watchable.
I hope that people try to seek out “The Captain Hates the Sea,” if only to provide belated vindication for John Gilbert’s sound movie acting. Contrary to the still lingering legend, John Gilbert had a fine voice – and had he lived and received more quality roles, he’d have regained his star standing.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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