Wednesday, December 12, 2007

"I USED TO BE A DOCTOR." THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND is a 1936 film directed by the legendary John Ford; it concerns the true story of Dr. Samuel Mudd who was found guilty of conspiring in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. While the story naturally plays fast and loose with the historical facts, the film itself is quite a good one. I found myself being pleasantly surprised at how "un-antique" a mid-30's film can be when helmed by a masterful director. I hear Ford didn't think much of this film, however, and apparently producer Darryl F. Zanuck stuck his hand in quite a lot. But still the film works very well and holds up even today. One of the first things I noticed which helped the film immensely is the almost total absense of incidental music. Scenes of heartbreak and pathos are thankfully lacking in syrupy violins while action scenes are mercifully free of typical 30's style chase music which is almost always inappropriate. In fact, the use of silence in this film (as well as natural sounds) is fairly bold and the picture gains greatly from it. The film opens with celebratory crowds setting bonfires and dancing because the Civil War is over and the North has won. President Lincoln (played by frequent Lincoln portrayer Frank McGlynn Sr. -- who played Honest Abe in several films including Shirley Temple's "The Littlest Rebel") comes out on the balcony of the White House as the crowd urges him to give a victory speech. Nobly, Lincoln refuses to speechify but asks the band to play "Dixie". This scene immediately casts Lincoln in a saintly light as the first reel has barely begun to unspool and it would seem totally over the top Hollywood twaddle if it weren't in fact true; Lincoln actually did that and this is one of several (not many) instances when the film is factual. Next we go to Ford's Theater (no relation to John Ford, I hope) and the inevitable re-enactment of the assassination. The scene is well-composed and owes something to D.W. Griffith's earlier portrayal of the assassination in "Birth of a Nation". Actual lines from the play "Our American Cousin" are used although the line which got a big laugh and Booth waited for to fire his shot occurs too soon in Ford's film: "You sockdologizing old mantrap!". Also the angle of Booth to the President is also incorrect: the real Booth came up behind Lincoln while the film shows him almost completely to one side of the President when he shoots. Mere quibbles but I thought I'd mention it. Booth's leap onto the stage below is rather well-done and he correctly brandishes his knife and bellows "Sic Semper Tyrannus!"
Booth (minor actor Francis McDonald) and David Herold (Paul Fix) ride into the night but the assassin's busted-up leg forces them to look for a doctor. They find one at the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd (Warner Baxter). Now, Ford's film depicts Mudd as totally innocent and unknowing as to Booth's identity. This, of course, isn't strictly the truth since Mudd had met Booth on at least 3 earlier occassions. However, the film's object (spelled out in the opening introduction which fills the screen) is to show Mudd as a completely innocent man unjustly imprisoned. While Mudd was probably MOSTLY innocent and wouldn't have been convicted by a non-military court, he wasn't exactly the "saint in surgical garb" (to paraphrase an episode of M*A*S*H*) that this film makes him out to be. Mudd cuts Booth's boot off his injured foot and disgards it; the boot conveniently has John Wilkes Booth stamped on the inside of it. Booth slips the doctor a $50 dollar bill for a $2 dollar job (also incorrect -- the actual amount was $25) and takes off leaving Mudd and his wife Peggy (Gloria Holden: star of "The Old Dark House", "The Invisible Man" and James Cameron's "Titanic") none the wiser. Naturally, the Union soldiers come the next day, find Booth's boot and arrest the doctor for conspiracy to assassinate Lincoln. Mudd and the seven other conspirators are tried by military court (many say "kangaroo court") and found guilty. Four are hanged (including Mary Surratt: the first woman to be hanged U.S. history) and the other four are transported to prison for life. Mudd is sent to Dry Tortugas: a "Devil's Island"-type island prison off the coast of Florida surrounded by sharks (hence the name of the film). Once he arrives on the "burning white hell" of a prison island, Mudd encounters Sgt. Rankin (magnificently played by John Carradine) who promises to make Mudd's life a living hell because he believes Mudd killed Lincoln. The first scene with Carradine is a stunner. Rankin is "checking in" the prisoners at a table; when Mudd announces his name Carradine stands up into the camera for a fiery-eyed close-up filled with zealous hatred. While the film is filled with several fine performances, Carradine steals the picture. The only time he falters is due to the script and no fault of the actor's. Rankin harasses Mudd, shoots him during an escape attempt, tries to get him eaten by sharks, orders his men to kill Mudd instead of bringing him back alive . . . and after all this suddenly becomes all sweetness and light after Mudd doctors him (and the rest of the prison) for Yellow Fever. The scene rings completely false but that's not Carradine's fault. No one could sell an abrupt, sudden transformation like that -- no matter how good an actor. At least one scene should've been shot depicting at least the slight melting of Carradine's icy hatred as the sergeant sees Mudd's tireless efforts to cure the prison of Yellow Jack. As for the previously mentioned escape attempt and Yellow Fever epidemic, the former is a made up incident while the latter actually happened. Mudd's exciting and complicated escape attempt is thrilling and wonderfully shot (also without any musical score at all which adds to the realism). The real Dr. Mudd merely wore civilian clothes and boarded a ship before being discovered. The filmic Mudd (aided by his wife) takes part in an intricate escape plot which involves his transport by ship to nearby Key West so he can be arrested in a civilian jurisdiction and gain a re-trial under civilian law. So, Mudd isn't trying to flee but merely wants to hop over to Key West and get a fair trial. Naturally, he is recaptured and thrown into solitary. However, an outbreak of Yellow Fever sweeps the prison. The prison doctor (played by O.P. Heggie -- who is probably most famous for playing the blind hermit in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN as well as Robert Donat's prison cell companion in THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO) soon dies and the prison warden (old Ford stalwart Harry Carey) seeks Mudd's help in checking the epidemic. This recruiting of Mudd to fight Yellow Fever actually did happen and, as in the film, led to his early pardon. However, quite a bit of poetic license is used (particularly when Mudd practically takes over the prison and has the gun crew fire a cannon at an offshore medical supply ship that refuses to deliver medicine to the prison for fear of catching Yellow Fever). The warden and everyone left in the prison (including the aforementioned about-facing John Carradine -- who insists on being the FIRST name) signs a petition recommending Mudd's pardon for his heroic efforts. President Andrew Johnson does so and Mudd finally returns home, much the worse for wear, to a heartwarming reunion with his wife and daughter. While PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND probably would've been a pretty good picture done by another director, John Ford elevates it to an extremely good one. This is one of those movies which holds your attention for every second of it's running time. Each event logically and satisfactorily follows event and the viewer literally isn't sure moment to moment what's going to happen next. Warner Baxter (whom I've never seen in any other movie) gives a fine performance as Dr. Mudd: usually understated but occasionally (but justifiably) over the top. Baxter never overplays the martyr aspects of his endlessly put-upon character and, in fact, is not written as a saint; Mudd is in fact a southerner and a Confederate sympathizer who in fact owns slaves and Baxter plays his scenes with recently-freed slaves just as a white slaveowning southerner would behave. Baxter is alternatively affectionate with his former slaves and then imperiously shouts orders at the black soldiers in the prison camp. Many modern-day PC critics are made uncomfortable by these scenes and label them racist. But that was sadly how freed blacks and white Southerners behaved toward each other in the aftermath of the Civil War (and, indeed, long years after). To have the Southern whites suddenly treating the freed slaves with respect as equals would be ridiculous in the context of the times. And John Ford, throughout his many films, has demonstrated time and time again that he is not racist. Ford, in fact, demonstrates this fairly early in the film when a Northern man addresses a crowd of freed slaves telling them they are now free and equal to the whites and now have the right to vote. Dr. Mudd admonishes the Northerner for keeping his workers from their work and tells his former slaves to throw him off his land. When the workers, who still don't buy the whole "now you're free" argument, go to escort the fellow away, the Northerner angrily tells the nearest man he can't lay hands on a white man. The freedman quips, "But weren't you the one who just told us we're your equals". There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in this scene: Southerner Mudd still behaving as if the South hadn't lost the war, the former slaves disbelieving (rightly, it turned out) the North's promises of their newly-minted equality and the hypocritical Northerner who trumpets the former slaves as his equal . . . UNTIL they lay a hand upon him. In addition to the excellent acting job provided by John Carradine and Warner Baxter, the rest of the cast is (mostly) fine as well. Gloria Stuart is more effective than I've ever seen her in a 30's film; while she does once or twice resort to hysterics they are totally in character with the events tearing her family apart. Harry Carey is also quite excellent as the prison warden; in addition to a long career in the movies he's probably most well-known as the President of the Senate in Frank Capra's "MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON" -- amused at Mr. Smith's constant outwitting of the Senate politicians. As Carey descends into Mudd's sweatbox cell to basically beg Mudd to battle the Yellow Fever epidemic, the actor gives his lines a truthfulness and weight which practically steals the scene. Also in the cast are a passle of familiar character actors. Crotchedy old Claude Gillingwater plays Mrs. Mudd's elderly Confederate colonel father who cobbles together a group to rescue Dr. Mudd from the prison. Gillingwater sadly suffered an accident on the Paramount Studio lot in February 1936 from which he never recovered; the actor committed suicide in 1939 due to failing health and a wish not to become a burden on anyone. Other familiar faces in the cast are Arthur Byron as Erickson (who appeared as Sir Joseph Whemple in the Universal classic "THE MUMMY" from 1932), Frank Shannon as Judge Advocate General Holt (most well-known for playing Dr. Zarkov in the Buster Crabbe "FLASH GORDON" serials) and John McGuire as Lt. Lovett (who played the lead in arguably the first film noir: 1940's "STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR" with Peter Lorre). And of course this wouldn't be a John Ford film without his brother Francis Ford as prison Cpl. O'Toole. Francis Ford, who was an earlier movie star years back, appeared in many John Ford pictures including THE QUIET MAN, WAGON MASTER, SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON, STAGECOACH, FORT APACHE, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN and more. THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND is endlessly interesting and holds up very well even today. It's the cinematic equivalent of a page-tuner. As true history it's not so accurate. . .but this is a movie we're talking about. . .and as cinema it's eminently watchable.

2 comments:

Cheekies said...

Don't you ever dare complain about how long my posts are again. I gotta go take a nap now.

Cerpts said...

I felt left out. So I hadda write a long one just like my dear ole doddy.