10 March 2011 | Bunuel1976
PORT OF SEVEN SEAS (James Whale, 1938) ***
Though my James Whale retrospective was officially over, I managed to get my hands on yet another rarity (I am now only left with his last unreleased work, 1949's HELLO OUT THERE to catch up with) – so I opted to check it out instantly. This was his sole stint at MGM and, though the material is hardly typical of him, he manages to infuse it with great humanity and surprising depth. This is especially remarkable when considering that the 81-minute film is essentially a compression of three lengthy French ones – a particular characteristic of their creator Marcel Pagnol – whose cumulative length exceeds 7 hours (though this effectively tails off at the end of the second)!; interestingly, the adaptation/streamlining was done by none other than Preston Sturges!
As expected, the Marseille waterfront atmosphere is carefully evoked (courtesy of celebrated cinematographer Karl Freund) and the cast (mainly filled by MGM stalwarts) proves another definite trump card here: Wallace Beery plays gruff tavern-keeper Cesar, Frank Morgan is wealthy merchant Panisse (his best friend), Maureen O'Sullivan the market-seller Fanny (albeit awkwardly renamed Madelon!) and John Beal – essentially turning up at the extended finale – as the sailor Marius (Cesar's son). Also on hand is Etienne Girardot as a doddering crony of Beery and Morgan, with the trio's scenes together inserting a welcome dose of humor into the generally melodramatic proceedings.
For those unfamiliar with the narrative, we have Madelon and Marius intending to marry but he finds the call of the ocean irresistible and leaves her and his father behind. When it is discovered that the girl is pregnant, the much-older Panisse (a childless widower) offers to marry her – which is no sacrifice for him since he had repeatedly expressed his love for Madelon – and raise the kid as his own! However, Marius eventually re-appears and claims both for himself
but he finds opposition from everyone (Panisse was willing to relinquish the girl but not the baby), including his own father! The plot, as it stands here, concludes in bittersweet fashion with Cesar persuading Marius to go back to his true love i.e. the sea; the last entry in Pagnol's original trilogy follows the adventures of the grown-up boy.
The film, then, is an underrated achievement – even more so in the face of the 1961 remake called FANNY (which, being an Oscar nominee and featuring the cream of Hollywood's French star imports, has rather stolen this one's thunder!) that actually originated as a stage musical but whose entire song score would ultimately be dropped for its transition to the screen!