In 1949 Henry Hathaway made one of the best movies of his long career. In it, his three stars, Richard Widmark, Lionel Barrymore and Dean Stockwell (and for that matter, most of the supporting cast) each gave one of his own best performances. Down to the Sea in Ships is in fact one of the finest movies ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system, and almost nobody has ever heard of it.
I know I run the risk of overselling the product here, but I simply don’t understand why Down to the Sea in Ships isn’t one of the best-loved movies of all time. When the talk turns to the great seafaring stories of the screen — Treasure Island, Mutiny on the Bounty, Captains Courageous, Moby Dick et al. — it’s a mystery to me why Down to the Sea in Ships never comes up. If there are such things as flawless movies, and there surely are, Henry Hathaway’s Down to the Sea in Ships is one of them.
I say “Henry Hathaway’s” to distinguish this picture from the other Down to the Sea in Ships, from 1922. That one made a star out of Clara Bow, and curiously enough, it’s available on home video — no doubt because it’s in the public domain, while Hathaway’s picture is still under copyright and quarantined in the 20th Century Fox vault. In the 1960s and ’70s it was the other way around: Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) was gone and long forgotten, but if your local TV station had a decent film library and you were willing to stay up till two or three in the morning, you could count on seeing Down to the Sea in Ships (1949) two or three times a year.
Before we leave the subject of Clara Bow’s breakout vehicle for good, let’s get one point clear: Wikipedia says that the 1922 picture “was remade by Twentieth Century Fox in 1949,” but — well, that’s Wikipedia for you. (Whoever wrote the article didn’t even know that it’s “20th Century Fox,” not “Twentieth.”) In fact, there is no connection whatsoever between the two pictures — other than the fact that they both deal with whaling ships out of New Bedford, Mass., and they both take their title from Psalm 107:23 (“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters…”). These aren’t two versions of the same story, they’re two different movies with the same title; henceforth, when I use the title, I’ll be talking about only one of them.
Without access to what records might be in the 20th Century Fox archives, it’s impossible for me to say exactly how credit for Down to the Sea‘s script should shake out — which is a pity, because the script is a truly masterful piece of work; if the picture ever gets the kind of attention it has deserved for over 60 years, maybe someone will shed some light on the subject. The writing credit on screen reads “Screen Play by John Lee Mahin and Sy Bartlett; From a Story by Sy Bartlett,” which matches the general drift of the two writers’ careers: story was Bartlett’s long suit, dialogue Mahin’s. Making an educated guess, I’d say Bartlett was responsible for Down to the Sea‘s distinctive blend of rousing adventure and psychological acuity, Mahin for the unerring cadence and vocabulary of the speech of 19th century New England whalermen. Or it may have been more complicated than that; Mahin gets top billing on screen, which suggests that his rewrite probably amounted to more than just touching up the dialogue.
Unfortunately, the decision may be taken out of both their hands. The whaling firm’s insurance company refuses to cover Capt. Joy; moreover, Massachusetts law will not allow Jed to return to sea unless he can pass an exam covering the four years of schooling he missed while he was away. Fortunately, a sympathetic school superintendent (Gene Lockhart, in a warmhearted cameo) fudges Jed’s test results rather than disappoint the captain.
For his part, Dan Lunceford doesn’t care much for the look of Capt. Joy, nor for his sneering at Lunceford’s “book-learnin'” and his college degree in marine biology; only a sweetening of his percentage of the voyage’s profits persuades the younger man to ship out with Capt. Joy after all.
Once the Pride of New Bedford is out to sea, Capt. Joy plays his trump card. He tells Lunceford that he sees “the hand of Providence” in Lunceford’s presence on board. Jed was allowed to ship out, he says, only on the condition that his studies be continued, and Capt. Joy is hereby assigning Lunceford, in addition to his regular duties as first mate, to be Jed’s tutor during his off-duty hours. In this way, the crafty old mariner intends to kill two birds with one stone: he’ll see to Jed’s education, and he’ll keep Lunceford too busy to undermine his authority.
Lunceford has no choice but to accept the assignment, but he does so with ill grace. Resentful at what he regards as essentially a babysitting chore, he is impatient, sarcastic and dismissive. Resentful in turn, Jed is obstreperous and uncooperative. Lunceford decides Jed is just as ornery and pigheaded as his grandfather, and he give up the lessons as a waste of his time.
Stung, Jed applies himself and in time surprises Lunceford with answers to all the questions that had stumped him before. Lunceford suddenly approaches his duties as tutor in earnest, tailoring lessons more carefully to Jed’s quick and lively but unsophisticated intelligence. As the friendship grows between Jed and Lunceford, Capt. Joy begins — rightly or wrongly — to fear that his grandson’s respect and affection are drifting away from himself and attaching themselves to Lunceford; he responds to the unexpected competition by looking more carefully at Lunceford’s ideas, which he had formerly dismissed as not worth his attention. All this happens even as the Pride of New Bedford roams the waters of the South Atlantic, stalking and taking whales.
That’s about as much of the plot as I care to go into here; better that you should discover the rest for yourself. Down to the Sea in Ships isn’t available on home video*, but it does surface (pun intended) from time to time on the Fox Movie Channel, and it’s worth seeking out to discover how the three-generation, three-way relationship of Capt. Joy, Jed and Dan Lunceford plays itself out against the background of a perilous voyage contending with the forces of nature and the leviathans of the deep. Each of the three discovers qualities of strength and character in the others that he either never suspected or did not properly value at first. Each brings out the best in the other two, and allows the other two to bring out the best in him.
…with the crew desperately struggling to free themselves and repair the damage before the sea pounds their ship to splinters against the unforgiving ice. Not to mince words, it’s an absolutely brilliant action/suspense set piece. Amazingly enough, it was shot entirely in a soundstage tank on the Fox lot, but it’s spectacularly convincing and harrowing for all that.
Is this callousness or tough love? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. Hathaway had a reputation for being tough on actors. His side of it was simply that he refused to mollycoddle them; he expected actors to report to the set ready to work. He also remembered the day they finished shooting Barrymore’s scenes:
“We finish the picture, he walked off the set. No wheelchair. No crutches. And he came to me and said, “Mr. Hathaway, I want to tell you, you did more for me and for my life on this picture than ever happened to me before. From my father or my mother, or from anybody. I was just simply sitting there and waiting to die.”
Hathaway went on to say that they remained friends for the rest of Barrymore’s life. In any case, whatever the validity of Hathaway’s recollection, the evidence is there on screen: Barrymore responded — whether out of spite or chagrin — by giving one of his strongest performances in years. For once he’s not merely being wheeled around the set acting crusty (although in his more physically active shots he was often doubled by assistant director Richard Talmadge).
I don’t mean to minimize the genuine pain Barrymore surely suffered, but that wheelchair must have been a real convenience for a man who had never been all that crazy about being an actor to begin with. In youth, his real interests were in painting, writing, and composing music, but the pressure to enter the family trade (and the money to be made from it) kept him on stage, screen and radio for nearly sixty years. The role of Capt. Bering Joy was a recognizable “Lionel Barrymore type”, but it was also a complex and vigorous character betrayed by age and ill health, and Barrymore the self-described ham connected with it on a more profound level than almost any part he ever played. He deserves to be remembered for this performance as much as — indeed, more than — for the unalloyed wickedness of Henry Potter.
Down to the Sea in Ships was Richard Widmark’s fifth movie, after his sensational debut as the giggling psycho killer Tommy Udo in Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947). In the intervening three pictures, Widmark played a woman-beating gang lord (The Street with No Name), a murderously jealous bar owner (Road House) and an underhanded western outlaw (Yellow Sky). The studio realized he was in danger of being typecast as a succession of nutjobs, sleazeballs and unsavories (because he played them so well), when what the studio really needed was another leading man. Casting him as Dan Lunceford was a conscious effort to help him segue into more sympathetic roles. It worked. Widmark went on to be one of Fox’s most stalwart leading men, playing good guys (Slattery’s Hurricane, Panic in the Streets), bad guys (No Way Out, O. Henry’s Full House) and guys in between (Pickup on South Street, Don’t Bother to Knock) — until, like many other stars, he went free-agent in the mid-1950s.
In Down to the Sea, Widmark is top-billed, although he doesn’t appear until half an hour in. His Dan Lunceford is the character who goes through the most self-surprising changes in the course of the picture. After all, Jed is an adolescent coming of age, and changes are to be expected, while Capt. Joy, though seemingly set in his ways and defiantly so, proves to be flexible, open to change, and willing to learn — when he thinks nobody is watching and he can do it without losing face.
Capt. Joy blusters, but it’s Dan Lunceford who is most nearly arrogant at the outset; part of the reason the captain scoffs at Lunceford’s education is that he senses Lunceford is more than a little puffed-up about it. For his part, Lunceford treats Capt. Joy with an exaggerated politeness that stops just short of insolent sarcasm. (Capt. Joy: “You may have noticed that most of my crew generally sign on again.” Lunceford [drily]: “Out of affection no doubt, sir.”) His sarcasm towards Jed’s lessons, on the other hand, is undisguised — at first. In time, he comes to realize he has misjudged them both, especially the captain. By the end he’s telling Jed that his grandfather is “more of a man than you or I could ever hope to be.” It’s an admission Lunceford could hardly have imagined making when the voyage began.
If you ever get the chance to see Down to the Sea in Ships, don’t pass it up. I’ve never shown it to anyone who didn’t love it. I guarantee it: this is one of the greatest movies you never heard of.
*UPDATE 11/4/2021: Down to the Sea in Ships is now available on DVD from 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives; it’s available here from Amazon.