This past week I re-read Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. Despite the weird recurring punctuation typos (I need a job as an editor, seriously), it is a pretty amazing book. He spends some time at the end talking about a 1922 movie set in the 1870s and filmed in New Bedford: "Down to the Sea in Ships". Intrigued, I queued that baby up. It arrived last night.
Ten minutes in, I said, "This movie is awesome, in a hilarious silent-film way! Why doesn't New Bedford host showings of it all the time?"
Fifteen minutes in, our villain is introduced, wearing a kimono and carrying a fan. His "partner in nefarious schemes" tempts him with the heroine's beauty.
Me: "Oh dude, that man is not interested in the ladies."
A series of jaw-dropping title cards inform us that the kimono is actually because the villain's Terrible Secret (which he's not doing a very good job of hiding, then) is his Asian ancestry. Except, believe you me, they do not use the words "Asian ancestry".
Me: "Oooohhhh dear. That's why New Bedford doesn't host showings of this movie."
Meanwhile, a 17-year-old Clara Bow is bounding around playing twelve. She gets in a slap-fight with a ten-year-old boy that lasts, literally, five minutes. I fast-forwarded through it and it still went on forever. At one point he clearly lands an actual smack, and Clara Bow is pissed.
The heroine, Clara Bow's older sister, is played in mincing mime, except for one moment when she realizes her crush has returned home from college (apparently he spent about fifteen years there, judging by his age, but he is pretty hardy) and the actress puts her hands on her waist and exhales a huge breath, with puckered lips, psyching herself up. It's a two-second scene and its realism is so unlike anything else the actress is asked to do that I had to go back and watch it several times. The whole rest of their courtship is the mincing mime stuff and title cards telling us he's saying, "Golly, miss, don't cry!" but the actors visibly dig each other, so it's sweet. (I discovered this morning that they actually married after the movie, and stayed married for the rest of their lives. Awwww.)
We get a flashback to them playing as (admittedly adorable) children that lasts ten minutes. At the end of it both children are crying what are absolutely real tears. I imagine the director probably slapped them, or had Clara Bow do it.
But if it was tough to be a child actor in the 1920s, it was worse to be a whale. The plot thickens to blubber-point when our hero is refused the heroine's hand because her crabby Quaker dad will not let her marry a man who has not harpooned a whale (from my Melville, I know that the harpooners were very rarely white men, so this seems like the perfect excuse for a young Quaker lady to bring a strapping African home and be like, "Ha ha, Dad, get out of this one"). So he goes down to the docks, intending to sign on to a whaling ship. The villain, who is nefariously stroking a small image of Buddha (seriously), has him kidnapped and... put on a whaling ship. The thwarting! Oh, wait.
According to Dolin, they took a real whaleship out (the Wanderer) and the actors learned how to handle it from the remaining whalemen in New Bedford. And, during the shoot, they harpooned an actual whale and rendered it on-board. Those scenes are fascinating, both in that you can see how they did the work and in that the star of the movie is flailing around in real blubber, but also disturbing.
The plot thickens further! There's a mutiny and a mutiny-on-the-mutineers and Clara Bow has stowed away in the hold, periodically emerging to slap people, and meanwhile back in New Bedford, Quaker Dad is having manipulative heart attacks whenever his daughter says she doesn't want to marry the villain (who earlier showed her father a letter saying, "The bearer has totally harpooned a whale").
Heroine: "But Dad, he's weird and creepy and Buddhist -"
Dad: "Ack thrash DYING!"
Heroine: "Again? Geez, Dad, fine. Just let me have an awkward interaction with my Native American nanny, who is dressed like Pocahontas, and then put on my enormous wedding bonnet."
Meanwhile, at sea, the ship is under our hero's control. He is now officially a "boatsteerer", which also apparently means harpooner (one doesn't wear sleeves when harpooning, so the movie at this point gets kind of racy). They are heading back to New Bedford when they come across whales, and decide to lower for them. And this is the cool part of the movie, even if it's tainted by the knowledge that the director probably said, "Oh, and if you actually manage to kill one, that would be great."
No CGI in 1922. They lower real whaleboats into the middle of a shoal of real whales and go at it. The cameramen following in boats got a shout-out in the opening credits, as well they should. And their lead actor is right there in the prow; it's not a stuntman, and according to Dolin the actor did his own harpooning. It's a pretty incredible scene. Side note: many of the extras in the whaleboats, who I assume were actual whalemen, are African-American.
The whale is achieved, and they head home. Not a moment too soon, as our heroine is going to the Meeting House to wed the villain. She drags out the Quaker "wait until the spirit moves you" bit as long as she can, while our hero is running through the streets of New Bedford in a monsoon and falling down a lot (he also stops to get in a fistfight with somebody, but due to the darkness I hadn't the faintest idea whom; I'm going to assume it's Clara Bow). He arrives at the Meeting House in the nick of time and, to my utter delight, breaks through a window instead of stepping three feet to his left and using the door. The villain heads for the door, since he presumably has mastered the use of handles (that's wily Orientalism for you), but vigilante Quakers tackle him. There's a fairly hot kiss and an epilogue showing that Quaker Dad is happy because a grandson has been produced from our hero's harpoon-worthy loins.
In conclusion: so offensive! But also strangely awesome.
P.S. Of course the internet has a clip of the slap fight, although you would need to watch it for five straight minutes to get the full effect. I have not been able to find a picture of the wedding bonnet, though, which is a shame; that thing was the size of an ottoman.