Plymouth Adventure (1952) is a romantic MGM drama starring Spencer Tracy and Gene Tierney. He’s a hard-bitten sea-dog. She’s a married Puritan woman. Their smouldering, unconsummated romance occurs on the Mayflower’s 1620 voyage to drop the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. This description makes the movie sound like glossy Hollywood nonsense, a typical example of mixing history with melodramatic trash. Well, there’s some justice to that impression, but other things are happening in this movie, as well.
It’s scripted by Helen Deutsch, an excellent writer whose credits include The Seventh Cross, National Velvet, King Solomon’s Mines, Kim, It’s a Big Country, Lili, The Glass Slipper and Valley of the Dolls. Most of those are adapted from novels, as is Plymouth Adventure. It was a bestselling novel by Irish writer Ernest Gébler, and Deutsch’s approach is canny and interesting.
Most of the film is giving a basic, telescoped history on the background and political ideas of the Pilgrims who arrived near Cape Cod in what is now Massachusetts. Much dialogue is purely expository, yet Deutsch makes it all smooth and engaging. One sequence, presented as comedy, is a demonstration by Miles Standish (Noel Drayton) on how to load and fire a musket. This kind of curious detail is something you rarely see in historical movies, and it shows how seriously the film takes itself as a history lesson. It’s actually about 80 percent history lesson, with only the smaller portion following that throughline of the abortive romance. In the light of this history, the romance can be considered as almost an allegorical element designed to “sell” the viewers on the Pilgrims. In other words, the romance creates and mirrors the viewer’s growing emotional involvement with the plight of a society with whom we may have little affinity.
Unless I missed it, Deutsch never refers to the Pilgrims as Puritans. In fact, the majority of the voyagers to the New World (they thought they were going to Virginia, and the film shows them as victims of a fraud) weren’t Puritans, but they all ended up signing the Mayflower Compact encouraged by the Puritan minority. The film makes a point of saying that all kinds of people were on the Mayflower, and Van Johnson plays a token non-Puritan who falls for a spunky lass. Still, the Puritan characters are the focus. One of them is a sly old fugitive with a printing press, which proves a useful instrument. The script emphasizes their stubborn qualities as trouble-making, persecuted Dissenters rather than their, well, puritanical qualities. A Puritan woman surely never wore lipstick, but we’re not surprised to see Gene Tierney wearing it.
Deutsch is helped enormously by Tracy, who can deliver any line with conviction. He’s often praised as one of the greatest film actors and one who makes it look easy. It’s easy to look good when you’re working with good material; Tracy’s real value becomes clear when saddled with a character whose function is basically hokum. Here, he’s surprisingly visceral: a tough, hard-drinking, sexual animal who introduces himself via sexual assault. He makes sure this is no story of pious pilgrims.
As Captain Christopher Jones, he provides the film’s main point of view: a hostile outsider who thinks these voyagers are hypocritical fools. Over the course of the film, he will become converted to respect for the Pilgrims because of their courage and steadfastness, and mainly because of his feelings for Dorothy Bradford (Tierney), the wife of the famous William Bradford (Leo Genn), longtime governor of the colony and author of the diary Of Plymouth Plantation. Dorothy Bradford is a subject of much historical speculation. There’s a mystery about her, and the writers used this as a hook for the melodramatic portion of the tale.
I believe it’s significant that Dore Schary, during his brief tenure as MGM’s production chief, made this movie while Hollywood was going through the era of anti-communist blacklisting. While still at RKO, he’d tried to resist the hysteria but signed the 1947 Waldorf Statement in which Hollywood executives agreed not to hire known communists. (He wrote about this fateful hotel conference in his 1979 memoir Heyday, and apparently he was the only participant to do so.) A lot of 1950s movies famously channel a blacklist vibe via narrative metaphors (High Noon, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc.). Here’s a rare movie engaging directly with a source of American political mythology, albeit at a romanticized remove.
On the one hand, Plymouth Adventure is celebrating the idea of America as a new world where those who have been persecuted for their religion (that is to say, their politics) can find freedom. In this light, the scene in which all the Pilgrims (the men, that is) sign the Mayflower Compact as an act of self-government is shown as a forerunner of the signing of the Declaration of Independence or ratifying the Constitution. The narrator drops in to interpret the scene for us as a boldly radical step in history. At the same time, the way in which they’re all hectored and demagogued into signing it because, as Bradford thunders, the alternative is ANARCHY, smacks of making everybody sign a loyalty oath. It kind of makes you wonder how things might have been if they’d chosen anarchy.
By the way, Schary had an important history with Tracy. He’d scripted a Tracy vehicle, The Big City (1937, now available through Warner Archives as part of a set called Signature Collection: Luise Rainer) and soon afterwards wrote Boys Town especially for him, creating one of the actor’s biggest hits and winning himself an Oscar in the bargain. It’s interesting when a producer is also a good writer, and Schary’s productions were script-conscious.
The director here is Clarence Brown, a master of the tasteful, unashamed melodrama. He was known as a woman’s director because of his work with Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and others. He’d worked with Deutsch on National Velvet and with Tracy in Edison the Man. He had a fine line in sentimental Americana with the likes of Ah, Wilderness!, Of Human Hearts, and The Human Comedy. (That last title is also recently available from Warner Archives, and it’s got a scene where Mickey Rooney reads a letter from his brother that will wipe anyone out.) Brown’s highlights may have been The Yearling and the still underrated Intruder in the Dust, based on William Faulkner’s novel.
Plymouth Adventure was his last film, and it’s not a bad exit. He handles the “sappy” parts with all the forthrightness and conviction of which classic Hollywood was capable, at least when Brown was around, and the result is that those scenes are moving even as the more jaded sections of our brains start to rebel. Too late—the neural pathways short-circuit as the snort becomes a sniffle.
By way of example, I’ll give you one scene. There was a boy who died on the voyage, and the movie has the tyke vowing he’ll the be the first to spot land. When he’s ill with fever, they bring him a dead bird that’s clearly a sign of land, and the boy remarks on the poor bird who flew too far from home. Then he suddenly rises from his deathbed in the night to emerge on deck, where he smiles in joy as he seems to glimpse a distant glow before collapsing as the camera closes in on the dead bird tumbling from his grip.
Is it kitsch? Is it camp? I just know that when Hollywood aims to punch you in the heart through sheer stylistic conviction, it works like gangbusters. It’s such a beautiful vision, even the parts that aren’t true—or are they beautiful because they’re not true? Anyway, if you can’t just go with it when the Oscar-winning effects and Miklos Rozsa’s majestic music and the glorious Technicolor fill your senses, then what are you watching a movie for?
This film is now available as part of the Warner Archives’ made-on-demand service.