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Monday, 31 March 2008

Below the Sea (1933)

It's 1933 and filmmaker Albert Rogell begins by showing us a German U boat in 1917 loaded with gold bullion. The Germans even speak German, which is an improvement on All Quiet on the Western Front, only three years earlier, and they're believable too. They take out a Norwegian ship but get suckered by an American one and sunk. Down goes the U170 and all its gold with it. There are two survivors, quickly to become one survivor because of the power of gold.

Twelve years later, the captain is back under the pseudonym of Karl Schlemming with a sneaky plan to recover the gold. He's financed by Lily, a harbourfront madam played by Esther Howard, and he relies on the deep diving skills skills of Steve McCreary, played by Ralph Bellamy who isn't just completely unlike his decent but boring heroic character who lost the leading lady in what felt like every film he was in for the next two decades, he also sounds a little like Bogie when he has a pipe stuck in the corner of his mouth. Naturally everyone is completely underhand about everything. Backstabbing is most definitely the name of the game with every end being played against every middle all the way through.

The real star though is Fay Wray, who doesn't appear for quite some time but makes herself known when she does. She was having rather a good roll, having ended 1932 with Doctor X and The Most Dangerous Game and kicked off 1933 with The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax Museum and a little known picture by the name of King Kong. Following up what is really the original and arguably still definitive scream queen performance was never going to be an easy task but she takes a solid stab at it here.

She's Diane Templeton, a wealthy heiress who has got hooked on the undersea world and finances an expedition to see plenty of it. She's after adventure and she gets it, though not quite as she expects with Captain Schlemming and Steve McCreary as her key partners and Lily finding her way on board too. It's very strange seeing Ralph Bellamy playing something other than a Ralph Bellamy role, but he has fun with it and so does Fay Wray. She's interested in human beings, she says, and she wants to take him apart to see how he ticks. She gets a whole slew of great lines to throw at him and she savours them as much as her many sly grins and sideways glances.

She's also an awesome precode heroine. She's completely independent in spirit as well as wealth, free with her affections and without any hesitation in following them. She's willing and even eager to try anything at least once. She doesn't just finance the voyage, she travels on board and even takes a couple of trips underwater in the deep sea gear. She knows how to handle slides and lab gear and she's just as competent in the dark room. She's the sort of female character who isn't interested in sexual equality per se, she doesn't even give the concept of inequality a second thought. She's also delightfully contrary. My favourite line of many must be: 'He hates having his picture taken. Let's take it.' Best of all, she's willing to admit when she's wrong.

The film itself is interesting for more than just Fay Wray and Ralph Bellamy. There's a very effective storm at sea that takes down the Lily financed voyage. There's some underwater photography, including a crab camouflaging himself with rocks, which is all cool for 1933 but rather sparse in its use. The best shots come with an octopus attack which is tacky but fun, with some obvious use of models. It calls for an inevitable rescue mission with Ralph Bellamy and an underwater blowtorch rescuing a glistening Fay Wray, which has to be good, and she had to be the victim at some point, even if she doesn't get to scream! It's a hokey film but it's got plenty of joy if you know Bellamy and Wray.

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