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`Those that go DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS, that do business
in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and His
wonders in the deep.' Psalms 107: 23, 24
Filmed on location in and around the old sailing center of New Bedford, Massachusetts, here is a silent film with exciting drama & action. The production values are excellent and the necessary romantic elements do not intrude on the swift flow of the plot. With kidnapping & murder, mutiny at sea & hungry sharks, the pace never slackens.
Marguerite Courtot is the pretty heroine who pines at home after her lover, sturdy Raymond McKee, is abducted and spirited off in a whaler. She is given little to do except play with her dolls and fend off a lecherous knave, but Mr. McKee is plunked right into the thick of things, engaged in all the most dangerous tasks which a whaleman must accomplish - and it is obvious that the actor is placed in some jeopardy as well.
(Beautiful Miss Courtot & handsome Mr. McKee were both popular players during silent days. They married a year after the release of DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS. She ended her film career in 1923, while his did not survive the coming of talkies. They remained married for 61 years, until his death in 1984 at the age of 91. She died in 1986, aged 88.)
The film is also notable as providing the breakout role for 16-year old Clara Bow, playing the spunky niece of Miss Courtot, who becomes a stowaway on the whaler in order to be near the young cabin boy on whom she dotes. Clara is feisty and full of fight & fun and it's easy to see how this film helped make her a star. (She would enliven the rest of the silent era, but her movie career would be over before her 30th birthday. She died in 1965 at the age of 60.)
Patrick Hartigan, as a bestial seaman and J. Thornton Baston, as a half-caste Asian disguised as a Quaker, make very fine villains.
The film offers interesting insight into the lives of the New England Quakers of the 19th Century. There is also much to be learned about whaling operations and the authentic footage of the capture and dissection of a sperm whale will either fascinate or repulse the viewer. The film's opening credits give special commendation to the brave cameramen who risked their lives to photograph the thrilling footage at sea.
DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS (Hodkinson Studios, 1922), presented and
personally directed by Elmer Clifton, produced in New Bedford,
Massachusetts, by the Whaling Film Corporation, Wholesome Film Service
Inc., the New England Distributor, bears no resemblance to the 20th
Century-Fox 1949 whaling saga starring Richard Widmark, Dean Stockwell
and Lionel Barrymore, except in title only. As much as this could have
been an earlier screen treatment to the latter seafaring adventure, the
titles are the same but the storyline is not. No doubt the romantic
leading players to this 1922 production, Marguerite Courtot and Raymond
McKee, have little or no significance to anyone today, but for
historical purposes, other than its authentic whaling expeditions and
actual location shooting, it's reputation rests solely as the film that
launched the career of future film star Clara Bow (1905-1965), making
her motion picture debut.
With the predictable but satisfying plot about separated lovers (Courtot and McKee) and a scheming villain (J. Thornton Baston), DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS is a worthy silent film that captures the technical ingenuity of the day and the life of whaling men, at times told in documentary style. Director Elmer Clifton even imposes quotes through title cards from Herman Melville's classic whaling novel, "Moby Dick" as well as the literary works of Richard Henry Dana (author of "Two Years Before the Mast"). Many historical landmarks of New Bedford are featured, including the Apponegansett Meeting House, built in 1790, along with gardens from the museum of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society focused towards the end. Scenes such as these are sure to marvel even those present day residents of New Bedford, but it's the whaling sequences, then and now, that are highlights, along with one realistic shark attack sequence, which, naturally, did not cause any actors involved to become human sacrificed as shark bait
Though not up to the standards of today's technology of movie making, DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS goes on record as the sort of adventure story predating many of those seafaring epics popular in later years. Instead of studio bound sets with rear projection scenes, along with model ships floating in giant tanks, it's been reported that everything about this production was filmed on location. Speaking of location shooting, when DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS was presented on public television as part of its 12-week series of THE SILENT YEARS (1975), its host, Lillian Gish, who normally profiled her insight about the upcoming film inside a studio room, did her presentation on the actual site of the vessel used for this 1922 production in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She did go on in saying that while the movie lacked marquee names, it produced an unlikely star appearing in a small role, Clara Bow. An interesting introduction to the gal whose many films represented the jazz era during the roaring twenties, by which she was usually cast as an independent modern woman, immortalized as The "IT" Girl by 1927. This is where this Brooklyn, N.Y., gal got her start. Many felt Clara Bow stole the show from her leading players. Aside from her tomboyish performance which pitted her in a fist fight with another boy, she was equally memorable as the stowaway sporting a man's suit and top hat. Marguerite Courtot, who at times resembles a dark-haired Lillian Gish, particularly during the early portion of the story, interacts well with her co-star, Raymond McKee, whom she actually married by the time production was completed. McKee, who has more screen time than his leading lady, is the actual star of the film, as the bold young man taken out to sea where he conquers everything possible in order to try and win back the girl he loves. With a handful of silent films lost and gone forever, DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS is fortunate to have survived, making this the only known Marguerite Courtot movie in circulation today.
Director Elmer Clifton, who got his start under D.W. Griffith, obviously brings forth certain factors made famous by this pioneer director, such as a flashback showing the young lovers, Patience and Dexter, as children, in which Patience tries to help little Dexter to pull out a loose tooth from his mouth with a string; along with close ups and super imposing shots. One scene worth mentioning finds now adult Dexter, standing on the mast as the wind is blowing through his curly hair, looking out to sea and envisioning the image of Patience into the clouds, something similarly used in Michael Curtiz's seafaring adventure of CAPTAIN BLOOD (Warners, 1935) where Errol Flynn as Peter Blood looks out to sea with the super imposing of his lady love, Arabella (Olivia De Havilland). Quite effective on both counts.
DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS can be see occasionally on Turner Classic Movies' "Silent Sunday Nights" accompanied by William Perry piano scoring from the Paul Killian collection, the exact print used through the distribution of Blackhawk Video, and the 1975 presentation of THE SILENT YEARS. Running time being 83 minutes, it's possible it might have been a lot longer, considering a couple of noticeable abrupt cuts, such as the crew departing the vessel to go on land to bring in the supply of food and wood, Dot running through the beaches and throwing pebbles to watch the birds fly away, to suddenly go to the next sequence with crew heading out to sea to harpoon whales.
DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS could be a rough voyage to some contemporary viewers, and a whale of a time for others. Available on video cassette and later DVD from Kino International, it continues to be part of the Clara Bow collection, for whom this movie is truly dedicated. (*** whales)
A domineering father has told patience Morgan that she cannot marry a man
that is neither a Quaker nor a whaleman. Scenes in the Quaker meetinghouse
explain that marriage outside the sect is punished by expulsion and
ostracism. But she loves her childhood sweetheart Allan Dexter recently
returned from college. What is a girl to do?
Meanwhile, back in the office, villains plot to seize one of Father Morgan's ships and sail it to gold country. When one of the henchmen (Samuel Siggs) takes a liking to Patience, the fiends shanghai Allan and take him off to sea and never expect him to return. Siggs then masquerades as a Quaker and a whaleman and convinces Father Morgan to give his daughter's hand in marriage (`Make him a good wife').
The scenes in which Patience shows her love for Allan (by play acting with dolls) are sweet and show her capabilities to the fullest. Clara Bow has some good scenes early on but her small part appears to fade out as the film progresses.
There are some rather interesting scenes of life in New Bedford in the mid-19th Century. The town crier both spreads the news of a returning ship and the rumored departure of our hero to parts West. Life aboard the ship is not as harsh as portrayed by Dana in `Two Years Before the Mast' but is fraught with danger. Close ups of the crew as they mutiny are excellent. There are ample quotes from Melville and Dana to complement the story.
There are a couple of lengthy scenes that are better described as travelogues and not necessary for the story. The scenes with sharks and whales are probably real and not simulated. Dozens of pelicans diving to catch fish were probably a novelty to many viewers of the time. The storm at sea is probably about as technically advanced as it could be.
This is not a great movie, but if you are interested in sea stories or whaling, then you should watch it. It is the product of an independent film company (The Whaling Film Co.), was distributed by Wholesome Film Services, Inc., and had its debut in Providence, Rhode Island.
This film is about whaling - so immediately there is a problem for
contemporary audiences who find the practice abhorrent. But once you get
beyond that you have to appreciate the bravery of the whalers, and of the
actor Raymond McKee and the camera crew! The climactic whaling sequence
appears to be completely genuine - with the star in the thick of the action.
If there is any trick photography here it is well ahead of its time,
because nothing looks phony at all. You really feel you are there on that
little boat being pulled along by a giant sperm whale. How the shots were
achieved I cannot imagine - the story of the making of this film must be
Less spectacular is the love story that provides the plot framework for the whaling sequences. Marguerite Courtet, as the tragic Quaker heroine is completely up-staged by the frenetic energy of the 17 year old Clara Bow in her film debut. Clara is a delight - and reveals the charisma that would soon make her a legend. Raymond McKee is good in the lead and very handsome - and, as I said before, really put his life at risk.
The entire film, both on sea and land, is magnificently photographed, with great use of light and shadow, and very advanced camera movement. Elmer Clifton directs with a sure hand, and the result is a hugely entertaining and often spectacular epic.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The silent 1922 epic movie "Down to the Sea in Ships" looks more like a
documentary about the whaling business and the religious practices of
Quakers than a nail-biting melodrama about a young man who desperately
wants to wed his childhood sweetheart. Today, director Elmer Clifton's
seafaring saga is primarily remembered as "It" actress Clara Bow's
theatrical film debut at age seventeen. The Whaling Film Corporation
produced this vintage adventure and they lensed it on location at New
Bedford, Massachusetts. Of course, by the time that "Down to the Sea in
Ships" was produced, the whaling industry in America was on the decline
because oil pumped out of the ground had replaced whale oil in most
The authenticity of several sequences at sea is noted in the opening screen credits which praises the work of both cameramen A.G. Penrod and Paul H. Allen "who, in small boats, stood by their cameras at the risk of their lives to photograph the fighting whales." Literally, "Down to the Sea in Ships" reenacts the practices of New England whalers. Fans of "Flipper" may not enjoy the scene where the hero harpoons a dolphin, and the animal enthusiasts may regard the whale harvesting techniques are barbaric. Unfortunately, restored though the film is, it looks terrible and can be a real chore to watch for those that aren't accustomed to silent cinema. Moreover, you have to pause to read some of the lengthy title cards, some of which contain allusions to Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." However, on the whole, "Down to the Sea in Ships" proves to be a rewarding experience, more for its realistic depiction of religion and whale fishing than its melodrama.
"Down to the Sea in Ships" takes place in mid-19th century New Bedford. Thomas Allan Dexter (Raymond McKee) loves Patience Morgan (Marguerite Courtot) but her devout father, whaling ship-owner William Morgan (William Walcott), forbids her to marry any man that isn't a whaler. Early in the film we learn during a Quaker worship service that anybody that marries anyone that is not a Quaker is expelled and ostracized. A college graduate, Dexter refuses to let a little thing like not having served as sea aboard a whaling ship to prevent him from having Patience. Meanwhile, Jake Finner (Patrick Hartigan) and Samuel Siggs (Jack Baston) scheme to undermine Morgan's business. First, Siggs masquerades as a Quaker so that Morgan will hire him as an accountant, while Finner signs onto Morgan's whaling ship so that he can steal it. At the same time, Siggs sees the hand of Patience with her father's approval which is almost assured because Siggs has great references. You see, old man Morgan's son perished in a whaling accident and he wants grand children so he compels Patience against her will to betroth herself to the villainous Siggs. Siggs fears Dexter and Finner drugs the young suitor and shanghais him for the voyage. As it turns out, this works out to Dexter's advantage.
Similarly, Morgan's granddaughter Dot Morgan (Clara Bow) has a crush on Jimmie (James Thurfler), the cabin boy. Dot disguises herself as a boy and sneaks aboard the ship, only to be discovered by Jimmie after the vessel has gone to sea. Unbelievably, Dot remains hidden below deck in a cloth covered box until the evil Finner finds her. Finner kills the captain and takes over the ship, but Dexter recovers the ship from Finner and imprisons him. The whalers catch a whale and Dexter is instrumental in harpooning the beast and bringing it back. The scene where Dexter's boat capsizes after the whale attacks it is fabulous stuff, especially when the real-life shark swims into view and menaces the men as they scramble back into their boat. Eventually, the sailors exhaust the whale and return to the ship with it.
Film historians and film buffs will enjoy this glimpse of the past. The film covers the themes of man versus man, man versus society, women versus society and their confining role in society. For the record, this version of "Down to the Sea in Ships" has nothing to do with 20th Century-Fox's 1949 whaling saga starring Richard Widmark, Dean Stockwell and Lionel Barrymore.
Interestingly, director Elmer Clifton worked as an assistant director to the famed D.W. Griffith on "The Birth of a Nation" and "Intolerance." One of his more notorious films that he helmed was the 1937 cautionary movie "Assassin of Youth," also known under the title "Marihuana!"
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is as good as it gets in one direction, that's the direction where film is honest and in that honesty takes you to a place you could never visit otherwise.
In this case, it attempts to capture some of the rigid early Quaker mentality, the whaling culture and actual operations. It does only moderately well in the first two. But it does the third uniquely well, in part because it attempts all three. In this, it follows the both the subject and method of Melville.
Hard to imagine today, but the whaling industry was immense and immensely influential, It was to American society what the semiconductor industry is today. Whale oil (that special oil from the head), for instance made precision machining possible, which made the pocketwatch available to all, which made it possible to schedule meetings, which made it possible for many firms to collaborate and small business to have effect. It was the PeeCee of the times, and the reason that America is based on small business.
But the heyday of whaling was fifty years before this film, and we luckily experience much of what we can only now read about. All this is genuine, it seems, except for the `Nantucket sleighride' and Clara's shipboard scenes being in a set.
Incidentally, by the time this was made, whale oil was no longer in demand, having been replaced by the discovery that you can get oil out of the ground without being away for three years on the other side of the planet risking your life. Instead, the powerful whale industry convinced consumers to buy products made of whale baleen, the teeth of a different whale. This was a wholly advertising-driven shift which invented the corset. You don't see that here, but you see two other baleen products, the elegant umbrellas at the end and Patience's wedding bonnet.
This film was made during the end of another era, the movie business was soon to move to California. And it was not solely because of the light. It was in large part because the oil business moved from New England to California, and with it the case law that those Nantucket Quakers established. The film business today still relies on that case law to do business.
More genuineness. Clara Bow's popularity was to come from her aggressively guileless eyes. Here's where it all begins. Very impressively.
Ted's Evaluation -- 3 of 3: Worth watching.
"They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great
waters; these see the works of the Lord; and his wonders in the deep."
- Psalm 107
In the whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, pretty Marguerite Courtot (as Patience Morgan) plays with her dolls; an adult, she longs for her girlhood days with "the boy next door". Happily, her objectification, Raymond McKee (as Thomas Allan Dexter), returns, after some years in college. Soon, Mr. McKee opens a mill, and begins to court Ms. Courtot. McKee asks her father William Walcott (as William Morgan) for Courtot's hand in marriage. But Walcott, a strict Quaker, won't allow his obedient daughter to marry outside her religion. McKee offers to convert, but finds another challenge almost insurmountable:
"Patience is a whaleman's daughter," Walcott explains, "Unless thee has thrown a harpoon into a whale, take thy story of love elsewhere. It can never be -- never!" So, McKee goes directly to the next whaling ship, hoping to harpoon a whale; instead, he is abducted, and put to work aboard. Mixing it up in the waling ship is mischievous stowaway Clara Bow (as Dot Morgan), Walcott's grand-daughter; she has an eye for cabin boy James Turfler (as Jimmy). Meanwhile, Patrick Hartigan ( as Jake Finner) and Jack Baston (as Samuel Siggs) are plotting to steal both Walcott's ship, and his daughter's virtue
The main story, and performances of the principals are thoroughly unconvincing; although McKee does well whaling, while Courtot, the film's feminine lead, sits at home playing with her dolls. There are disturbing religious and racial undertones in the plotting. Ms. Bow, in her second film, and Mr. Turfler easily steal the attention. The Elmer Clifton direction, and photography by A.G. Penrod with Paul H. Allen are outstanding, however; and, their seafaring scenes are thrilling.
******* Down to the Sea in Ships (11/22/22) Elmer Clifton ~ Raymond McKee, Marguerite Courtot, Clara Bow
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
print is fair--blurry at times (especially at start) New
Bedford--whaling until 1927 Bow a supporting actress--a bit chunky, 2nf
film, 17, tom-boy done during the waning days of the whaling industry
in New England --Quaker family--lost son at sea (Clara's father) Samuel
Siggs--evil man wants Patience but her old beau, Allan, arrives--who
will get her? But Allan is not a Quaker and not a whaler. Allan
shanghaied to get him out of the picture Dot (Clara) stowed away
dressed as man to follow her boyfriend, Jimmy captain of ship is
cruel--Allan organizes crew in mutiny to stop him (especially after he
takes Dot) swoons excellent fight scene some might be disturbed by
By 1922, the once huge whaling industry in the United States was all but dead. With the new popularity of petroleum products, whale oil was no longer needed and at the time this film was made, only once port in the US still had whaling ships (New Bedford). In fact, the final ship would stop hunting for whales in 1927. So, this film (shot in New Bedford, Connecticut) was one of the last films that documents this industry. So, despite being a fictional drama, it's also an important historical document. While some might blanch at seeing the crew killing porpoises and other whales, it is interesting to see the men at work. And, it's hard to imagine folks doing something this dangerous on a routine basis.
As for the print of "Down to the Sea in Ships", at times it's pretty poor. At the beginning especially, the print is both scratchy and fuzzy. But considering the film is nearly 90 years old, it's actually in pretty good shape and hopefully you can ignore the deficiencies.
The story concerns a Quaker family that runs a whaling operation. The patriarch is a proud man who wants his daughter to marry a Quaker who works in the industry. What he doesn't know is that his new trusted employee, Mr. Siggs, is a phony. He pretends to be a Quaker and wishes to marry the owner's sweet daughter, Patience, so he can steal the family fortune. Standing in his way is Allan--a man who grew up with Patience--but a man who the father does not want to marry her since Allan is neither a Quaker nor a whaler. But, just to be certain Allan doesn't get her, Siggs gets Allan out of the way--by having Allan shanghaied on one of the family's whaling ships.
During the course of this whaling voyage, Allan turns out to be terrific whaling man and takes to it very well. He also turns out to be a hero. That's because Patience's niece (Dot--played by Clara Bow) stowed away aboard the ship and when the cruel Captain discovered her, he had every intention of raping her. So, Allan leads a mutiny and imprisons the Captain. Can they manage to complete the voyage, return with the Captain in irons AND stop Siggs in time from marrying the incredibly virtuous Patience?!
For 1922, this is an incredibly well made film. The whaling scenes are incredibly well shot and took a lot of trouble and the story itself is complex and enjoyable. It's well worth seeing. Plus, it gives you a good chance to see a very young Clara Bow in her second role. I was actually surprised to see how young and chunky she looked--as she changed considerably in the ensuing years into a sex symbol. Here, she just looks like an awkward tom-boy teenager--which she was.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Other than MOBY DICK and THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA and even JAWS, not many memorable movies have been made which tackle the world of fish, and this may be the only movie in which the life of Quakers and the whaling business are shown in a coherent storyline. A plot that is equal parts adventure and romance which revolves on the trials and tribulations of the Morgan family, DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS however is somewhat stilted in its presentation, but this is more due to the times in which it was made, before a real cinematic consciousness. Padding doesn't help it either, as well as some screeching over-emoting, but as an essential for anyone interested in movies from the Silent Era, this is highly recommended. Noteworthy is the fact that Clara Bow, barely sixteen, made her "official" debut in film playing a supporting part and at least in this part, DOWN TO THE SEA IN SHIPS is also worth the view.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Everybody else has told you about the film. We saw it earlier today
(July 2011) at a museum. It was shown as an addition to a scrimshaw
The version we saw was listed as 101 minutes, longer than the IMDb data.
If you've read Moby Dick, none of the whaling scenes are new to you. This film records almost every detail. One thing that strikes me is the comparison between Stone Age man, hunting mastodons, armed with nothing but spears and raw courage; and the early whalers, a dozen men on small rowboats, armed only with harpoons and raw courage. I imagine the toll of hunters was similar in both cases.
Clara Bow's debut made it certain she would go on to bigger things. A few seconds of Clara reminded me a lot of Shirley Temple.
The story is a little weak: the last-minute - no, last-second - rescue of the heroine stretched belief, but the basic idea is, the Good Guy vanquishes the Bad Guy, wins the Girl, and they live happily ever after.
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