Slave Ship (1937) Poster


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Beery & Rooney Propel Shipboard Drama
Ron Oliver21 April 2001
In 1860, a mutinous crew forces the captain of a former SLAVE SHIP to return to Africa for another highly profitable human cargo.

Sadly neglected, this is a film with some very good elements indeed. Stirring action, a little romance, a dose of humor and a social conscious are among its strengths. Although the opening shipyard scenes have a rather lean feel to their production values - with the sparse crowd of extras and the rear projection - once the plot moves to shipboard & Africa the film's quality kicks into high gear. The climax, with its gunplay & explosions, is especially exciting. The tying of the slaves to the anchor chain - a horrendous scene - anticipates AMISTAD by about 60 years.

The acting is quite good. Warner Baxter nicely underplays his role as the slaver captain who reforms upon marrying lovely Elizabeth Allan. Rumpled Wallace Beery as the First Mate & spunky Mickey Rooney as a disillusioned cabin boy are a great acting team and tremendous fun to watch. Beery was an actor who could steal a scene from anyone (except the late Marie Dressler), but he almost meets his match in Rooney. The Kid shows the vivacity & talent which would soon catapult him to Hollywood's top box office star.

Joseph Schildkraut scores in a flamboyant role as a foreign slave trader. Jane Darwell is funny in her few moments as Miss Allan's tough old mother. George Sanders plays a sophisticated mutineer & Edwin Maxwell is a nervous auctioneer. The massive Jane Jones is striking - literally - as a Virginia saloonkeeper who refuses to take nonsense from anyone.

In unbilled roles, movie mavens should recognize Lon Chaney, Jr. as a most unfortunate dock worker, and young Matthew `Stymie' Beard, of OUR GANG fame, as a boy on the wharf.

It is ironic, even with the film's sentiment for decent behavior towards Blacks, that 1930's Hollywood was still utterly racist and did not promote equal treatment for African-American performers (Asian actors fared little better). The Studios were still very segregated, Black & White stars rarely socialized on an equal footing, and racial stereotypes abounded in the movie plots. Only occasionally did Black performers' names appear in the credits and then usually at the bottom of the list. SLAVE SHIP preaches a good sermon, but the Hollywood congregation still needed to wake up & deal with its own intolerant behavior.
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A real oddity
rufasff8 June 2003
William Faulkner must have envisioned "Slave Ship" as a dark commentary on the curse of slavery(the "cursed ship" element is abandoned early on) and the studio tried to turn it into a typical adventure yarn. The results are strangely tasteless, unsettling, and facinating.

This is a bad movie, but one I highly recommend. The movie seems to be saying "these people veiwed things in a different way, but the best of them rose above slavery." We feel almost as much distance to movie makers, as Wallace Berry is mostly viewed as a roughish but likeable scoundrel; though we learn early on he is a genocidal mass murderer.

Though only seen in short glimpses, the inhumanity of slavery is fairly well expressed. It's the fairly casual context of subject that is allmost chilling. But see it for yourself and decide.
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a funny story about Slaveship
greglehman4 October 2014
My grandmother Gladys Lehman and her partner Sam Hellman were brought in to rework the script as WF was notoriously drunk and not getting it done- they finished their work and sent the script to Zanuck for final approval- the note they got back was " Can we make this movie without the Negroes?" DZ

Gladys Lehman was born on January 24, 1892 in Gates, Oregon, USA as Gladys Collins. She was a writer, known for Meet Joe Black (1998), Death Takes a Holiday (1934) and Mexicali Rose (1929). She was married to Benjamin H. Lehman Jr. She died on April 7, 1993 in Newport Beach, California, USA.
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Cracking stuff!
Libretio28 January 2000

Aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Sound format: Mono

(Black and white)

Any film which opens with an unbilled Lon Chaney Jr. being crushed to death during the launching of a ship can't be all bad! And, indeed, Tay Garnett's SLAVE SHIP gets off to a cracking start with a hellish vision of the slave trade along the West African coast in 1860. Sadly, the long middle section is bogged down by muted dramatics and a number of soggy romantic interludes (Warner Baxter and Elizabeth Allan provide the offending drippery), but the rousing climax makes up for some of the longueurs. George Sanders turns up, horribly miscast, in one of his pre-stardom roles as a villainous sea-dog.
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Can she cook? Back in Africa she cooked elephants!
sol121824 March 2011
Warning: Spoilers
***SPOILERS*** The horrors of Trans-Atlantic slave trade is fully exploited in the film "Slave Ship" in a way that most films at that time in the 1930's and even now would be too squeamish to show their audience.

It's 1860 and slavery is just about outlawed in the western world with the penalty of death to anyone still involved in it. Jim Lovett, Warren Baxter,a lifetime slaver or slave trader who made his fortune in the business has second thought of sailing with his salve ship the "Albatross" to Africa and collecting from local slave trader Daneto, Joseph Schidkraut, his quota of slave to bring back to the states where slavery is still legal.

Just married and planning to finally get out of the slave business Lovett want's to turn over a new leaf and go straight. Straight to Jamaica with his wife Nancy, Elizabeth Allan, and live on a plantation growing tobacco and sugar cane. It's when Lovett's crew headed by his first mate the beer swelling and hard drinking Jack Thompson, Wallace Beery, gets wind of his change of plans from Africa to Jamaica that they get so out of control that Lovett is forced to at gunpoint to have them leave the ship! This soon leads to an all out mutiny on he crews part. Commandeering the "Albatross" Thompson has it travel to Africa to pick up ,from Daneto, its cargo of African slaves with both Lovett and his wife Nancy held hostage. It's on the way back to America that Lovett makes his plans to retake the ship and sail it straight to the British controlled island of Saint Helena where he as well as his entire crew can very well end up hanged, for being slave traders, by the British!

Shocking film about the slave trade that shows the abused and maltreatment, as well as being murdered, that the slaves were subjected to by their masters and jailers on the slave ship. Lovett who was just as guilty as anyone else in the film in the slave trade just got to the point,in having to live with what he did, where he just couldn't take it anymore. He was even willing, unlike his fellow slave traders, to admit his participation in it even if it meant he would be hanged for it. As for Thompson & Co. they seemed totally insensitive in the crimes that they were committing against their fellow human beings and were more then willing to risk their lives, by being executed if caught, in committing them. It was only the 15 year old cabin boy Swifty, Mickey Rooney, who realized what a horrible business he was involved in and came to both Lovett and his wife Nancy's aid when Thompson and Co. were about to overrun and murder them.

**SPOILERS*** Only the films ending was a bit contrived with Lovett getting off while everyone else on board, with the exception of Swifty and Nancy, ending up paying for their crimes but it still didn't diminish what the impact of the film in showing the brutality of the slave trade to the point of drowning dozens of helpless slaves, with the ship's anchor tied around the necks, just to keep the British Authorities on the island of Saint Helena from both finding and rescuing them!
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Slave trade without the Spielberg spin job. True history.
vitaleralphlouis24 July 2005
WARNER BAXTER is a Yankee sea captain who goes to church on Sundays and shyly courts pretty Elizabeth Allen as time permits. His cargo happens to be slaves purchased in West Africa for sale in America. In this movie, slaves are purchased matter-of-factly from Black Africans, get some brutal treatment on board (but not much), and the crew is happy with their work and waay dirty too. None of the slaves are portrayed as brilliant or courageous. Trouble comes when throwing the "evidence" overboard becomes an issue between the captain and the crew. Since this film was made 60 years ago, it's blessedly free of the Political Correctness spin job which sunk "Amistead." It simply never occurred to Hollywood back then to re-write history to conform to wacky leftist viewpoints which distort facts. Obviously Hollywood today is in a tizzy over the "slavery issue" and thus dozens of films like this one and such as Walt Disney's wonderful "Song of the South" --- a film depicting only former slaves --- are kept out of sight. Hush!
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The Misery in which he traffics
bkoganbing18 December 2013
I'm agreeing with the reviewer who said that William Faulkner who wrote the adapted story for the screen on which Slave Ship is based envisioned a commentary on the brutality of slavery. But I'm sure Darryl Zanuck thinking of those southern markets turned this into an adventure yarn. Later on post World War II it was 20th Century Fox that was the most daring in terms of social commentary, but not now.

Warner Baxter and Wallace Beery are captain and first mate and best friends and they happen to be in the slave trading business, a business that is both illegal and declining due to British patrol vessels. Truth be told Baxter himself is sick of the misery in which he traffics. When he starts courting and marries Elizabeth Allan he decides to get out of the business.

Sad to say Beery doesn't want to do that. As he correctly points out in this illegal business you don't have a crew, you sail with partners and he proves it. The rest of the story concerns Baxter and his attempt to gain back his ship and also win Allan back as well.

Around this time Souls At Sea over at Paramount and MGM's Stand Up And Fight also dealt with the slave trade and slavery, Souls At Sea being the better film. Still both are better than Slave Ship though it is still a good adventure story.

Interesting that Darryl Zanuck also must have paid a pretty penny to Louis B. Mayer for MGM contractees Wallace Beery and Mickey Rooney who were two of his most reliable box office performers. Rooney plays the ship's cabin boy and his role is far cry from Andy Hardy. A great tribute to his talents.

Good action adventure yarn and some of the scenes involving the slaves are brutal and haunting. But this could have been a lot more.
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Warner Baxter commands the last slaver
kevin olzak22 September 2017
1937's "Slave Ship" looks today as gritty as it must have been shocking to audiences 80 years ago, a script concocted by several writers, including William Faulkner, who admitted that he merely doctored certain scenes that hadn't come off. George S. King's 1933 novel "The Last Slaver" was the basis for a story that remarkably pulled no punches in depicting the odyssey of the newly launched ship Wanderer, tasting blood on the runway as Lon Chaney delivers a stinging unbilled cameo as a doomed laborer unable to escape its path. Three years, and as many names later, the rechristened Albatross is now commanded by Jim Lovett (Warner Baxter) and first mate Jack Thompson (Wallace Beery), with cabin boy Swifty (Mickey Rooney) willing to fight anyone for what he believes in. The slave trade had fallen on hard times by 1860, officially a hanging offense, so after their most recent trip back from Africa, Lovett meets and marries young beauty Nancy Marlowe (Elizabeth Allan), deciding to start over with a new crew and sail to Jamaica in the business of trading goods instead of lives. This does not sit well with the crew, willing to continue their trafficking on human suffering despite the risks involved, forcibly taking control of the ship after a successful mutiny. Unable to prevent the six week voyage back to Africa, Lovett reveals all to his wife, who finds that she still loves him and is willing to forget about his past and work out their future. What they don't know is that Thompson plots to leave his captain behind while the fully loaded ship returns to America, only for the intended victim to turn the tables on his captors, producing a climax as rich in excitement as it is unpredictable. If not for the poorly done romantic scenes involving the little dog it might have been an enduring classic, but it's still a real find, quite unexpected for 1930s Hollywood. MGM's "Souls at Sea" may have earned all the accolades but Darryl Zanuck's pluck produced the better picture, under the assured guidance of director Tay Garnett, both John Ford and Howard Hawks proving unavailable. Beery actually plays the villain, George Sanders in support, Mickey Rooney the true standout.
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Decent and not bad for the era in which it was made.
MartinHafer23 March 2017
The 1930s was a terrible decade for black actors in films in many ways. Considering the popularity of the caricatures played by the likes of Steppin Fetchit and Willie Best, it would seem that most studios saw black people as slightly less than people. There were a few examples, such as Hattie McDaniel receiving an Oscar for her performance in "Gone With the Wind" (though she did play a slave) and this film, "Slave Ship". While I wouldn't exactly call this movie the best in portraying blacks as was way ahead of most films of the day.

When the film begins, you see a heavy-handed scene where it's meant to illustrate that the ship in the picture is cursed. After the deaths of many of its crew due to illnesses and accidents, the ship is sold very cheaply. The new mission of this merchant ship is to illegally transport slaves to America--something banned both by the British and United Stares for most of the 19th century. Captain Lovett (Warner Baxter) and his crew are out to illegally transport more Africans to a life of slavery. The Captain seems to hate this life...but he does it and is responsible for much wickedness. As for his crew, his First Mate (Wallce Beery) seems to adore the life!

Following this trip, the Captain meets a decent lady and falls in love. He decides to give up the life and go straight--transporting normal commercial goods instead of slavery. However, after order his First Mate to fire the old crew and hire all new non-slavers, he is tricked...and soon after the ship with him and his bride leaves port, he finds he is no longer in charge of the ship and the Mate intends for them to return to Africa for more slaves! At the risk of his life and that of his bride, the Captain fights his men and tries to do the right thing. But it's just him and an inexperienced woman against an entire crew! What are their chances?

The acting is good and it's obvious Twentieth Century-Fox must have seen this as a premier project since it borrowed Beery and Mickey Rooney (two big stars at the time) from MGM to make this picture. The film doesn't go far enough by today's standards to preach against the evils of slavery but it is still quite compelling and worth your time. I particularly liked Beery in this one as he apparently was playing himself....and did it quite well.
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