Wednesday, August 2, 2017

THE SEA CHASE: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1955) Warner Archive

I am, as ever, intrigued by the absurd dishonesty of vintage poster art designed to promote movies from the earliest years, right on through to the late 1970’s. The artwork for director/producer, John Farrow’s The Sea Chase (1955) would have us buy into a windswept (and much younger) Lana Turner dramatically locked in the strong manly embrace of America’s all-time superhero and he-man, John Wayne; the backdrop of a ship in peril under ominous black clouds and on stormy seas, suggesting a tempestuous romance violently unleashed. Nothing could be further from the truth, as The Sea Chase is a WWII potboiler with Wayne and Turner at opposite poles, never to be reconciled in the flimsy screenplay by James Warner Bellah and John Twist. Setting aside the idiocy of John Wayne unconvincingly playing a German sea captain (sans gemutlich charm and accent) and Turner, still ravishingly attractive but decidedly not the wisp of a sexpot she had been during her tenure as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s sweater girl, as a haughty and exclusive pro-Nazi countess herein, it is actually possible to enjoy The Sea Chase for what it is; a semi-intelligent, if mostly lukewarm drama in which Wayne infrequently bristles and defies British/American intervention to keep his ship and crew dry-docked in Australia; also, grumbling against the Nazi high command while espousing western hero-esque platitudes about morality, dignity and that code of human ethics to withstand both misguided ambitions and the test of time with narrowly a pony or stagecoach in sight. It’s called ‘star power’, folks – a quality Wayne and Turner possessed in spades.
The Sea Chase is also noteworthy for the amount of times Lana Turner, presumably traveling light, somehow manages to maintain her immaculate beauty without a coiffeur, dressmaker and ladies maid, changing into a mind-boggling ensemble of impractical, if form-fitting and slinky gowns, quite often accompanied by stunning furs. The Bellah/Twist screenplay is very loosely based on Andrew Greer’s novel of the same name; itself, even more liberally adapted from a true-to-life incident involving the German Norddeutscher Lloyd steamer Erlangen that, under Alfred Grams’ captaincy, quietly slipped out of New Zealand’s Lyttelton Harbor on the very eve of Germany’s declaration of war. The real life Erlangen made a pit stop to refill her depleted coal bunkers in Port Kembla, New South Wales before heading to the sub Antarctic Auckland Islands. In the process, Grams effectively navigated his vessel and crew around the watchful eye of the HMNZS Leander, re-stocking food and wood, mostly by cutting down large swathes of the Southern Rata forest. Grams then made an even more desperate and equally as miraculous escape to Valparaíso, Chile. But on July 1941, the Erlangen was intercepted off Montevideo by HMS Newcastle and scuttled by her crew.
The film would have us believe Chief Officer Kirchner (Lyle Bettger) as the Nazi-sympathizing brute and Grams (rechristened in both the novel and movie as Capt. Ehrlich and played by Wayne) as our heroic figure of the high seas. It fits the John Wayne persona to a tee. But the novel actually portrays Ehrlich as the monster, his goal to reach Europe transgressing into an all-consuming obsession with dire consequences for Kirchner and the Countess Elsa Keller (Turner). In the novel, these three pivotal characters all appear to go down with the scuttled Erlangen. The movie opts for a more optimistic departure from Valparaiso after Elsa, who has thus far been cool and contemptuous toward Ehrlich, suddenly recognizes Kirchner for the arrogant and evil pig of a human being he has been from the beginning. Greer’s novel was first published in 1948 and popular reading from which Jack Warner elected to buy up the rights. From the outset, Wayne expressed interest in the project, first assigned to Bolton Mallory for an adaptation. Alas, herein The Sea Chase hit several snags to alter its overall storytelling effectiveness, commitments elsewhere delaying, then delaying some more, the start-up. Thus, it arrived on John Farrow’s roster of ‘things to do’ in 1953. Wayne and Farrow had successfully collaborated on Hondo (1953) and Wayne, whose pull in the industry was enormous, encouraged Warner to assign Farrow to The Sea Chase; a decision he would come to regret.
“John didn't really have a great deal to do with Hondo,” Wayne later reminisced, “It was a Batjac Production and everything was set up before he came on it. He did direct The Sea Chase and prove to me that he should not be put in charge as a producer/director. He failed to tell the good story that was in the book. But now, we are talking about a matter of opinion and that is only my opinion. For some, he may be considered a fine director.” Ultimately, more rewrites were required; Warner now passing the war horse duties to Frank Nugent who reworked the material considerably and never received any screen credit for it. If The Sea Chase had its share of false starts leading up to production they arguably paled to the tensions mounting daily on the set. Just prior to the lengthy shoot in Hawaii, Wayne elected to go scuba diving and developed a horrendous ear infection. As a result, he was in agony for much of the shooting. Farrow favored Wayne’s ‘good side’, as the infected ear had swelled so grotesquely the star was forced to literally lie down between takes on ice packs to dull and numb his pain. Production was further delayed for several days so Wayne could be flown to a specialist in San Francisco to be treated with anesthetizing painkillers.
In the meantime, Lana Turner repeatedly clashed with Farrow whom she felt was a bit of a brute and offered her virtually no hint of direction. Turner’s unease behind the scenes is overcompensated for in the picture by her reliance on the ole Lana Turner ‘charm’ and immaculate glamor. But it is oddly blended here; Turner oft bitchy than standoffish, with volatile and flashing eyes caught in dagger-filled stares, virtually contradicted and diffused by her seemingly Teflon-coated and ultra-cool platinum tresses. According to Wayne, Turner took an instant dislike to practically everyone, channeling her discontent chiefly toward Farrow. Turner’s legendary after hours carousing did not exactly ingratiate her to Wayne’s workman-like professionalism. Indeed, Farrow lowered the boom after only a few days of Turner arriving late on the set, firing the actress who then, even more ironically, turned to Wayne for a sympathetic shoulder to cry on. Wayne – a softy of sorts – took pity on Turner and intervened. However, rehired, Turner continued to throw up roadblocks throughout production that caused even Wayne to become perplexed. “I couldn’t muss her make-up or touch her hair,” Wayne later recalled in an interview, “I thought…how the hell am I going to make love to a gal who won’t let me touch her?”
Interestingly, costars Tab Hunter, Claude Akins and James Arness all remember Turner more fondly, and, as every inch the star and glamor queen who could be playful, open and friendly. As when the openly gay Hunter, then 23, made the faux pas of telling Turner he had been an admirer of her work since he was a child. Far from offended by the inference she was leaning toward the latter end of her sexpot image, Turner instead jumped onto Hunter’s lap, smiling provocatively. Hunter later recalled, “I blushed and didn’t know what to do with my hands.” Filming The Sea Chase began in September 1954, at Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii where Warner Bros. had purchased an old freighter; cast and crew enduring an arduous daily sojourn of two-and-a-half hours by boat to reach their location. Despite The Sea Chase being a studio-bound production, Wayne’s formidable clout afforded him the luxury of calling at least some of the shots; hiring friends like actor, Paul Fix, cameraman, William H. Clothier and rising star, James Arness to buffer his own comfort zone. Wayne would round out his mixed feelings toward making the picture when, on Nov. 1st, he received confirmation that his contentious divorce was settled. He immediately married his girlfriend, Pilar, in Hawaii.
After a bombastic fanfare by Roy Webb and red-lettered main title sequence (in WarnerColor no less), the plot of The Sea Chase settles on Captain Karl Ehrlich (John Wayne); master of the nondescript German steam freighter, Ergenstrasse presently docked in Sydney, Australia. It is the eve of WWII and we soon learn Ehrlich is a patriot of the old school; deposed of his good standing and naval rank because he emphatically refuses to support the Nazi Party. As Ehrlich prepares for sea he is reunited with an old friend from the ‘other side’; British Commander Jeff Napier (David Farrar) and his fiancée, Elsa Keller (Lana Turner). Elsa is no stranger to Ehrlich. He recognizes her as the woman who did a former friend wrong; a tramp from the wrong side of the tracks, since worked her way up and into the title of a ‘countess’. Ehrlich threatens Elsa with exposing her past to Napier; a move that understandably leads to a very tempestuous détente between Ehrlich and Elsa. Meanwhile, Germany has invaded Poland. Napier informs Ehrlich the Ergenstrasse will likely be interned for the duration of the war. But Ehrlich has plans to return to his ship to the fatherland. Defying the articles of war, Ehrlich plots to sail his vessel slowly out to sea under a veil of heavy fog since settled on the bay. But his plans are momentarily delayed by a visit from German Consul-General Hepke (Wilton Graff) who orders Ehrlich to take aboard a spy. As fate would have it, Elsa is the spy.
Timeworn, sluggish and short on coal, the Ergenstrasse is misperceived by the Australian Navy as easy prey. Only Napier, understandably bitter at being duped, does not underestimate Ehrlich. The Navy under Napier’s command sets out to apprehend the Ergenstrasse. Yet, despite working with seemingly insurmountable deficiencies and impediments at every turn, Ehrlich manages to evade capture. The chase across the Pacific begins with a run to the south and briefest of respites to gather badly needed supplies at an unmanned rescue station on Auckland Island. While there, Ehrlich and his men encounter three marooned British seamen. Unable to ‘help’ them, Ehrlich nevertheless assures the men a rescue vessel routinely making its rounds will come to their aid in a few days. They have plenty of rations until then to sustain them. Alas, after his departure, Ehrlich’s first officer, pro-Nazi Kirchner (Lyle Bettger) elects to cruelly murder all three seamen for fear their rescue will reveal the whereabouts of the Ergenstrasse. Sometime later, Napier discovers the bodies and mistakenly believes Erhlich is responsible. Out of necessity, Ehrlich burns his lifeboats for fuel, again pausing to collect wood at the fictitious Pom Pom Galli Atoll in mid-Pacific. While there, Ehrlich learns of Kirchner’s crime and orders him to sign a confession entered into the ship’s log. After much misdirection, the Ergenstrasse lumbers into Valparaíso in neutral Chile.  Ehrlich encounters Napier whose ship, the HMAS Rock Hampton has pursued them from New Zealand.
Re-provisioned and fully fueled, the Ergenstrasse slips away under the cover of darkness. As British forces lying in wait have been ordered to face the German pocket battleship Graf Spee in Montevideo Uruguay, Napier requests transfer to the British Naval patrols in the North Sea to continue his pursuit of the Ergenstrasse. German radio broadcasts a message from Lord Haw Haw, disclosing the position of the Ergenstrasse as it passes Norway. Napier and the Royal Navy are this time prepared, intercepting and sinking the Ergenstrasse. The survivors, including Erhlich, Elsa and Kirchner are brought aboard. The ship’s log, miraculously survived, reveals the truth; that Erhlich had nothing to do with the murders at Auckland. Elsa, who has thus far placed her trust and faith in Kirchner, recoils in shame and turns to Erhlich for forgiveness and, so it is hinted, the promise of perhaps a ‘relationship’ on friendlier terms.
The Sea Chase is rather badly bungled melodrama. Despite the studio’s attempt to will and market an action/adventure yarn from this rough hull of perpetually waterlogged and submarined plot, with virtually zero tension to buoy such amateur theatrics, the picture sinks or swims on the merits of its two superstars. Interestingly, while The Sea Chase founders badly as a thriller it remains highly watchable because of John Wayne and Lana Turner. There is no romantic chemistry between these two, and yet, apart – even together – they illustrate unequivocally what real ‘star power’ can do, even when working with subpar material. There is definitely something to be said about this intangible quality. It can draw audiences in on ‘name above the title’ recognition alone. Hollywood no longer grooms such unicorn talent. But Wayne and Turner are larger than life and prove it in The Sea Chase; an inferior product – in Cinemascope – yet able to command our attention for the duration of its 117 min. run time. John Farrow’s direction leaves much to be desired. Arguably, he is hampered by the constraints of early Cinemascope; a lot of dead space to fill in confined spaces with less than interesting art and set decoration by Franz Bachelin and William Wallace. After all, there is only so much you can do with the drab set interiors of a beat-up freighter. William H. Clothier’s cinematography helps some, as does Roy Webb’s infrequent outburst of underscore. But in the end, The Sea Chase remains a tepid and unprepossessing movie at best. For Wayne completionists, it’s a must. For the rest of us…not so much.  
There is nothing tepid about Warner Archive’s (WAC) Blu-ray. As with virtually all of WAC’s endeavors, this one looks spectacular. Despite the inherited inconsistencies of Warner’s own patented color process – WarnerColor is a disaster…usually – most of The Sea Chase belies these shortcomings with a razor-sharp transfer whose virtues are bold and fully saturated colors and a good solid smattering of film grain. Yep, this one is a winner with only some very minor haloing sporadically cropping up, but never to egregious levels where it distracts from our viewing pleasure. WAC must get top marks here as The Sea Chase looks and sounds, in 2.0 mono, as good as it probably ever did, including on its opening night in 1955. Predictably, we get NO extras here. WAC has spent its money correctly, on the transfer rather than the fluff. A bare bones disc is good enough for The Sea Chase – a movie more deserving of our curiosities than admiration. We champion the effort if not the content. Now, pretty please WAC – how about doing the same justice to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, High Society, The Student Prince, Show Boat, National Velvet, Marie Antoinette, The Great Ziegfeld, Around the World in 80 Days…etc. et al. Lots better in your archive deserving of this much care and preservation. Bottom line: for Wayne/Turner fans – a must have.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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