Below the Sea (1933)
“If I were running this ship, there’s three things I would bar. Women, dogs and gentlemen.” says a gruff and grizzled Ralph Bellamy.
Opening with a bang, this sunken treasure tale begins with a German U-Boat in 1917 captained by Frederick Vogeding hunting passing freighters in what I assume to be WW1. On board the sub is a chest full of gold bars. When the sub comes upon a seemingly docile freighter, it surfaces intent on destroying it’s prey. In a spectacular display for 1933 audiences, the two ships engage in a glorious battle that sees both vessels blown to hell and the sub sinking to the murky depths below. Vogeding and one of his sailors make their way to an unchartered isle where they wait to be rescued. When a rescue is imminent, Vogeding kills his underling and pockets the treasure map that leads to the sunken gold, thus claiming it for himself.
Jumping ahead twelve years, Vogeding joins with both Esther Howard and Ralph Bellamy plotting to reclaim the gold. Howard seems to have the money to back the expedition while Ralph is the deep sea diver with the equipment needed to walk the bottom of the deep. Vogeding quickly proves to be an unsavory character to Bellamy who wants nothing more than his third and has no interest in cheating Howard from her share though his German partner has made it clear that’s his intention. Things don’t go as planned sending the plot forward in time yet again.
Enter a pre-code Fay Wray.
At this point we have Fay funding a scientific expedition to photograph the sea bottom with a diving bell. She’s hired a ship and crew overseen by Vogeding who brings along Bellamy as his leading diver. The duo have designs of their own and plan to use Fay’s expedition to recover the gold. Fay and Ralph don’t exactly hit it off but this is Hollywood and there’s something about the gruff salty sea dog that has captured her interest.
“All sensitive things are developed in the dark.” Fay coyly points out while Ralph gives it an understanding uh huh. Fay proves to be a bit of a tom boy to the gruff Bellamy. She’s competitive and steals away in his diving gear to experience the sea bottom for herself against his orders. When “the bends” strike, Ralph quickly carries her off to a decompression chamber to bring her back to safety. Who says movies cannot teach us anything. I had absolutely no idea that a decompression chamber had been developed and was in use at this point in history.
Plenty of action gets packed into this seventy plus minute feature from director Albert Rogell by way of Columbia Studios president Harry Cohn. While the underwater scenes are obviously done with miniatures, there is plenty of on location ocean side filming taking this adventure off of the stage bound trappings of many early talkies. There is the customary giant octopus battle that will see Ralph attempting to save his fair maiden and then of course we’ll have to see who comes up with the gold and lives to see the final reel. I’m not telling though I suspect you all have a pretty good idea of how the final reel will play.
Being a pre-code entry, there is a fair amount of sexual innuendo to be found in this script and plenty of cleavage from lovely Fay around the docks and sea faring vessel. I’m so used to seeing Ralph Bellamy in the third role of a love triangle, it’s refreshing to sea him as the sole romantic lead this time out. He plays it tough and according to the trivia listed for this film on the IMDB, Bogart was originally intended to play the rough tough role that Bellamy wound up with.
Not being familiar with Mr. Vogeding though it appears I’ve seen a number of films where he was featured as a German officer/villain, I couldn’t help but compare his acting style and delivery here to the well known Bela Lugosi. A role like this might have proved a good one for Bela after he had become trapped in his own success as the Count.
During the film there is a perfect set up to some color footage of the ocean floor when Fay presents the footage to some backers. As the lights go down, they immediately come up at which point she carries on with her sales pitch. I automatically thought that perhaps there is some lost color footage here. According to the IMDB, there is indeed. Always a tragedy to us film historians.
A fun throwback to the Saturday matinee adventures that could easily have been the template for a serial featuring our trio of leads and the weekly hunt for gold and misadventures upon the sea. I happened across this satisfying Wray/Bellamy teaming on TCM so keep your eyes peeled for the next airing.