Early & Silent Film

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Captain Salvation, USA 1927

Posted by keith1942 on November 3, 2018

This film was the opening ‘special event’ at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto this year.

The film was adapted from a novel by Frederick William Wallace. He was born in Glasgow, served in World War I and moved to Montreal in Canada. He became a published expert on the sailing ships which provide the setting for this novel published in 1925. The film was co-produced at M-G-M together with Cosmopolitan Productions, the latter was a foray into motion pictures by William Randolph Hearst.

The film opens in a small town of Maple Harbour, on the New England coastline. It is 1840 and the sailing ship ‘Lucy Foster’ returns. Practically all the inhabitants hurry to the harbour to welcome the ship and, at the tiller, Anson Campbell. Whilst Anson is clearly a skilled sailor he is actually returning from studies at a Theological College and is expected to become the pastor of the local church; a protestant or even Calvinist congregation. Among those greeting the ship are his uncle Peter Campbell, a worthy of the church, and his sweetheart, young Mary Phillips (Marceline Day).

After the reception at the harbour Anson and Mary slip away to a small wooden cabin along the seashore and under cliffs. Here they are greeted by Anson’s old friends and retired sailors led by Zeke Crosby (George Fawcett]. These opening scenes present the character of Anson, played with real charisma by Lars Hanson. There is also a sense of the demure Mary and of the religious tone of the village; exemplified by the conservative religious values of Uncle Peter.

The disruption to this almost idyllic situation comes during a great storm when a ship founders off the coast. The only survivor is Bess Morgan (Pauline Starke). She is immediately recognised as a ‘waterfront Jezebel’ by Peter. And the response of religious villagers is to shun her. Anson displays a different set of Christian values opining that

“you can’t judge this woman’.

He carries her to the cabin where he cares for her, with assistance from Zeke. Bess soon displays an attraction for Anson but their relationship is strictly platonic. However, Mary fails to recognise this and in a key scene returns her engagement ring to Anson. Anxious to avoid further complications to Anson’s life Bess decides to leave on a ship that calls in the harbour, ‘The Panther’. Anson goes on board to pay her passage and signs on as a crew member with the Captain (Ernest Torrance). Sure enough the Captain turns out to be the villain of the story. ‘The Panther’ is actually a convict ship carrying both male and female felons to salt mines on an Island in the South.

During the voyage the Captain attempts to molest Bess who makes the potent response,

“Ain’t I am right to my body.”

Anson vainly attempts to protect her and is chained below deck and brutally flogged. It also appears that the Captain intends to dump Bess and Anson on the island when the ship arrives. There is a dramatic fight between Anson and the Captain which ends up with them battling high in the rigging of the sailing ship. Anson wins but Bess dies.

The film then cuts to the return of the ship to Maple Harbour, renamed the ‘Bess Morgan’. This causes another contretemps with Peter. But Anson explains to him, Mary and the towns folk about |Bess death in a flashback. We see her ask Anson,

“ to pray for me …. [it is] brighter now you are praying.”

Standing over her body Anson prays, raising his eyes aloft,

“suffer her to come unto thee.”

and then closes her eyes. Predictably Anson and Mary are re-united and the ring is re-appears. More surprisingly Uncle Peter repents and confesses the error of his prejudices. The film ends with Anson and Mary at the tiller of the ‘Bess Morgan’ as it becomes the

‘first gospel ship’.

I have not been able to find anything on ‘gospel ships’, though there are several folk songs on this theme. I assume that they preach rather than trade. One hopes that the ‘Bess Morgan’ followed the theology of Anson rather than Uncle Peter.

This was a fine film to watch. The production is well done and the cast are fine, especially Lars Hanson and Pauline Starke. And the three ship-mates, led by Zeke, are entertaining. It was apparent from the use of the word ‘Jezebel’ that Bess would succumb at some point to moral closure. I thought this a particular shame because she was a much more interesting and vibrant character than Mary. But her death scene is especially well done.

One of the stand-out features of the film was the cinematography by William Daniels. The whole film looks good. Scenes set below deck have a a grim palette and there is excellent chiaroscuro. The final fight in the riggings between Anson and the Captain is exhilarating with splendid use of camera positions and shots. The editing by William Hamilton is also well done. The Catalogue notes that

“M-G-M clearly wanted this to be a prestige production. Assigning a crew of 75 and hiring the ‘Santa Clara’, an 1876 four-master ship, for the scenes at sea. Cedric Gibbons and Leo E. Kuter designed evocative sets for the seaside town of Maple Harbor, Massachusetts, and locations were filmed on Catalina Island.”

Jay Weisberg commented that

“[the film’s] relative obscurity [is] perplexing, especially given the praise heaped on it upon its release.”

He notes

“The Philadelphia Tribune’ was even more effusive:“one of the finest dramatic achievements of the year.””

This seems in part due to the influence of Scandinavian films and in particular one of the finest directors there:

“It was Phil Carli who first bought to my attention Stroström ‘s striking influence … Atmospheric coastal scenes boast meticulous attention to effects of light, and the sea’s presence is beautifully calibrated to elide with the emotional states of the characters.”

This may have been part of the inspiration for the fine score which Phil Carli composed to accompany the film: played under his direction by the San Marco Orchestra. It highlighted the dramatic scenes but never overpowered the film.

This was a screening worth waiting for. The film was original programmed for the 2017 Giornate but copyright issues [I think] led to the delay. The 35mm print sourced from Warner Bros. and the Packard Humanities Institute was worthy of the film and the music.

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