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.