Saturday, November 17, 2012

Moby's Dick

A Whale of a tale.
Last night I watched the movie of Moby Dick. No, I do not mean the relatively faithful John Huston-Ray Bradbury film with a miscast Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. (To be fair, when wasn't Gregory Peck miscast?)

If only the whale in the movie looked anywhere near as exciting as the one in this highly-deceptive poster. Actually, sharks evolved LONG before whales did.
Nor do I mean the very faithful TV mini-series of a few years back with Sir Patrick Stewart as Ahab. Not even that peculiar shark version Spielberg made with Robert Shaw as Ahab, and the whale turned into a great white shark. (Which at least was white.) No, what I saw was my old friend John Barrymore's 1930 movie of Moby Dick, which was a remake of his silent version, titled The Sea Beast. (How close a friend was John Barrymore, my old drinking and shagging buddy? Well, he INSISTED on writing the forward for My Lush Life despite the fact that he had died 60 years before it came out. That is devotion! BTW, John Barrymore's dying on my birthday was not a coincidence. He did that to honor me!)

You would think Herman Melville might have objected to his billing requiring an electron microscope to read, but frankly, any inference that Herman Mellville wrote this movie is a black, black lie.

The first indication that any resemblance between this movie and the novel by Hermie Melville was unintended was in the opening credits, with  that billing for lovely Joan Bennett. She gets second billing. The number of women in the book is zero.

The second indication was also in the opening credits, in the cast list. Conspicuous by its absence from the list of characters was the name Ishmael. Clearly no one was going to speak the words "Call me Ishmael," the wonderful opening sentence of the book which carries the hint that "Ishmael" really had some other actual name but was writing under pseudonym, and given he's in bed with a naked Queequeg before chapter 3 concludes, one can understand why. In fact, Chapter 4 opens with: "Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife." High schools teaching Moby Dick in Little Dougie's high school days sort of ignored this sort of thing in the book, instead drawing attention to admittedly great passages like: "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off —then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." Yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah. Let's get back to the mansex with the huge black sex god.

(The book is astoundingly full of homosexuality, given that it's a mid-19th Century American novel. Oh Melville tries to pretend he's agin it with such passages as: "No man prefers to sleep two in a bed. In fact, you would a good deal rather not sleep with your own brother. I don’t know how it is, but people like to be private when they are sleeping. And when it comes to sleeping with an unknown stranger, in a strange inn, in a strange town, and that stranger a harpooneer, then your objections indefinitely multiply." Yeah sure, Herman. Pull the other one. Chapter 3 also contains this pearl of wisdom: "Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian." I might add that drunken Christian cannibals are the worst! Anyway, I'm drunk enough for two, not a Christian, and have eaten more men than most of the cannibals you meet on a daily basis.)

More proof that this is not going to be Melville's Moby Dick comes in the opening sequence, when a ship, and one NOT named "The Pequod" ("The Pequod" is not used as a name for any ship in the entire movie. It's like filming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with Captain Nemo sailing about in a submarine named "The Good Ship Lollipop"), sails into New Bedford, and there's Ahab, aloft in the crow's nest, doing handstands to impress the ladies. Hardly Melville's obsessed, anti-social grump. Within a second or two of Barrymore beginning his handstands you also notice that he's got two legs. In fact, being Jack Barrymore, three legs. And none of those legs are wooden, even if he has wood in the center leg. No ivory either.

Who is this guy? Barrymore spends the first third of the film playing a constantly drunken womanizer with roguish charm. This performance has nothing to do with being Ahab and everything to do with being John Barrymore. Mind you, John Barrymore was a lot more fun to spend an evening with than Melville's Ahab ever was, but still, turning the first third of Moby Dick into a romantic comedy about a drunken harpooner (He's not even a Captain!) accidentally causing his brother's girl friend to fall in love with him is a peculiar choice, to say the least. I dread to think what Jack might have done to Billy Budd.

John Barrymore shows adorable Joan Bennett his enormous harpoon, much to his charmless brother's displeasure.

Finally, about a third of the way into the picture, Barrymore meets Moby Dick, whom we are repeatedly told is a white whale despite our eyes showing us a black whale, and Johnny gets his leg bitten off, though fortunately not his middle one. Apparently someone at Warner Brothers decided that Melville's 900 page novel was insufficient to fill out the full running time of a 75 minute movie, so they decided to fill out the skimpy storyline with Ahab's backstory, and to make it funny. Yes, when you see the name "Herman Melville," your first thought is always "Rollicking romantic comedy."

Herman Melville, 19th Century America's favorite comedy writer, the Patrick Dennis of whaling.

Apparently Moby Dick haunts the waters off of Los Angeles, because the unmistakable silhouette of Catalina Island dominates the background of the rather impressively rousing (for a film from 1930) and scary sequence of Jack's leg getting munched off by something whaleish. (One expects Moby to cough up Pinocchio at any moment.) Little Dougie spent his boyhood able to see Catalina from his backyard, and it's not something he's likely to mis-identify.

But this is capped by the convincingly hideous sequence where Ahab's leg stump is cauterized by a white hot iron. That puts a severe end to the comedy in the movie. For a few seconds we are reminded that Barrymore was a great dramatic actor.

Barrymore returns to his pretty blond fiancee in New Bedford, and she takes one look at his stump and shrieks and runs away. He doesn't take this well. She realizes what a ninny she's being. The important leg is still there, after all, and she can be on top. She's refused permission to come aboard so she sends Ahab's brother, her ex-boyfriend, to tender her apologies and assure him that she still loves him. Bad move. He, naturally, tells his brother that she now finds him repulsive and never wants to see him again. Heartbroken, Barrymore returns to sea, now with a grudge against Moby Dick for costing him his girl friend. Melville omitted this romantic motivation from his novel. He just has Ahab raging against the white whale as though raging against a silent God who abandoned his creations to chaos. How much simpler for Ahab to be pissed about losing a girl instead. How much richer this simplistic, hackneyed motivation is than a man raging against the universe itself.

Eventually, Ahab buys a ship, the Santa Maria (I guess at a Columbus Day sale), and becomes a captain. Then he returns to New Bedford again, has his first mate Stubbs (Played by the pug-faced Walter Long, who is best remembered for menacing Laurel & Hardy in Pardon Us) shanghai a crew (Silly old Ahab in the novel takes the boringly cliched approach of hiring a crew), and sets sail in search of Moby Dick. Finally, 59 minutes into a 75 minute movie, we've caught up to the beginning of the mammoth novel now to be squeezed into the remaining 16 minutes.

The "Auntie Mame" of 1851.

The movie, needing now to streamline Melville's novella down a bit, omits a few (all) of the incidents it has between Chapter 1 and Chapter 134. The crew is so grotesquely depraved-looking (And everyone is maimed in one way or another. One guy has only one arm, and that arm has a hook instead of a hand. How much of a help can he be at sailing and whaling?) that they make the villains' crews in the Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean movies look like the Radio City Rockettes. Rather than New Bedford, it looks as though he shanghaied his crew from the island of Dr. Moreau.

The crew kinda mutiny, except the whale shows up and distracts them. During a very impressive storm, Ahab's brother, who got shanghaied with the others, tries to kill Ahab and gets his back broken by Queequeg. (Though he doesn't die.)

Shortly they are in the south pacific chasing a whale we are told is white no matter what our lying eyes are seeing. Fortunately, there is now little left of the book for them to mutilate. But that was a challenge they were up to. Ahab climbs up on Moby Dick's back, plunges his harpoon into M. Dick repeatedly (So at least a little of the homosexuality the book is flooded with makes its way in, albeit, solely symbolically), and --- Moby Dick dies! And there's more.

Aboard the Not-Pequod are Noble Johnson as Queeqeg, Barrymore as Ahab, and Walter Long as Stubbs. Wouldn't Stubbs be a better name for Ahab? Who can forget Mellville's description of Captain Ahab? "He had the most striking and handsome profile in all of New England." No wait. I wrote that.

We get stock footage of actual whalers actually skinning an actual whale, and some other equally stomach-churning parts of the slicing-up-beautiful-whales aspect of the revolting pastime that is whaling, which I'd be okay with if it had been put in for the purpose of reminding us how disgusting whaling is, only it isn't. Since this film was made in 1930, there wasn't any sound stock footage of whaling then, so we get footage shot at 16 frames per second now shown at 24 frames per second, thus showing us very hurried whalers skinning whales at a hell of a clip.

But no sooner than they finish showing us a whale being butchered, they finish the job of butchering the novel. The Santa Maria returns to New Bedford intact, the crew alive and as well as this grotesque bunch can ever be, Ahab reunites with Joan Bennett and they marry and live happily ever after. Yes, they give Moby Dick, a novel whose epilogue is titled "And I Only Am Escaped Alone to Tell Thee", and which ends with every major character and most of the minor ones dead except for Ishmael and the whale, a happy ending! I was reminded of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 9-hour stage adaptation of Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby where the Vincent Crummles theatrical company present Romeo & Juliet with an intentionally hilarious happy ending.

This comic book is a more recognizable adaptation of Mellville's novel.
At least the whale IS white.

What we wanted going in to a sound film of Moby Dick and did not get was the great actor John Barrymore bellowing out Melville's great dialogue like: "To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee!" Talk about a missed opportunity! At the end of Moby Dick, one should not be thinking "How silly," or "What the hell was that?"

One aspect I rather did like, besides the always-enjoyable experience of watching John Barrymore act for 75 minutes, was the performance of Noble Johnson as a remarkably authentic Queequeg.

In a hand-colored lobby card, Barrymore's Ahab glares at Queequeg's pagan idol, which excites the heck out of QQ, as played by Noble Johnson.

Noble Johnson, who had one, was a great man, and a fine actor, not something you'd readily notice watching him play the native chief who sacrificed Fay Wray in King King or the zombie menacing Bob Hope in The Ghost Busters, but this was a remarkable man. Hollywood had boring ideas about how to cast him, or indeed any great black actor in those days. They managed to get it into their heads that Paul Robeson was great enough to deserve star treatment and actually have roles tailored to him, but not Noble, so we never got Noble Johnson's Othello. 

Noble Johnson in King Kong.

For a while, Noble was a film mogul himself, having founded and run the first all-black film studio, The Lincoln Motion Picture Company, founded in 1916, turning out all-black movies with all-black casts for black audiences, where black characters could be more than just maids, butlers, slaves, and bug-eyed comic relief, and have some human dignity, and lives that were seen for themselves and not just as adjuncts to their white masters. The studio only lasted until 1921.

Noble Johnson in Karloff's The Mummy.

An impressively built man (He was 6'2" and weighed 215 pounds), he was a personal friend for many years of both Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff. He lived to be 92. A biography of this amazing man is sorely needed. His place in black motion picture history is unique.

Noble Johnson in, oh my Dog, whiteface, shows Joel McRae to his room, past a tapisitry depicting the scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Delores Umbridge is raped by the centaur Firenze, in Merien C. Cooper's The Most Dangerous Game. One hopes he said: "Stay close to the candles; the staircase can be treacherous."

Noble's Queequeg is pretty much the only character in the film who seems to have emerged from the pages of Melville's novel, but even he gets cheered up. His whole premonition of death and building himself a coffin subplot is gone, but then, since the Santa Maria never sinks and there is no Ishmael, Ishy doesn't need Queequeg's coffin to keep him afloat, plus, Queequeg doesn't die, but lives happily ever after.

One author obsessed with Moby Dick was the late Ray Bradbury. He wrote the screenplay for John Huston's ambitious, miscast film of the book, and became unable to let it go. In a somewhat strange essay he wrote called The Whale, The Whim, and I, in which he discusses his approach to adapting this difficult book, Bradbury writes of looking in a mirror and believing himself possessed by Melville. "'I,' I cried, 'am Herman Melville!'" One needs only to make a brief look at Bradbury's unmistakable prose style, and then at Melville's overwhelmingly different style to see that Bradbury was not Melville ghost in Ray's body. In another quite peculiar, if more sane, essay, The Ardent Blasphemers, Ray sees enormous similarities, both of plot and of theme, though of quite contrasting approaches, in Melville's Moby Dick and Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. To him, Nemo is another Ahab (That idea is far from deranged) but one who chose not to kill the whale, but to inhabit it instead. The essay is worth seeking out.

Doesn't it scream "Melville"?

But Ray could never let it go, and became determined to rewrite Moby Dick (I was unaware it needed rewriting) as a science fiction story set in outer space, with a comet replacing the whale. He wrote it as a radio drama titled Leviathan '99, and it was produced on the BBC with Sir Christopher Lee as Ahab. Now that I would like to hear! (Apparently a recording of the one-hour 1968 radio drama survives.) Still not satisfied, he rewrote it, doubled its length, and produced it as a stage play in Hollywood in 1972. I wish I'd known then, as I would have liked to have seen it. He admitted that the extra length killed it, and it received blistering reviews. He staged it several more times, always refining the script but never happy with it. Ironically enough, Leviathan '99 became Ray's white whale he could never quite capture and kill. However, he eventually adapted it as a novella, still titled Leviathan '99, and published it in 2007 with another, quite different novella, Somewhere a Band is Playing, in a volume titled Now And Forever, which is readily available. I haven't read Leviathan '99, but Now And Forever sits beside me here in my "Waiting To Be Read" stack, and I expect to get to it soon, sooner for having written this piece.

This pocket book is readily available.

However, Ray failed to notice that during the over-40 years that he wrestled with Leviathan '99, someone else, namely Nicholas Meyer, adapted Moby Dick as a science fiction story set in outer space, calling it Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, with Kahn, as overplayed by Ricardo Montalban, as Ahab, and Captain Kirk, as overplayed by William Shatner (Who most certainly IS white!), as his white whale. Even though Montalban actually got to deliver some of Melville's dialogue this time out, Ray may still have missed that it was really Moby Dick (Many missed this aspect of it) since they took the unique approach of telling the story this time around from the whale's point-of-view, so Ahab and crew all dying and Captain Kirk surviving is seen as a happy ending. Plus, they omitted Qeequeg.

The oddest Captain Ahab. He has one of the silliest lines ever written: "I've done more than kill you; I've hurt you!"

Well, Moby Dick is a gigantic masterpiece of American Literature. It had no trouble surviving John Barrymore and Ray Bradbury. It will survive all of you, and I alone will be left alive to tell the tale.

But if the 900 pages of Moby Dick seems too intimidating a tome to tackle for pleasure, you could instead enjoy the 215 pages of Tallyho, Tallulah! The whale lives in that too.

Cheers darlings.

The Spielberg Moby Dick may have been even less faithful to the novel than Barrymore's, but at least it wasn't a romantic comedy.


Matt Patton said...

I always loved the line about Ishmael's struggle not to knock strangers hats off of their heads. It makes up for the fact that in the next chapter it takes him many pages to walk about two blocks--mind you, there is soul-searching going on, but still . . .

Moby Dick would certainly liven up any production of Auntie Mame, although I suspect that the Upsons would probably disappear rather quickly, which would probably eliminate the whole scene featuring the couches courtesy of Yul Ooloo, which my sister has always loved.

The movies have always stumbled over Melville's sea captains. Peter Ustinov miscast himself as Captain Vere in his film of Billy Budd. Fortunately, Terrence Stamp and Robert Ryan were so dead-on as Budd and Claggart that it almost made up for that.

Tallulah Morehead said...

I never noticed that Auntie Mame needed any livening up.

The genius of Yul Oooloo will one day be recognized.

I love Ustinov's movie of Billy Budd. Just rewatched it about three months ago. However, I've never read the book, whereas I have read Moby Dick, so I have no opinion on how appropriate Ustinov's Captain Vere is to Melville's, but at least Pete resisted his unfortunate tendency to ham and pander for the camera shamelessly. It's a highly restrained performance, for Ustinov, that is. I saw him play the ghost of Beethoven on stage once. He was irrisistable, but somehow I doubt that Ludwig Von Beethoven was a loveable old Englishman given to mugging and scenery chewing. I wonder; did he lose his German accent when he died or when he lost his hearing?

I guess Melville's captains always had trouble with Typee casting. (Now there's a joke only American Lit majors will get.)