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Single White Whale Seeks Adventure: How John Barrymore Turned Moby-Dick into a Love Triangle
by Mark Beauregard
We’re so used to Moby-Dick in our culture that it’s hard to imagine a time when we didn’t know the story of the White Whale. Even if you haven’t read Herman Melville’s book, you know the basic plot: boy meets whale, whale bites off boy’s leg, boy swears vengeance, whale kills everyone. The symbolic White Whale—that impossible desire that a person will sacrifice everything to attain—has become such a ubiquitous motif in America that literally not a day goes by without a mention in some newspaper article of a politician’s, athlete’s, or chef’s White Whale, and White Whale plush toys, beers, and salad tongs abound. We even have more than a dozen filmed adaptations, ranging from the perplexing (a broody, out-of-place William Hurt as Ahab in the BBC’s 2011 version) to the tediously reverent (John Huston’s 1956 version with Gregory Peck), but all of the adaptations and plays and operas and spoofs have one basic thing in common: they more or less follow the plot of the novel. Not so, John Barrymore’s curious 1930 version, which uses the novel to launch a melodramatic love triangle.
This first-ever talkie Moby-Dick was a remake of Barrymore’s own 1926 silent version, a wildly popular film called The Sea Beast, and neither movie cared a fig for the actual plot of Melville’s book, because by 1930, almost no one had read it. Melville’s great American novel was a commercial and critical flop when it appeared in 1851, and it disappeared from the public imagination for more than seventy years, until it was revived with a new edition in 1924. When The Sea Beast appeared, Melville’s book had only just been rediscovered and hadn’t yet entered the American popular imagination, so Barrymore and his crew used the epic quest of the mad Captain Ahab merely as a point of departure for a star-powered romance—a tangled triangle of love involving Barrymore’s drunk, fun-loving, swashbuckling Ahab; Ahab’s plotting brother (played by a dashing Lloyd Hughes); and the woman both men are in love with, a preacher’s daughter played by Joan Bennett in the winsome, early phase of her long and storied career. In fact, Bennett plays Faith Mapple, Father Mapple’s daughter—if you’ve read the book, this little tidbit tells you all you need to know about how fast and loose the filmmakers play with every element in Melville’s weighty book.
|Joan Bennett, Lloyd Hughes and John Barrymore - Moby-Dick (1930)|
In the 1920s, as ever, Hollywood was hungry for stories, and it didn’t really matter what happened as long as everything came out all right in the end. Never mind the tragic demise of Ahab and most of his ship’s crew in Melville’s book, and never mind that Moby-Dick swims inscrutably away: Warner Bros. knew what side their popcorn was buttered on, so they made a few changes to the plot (spoiler alert) to allow Ahab to kill the whale and get the girl! We can only imagine Melville’s apoplexy if he had lived to see this adaptation, and that’s part of the fun for us as modern viewers.
Barrymore’s Moby-Dick was directed by Lloyd Bacon—also the director of the song-and-dance fantasia 42nd Street—and it clips right along, alternating between comic scenes of Ahab’s drunken exploits ashore, not-altogether-wholesome love scenes between Ahab and Faith, and rousing action scenes of chest-thumping men on the open seas harpooning sperm whales. The special-effect sea beasts, while more Land Shark than Industrial Light and Magic, still lean toward the realistic, and the action sequences of Ahab’s men battling and spearing leviathans of the deep come off well: they’re splashy, exciting, and infused with a sense of genuine danger. But this is a movie whose pleasures add up to more than the sum of its parts.
Taken separately, the love triangle is corny, the animosity between Ahab and his brother is a bit Snidely Whiplash, and Ahab’s encounter with Moby-Dick is head-scratching in its utter disregard for the grandeur of Melville’s original. But taken as a whole, the movie becomes something sweeter and more memorable than it has any right to be: we feel Ahab’s genuine torment over his love for Faith; Faith’s anguished devotion to Ahab is ultimately endearing; and the way Ahab and his brother settle their feud (a plot point I won’t spoil!) seems both shocking and just.
Reviewing it in 1930 for The New York Times, critic Mordaunt Hall applauded the movie’s action scenes and admired its romantic heart (“The scenes in New Bedford and the romance of Ahab and Faith are capitally pictured and flawlessly acted”), but for us modern viewers the fun in this Warner Archive release is how it transports us back to a time when America’s cultural touchstones were different. No one had read Moby-Dick, no puckish marijuana grower had named a potent strain of weed after Ahab’s leviathan, and no journalist would even think of writing about a politician’s White Whale—no one would know what it meant!
Yes, in 1930, there were still beasts in the sea, but in the stories we told they were mainly obstacles in the way of a sailor’s return home (incidentally, Ron Howard uses this same romantic framing device for his 2015 whaling yarn In the Heart of the Sea, so maybe Hollywood hasn’t changed all that much). In this Warner Archive Moby-Dick, the romance is all the better because the gorgeous Joan Bennett is waiting home for Ahab, and the equally gorgeous John Barrymore distracts us from the story we know from Melville and lets us cheer when Moby-Dick goes down.
Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending us this title for review!
|Mark Beauregard signing your copy of The Whale: A Love Story|
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Contest ends midnight Saturday December 10th and is open internationally. I'll announce the winner in the comments section below and e-mail the recipient. Good luck!