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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)
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