If you’re on a Blu-Ray budget (and these days, who isn’t?), take my advice and zoom Warner Archive’s new release of the 1941 Michael Curtiz classic THE SEA WOLF to the top of your list. And for a good reason. Well, actually for MANY good reasons.
First of all, it’s a friggin’ terrific movie, one of Curtiz’s best (and that’s sayin’ plenty!). Then, the cast Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, Alexander Knox, Barry Fitzgerald (in his scumbag pre-McCarey days – the way I like him), Gene Lockhart, etc., etc.
But, best of all, because this is the Holy Grail version we thought (or, at least I thought) would never surface from the briny deep of lost movies.
Let me explain before getting to the meat of this superb pic. Back in the late 1940s, that human double-edged sword known as Jack Warner decided to re-release two of his greatest “Sea” successes on a double-bill, The Sea Hawk (also Curtiz) and THE SEA WOLF. Problem was that each tipped the running time scale at over 100 minutes. Warner thought he’d appease the exhibitors, who always wanted to cram in the most shows daily, by cleverly whacking major chunks out of each title. What to do with the excised footage? Toss ‘em in the garbage bin. Before you gasp, remember that this mo-ghoul was also the genius who, in 1957, sold all the pre-’48 Warner product (including cartoons and shorts) to UA for a whopping 2 million smackers (in the early 1980s, a contact I had at Warners told me UA made more than that back annually just on Casablanca retro screenings and home video). Fortunately, Warners has all their pictures back now (something collectors are eternally grateful for), and we constantly look forward to their restorations in the ever-increasing Warner Archive library.
Oh, but wait – back to The Sea Hawk and THE SEA WOLF. In the 1980s, a complete Sea Hawk was finally unearthed in the UK (including the original release tints and tones). So that was forever safe. Not so with THE SEA WOLF. What made it worse (for me) was that in the 1990s, while employed at a photo archive, I would randomly check files of my favorite movies, and in THE SEA HAWK folder came across amazing images from scenes I had never seen. Sigh.
Well, hold on to your hats, folks. The uncut SEA WOLF is here at last, and its resurrection story is almost as exciting (but in a nicer way) a voyage as the characters’ odyssey on the Ghost (death ship of Jack London’s famous novel, which screenwriter Robert Rossen brilliantly adapted).
In a nutshell, here goes: recently, it was learned that an unabbreviated print of the movie resided in John Garfield’s estate’s personal collection. The problem was that Garfield’s library was 16MM, and Warners was reluctant to cobble a complete SEA WOLF between 35MM and the extremely jarring smaller gauge (just think of the restored RKO Howard Hawks renditions of The Thing and The Big Sky, and you’ll understand); this was a key and reasonable artistic decision, as THE SEA WOLF is such a spectacular-looking motion picture, Golden Age black-and-white Hollywood at its atmospheric best. On an offshoot, someone contacted the Museum of Modern Art, and discovered that there were two 35MM prints in their extensive collection, one placed before the Warner re-issue.
The splendid Warner Archive crew then re-mastered the print in a new 4K High Definition transfer, and the gorgeous results are now forever preserved and available for the many lovers of this movie (or any fan of classic cinema).
Not surprisingly, the unabridged SEA WOLF is better-paced and far more layered in the development of its protagonists (thus elevating it from the previous 80-minute “B-plus”-movie streamline).
The movie, as you know, is one of finest cinematic evocations of a Jack London work (the story itself is largely based upon the author’s own experiences at sea). The Rossen script (it was rumored that John Huston also had an uncredited hand in the writing) is pitch perfect, creating an eerie nightmarish early Twentieth-century-world, forever fog-bound and swirling with intrigue, deception and pure evil.
Wolf Larsen, the psychopathic skipper of the Ghost (Robinson, in possibly, his greatest performance – and, again, think of that!), shanghais men to fill out a serviceable crew to labor alongside his band of aberrant criminals, drunks, and human wreckage. Among those are Leach (Garfield), who willingly joins to escape the law, Ruth (Lupino), another felon, accidentally scooped up after a ferry she’s on is demolished in a misty collision with a cargo vessel, and Van Weyden (Knox), a noted author, also a ferry survivor.
Van Weyden is Larsen’s most valued new Ghost member, due to his cultured and well-read mind. You see, aside from being a full-blown maniac, Larsen is a closet intellectual, who can recite and converse on philosophy, poetry, literature, psychology and art. His chiding Van Weyden that the Ghost will make him a better scribe (“You haven’t seen enough to be a good writer”) is a SEA WOLF highlight. Wolf Larsen is one of my cherished types of literary/movie citizenry: the brute erudite scholar. His favorite quote (from Milton’s Paradise Lost): “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”; his personal mantra: “[It’s such a] good feeling to be able to kick a man!”
Van Weyden, who takes Larsen’s advice, concurrently chronicles his personal frightening adventures aboard the Ghost (which Larsen eventually steals and intelligently critiques). The flavor of 1941 wartime naturally sifts into the scenario as Van Weyden accurately compares the violent fascist Larsen to a would-be false “superman.”
How all these richly-mined personalities converge along to a suspenseful conclusion (involving the twisted reason behind the Ghost‘s strange voyage) makes for one of the most entertaining movies Warners ever turned out.
All the aforementioned actors (Garfield and Lupino would be reunited a month later for another sea-set drama, Out of the Fog) are superb, as are the other supporting players, including Howard da Silva, Francis MacDonald, Stanley Ridges, Ralf Harolde, Richard Cramer, Ernie Adams and David Bruce; oy, what punims! Furthermore, the tech credits couldn’t be better: the magnificent cinematography is by Sol Polito, the editing by George Amy, the art direction by Anton Grot, and the fantastic score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
The Warner Archive Blu-Ray is about as good as wonderful gets, and, with the Australian discovery of the 1930 Technicolor Mamba, 2017 is turning out to be a banner year for celluloid lost causes.
Warners has added some enticing extras (as if the full-length SEA WOLF wasn’t enough) to guarantee an instant purchase. Aside from the theatrical trailer, there’s a 1950 Screen Director’s Playhouse radio broadcast, with Robinson repeating his role as Larsen, and with Curtiz, once again, directing. Make no mistake about it, though, this long-awaited return of THE SEA WOLF, intact for the first time in nearly 80 years, is a must-have item for any collector. Book passage today!
THE SEA WOLF. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1]; 1080p High Definition. 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video. CAT # 1000691540. SRP: S21.99.
Available from the Warner Archive Collection: http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.