I finally caught up with Souls at Sea
(1937), thanks to a night of Bob's Picks on TCM this week. This lovely, strange but memorable film may feature George Raft's best role, in large part because the director Henry Hathaway got Raft to play a sympathetic, nuanced individual--not a type--or a block of wood. He plays Powdah, an unlettered but goodhearted sailor whose instincts draw him into a close friendship with a scholarly man of action--Gary Cooper. The story, drawing on the dramatic moral dilemmas posed by life, features vividly depicted scenes of life on a slave ship and on another passenger ship enroute to America. The story was inspired by an actual, notorious shipwreck in the 1840s. Gary Cooper and George played shipmates and friends were very convincing as buddies and both gave fine performances. While the underlying story was tragic and occasionally gruesome, there was considerable humor injected into the movie even in the romance between Frances Dee and Gary Cooper, when he tries to emulate Sir Walter Raleigh on a muddy street. Cooper is very good in his low key but intelligent character, but there was another actor who really shone here.
Simply put, it was George Raft who was quite wonderful and refreshing here. In his scenes with co-star Gary Cooper, (who also played an atypical character, noteworthy for his sophistication and literacy), Raft was playful and comradely. In his tender scenes with the guileless ladies maid (Olympe Bradna) he fell in love with on the ship bound for the New World, Raft was quite unexpectedly endearing. As his character of Powdah tells her: I'm cheap."I'm no good. I'm nothin'. I even stole a piece of poetry to tell you you was beautiful." His inarticulate yearning is completely winning here. In their final scenes together, as he removed his earring made from his mother's wedding ring and slipped it on his beloved's finger, he had me pretty misty-eyed, but when I heard Robert Osborne say that George did not wish to take this part had my jaw-dropping. Holy cats, did Raft need career advice or what?!Their final scenes together, as he removed his earring made from his mother's wedding ring and slipped it on his beloved's finger had me pretty misty-eyed, but when I heard Robert Osborne say that George did not wish to take this part had my jaw-dropping. Holy cats, did Raft need career advice or what?!
Interestingly, Olympe Bradna and Frances Dee, as two disparate characters from drastically different backgrounds who are thrown together on ship, have more of a rapport with one another as they try to sort out their feelings for the strange men they meet on this fateful voyage. Their private scenes together parallel the relationship between Cooper and Raft--though Bradna's down-to-earth insights seem to come from experiences that Dee could only imagine.
Another aspect of the film that impressed me once again was Henry Hathaway's use of the camera in tight settings which he did here and in the later black and white Western, Rawhide
(1951) as well as the lush color film, Niagara
(1953) using the diagonals, shadows, long halls, cramped spaces and low ceilings to set up an emotional maze for the ship-bound characters (and may have been influenced by Murnau-like expressionism). Gosh, what an underrated filmmaker. Hathaway also used humor in unexpected ways to lighten the mood in the film. Two favorites were when Cooper and Raft sing in their shared prison cell, using their bandaged thumbs (they were hung by them by the British Navy!) to make shadow puppets on the wall. The other humorous scene was when Virginia Weidler reciting a dramatic poem about attacking Mohawks. Forgetting the words, Gary Cooper quietly helped fill in the blanks for her. You can see that scene here:
Did anyone else see this film and could you share your impressions, please?