Under Full Sail

Silent Cinema on the High Seas

by Michael Barrett

13 April 2009

We wish this DVD set a bon voyage as it launches forth onto the rough seas of digital enterprise in the current economy. It's crucial for film buffs to support such efforts, or they'll vanish like nitrate.
From Ship Ahoy 
cover art

Under Full Sail: Silent Cinema on the High Seas

The Yankee Clipper / Around the Horn / The Square Rigger / Ship Ahoy / Down to the Sea in Ships
Director: Rupert Julian
Cast: William Boyd, Elinor Fair

US DVD: 14 Apr 2009

There are shipspotters as well as trainspotters and birdspotters, and this collection is designed to appeal not only to silent film fans but to this niche within the niche, or niche beside the niche. When these films were new, they were deliberately constructed with nostalgic appeal, so that now there are multiple layers of nostalgia or to the novice, multiple layers of novelty.

The Yankee Clipper (1927) is a feature produced by Cecil B. DeMille and directed by Rupert Julian, who to judge by this film and his most famous item, The Phantom of the Opera, had an eye for the picturesque. This edition (collated from several prints) often looks remarkably sharp, sometimes with tints, and gives us an eyeful of decor, especially in its stereotypically exotic picture-postcard visions of China and the shots of the real star of the show, an 1856 wooden square-rigger called Indiana.

In this 1850s tale, an American clipper and a British ship race to Boston in a contest to win China’s tea trade. A similar event really happened, which this story reinvents as pure melodrama.

William Boyd plays Hal Winslow, the Yankee skipper. Elinor Fair (Mrs. Boyd) plays the English captain’s daughter, Lady Jocelyn, embalmed in hoops and bloomers. They fall in love at first sight telescopically, but she’s engaged for no special reason to Paul de Vigny (John Miljan), in mad-hatter top and cravat and little mustache and goatee, and he’s all craven and greedy and slimy and French.

To show his duplicity, he has a Chinese mistress who’s actually named Wing Toy (cue the aria from Madama Butterfly, played by Dennis James on a Wurlitzer). The actress is clearly Caucasian, and IMDB reveals the incredible detail that she’s Sally Rand, who worked several times for DeMille and was still some years away from inventing the fan dance.

From The Yankee Clipper

From The Yankee Clipper

But we get ahead of ourselves. When the race begins, Jocelyn and Paul happen to be aboard the clipper, and Captain Winslow impulsively refuses to let them off. The race to win the lady is paralleled with the race to Boston, and along the way there must be a typhoon (using a miniature model) during which everyone behaves inappropriately, and the inevitable threat of mutiny.

Don’t forget the sexual threat to Lady Jocelyn, and not just from any bald, be-scarred, earringed sailor but from a “mongrel whelp of the Seven Seas.” (He’s identified in the title card is Iron Head Joe, but I note that IMDB lists him as Portuguese Joe; was his name and origin later modified in order not to offend a particular group?) This plays up the unspeakable menace of some vaguely interracial desecration, just as Vigny’s Chinese mistress was a sign of his degeneration.

There’s also a lot of supposedly cute byplay with a little stowaway who charms all by chewing tobacco and getting a mermaid tattoo while declaring how he hates women. The tobacco detail is nicely milked and will prove crucial during an exciting climax. The boy is child star Junior Coghlan, born in 1916 and still alive in 2008 to record a brief reminiscence included as an extra.

No more now than in 1927 will anybody be much interested in the story and characters as they will be in the look of the picture and the grandeur of the clipper. The selling point at the time was that the movie was filmed for six weeks aboard a real ship, even if the China scenes are pure Hollywood backlot. Alas, the expensive production proved a box-office failure, so the nostalgic allure of old-time sailing might have already been insufficient in the Roaring Twenties.

Ship Ahoy (1928) is a short newsreel about nothing more than a veteran windjammer carrying lumber up from the Carolinas, and it’s revealing that this was recognized as filmworthy. The title cards play the romantic nostalgia note from the opening. “Almost vanished from the matter-of-fact world of today are the picturesque sailing-vessels that one time bore the commerce and the romance of the high seas,” we are told. “Life on board is leisurely, unhurried—all progress at the whim of the winds—a hark-back from this age of six day liners, swimming pools and French cuisine.”

Yes, American audiences jaded on French cuisine by the swimming pool can sigh to these relaxing images of sailors peeling potatoes, washing out of buckets, and hanging up wet clothes, which right away tell us more practical facts about life at sea than we ever glimpsed in the main feature. They also got the camera up on the yardarms for some nice close-ups of men scaling the masts. At one point we can even see the big shadow of the cameraman projected on a sail.

From The Square Rigger

From The Square Rigger

As interesting and well-shot as this is, it’s topped by The Square Rigger (1932), this collection’s only talkie, though it’s filmed essentially as a silent piece with no narrator or dialogue. It’s set aboard a 1909 frigate now used to train Polish naval cadets. The opening annouces “The glory of the old square-riggers!” and rhapsodizes about “age-old traditions of sail and sea and salty sailormen,” all this largely to an audience of lubbers with no more notion of the topic than what they gleaned from reading Popeye.

But who can fail to fall under the spell of these beautifully composed and edited shots of the “smooth cheeked crew” as they lounge at ease in a pile, cut hair, sew, scale the rigging, scrub the decks, and dive out for a swim? The anonymous filmmakers present their subjects with the love of Eisenstein gazing at the Potemkin sailors sleeping in their hammocks. There’s even an overhead Busby Berkeley shot as the boys turn a wheel while singing “Anchors Aweigh” in Polish. This masterful little Fox Movietone newsreel is structured to end at night and provide a natural sense of conclusion.

Around the Horn in a Square Rigger (1933), the item in the roughest shape, is non-professional silent footage shot by sailor-writer AlanVilliers during that year’s race to transport grain from Australia to England aboard a Finnish four-masted bark built in 1902. They set a record at 83 days, which co-owner Villiers could hardly have known in advance. Filming was an unexpected job for him; according to John E. Stone’s excellent booklet of notes, he’d hired a professional cameraman who died in a fall (presumably while trying to climb or work in the rigging), forcing Villiers to shoot the footage.

He’s more interested in the boat and the sea and not so much in the crew, although he does make a point of showing the captain’s daughter in a couple of striking poses. Everyone else can go hang and frequently does, over tackle and yardarm. Villiers rarely picks out individuals, though we do see the pipe-smoking captain and a man on the anchor chain. This rough and ready footage wasn’t really conceived or shaped as a whole; we hardly receive any sense that we’re in a race but rather a sense of being suspended in this world of wind and water.

From Down to the Sea in Ships

From Down to the Sea in Ships

The DVD closes with a 10-minute sequence from the 1922 independent feature Down to the Sea in Ships, a Clara Bow melodrama available from Kino. It was financed by local public subscription and shot out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, by the Whaling Film Corporation. The point of this picture, directed by Elmer Clifton, was to string a melodramatic storyline with documentary elements of the kind of whaling done since the days of Moby Dick, when the animals had a chance to splinter a wooden rowboat to bits while being harpooned by hand.

The sequence we see cleverly edits documentary footage of a whale hunt with fabricated drama of a boat overturning as people point offscreen to inserts of a shark swimming in shallow water. A few shots have both boat and whale (at a little distance), but close-ups that allegedly depict the boat being pulled by the whale are shot from above by a boat keeping ahead, not from the back of a whale. Still, the point was to convey procedures and incidents that were accurate representations of the whaling life.

This is the latest release from Flicker Alley, which has quickly become the second most important company (after Kino) to issue silent films on DVD. Since Kino releases other types of films as well, Flicker Alley is arguably the most important specialist in the field, perhaps the only specialist. By working with producer David Shepard at Blackhawk Films and with the French company Lobster Films, they’ve released a handful of important, even monumental DVDs.

Their previous release was the astonishing five-disc box Douglas Fairbanks: A Modern Musketeer, which has 11 films from 1916 to 1921. Under Full Sail is a more modestly conceived item, and we wish it a bon voyage as it launches forth onto the rough seas of digital enterprise in the current economy. It’s crucial for film buffs to support such efforts, or they’ll vanish like nitrate.

Under Full Sail: Silent Cinema on the High Seas


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