Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Reap the Wild Wind (1942)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille


Cecil B. DeMille, the rare motion picture director of his day to establish himself in celebrity status, produces a uncommon Technicolor spectacle film during World War II when money and resources were tighter within the motion picture industry. The resulting feature was one of the greatest box office draws in Hollywood for the year as audiences were brought on a high seas adventure both above and below the ocean waters. Featuring beautiful Technicolor and exciting special effects, this picture had more when it came to attracting audiences to the theater in the spring and summer of 1942.

Reap the Wild Wind is an adventure picture about a female ship salvager in the 1840s, her relationship with a rescued sea captain, and the complications of their romance when another suitor enters the picture. Loxi (Paulette Goddard) makes her living salvaging ships that run aground on the reefs just off the Florida Keys. While nursing  captain named Jack Stuart (John Wayne) whom she had rescued from one of her salvaging a ship she begins to fall in love with and attempts to use her own power to win Jack a new ship to skipper. However while attempting to do so she catches the eye of the Steve Tolliver, the man that runs the ship line Jack works for, and he begins to pursue Loxi.

John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, and Ray Milland
Due to possible love triangle jealousy between the two men arise and Jack secretly partner’s up with crooked salvager King Cutler (Raymond Massey) to intentionally sink a ship of Tolliver’s for the gain of Cutler. A livid Tolliver brings Jack to trail and through testimony learns of prospect of Loxi’s cousin Drusilla (Susan Hayward) having stowed away and being lost in the wreck. This news is confirmed in a dangerous dive to into the wreckage by Jack and Tolliver where Jack sacrifices his own life to save Tolliver’s from a giant squid as the ship sinks further into deep water. Through reactions of Drusilla’s death Culter, now revealed to be the true villain to all, is killed in a scuffle between Culter, Toliver and Drusilla’s fiancé. Somehow through all of this Loxi and Tolliver end up finding refuge with one another as we are left with them as a loving couple despite the tragedies.

The film is a bit all over the place and very dated from a contemporary point of view, but keeping in mind the time of the film’s release and the audiences would have been used to seeing on the big screen this was a spectacle of a motion picture by comparison. The movie features some very notably named actors, the beautiful Technicolor visuals, and dazzling special effects of that era (understanding that it is 1942 standards), making it one of the most attractive features for audiences to see when they desired a night at the theater that year.

DeMille was a spectacle director and he, as expected, would go above and beyond to produce a movie that has something audiences usually did not see in the typical motion picture. The scope of Reap the Wild Wind was not as vast as The Squaw Man (1931) or Cleopatra (1934), but it was DeMille’s second feature shot in the very price Technicolor process and contained underwater photography accomplished with giant water tanks containing live sea life and a very large rubber squid, which can be likened in a way to Walt Disney’s live action feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). All these aspects are remarkable considering the fact that Hollywood, like the rest of the nation at that time, was cutting costs and conserving resources. After the film concluded production the giant rubber quid would be donated for the war effort as rubber was scarce because of the international strife.

The picture stars Ray Milland, Paulette Goddard, and John Wayne, three significant screen performers of their day. Although it is Goddard and Wayne that serve as the film’s main romantic story, it is Milland’s sophisticated Tolliver character that ends ups with Goddard as John Wayne’s character shares a unique dark side. Through his long, illustrious career itt would be a rarity to see Wayne play a character that is partially the villain and further more a character that dies before the end of the feature. In a career that consisted of stanch heroes for which he would be best remembered for, this appearance is worth noting a being very different to his usual roles.

Goddard is the focus the feature as a strong willed woman, an aspect that DeMille strongly sought in this story as he toyed around with the original plot, adapting it from a serial story in the Saturday Evening Post to the silver screen. With her attractive looks and her very own strong will she fills the role of Loxi well with character, but is a bit unbelievable a woman that would make her living at see, with he Hollywood looks and all.

In years to come when the movie was re-released to make further profit, John Wayne’s name would be lifted to the top billing on the movie posters and marquees at movie houses as Wayne’s star shined brighter than his co-stars in later years, making his name more marketable. The same can be said for Susan Hayward who plays Drusilla, Loxi’s innocent cousin that dies in the shipwreck. Hayward during these re-releases would see he name billed just under Wayne because of her growing fame even though her role was relatively minor in the overall scope of the picture.

Robert Preston and Raymond Massey.
Also featured in the picture are Raymond Massey, who plays the film’s villain King Cutler, and Robert Preston, as his brother who happens to be Drusilla’s fiancé. Massey is a wonderful character actor and an easy man to hate in his role. He is a king of the evil look and is perfect as the film’s chief villain. Robert Preston really is an after though of the picture and seems to just appear at the right time to simply push the plot forward, despite we as an audience have no emotional connection with him. His character is so unassuming and appears cliché as his role just barely works for the picture. Preston’s performance comes off much more forced and out of place further making his appearance awkward in his short amount of time on screen. His appearance feels rushed, as if the film needed to be longer so that we got to know him better before the film’s climax, but the film as a whole already feels entirely too long as it is.

Wayne battles a giant squid in this underwater shot.
As mentioned before, all the color and special effects at a time when extravagance in movies were being cut back because of the war made this feature into a box office attraction of merit. For John Wayne this would his greatest finical success of his career, when adjusted for inflation, despite he almost passed up on the role because he felt his character was weak playing second fiddle to Milland. Critics of the period give the impression to have liked the feature, especially for the underwater cinematography. In honor of the picture the Academy Awards bestowed the feature its prize for best visual effects to Reap the Wild Wind thanks to the miniature effects shots of the ships and the (not so life like) squid scene.

In retrospect the picture felt too long and poorly written in a manner where one does not feel for any of the characters at all. The romance between Loxi and Jack give the impression of building steam in the plot, but when Jack dies and Loxi just defaults to Tolliver leaves me with an awkward taste in my mouth. I felt I was supposed to dislike Tolliver through the film despite his love for Loxi and somehow the two just end up together with no actual romance. Of course the special effects are atrocious when compared to films of just a decade or so later, but you cannot hold that against DeMille and his feature as it attempts to deliver a create no audience had seen before.

In the end the film does not hold up well in the eyes of this humble reviewer. I can see how some can very much enjoy this movie, but for me it was a struggle to watch despite the history and the actors involved. I can appreciate the time and place of the feature in the annuls of cinema history, but find the overall piece easily forgettable as a motion picture in the grand vision of this chronological march through cinema.

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