1933: An ocean liner belonging to a second-rate German company is making a twenty-six day voyage from Veracruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven, Germany. Along the way it will stop in Cuba to pick up a large group of Spanish farm laborers who are being shipped home and who will be housed like cattle in steerage. There it will also pick up La Condesa, a Spanish countess. It will stop in Tenerife, where the farm workers will disembark and where La Condesa will be sent to a German-run prison for her "traitorous" activities in Cuba. This voyage will be the last of three for the ship's doctor, Willi Schumann, who has a serious heart ailment and who thought he could find some meaning to his life through this job. Willi and La Condesa fall in love, with the ship's Captain Thiele, who is Willi's closest friend on board, believing the drug-addicted La Condesa is only using him to get her fixes. Willi and La Condesa have to figure out if there is a future for them after the voyage, as Willi's life also ...Written by
Kramer did not enjoy working with Oskar Werner, who refused to play the bar scene stage left. Kramer had to have the set rebuilt to accommodate the actor. See more »
Tenny and Mrs. Treadwell, seated together in the dining room, order dinner. In the next scene at the captain's table, Tenny is shown in the background looking through the menu and Mrs. Treadwell is not seated at the table. See more »
[walks up to the ship's railing]
My name is Karl Glocken, and this is a ship of fools. I'm a fool, and you'll meet more fools as we go along. This tub is packed with them: emancipated ladies, ball players, lovers, dog lovers, ladies of joy, tolerant Jews, dwarfs - all kinds. And who knows, if you look closely enough, you may even find yourself on board.
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A grand, glossy excursion, with a flavorful international cast keeping the weighty boat afloat.
One of my favorite indulges over the years has been "Ship of Fools," a 1965 glossy, episodic entertainment done strictly grand scale. Based on Katherine Anne Porter's epic novel, the Oscar-nominated "Best Picture" centers on a sundry group of travelers circa 1933 who clash "Grand Hotel" style on a German ocean liner bound, via Mexico, for Germany (and impending doom it would seem) just as strong Nazi sentiment was breeding. The ship becomes a microcosm of pre-WWII life and mores, with a plethora of subplots alternately swelling and ebbing throughout - situations that alter the course of some of its passengers and crew members, for better or worse.
From the clever opening collage of credits (don't miss this part) set to a catchy, flavorful Latin score to its fascinating all-star disembarkation at the end, it's smooth sailing for most of this trip, guided with an assured hand by the always capable Stanley ("Judgment at Nuremberg") Kramer, with certain cast members (Simone Signoret, Oskar Werner, Vivien Leigh, Lee Marvin, Michael Dunn) coming off better than others (José Ferrer, Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal).
A number of compelling vignettes acted out by the choice, eclectic ensemble make up for the sometimes turgid melodramatics that occur on board as our "ship of fools" are forced to examine their own pride and prejudice while victimized by others. Who can forget the tormented Simone Signoret and Oskar Werner (both Oscar-nominated) as the morphine-addicted political prisoner and dutiful ship's physician who provide the film with its most poignant and tragic shipboard romance. Their clandestine encounters are exquisitely written and beautifully realized. Or Vivien Leigh's coy, aging elitist, Mary Treadwell, who delivers a brilliantly despairing monologue in front of a makeup mirror that, in turn, sets up a wildly climactic shoe-bashing scene with Lee Marvin's besotted baseballer when he viciously assaults, then profusely apologizes to the now-humiliated matron after mistaking her in the dark for a cooch dancer. Or José Greco & company's steamy, frenetic flamenco sequence during a raucous, after-hours party. Or dwarf actor Michael Dunn's sublime Greek Chorus that effectively bookends the movie (the Oscar-nominated Dunn subsequently played evil Dr. Loveless on TV's "Wild, Wild West" series). These glorious scenes and more help to balance out the less serviceable ones, particularly those involving Jose Ferrer's boisterous, irritating Nazi bigot who borders on caricature, and Elizabeth Ashley and George Segal's turbulent lovers who come off dull and forced.
Ernest Laszlo's lustrous black-and-white cinematography was suitably Oscar awarded, while the whole look, feel and tone of the movie is decidedly old-style theatre at its best. This movie has remained one of my all-time favorite wallows.
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