Saturday, October 10, 2015

Sea Legs (Paramount, 1930)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Sea Legs, a peculiar 1930 production from Paramount casting Jack Oakie and Eugene Pallette as sailors “Searchlight” Doyle and Hyacinth Nitouche, who have been shanghaied onto a ship called the Fourth of July owned by the navy of the independent (but formerly French) island of Sainte Cassette (I of course immediately decided that since then the name has been changed to Sainte CD). They’re continuously running into trouble from the ship’s captain (Albert Conti) and its “disciplinary officer,” Crossetti (Jean De Val), whose sole function seems to be to walk the ship’s decks with a little notebook in which he writers up sailors for trivial offenses, whereupon the captain usually — but not always — overrides the punishments. Doyle was shanghaied by a Jewish attorney, Gabriel Grabowski (played by Jewish dialect comedian Harry Green, whom Edward G. Robinson mentioned in his autobiography as the person who got to do the movie The Kibitzer, based on a play Robinson co-wrote with Jo Swerling which he had been hoping he could tour with on stage for years and build into a sinecure for himself — only his contract with Swerling gave Swerling control of the movie rights, Swerling sold them to Paramount, Paramount made the film with Green and it killed Robinson’s ability to tour the production because anyone interested in the story had already seen the movie), who mistook him for the grandson of Admiral O’Brien (Charles Sellon).

O’Brien grandpère had wanted O’Brien fils stuck on a Sainte Cassette naval vessel for two years, with the promise of a $2 million inheritance at the end of it, basically in order to butch him up — and when we see the grandson turn up at the end of the movie he’s a screaming queen who gets thrown overboard after protesting, “I thought this was a fairy boat!” There are a few other homoerotic references that mark Sea Legs as a product of the so-called “pre-Code” era, including one in which Oakie and Pallette walk the decks of the ship (played by a real Navy vessel loaned to Paramount by the real U.S. Navy — and the background of Point Loma, San Diego is clearly recognizable in the background of the long shots of the ship), as well as some odd jokes, including that the captain not only has five daughters but has brought them all along on the ship with him. Four of them are anonymous Paramount starlets but the fifth is Adrienne, played by Lillian Roth, who according to film historian and preservationist John Carpenter — who contributed a review on under the name “newsilentcomedy” — was put into this film when Paramount thought it was going to be a musical. It was one of those films that got caught in the anti-musical backlash that took hold in 1930 and lasted for two years (until the huge success of 42nd Street made musicals bankable properties again), during which a lot of movies that were filmed as musicals were shorn of many of their songs, and other films that had been musicals when they were done on stage shows (including Cole Porter’s Fifty Million Frenchmen) were filmed as straight comedies. There are some good bits in Sea Legs (which we were watching on a downloaded print retitled Shanghaied — which would actually have been a better title, not only because the Oakie and Pallette characters really were shanghaied but one of the best gags in the movie was ripped off from Charlie Chaplin’s 1915 movie Shanghaied). The only big song left in Sea Legs is “This Must Be Illegal (It’s So Nice),” a quite charming duet for Oakie (who actually had an O.K. comic voice — this is the best singing I’ve heard him do) and Lillian Roth, who when she’s not on board the ship is working at a French pastry shop.

The best things in Sea Legs are the song, a gag (the one they ripped off from Chaplin) in which Oakie and Roth are continually thrown together physically by the side-to-side rocking motion of the ship (done the way Chaplin did it: by building a rocking platform with a motor under it to move it back and forth on cue), and the final pie fight between Sainte Cassettian and American sailors that breaks out in the pastry shop — I’m not sure but I suspect this was actually the first time a pie fight was done in a talkie! Other than that Sea Legs is pretty mediocre, mildly amusing but hardly the laff-riot Paramount’s publicists were leading people to expect when they loudly proclaimed that Chaplin’s star was eclipsed at last and Jack Oakie would be the next great comedian of the screen. (In fact, Oakie’s career was in the doldrums by the late 1930’s and it was Chaplin who gave him his indelible comeback role as “Benzino Napaloni, Il Diggaditchi of Bacteria,” i.e. Benito Mussolini, Il Duce d’Italia, in his great Hitler spoof The Great Dictator, 1940.) It is nice to see Eugene Pallette midway between his romantic lead in the French sequences of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance of 1916 and the bloated apparition he played throughout the late 1930’s and early 1940’s — he’s gravel-voiced but not especially fat — and some of the worm-turning scenes are also fun, but as 1930 Paramount comedies go this is hardly on the level of the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers, which shared at least two personnel with this one, director Victor Heerman (who was usually a writer, generally collaborating with his wife, Sarah Y. Mason) and Lillian Roth, who played Margaret Dumont’s daughter in the vivid, savagely brilliant Marx Brothers romp. I suppose it’s important to be reminded that not all Paramount’s comedies of the 1930’s were edgy masterpieces with people like the Marx Brothers, Mae West and W. C. Fields; they cranked out some pretty ordinary ones with O.K. people (at the time Oakie’s contract was split between Paramount and RKO, and they used him pretty much the way Warner Bros. used Joe E. Brown) that were fun and unthreatening … which, arguably, was precisely what was wrong with them.