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Here is a film that inexplicably has been given little exposure to modern audiences. Paramount threw in a lot of its top talent to tell a good story with drama, humor and lots of action.
Nuggin Taylor (Cooper) has waged a one-man war against slaves ships in the 1840s. His best friend Powdah (Raft) has been a slaver, if a half-hearted one, for years. The two board a packet from Liverpool to America in a plot to undermine the slave shipping lines, but also on board is their main nemesis and his sister. Naturally Taylor has a "thing" for the sister. When a tragic accident befalls the ship, Taylor must take drastic action to save passengers and is ultimately charged with multiple murders.
Cooper again plays the aw-shucks persona he perfected but here combines it with the literate, committed character of Nuggin. Note that in the lengthy opening sequence he says nothing, but is the center point of every word. Raft, who was always at his best for Henry Hathaway, gets crimped hair and an earring and the package works for the uneducated, footloose Powdah, who is ironically terrified of water. Raft's trademark unblinking stare is used to great effect and even humor. Copper and Raft, who sing together so pleasantly here, remained good friends after making this film.
The picture took three photographers. Estimable Charles Lang split the cinematography duties with Merritt Gerstad. Gordon Jennings was in charge of the special photographic effects in the climactic ship disaster. Their decisions were mostly excellent. Especially effective were the constant tilted angles aboard ship. The black-and-white filming offers up rich tones and texture, instantly setting the stage with the slave cargo sequence. The action scenes are outstandingly photographed and executed.
In period pieces, Hollywood tends to go overboard with layers of decorations. In 'Souls at Sea' art directors Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson are magnificently restrained and very accurate. That and A.E. Freudeman's interior decoration make the film seem really in Philadelphia, really in Liverpool and really on board a ship in 1842.
This is a great example of Hathaway's work, weaving appropriate humor into the human drama and relationships. There is an amusing montage as Taylor is scouring Liverpool for Powdah, and that relationship's integrity is maintained throughout.
This is a classic well worth making the effort to find.
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