Charles and I watched a film I’d recorded off TCM during one of the “Summer Under the Stars” tribute, this one to actor Ramon Novarro, a Mexican star who was Gay (and who came to a macabre end in 1970 when he was robbed and murdered by two hustlers he’d picked up) and whose most famous credit is the 1926 silent version of Ben-Hur. This is one silent film I like better than its blockbuster remake (Cecil B. DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments from 1923 is another — in fact I bought the DVD of the 1956 Ten Commandments just to get the silent version as a bonus), partly because Ben-Hur is such a surprisingly weak character, a man things happen to as opposed to someone who makes things happen, that Novarro’s androgyny actually suits the role better than Charlton Heston’s in-your-face masculinity in the remake. Anyway, the film we watched last night was a 1928 vehicle called Across to Singapore, based on a Ben Ames Williams novel called All the Brothers Were Valiant (which in some ways conveys more of what the story is about even though it doesn’t let you know that it’s a tale about sailors) which MGM had filmed under its own title just five years earlier (with Lon Chaney, Sr. in the role of the oldest, butchest brother, here played by Ernest Torrence in a surprisingly sympathetic role) and which was also filmed again in 1953. This version was such a star vehicle its opening credit announced, “RAMON NOVARRO in Across to Singapore,” and then in much tinier type, “WITH JOAN CRAWFORD AND ERNEST TORRENCE.” Within two years, of course, it would be JOAN CRAWFORD who’d be getting above-the-title billing in all caps (and just this morning TCM showed four of the early Crawford-Clark Gable films in a row: Dance, Fools, Dance, Laughing Sinners, Possessed — the 1931 version — 16 years later Crawford would make another film called Possessed, but at a different studio, Warner Bros., and with a totally different plot — and Chained) and Ramon Novarro, despite the success of his first sound film, The Pagan, who’d be scrambling as MGM tried to figure out what to do with him in the talkie era. (In 1933 Louis B. Mayer would issue his famous ultimatum to Novarro and William Haines that they had to marry women immediately or he would drop them from his contract list; Novarro quit, returned to Mexico and made films there, while Haines signed for three films with the cheapie Mascot studio, later Republic, then quit acting and became a celebrated interior designer, largely after Joan Crawford hired her to do her house and had the result photographed and publicized in all the movie magazines, with Haines fully credited.) Across to Singapore might have been an attempt by MGM to butch up Novarro’s image, much the way Paramount had done with Rudolph Valentino casting him in the maritime melodrama Moran of the “Lady Letty” six years earlier, but it didn’t work as well: the story simply isn’t as strong, it’s too much about the rivalry of the four Shore brothers (an ironic last name for a family of sailors!) — Mark (Ernest Torrence), Noah (Dan Wolheim), Matthew (Duke Martin) and Joel (Ramon Novarro) — and all too little of it actually takes place either at sea or in Singapore, though the scenes on board ship are easily the strongest in the film.
Mark Shore is the captain of a ship called the Nathan Ross, Noah is his first mate, Matthew is a sailor on board an unrelated vessel called the Sea Robin, and Joel is a wanna-be who in the opening scene is playing a mutinous pirate on an old hulk with Priscilla Crowninshield (Joan Crawford), daughter of Joshua Crowninshield (Edward Connelly), best friend of the Shore brothers’ father Jeremiah (Frank Currier). The two young lovebirds seem so right for each other — especially since they’re the only major characters in the film who don’t have heavy-duty Biblical first names — that we just know some complication is going to intrude, and it does: Jeremiah Shore and Joshua Crowninshield cut a deal for Priscilla to marry … Mark, who’s got a decidedly unrequited crush on her. Without consulting Priscilla, the fathers get the local minister to announce their “betrothal” even though Priscilla recoils as soon as Mark tries to kiss her. After a few atmospheric scenes in the local bar — where the Shores start a bar fight with a group of Puerto Rican sailors from a ship called the Santa Rosa — the Shores duly ship out and Mark has reluctantly allowed Joel to join the crew of the Nathan Ross. But Mark Shore is too busy mooning about Priscilla and swearing to kill the other man who’s his rival for her affections (he’s correctly guessed she’s not interested in him because she loves someone else, but hasn’t caught on that her true love is his rather nellie younger brother) to be an effective captain, and as a result Noah Shore is washed overboard in a storm. When they get to Singapore they receive word that Matthew Shore has been killed in an accident involving the Sea Robin, so now Mark and Joel are the only Shore brothers left. Mark, despite misgivings, immediately promotes Joel to replace Noah as first mate — much to the displeasure of Finch (played by an actor billed as “James Mason” but not the later one who became famous under that name, and probably not a relative either), who thought he was in line for that promotion and decides to get his revenge by getting Mark out of the way and taking over the Nathan Ross. He abandons Mark in Singapore and makes the rest of the crew (and the audience) believe Mark is dead. Six months pass, and Mark is determined not only to captain the Nathan Ross on its next voyage but to take Priscilla along and go back to Singapore and find Mark, whom he is convinced is still alive even though everyone else thinks he’s dead.
Mark is still alive, only he’s become a big-time alcoholic and he’s living with a Singaporean woman (played by an almost unrecognizable Anna May Wong), his uniform is in tatters, and he’s obviously in no condition to captain a ship or do much of anything else. Priscilla doesn’t want Joel to find Mark because under her “betrothal” back in the U.S., if he’s still alive she’ll be obligated to marry him even though she really loves Joel (why? The story takes place in 1857, when it’s entirely possible a “betrothal” of this type conferred a legal obligation on the woman to marry her “betrothed” even though she never consented to it!). Joel has just ordered Finch to lead him to the place where he abandoned Mark, only that never happens because just then Mark himself arrives on board the Nathan Hale, climbing up the side of the ship with the look of a desperate man, and when Joel has him put in irons because he’s worried about Priscilla’s safety (by then Mark has seen Priscilla and Joel kissing and finally realizes his rival for her love is his one surviving brother), Finch tells Mark that Joel deliberately abandoned him in Singapore on the Nathan Ross’s last voyage so he could go home and have Priscilla. Mark and Joel end up fighting, seemingly to the death, only Finch overplays his hand by locking them both in the hold and announcing his intention to stage a mutiny, so the two brothers break out of the cell and, with Priscilla’s help — she grabs a gun and picks off one of the bad guys, which led me to joke, “Now it looks like a Joan Crawford movie!” — they break up the mutiny. Eventually Finch throws a harpoon into Mark’s back, killing him, and Finch and Joel have a fight while holding on to the front of the ship (one scene that does look like director William Nigh — back in the days when he could still get jobs on decent movies with A-list actors before his losses in the 1929 stock market crash, and his insistence on paying back everything he owed in full, forced him to take the long series of wretched assignments at Monogram and other “B” factories that form most of his résumé — had seen Moran of the “Lady Letty”), which Joel wins, so Mark is conveniently eliminated and Joel wins back control of the ship and also gets Priscilla.
Across to Singapore has a lot of sequences in which key action is either obliterated or made difficult to follow by nitrate burns — as Charles noted, this is one film the preservationists got to just in time — and it’s not that great a movie (and Joan Crawford is singularly ill-suited to the sort of simpering coyness required of most silent ingénues — though she gets better as the film progresses), nor does the cheesy solo piano accompaniment it got in TCM’s version help much (especially when the pianist responds to the Nathan Ross’s arrival in Singapore by playing some cheesy whole-tone scales to suggest “Asianicity”), but it’s still an interesting and compelling movie, partly because it has enough variations on the clichés it’s really not all that clear how it’s going to turn out (the writers are Ted Shane for “adaptation,” Richard Schayer for “continuity” and Joseph Farnham, the creep who eviscerated Greed, for titles) and partly because it’s interesting how Ramon Novarro manages to be a credible male lead even though he’s a good deal nellier than the major male stars of the 1930’s and 1940’s and he never credibly butches up the way Valentino did in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Moran of the “Lady Letty.”