This week saw the surfacing of a photo of John Barrymore on the set of the 1926 silent Moby-Dick adaptation, The Sea Beast. The film is not readily available save for a few clips on YouTube2 (there is a single DVD copy going for $150 on Amazon). Lucky for us, though, the Times’ review survives.3
Photo: The New York Times
This is the first I’ve ever read the criticism of Mordaunt Hall. The first thing that stands out to me is the lasting value of published criticism. The Sea Beast, some ninety-years old, may not survive intact, but Hall’s 1926 experience of it is as vibrant today as it was when it was originally published.
There are a few notable things about Hall’s review. By 1926 cinema had a working language, but some of the terminology was still up for grabs. Hall refers to the film as “the picturization of ‘Moby Dick,’” for example. Today we say adaptation, which perhaps tempers expectations of textual consistency.
“Picturization” feels so dated because the movies have since come into their own. Time was a book could be, theoretically, transplanted onto the screen. Of course, that was never accurate (and I’m overstating things a bit here), but it goes to show the ways in which how we talk about movies has changed over the years.
Hall is impressed by the photography, but not the editing:
The turbulent seas and the sights aboard the vessel are particularly well pictured, but the constant glimpses of a miniature to show the vessel plunging through the angry water are shown too frequently. In fact Millard Webb, who directed this production, often spars for suspense and misses it, and frequently loses his dramatic value by long close-ups, first of one person and then of another. For this reason the production drags quite a good deal.
It looks good, but it’s boring.
I also love that the modern complaint, “too much CGI,” is almost as old as the medium, in a different context of course. Here’s Hall:
There are scenes supposed to be in New Bedford in 1840, and others in Java. It would have been preferable if [director Millard] Webb had decided to forego the use of a property moon in one setting, as it is by no means realistic, any more than some of the backdrops.
It’s unendingly fascinating to me that, at this juncture in film history, a critic would call for more realism. I’m not sure I even understand Hall’s complaint. The moon (which was likely impossible to expose for alongside actors; it’s not much easier today for that matter) looks fake: so what?
This is a good production and one which contains much interest, but it is not a great photoplay.
Sounds like a summer blockbuster.