The Sea Spoilers (1936)
Signing on to the “B” unit at Universal while awaiting superstar status, John Wayne, plays the hero for the U.S. Coast Guard in this sea going adventure that will have him tangle with seal poachers, sidekick Fuzzy Knight and his leading lady, Nan Grey.
At just 63 minutes this is a fast paced black and white effort from director Frank Strayer that casts Duke as the second in command to a green Captain fresh out of cadet school played by William Bakewell. From the outset, Duke, is the man in charge and fully expecting to be placed in command of his own ship. That is until he learns he’s been pushed aside by Bakewell who’s father (George Irving) just happens to be the commander and chief of the Guard. Duke takes it well though his sidekick, Knight, believes there’s no justice to Duke’s being denied a command. Instead Duke will have to play babysitter to the young Captain with a phobia of water!
Before heading back to sea, Duke, learns that the gal who has captured his heart, Grey, has found herself in the wrong spot at the wrong time. While on board a yacht as a paid entertainer, she is witness to a murder by Russell Hicks over a cargo hold full of illegal seal skins. He’ll make off with his gunsel, Harry Worth, and Miss Grey as a hostage. By chance, Duke, arrives at the scene too late but will quickly take charge but alas too late. The killers have escaped with his gal. Safe to say he ain’t happy.
The days go by and no news reaches Duke who is now on the seas as Bakewell’s second in command. They’ll search any fishing vessel they come across but to no avail. It’s while going ashore to speak with an Eskimo informant that Duke will realize Bakewell has no real desire to be on the waters and will have to pull the young Captain from the surf when their boat capsizes. Once back at HQ the boys father will realize it’s Duke who deserves the command and allows his son to take to the skies in a sea plane for the Coast Guard.
Now Duke and Knight are set to crack this case. They’re going undercover as seaman on a derelict fishing boat looking to peddle skins in shady ports. Across the screen we’ll see ports of call including Kodiak, Juneau, Ketchikan and Shumagin named as the pair travel along the Alaskan coastline looking for clues as to the whereabouts of Grey and the poachers. While the boys are sailing the waters, Bakewell is in the skies and in true Hollywood fashion, all things are going to collide over the final third of the film.
Keeping the drama and excitement moving at a swift pace, the villains are going to get the upper hand at first but of course just as Duke and his two pals appear to be headed to the murky depths, they’ll stage an explosive comeback coming out heroes in the end as the paying public would expect. Duke will get the girl, Bakewell earns his father’s respect and Fuzzy Knight will get to keep his pet seal.
Strictly a popcorn entry but with John Wayne’s involvement it becomes a bit more than just a run of the mill Universal Studios product in light of what he would become to the world of cinema in the years ahead and what he remains to movie goers years after his death. The film also gives us a glimpse of a young Duke in something beyond the cookie cutter westerns he was mostly saddled with over the course of the 1930’s. Yeah he’s a bit stiff but that’s easy to look past as he’s still portraying the heroic character we all know him to be on camera.
The film was scripted by George Waggner who Universal Monsters fans should be quick to identify. He wrote plenty of titles for the studio including Man Made Monster but is perhaps better known for directing The Wolfman. He’d hire on to direct a much more famous John Wayne in the years ahead helming 1949’s The Fighting Kentuckian and 1951’s Operation Pacific. He’d move into television from the mid fifties to the late sixties directing everything from Wagon Train to Maverick to Batman episodes. He’d even have his name paid tribute in the Joe Dante classic, The Howling. Patrick Macnee would play Dr. George Waggner.
Duke’s leading lady, Nan Grey, also flirted with the Universal Monsters. She appeared in Dracula’s Daughter, The Tower of London and as the leading lady in the second film of The Invisible Man series opposite the voice of Vincent Price in 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns. She’s also appear opposite Price in The House of Seven Gables released that same year. She’d retire from screens in 1941 and would eventually marry cowboy singer Frankie Laine.
To the best of my knowledge, Sea Spoilers is a very rare John Wayne film which strikes me as odd. If indeed Universal Studios still own the rights I can’t see why it’s never been released on home video. (feel free to prove me wrong so I can get a copy) Perhaps the film elements have not aged well. As a collector of all things Duke, I have to assume there are enough buyers in the market to warrant it’s release to home video even now as that market continues to dry up. Or so I’m told.
The fact is Duke made six films for the Universal “B” unit in 1936-37. Sounds like a perfect six pack for a DVD release. Sadly the titles are nowhere to be found. (again feel free to prove me wrong) They include alongside Sea Spoilers, Conflict, California Straight Ahead, Idol of the Crowds, I Cover the War and lastly, Adventure’s End. Not a single western among them.
How did I finally see it for the first time? Check out a website called rarefilmm / The Cave of Forgotten Films …. believe me, magical wonders await.