Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Sea Wolf (1941): An Unsung Warner Brothers Classic

"Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven" ~ John Milton, Paradise Lost

Edward G. Robinson is best known to filmgoers as a movie heavy. In fact, the gangland saga Little Caesar (1930) is the film that made him a star and subsequent gangster roles, both sinister and comedic, made him a superstar. In 1941 he took all that experience playing hoodlums and tough guys and wrapped it together in the character of Wolf Larsen in Warner Brothers' The Sea Wolf.

Larsen is a complex figure, both in the film and the 1904 book by American novelist Jack London on which the screenplay is based. Robinson pulls out all the stops to show the character's depth of savagery. He is primitive in his brutishness, while his intellect is of a high caliber, a dangerous combination. His cruelty knows no bounds and is only exacerbated by his intelligence. He is the tyrannical captain of the "Ghost", an aptly named schooner off the San Francisco coast at the turn of the 20th century with a crew comprised of scurvy misfits and cut-throat criminals. Among this motley assortment are Humphrey van Weyden (Alexander Knox) and Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino), survivors of a wrecked passenger ship who are picked up by the Ghost. Van Weyden is a soft spoken author of fiction, Webster an escaped convict with a major chip on her shoulder. On board they join George Leach (John Garfield), a rebellious lad who is one of many criminals on the lam who has found refuge as it were on the sloop, Louis Prescott (Gene Lockhart) the drunken and pathetic ship's physician and Cooky (Barry Fitzgerald) the vessel's galley mate, a nefarious imp with an obnoxiously wicked laugh.

The sadistic skipper takes no prisoners when dispensing his brand of brutality and perverse sarcasm. When Lupino's Ruth is dragged on board, she is near death and requires a blood transfusion. Larsen bullies Dr. Louis into performing the procedure, the hung-over surgeon's hands in a constant state of the shakes. When the operation is successful (with Garfield's blood), the recovered Ruth (lone female aboard the ship) finally makes an appearance on deck, unaware that she has betrayed her past in a moment of delirium. Nervously, she makes her way through the filthy, lecherous crew toward captain. At first he is polite and treats her with dignity, waiting until she is baited into a semi-sense of security and comfort before lowering the boom and bellowing out her secret to the gaffows of all on board.

An early 20th century illustration of the character Wolf Larsen

But she is handled with kid gloves in comparison to the treatment the ship's doctor is given. Louis Prescott is a raging alcoholic and can no longer practice on shore, hence his presence on the Ghost. He drowns his sorrows and regrets in mug after mug of hooch. When he successful saves Ruth, he is filled with pride and a renewed sense of confidence, cleaning himself up and demanding to be called Dr. Prescott, instead of being addressed with no respect whatsoever. He takes his complaint to Larsen, who assures him that he and the entire crew will give him what he deserves. Wolf takes him out to the group of ragamuffin sailors where, instead of heaping upon him the honor the physician longs for, he mocks him and kicks him down a set of steps, yet again to the uproarious laughter of the company. Refusing to live in a constant state of ridicule and desperation, Prescott climbs to the top of the mile high mast and jumps to his death, but not before exposing Larsen's secret to all below.

Much of the focus in The Sea Wolf, however, centers around the relationship between the seafarer and the intellectual Van Weyden. In the weak bodied Van Weyden, Larsen found both a physical punching bag, as well as a mental sparring partner. Forcing him into servitude as a cabin boy, Wolf takes control (the thing he thrives on) of yet another being in his self styled universe. Taking as his motto, Milton's quote from Paradise Lost, "Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav'n", Larsen has created and extended to those around him his own hellish domain. Of all the characters, these two extreme opposites are alone together at the end of the film.

Warners had purchased the film rights to the novel in the late 30's, as a possible project for its top serious actor Paul Muni. When initial plans didn't pan out it stayed on the back burner until 1940 when Edward G. Robinson was cast as the blackhearted captain and the studio's top adventure director Michael Curtiz was slated to direct. Casting for George Leach wasn't as simple. Warners offered the role to another of it's top gangsters, George Raft, but Raft thought it too small a role, saying in a letter to producer Hal Wallis: "My dear Mr. Wallis, just read Sea Wolf [script]. You told me in your office [that the role of Leach] would be a fifty-fifty part. I'm sorry to say that it is just the opposite." This from the man who also refused the lead roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, propelling Humphrey Bogart to stardom. Others considered for the secondary but meaty role of Leach were Bogart and Arthur Kennedy until a studio up and comer, John Garfield was chosen.

The cast was superb, as was the production staff behind the camera. Sol Polito's atmospheric cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s haunting score were a perfect complement to Curtiz' brisk pacing. In a year filled with top quality entertainment, Oscar time was tight, but The Sea Wolf did garner one nomination for Best Effects, Special Effects. The film is arguably a masterpiece at just under 90 minutes. Newly installed fog machines, first used the previously year for Errol Flynn's latest swashbuckler, The Sea Hawk, added even more gloomy, stifling ambience. Tying all these elements together was Robert Rossen's literate and forceful script.

As the subtitle of this post states, The Sea Wolf is an unsung classic. Many have never seen it and others only heard of it, which is unfortunate, because for those who love older films, especially those with a distinctive Warner Brothers stamp, this film is a great example of all that is good about classic Hollywood. It doesn't have the glamour of the Flynn spectacles but that sparkle wouldn't feel at home on this schooner anyway.


  1. Top notch evaluation, as always.This film is a favorite, with superb performances all around. I often wonder if George Raft had the insight in later years to realize how foolish he had be offered not one but several plum parts, and turn them all down! Enjoyable reading, and thank you!

  2. Thank you Tom. You bring up a great point about Raft. If we look at the roles he DID choose during this period, are there any that are memorable???

  3. Count me as one who hasn't seen this, probably because it's title sounds like The Sea Hawk. There's a reason most people today have never heard of George Raft.

  4. "My dear Mr. Wallis, just read Sea Wolf [script]. You told me in your office [that the role of Leach] would be a fifty-fifty part. I'm sorry to say that it is just the opposite."

    If the opposite of 40-60 is 60-40, then what is the opposite of 50-50? 50-50. Raft sounds a lot like Yogi Berra.

  5. LOL! You have an excellent point. I think it's funny that many of the comments, both here and other forums where this was posted, are about Raft. None of them positive.

  6. Hi Rupert!
    Interesting bit of trivia you've given us on the making of this gem. I can't fathom Raft playing the lead. I get a chuckle just thinking about him taking on this role. (No offense to Raft!)

    I've been reading this book "The Glamour Factory" and when you brought up Warner Bro's purchasing this script then it sitting on the shelf I was reminded of what I read about Jack Warner being very astute, a genius when it came to buying scripts, screenplays. Certainly proven time and time again over the years and especially with Sea Wolf.

    Ida has never been one of my favorite actresses although I love her work behind the camera. With that said, I felt so sorry for her in this film and I cringed, couldn't bare to see what she went through at the hands of these rogues. A sure sign that the leads were cast perfectly and the film did what it was set out to accomplish.

    I really enjoyed your well researched review. A great read!

  7. Thanks Page.
    The Glamour Factory? I haven't heard of that one but it sounds interesting. It's always a hoot to see who was considered for roles that turned out to be definitive parts for those who ended up with them.

  8. I'd love to see this - with Robinson, Lupino and Garfield all on board, it sounds great. Really enjoyed your review and will aim to see the film soon!



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