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Let me begin by thanking everyone involved in the recent rescue and restoration of this film. Like so many releases from the Fox Studio, 'Transatlantic' in its original form was lost to posterity due to a 1937 film vault explosion in New Jersey. The original negative was destroyed, and for many years the only known surviving print was one found in Europe, dubbed in French. The credits and all written inserts (newspaper headlines, etc.) were in French as well. But in recent years an almost complete audio recording of the English language soundtrack was recovered, and subsequently new credits and inserts were created which closely match the originals. 'Transatlantic' is once more being screened in a version fairly close to its original release print. Unfortunately, a few random moments of the soundtrack remain missing, but those brief passages have been bridged by subtitles.
Was all this effort worthwhile? Absolutely! 'Transatlantic' is a terrific movie, a first rate popcorn flick, especially impressive as a product of the early talkie era. If you didn't know it was produced in 1931 you'd guess it was done much later: the editing tempo is brisk, camera work is smooth and unconstrained, and the performances are sharp. There's no sign of the slow pacing or awkwardness one sometimes finds in films of this era. The opening sequence, when the ship where most of the action takes place sets sail, serves as an exciting, beautifully edited introduction to our main characters. And once the voyage is underway, several storylines are deftly juggled, in a tight scenario that builds to a genuinely suspenseful finale.
As others have mentioned, this is essentially 'Grand Hotel' on the high seas. (It was produced the year before MGM's famous film, but two years after the publication of that film's source novel.) Edmund Lowe plays Monty Greer, a character rather like John Barrymore's familiar jewel thief. He's a debonair gambler, embarking on this voyage one step ahead of the law, but we know he's a decent sort because he refuses to throw in with a gang of ruthless crooks also on board the ship. They've set their sights on wealthy financier Henry Graham (John Halliday), who has absconded with funds one step ahead of his bank's failure. Graham, for his part, keeps his wife Kay (Myrna Loy) at a distance while he steps out with his mistress Sigrid (Greta Nissen), who is also on board. Sigrid, as it happens, was formerly on intimate terms with Monty. He, meanwhile, befriends kindly old Mr. Kramer (Jean Hersholt) who has worked hard for many years as a lens grinder while raising his daughter Judy (Lois Moran). At long last Mr. Kramer is able to retire and travel-but his life's savings are kept in Henry Graham's bank, and its failure, which Kramer hears about during the voyage, means that he's wiped out.
Those are the central plot threads. It may sound complicated, but it all unfolds neatly and clearly as the ship sails on. There are occasional touches of comedy relief as well, frequently provided by a steward named Hodgkins (played by silent comedy veteran Billy Bevan), whose conversation consists of windy, oft-repeated platitudes. And, as noted above, the various story threads build to a highly suspenseful climax, a shoot-out in the ship's boiler room that is a dazzling cinematic tour-de-force. Kudos to director William K. Howard, cinematographer James Wong Howe, and editor Jack Murray for their work on this film. And again, many thanks to the restoration artists who helped make this delightful flick available once more!
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