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Sea Spoilers finds John Wayne as the commanding officer of a Coast
Guard Cutter on duty in the Pacific Northwest looking for seal
poachers. This was the first of six films that Wayne did in 1936-1937
for Universal in an effort to broaden his acting horizons. Not one of
these B films for Universal was a western.
It gets real personal after Wayne's sweetheart, Nan Grey, witnesses the murder of a drunken playboy on his yacht. The playboy, Ernest Hilliard realizes he's been the dupe of these seal poachers for some time and threatens to spill to the authorities. The head of the outfit, Russell Hicks, has a thing for Grey and instead of just killing the only witness, kidnaps her and takes her to his Aleutian hideaway.
In the meantime Wayne also has been superseded in command of his vessel by William Bakewell who is the son of the commanding officer George Irving. Believe it or not Bakewell has a phobia about water and wants to be in the air. He eventually gets his wish, but the villains capture him for his trouble.
Sea Spoilers is a competently made action film and the final battle with the Coast Guard and the poachers is very well staged, especially considering this is a B film. Fuzzy Knight fulfills the role of sidekick, just as if this were a western. He and the Duke worked well together, a pity he didn't do any more films with Wayne other than Shepherd of the Hills.
I have a hard time though wrapping my mind around the concept of a Coast Guardsman with a water phobia. It's explained, but how did Bakewell get in the service in the first place even with a father that had a lot of pull? And did Russell Hicks have that bad a thing for Nan Grey?
Sea Spoilers could have used a better story. Still it's not a bad action film and some of the westerns the Duke was doing for Lone Star films were a whole lot worse at this time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
SEA SPOILERS 1937
This one plays out as a western set on the sea. The story is by veteran western writer, Dorrell McGowan. McGowan pumped out stories or screenplays for 50 plus dusters between 1936 and 1950. These were mostly low budget fare for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers programmers. They all followed the same formula, with a good guy getting mixed up with a bad guy, and a damsel in distress somewhere in the tale. In this one, screenwriter George Waggner takes one of McGowan's standard tales and transfers it to the sea. Instead of rustlers stealing cattle, we have the villains poaching seals. The Coast Guard stands in for the US Cavalry. It was also the first of a six picture deal Universal Pictures signed with the then, 30 year old John Wayne.
Wayne is a Coast Guard officer in temporary command of a large Cutter. He receives a radio message to report to his Commanding officer, George Irving. Wayne assumes the meeting is to give him full command of the ship. Not so, Irving assigns his own son, William Bakewell to command, with Wayne as second in command.
While in port, Wayne pays a visit to his girl, Nan Grey. Grey is a popular up and coming singer at the better clubs. Wayne is called back to the ship as orders to leave port have arrived. At the same time, Miss Grey is doing a gig on-board a yacht. This turns out to be for Miss Grey, the wrong place at the wrong time.
The yacht has been used to smuggle seal-skins out of Alaska. The owner had been duped by the villain of the piece, Russell Hicks. Hicks now kills the yacht's owner, kidnaps Miss Grey, then beats a hasty retreat before the Coast Guard shows. (The story here could have been better) Anyways, Hicks and his mob sneak back to Alaska to hide out taking Grey as a hostage. They have a large cash business in poached seal-skins to run. One lost load is not the end of the world. Wayne of course is rather distraught over the kidnapping of his lady fair.
Wayne and the cutter, now under Bakewell's command, are soon in Alaska waters searching fishing boats etc for seal. One of the native fishermen, Chester Gan, shows them a small island where the local seal population has been slaughtered. During the landing on the island, Bakewell messes up and the small boat is swamped. It is only the swift action of Wayne that saves the day.
It now turns out that Bakewell is not all that keen with being on the water. He only accepted a waterborne assignment to please his father. He is really a pilot by training. When back at port, Bakewell is transferred to the air patrol branch of the Coast Guard.
Wayne is offered command of the cutter. He declines and asks to go undercover to try and find the seal poachers. And of course look for his girl, Grey at the same time. He is given the okay by Irving to try. Wayne, along with Fuzzy Knight, take, a small fishing trawler through all the towns along the coast looking for clues.
Several weeks go by with no luck. Then they catch a break when young Bakewell's sea plane is forced down with engine trouble. Wayne and Knight happen to be close and race to the location. No aircraft or wreckage is found, but there is a small out of the way hamlet nearby.
Needless to say this turns out to be the hideaway for the sealskin smuggling racket. Wayne and Knight try to bluff their way into the gang but are recognized. They are tossed in a locked room where they find Bakewell. The pilot and his plane had been collared by the poachers. Of course the damsel in distress, Grey, is also in the village.
Wayne manages to get a radio signal off and the cavalry, er, I mean, the Coast Guard are soon on the scene. There is a full-fledged gun battle between the poachers and the Coast Guard before the former are beaten. Villain, Hicks, is good enough to have himself blown up in the battle. Wayne and Miss Grey are united and the surviving bad types tossed in the ship's brig.
The film overcomes the less than stellar story by McGowan, and sloppy screenplay from George Waggner. Waggner was capable of better work. Still, with only a 62 minute runtime it speeds by and is entertaining enough. Waggner would score a big hit with THE WOLF MAN in 1941. He would also direct John Wayne in several late 40's features. The film's director, Frank Strayer was best known as the helmsman on a dozen or so of the very popular Blondie and Dagwood films. Future Oscar winner Archie Stout handles the cinematography duties.
Fuzzy Knight was known as the ultimate cowboy sidekick. He appeared with Gene Autry, Russell Hayden Tex Ritter, Johnny Mack Brown and others in dozens of low budget westerns. Nan Grey was out of films by 1941. She would later become the wife of singer Frankie (Rawhide) Laine. Also in the film with a small part, is the drop dead gorgeous, Lotus Long.
John Wayne is Bob Randall, the best boatswain in the Coast Guard. His
ship is heading home and he's looking forward to two things: he expects
to be promoted to skipper of his ship, and he knows he'll see his girl
Connie. Alas, things don't work outat least not right away.
First, the commander back in port passes over Bob and appoints his own son to command the ship. The Duke is disappointed but grits his teethhe is too much the professional to let it affect his work. But second, Connie is kidnapped by a gang of seal smugglers and taken out to sea and who knows where. Can this be allowed to stand?
Sea Spoilers does not exactly stretch the intellect, but it's fun, nevertheless.
Nan Grey is spirited as Connie, the girlfriend. Her part is not large but she has a few good scenesshe directs some fiery speeches at the head bad guy (Russell Hicks), and she displays smarts when a swift escape becomes vitally necessary.
Hicks is a particularly nasty baddie; suave in appearance and manner, he exults in the early success of his evil plans and freely insults his captives and enemies.
Some minor subplots distract briefly, such as the young commander's fear of rough water, and the seal brought on board by the Duke's assistant and pal (Fuzzy Knight, as combination right hand man and comic relief). But it's really John Wayne's show: he plays a handsome, dutiful and daring young officer who's tall and strong and not a big talker. What's not to like?
This was a good, but not great, action film made by Universal in 1936,
about fighting the seal pirates off the coast of Alaska.
As with other films by the #1 star of all time, it obviously has commercial value even today.
The movie was re-issued to theaters in 1949.
Oddly, virtually all Universal pictures from this era were reissued to theaters either by Realart Pictures or by Universal. "The Spoilers" is one example: reissued over-and-over to theaters, then by VHS, DVD, etc. But not "Sea Spiolers."
"Sea Spoilers" was offered a few times in bootleg on eBay; not lately.
Incidentally, Humphrey Bogart is being pushed right now as the #1 star of all time. Love Bogart, but #1 he is not.
I believe this is the first Wayne film for Universal. As such, not bad for its type. Low budget hurts but it does move along well. Why aren't these older Wayne films run on television?
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