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Seas Beneath (1931)

Always on the lookout for a great deal when it comes to collecting movies, I recently scored the Ford at Fox giant box set allowing me to acquire copies of some of his earlier films including this pre-code naval story featuring George O’Brien.

While filmed long before WW2 that would see Ford actively in the Navy and even have Admiral John Ford engraved on his tombstone, Seas Beneath proved to be a fitting topic for Ford during the early years of the talking motion picture. Top billed O’Brien is leading a ragtag group of sailors on an espionage venture to put an end to Henry Victor’s German U-boat wreaking havoc in 1918 during the first world war.

Aboard a schooner and incognito, O’Brien’s crew includes a very Victor McLaglen like Irish sergeant only this time it’s Walter Kelly as Chief Costello, Warren Hymer and Steve Pendleton as a young sailor who will play a major part in how the plot unfolds. O’Brien’s command is to act as bait to lure the enemy’s craft into surfacing and attacking while a U.S. submarine hangs back to knock off Victor’s enemy sub. The schooner will pull into a friendly port where the German boat is moored which allows for shore leave, prostitutes and interaction between the opposing commanders over a beer in a local dive bar. It’s also another opportunity for Ford to continue injecting his usual bits of comedy relief with Hymer and Kelly taking center stage.

It’s interesting to note that when Victor is talking to his own officers including John Loder, they speak German and the film offers title cards as if it were a silent film in lieu of subtitles. It’s in port that O’Brien will take up with Marion Lessing who is actually a German spy and the sister of Commander Victor. I know it’s an early thirties flick and injecting crazy plot inventions like these were common but it’s just too ridiculous from our vantage point and I wonder if it was thought of the same at the time. There’s a definite conflict of interest here for O’Brien when he finds out his beloved’s innermost feelings and her true love for the Fatherland.

“Don’t you realize there’s something going on in the world much bigger than you and I – WAR!”

The major pre-code sequence would be when the young Pendleton takes up with cabaret dancer, Mona Maris. She’s clearly a prostitute and herself working for the German war machine. She’ll lure Pendleton to her bedroom for the implied sexual tryst. It’s here that her alliance to the German’s comes forward and Pendleton will find himself drugged and searched leading Victor to confirm his suspicions that the O’Brien schooner is really a U.S. navy vessel.

It’s now time to head to the high seas and the inevitable clash between the two Captains. Truthfully, it’s a pretty exciting confrontation considering this is a 1931 flick and one has to love the fact that it’s not studio bound but rather filmed on the water with the cooperation of the Navy which supplied a submarine for Ford to capture on camera at various points in the final battle. Guns, explosions and cannon fire fill the screen during the final battle that is only undermined by a tacky add on ending for those who still expect a love affair to be tossed into this tale of battle weary men on the open seas. I’ve often heard the story of Ford ripping out pages from a script to annoy producers visiting the set hoping to speed him up to save money and him subsequently never filming the torn pages. He should have pulled that stunt here on the closing scene as it’s just too corny.

A curio to be sure and a window to the past for Navy buffs, film buffs and those that love the world as filmed by John Ford. Glad I finally caught up with this one though I was disappointed not to spot a young John Wayne or Ward Bond on board taking orders from O’Brien.

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