Friday, January 08, 2021

"Two Years Before the Mast" (1946)

If you have ever read Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, you need to put everything you remember from it firmly out of your head when watching this movie because it has very little to do with anything you'll see here, storywise.  At least, as far as I remember it from when I read it like a decade ago.  I remember it as being a really interesting first-hand account of life on a full-rigged ship that sails from Boston, around the Cape, to California, and then spends a lot of time describing life in California.  There was also a lot of stuff about cowhides.  Stacking cowhides, transporting cowhides, lowering cowhides over cliffs, restacking cowhides... there's not a single cowhide in evidence in this film.

Now, it is true that Dana's book brought the mistreatment of sailors to the attention of the general public and created so much sympathy for them that laws were made safeguarding their rights as human beings and so on.  The movie gets that part right, anyway.

Mostly, though, this movie is an excuse to make a seafaring adventure story starring Alan Ladd, something exciting like the Clark Gable vehicle Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), which is also based on a book that tells a true story, interestingly.

Anyway, we start this picture with a little history and moralizing:

Ahhhh, brutal drudgery.  Sounds like we're in for a good time!

Now, the fact that this is based on a book by Richard Henry Dana, and the fact that the little history lesson at the beginning talks about him rising up to champion the oppressed sailors, all makes it sound like this is going to be a movie about Richard Henry Dana.  But he's not the hero.  Because every movie needs a surprise, I guess.

Instead, the story centers around Charles Stewart (Alan Ladd), the spendthrift son of a wealthy shipowner who has no thought for anyone but himself and no plans beyond this evening.  He's never worked a day in his life, and his biggest problem is making sure the points on his collar are perfectly matched.

When one of his father's ships returns to port, Stewart decides to celebrate by going slumming in a waterfront dive.  He thinks the people there are quaint, harmless, and so very comically beneath him.

Imagine his surprise when he wakes up aboard that ship, far out to sea.  He's been shanghaied, along with a bunch of other guys.  Because very few people will willingly serve aboard that particular ship, which Stewart's father owns.

Well.  Pampered sons of wealthy shipowners are not big fans of brutal drudgery, as you might imagine, so Stewart demands that the ship turn around and take him home, and be quick about it!  However, Captain Thompson (Howard da Silva) believes that he is the Supreme Ruler when at sea.  He orders Stewart to join the ship's company "before the mast," which means as a common seaman, not an officer.

In the fo'c'sl, or forecastle, which is the part of the ship in the front (ahead of the mast) where the common sailors live, Stewart meets Richard Henry Dana (Brian Donlevy), who came to see on a secret mission.  Dana spends a lot of time writing down everything that happens.  And he doesn't let anyone read what he's writing.  But he befriends Stewart, in a way, and is the first person on the ship to be nice to him at all.

It's a treat to see Brian Donlevy as a good guy, at least for me.  I grew up watching him play the villain in Destry Rides Again (1939), and more recently in The Virginian (1946), as well as playing a crook in The Glass Key (1942) opposite Ladd.  But he's very well suited to playing a straight-up good guy too, and I would not mind seeing him in more roles like this.

Barry Fitzgerald lends some comic relief as only Barry Fitzgerald could.  He's crotchety and irascible and so loveable that it's amazing everyone around him doesn't just hug him in every scene.  He's playing the ship's cook here, and another very nice guy.

William Bendix plays not such a nice guy, as an officer who obeys the captain's orders without a qualm... at least at first.  He's pretty fond of administering punishment, and you start out thinking his character is another sadist like the one he played in The Glass Key, but he's got a good brain and heart to go with his fists here.

William Bendix and Alan Ladd were best friends for many, many years.  Ladd used his star power to make sure his buddy got work on as many of his pictures as he could, which is why you see them together so, so often.  (I've probably mentioned that before.  Sorry if I'm starting to repeat myself in my old age.)

Now let's talk about Howard da Silva a little bit.  Here's a versatile actor, folks.  I've seen him play fumbling and quiet in The Great Gatsby (1949); I've seen him play charming and sly in The Blue Dahlia (1946).  But here, he is nasty, cold, vicious, calculating, and horrible.  Ugh, ugh, ugh.

Two Years Before the Mast is mostly famous for the scene where Alan Ladd is beaten for striking an officer.  Justly so, because it's a very memorable scene, not so much because Ladd is shirtless (I mean, let's face it -- we see him shirtless in at least half his movies), but because he does a really fantastic job of portraying a guy who is scared of being beaten (he witnessed another man be punished early in the voyage), but defiantly holds his head up and accepts his punishment like a man.  

He's got a stereotypical character arc, going from weak and foppish to bold and manly after learning to do real work in the real world but, because it's Ladd, we sympathize so much with him, we don't care that it's kind of a hackneyed arc.

Oh, and also, we have an entirely pointless romantic subplot concerning Maria Dominguez (Esther Fernandez), a passenger they pick up along the way and take to California with them.

She's really only here to give Ladd someone to smile at, someone to champion him, someone to give him a reason to flex those lovely biceps extra often...

Still, she's very pretty, and has some nice moments.  And props to the company for getting an actual Mexian-American actress to play this Spanish-Mexican-American character.  

Maria is very nice and visits Stewart when he's clapped in irons for attempting mutiny.  She does help hammer home the idea of doing your duty and taking pains to help others instead of always looking out for your own interests and desires, so I guess her role isn't entirely pointless.

Oh, uh, yes, mutiny.  Of course, mutiny.  The crew is slowly dying of scurvy because Captain Thompson refuses to put in for fresh food because he is bent on setting a record for fastest time to California and back.  There's a cabin boy (Darryl Hickman -- yup, none other than Dobie Gillis) who's dying faster than most, and the crew are all very concerned about him in particular because he's such a sweet kid.  So Stewart decides to pull a one-man mutiny, and, well, I already spoiled how that ends up by showing you him in shackles, didn't I.  Sorry?  Maybe skip to below the shot of The End if you don't want anything else spoiled.

More mutiny happens later on, and Stewart must bid an earnest farewell to Maria.  She's going to get married to some guy in California as soon as she lands, so, you know... it's been fun, but we know they'll never see each other again.

Anyway, the crew has to decide if they are going to sail off to some South Sea island and live like kings with the natives forever like the crew of the H.M.S. Bounty, or if they're going to be good Americans and go home again and stand trial.  Thanks to Dana and Stewart, they probably stand a pretty good chance of being believed when they say the mutiny is justified.  So they go home.  But really, this picture is just here because Ladd spends the whole scene leeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaning in that chummy way, and I couldn't leave it unmentioned.

Well, they get home, and Stewart reunites with his father, who likes him a lot better now that he's not a good-for-nothing anymore. Funny how that works.  The shipowners try to repress Dana's book, but fail, and oh, woe is them -- they have to start treating sailors like human beings!  Oh my!

All's well that ends well, and we're left with this gorgeous shot of the ship.  I have a terrible weakness for full-rigged "tall ships," and the presence of this one, plus the presence of Ladd, means I do enjoy watching this film even though it's kind of haphazard and cliched.  It's still a fun ride, and I'm glad the Universal Vault Series has released it :-)

Is this movie family friendly?  Yup.  The beating scenes would probably be too much for really little kids, and there are some '40s-style violent deaths, but that's it.


  1. My dad was a fan of Richard Henry Dana's work and, like you, he didn't let the borrowing of the title if not the story keep him from enjoying this Paramount picture. When director John Farrow puts his mind to it, he really makes entertaining pictures. I haven't seen it in years, but certainly wouldn't turn away.

    A big-time Brian Donlevy fan recommends some good guy/interesting roles: Impact, Heaven Only Knows, The Great McGinty, and Kiss of Death.

    1. Caftan Woman, I'm glad your dad was able to enjoy both the movie and book too!

      Impact is free on Prime right now, so I've added it to my watchlist. Thanks!

  2. This would be one of those movies I'm sure I must have seen growing up but haven't for ages.

  3. It's been awhile since I've seen this and now I want to watch it again.

    I know you have a lot on your plate, but in case you want one more thing to occupy your time, I tagged you:
    Play if it interests you, but no pressure if not. :)

    1. Cordy, it's definitely a fun one to rewatch!

      Thanks for the tag :-) I do love doing those!

  4. "an entirely pointless romantic subplot" I cackled xD

    But it is good that they cast a Hispanic actress in a Hispanic role! That's cool!

    1. Katie, it's funny because it's true :-D

      And yes, that wasn't the norm for Hollywood at that time, so good for them!

  5. Thanks for reviewing this in your usual lively way, Rachel! It's one of the movies that I watched on YouTube before Christmas, but in the meantime someone must have given YouTube and especially Ladd movies a thorough clean-out, because it's gone (*sigh*). What you write is spot on – it's got not that much to do with Dana's book, it's a bit clich├ęd, but it's enjoyable. Especially for someone such as myself, living in a landlocked country (Switzerland) and being crazy about all things having to do with the high seas. Although shot on studio sound stages (due to wartime restrictions), the devices simulate everything so effectively that you think you watch sailors on a real ship So did the actors, apparently – the rolling waves were simulated to such a degree that allegedly half of the cast got seasick and Alan Ladd lost his footing during a fight scene and injured his back quite badly (he seemed to have been quite accident-prone, poor man). That director Farrow was an experienced sailor himself lends additional authenticity to a film which is perhaps not Ladd's best, but provides one and a half hour of good entertainment.

    1. Andrea, I'm glad you enjoyed it! And that you were able to catch it while it was available.

      Yes, they did a fantastic job doing it on mock-up ships. But poor Alan, he did seem to have a tendency to injure himself! Like when he broke his foot (or ankle?) while playing with his kids around the time he was filming Saskatchewan. Poor guy. I'm clumsy and accident-prone myself, so I can relate.

  6. Same here, Rachel. I am also totally clumsy and accident-prone (during my one measly week of holidays in the Swiss mountains last summer I managed to break two toes...) so I, too, can relate. Poor Alan. When filming "Hell below Zero" he badly injured his hand (also off the set, also while playing with the kids), but insisted on going on with the shooting of the film (mostly set in Antarctica, so he was wearing gloves anyway...). Yep, and the broken ankle. There are pics in the internet showing him with his foot in a huge plaster cast. Started young – missed the Olympics in the 1930s because of an injury, stopped working as a grip at a studio after falling off a scaffold, was accidentally knocked out cold by buddy Bendix filming "Glass Key" and so on and so on... Poor guy indeed!

    1. Andrea, ouch! Two broken toes sounds like a terrible way to spend a holiday in the mountains.

      Yes, Alan really did get injured fairly often. We can add that infected finger while filming Saskatchewan to the list, too. It's a little odd, because he's also so graceful.


Agree or disagree? That is the question...

Comments on old posts are always welcome!

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)