Sunday 25 April 2010

Pacific Liner (1939)

Director: Lew Landers
Stars: Victor McLaglen and Chester Morris
I hadn't heard of Pacific Liner until I was enthralled by Five Came Back, made the same year with two of the same lead actors, Chester Morris and Wendy Barrie. Nothing suggested that this would be anywhere near the same quality, but in place of John Carradine, C Aubrey Smith and Allen Jenkins it has Victor McLaglen, Alan Hale and Barry Fitzgerald. It couldn't help but be interesting with those names, at least. Sure enough, it's worth watching for the various actors involved but not for too much else. It's 1932 and we spend almost the entire film on board the liner of the title, the SS Arcturus, which leaves Shanghai bound for San Francisco. Morris plays Dr Tony Craig, a capable doctor with a talent for moving onto somewhere else. He's moving onto this ship because of the nurse he'll be working with, Ann Grayson, who he stood up two years earlier. At least he kept the date in the end and she's rather happy to see him.

Also after Nurse Grayson is the dragon of McKay's dungeon, who initially seems to live up to his nickname. He's J B 'Crusher' McKay, the ship's chief engineer, who drives his men ruthlessly to keep the knots up and the ship on schedule. He's an important man, highly experienced and apparently utterly reliable, as the captain has every confidence in him. However that makes him what is described to Dr Craig as a 'very essential nuisance', an apt description but not one that covers everything that he is. It's a good part for Victor McLaglen, the best one in the story because it has plenty of depth, especially when we get stuck in McKay's dungeon for much of the film because of a plot twist. There's a stowaway on board, an unnamed Chinaman who brings with him a case of Asiatic cholera, so Craig has to quarantine the bowels of the ship and do what he can with old medicine to cure as many of the firemen as he can.

Half of the time McKay is a complete asshole, the unrivalled mastery of his own domain leaving him full of his own self importance, arrogant enough to believe his chances with Nurse Grayson all the way down the line. The other half of the time he's the toughest man in the dungeon, willing to put his money where his mouth is and pick up a shovel himself when needs must. He gets down and dirty and works three shifts in a row until he succumbs himself and Craig has to knock him out to get him to rest. This leaves him far from a one-dimensional character. When one his firemen, Britches Webley, finds that he's won the Irish sweepstakes but dies of cholera a few minutes later, McKay is the only one willing to touch him. When a rebellion sparks, he hauls himself out of bed to stop it, even though it's the last thing he should be doing. No wonder Craig describes him as an 'obnoxious but valuable carcass'.

By comparison, Chester Morris and Wendy Barrie get very little to do. Morris is a doctor trying to save the lives of his patients, but we don't get to see much of his technique. Most of the time he's just hoping for the best and trying to persuade McKay and his men that such hope is justified. Barrie is a decent nurse, her inherent trustworthiness highly appropriate for such a role but she gets about as much medical work as Morris, meaning that she's really just there to be a love interest for the two men. That means that while both are fine, they're almost inconsequential because of the material they have to work with, and so most of the actual character of the piece hangs on the men below decks shovelling coal. Of course when the actors involved are people like Alan Hale, Barry Fitzgerald and Cyrus Kendall, that character comes out in spades, no pun intended. The idiocies that they're put through can't put such actors down.

And there's really not much more to say. It's just a routine potboiler, perhaps a little interesting because of its setting, given that we hardly ever see a passenger, but still just a routine potboiler. The only thing that seems to have been recognised as substantial is the score by Robert Russell Bennett, which was Oscar nominated. However as I can't remember a single thing about it five minutes after the film ended, it really can't have been that substantial. Perhaps he won in recognition of the amount of work he did as an uncredited orchestrator that year, including such films as Gunga Din, Love Affair and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. It's a stretch but I can't think of any other reason why he was recognised. The only other comment worth making is that the film cost RKO a pretty penny to make but the solid ship sets apparently lasted quite some time, Val Lewton reusing them four years later for The Ghost Ship, ironically given its much lower budget a much better film than this.

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