The Sea Beast (Millard Webb, 1926)

Since reading Moby Dick a few years ago, I’ve been  interested in seeing different film and stage versions of it. I was especially intrigued to see John Barrymore playing Ahab, as sadly only one of his full Shakespearean roles survives on film (Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet). It is often said that Ahab is very near to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes in his monomania. Barrymore actually played the role in both the first two adaptations, this silent epic and a talkie made in 1930, directed by Lloyd Bacon, which I haven’t seen as yet. (I’m hoping this may turn up on Warner Archive before too long – I believe it is occasionally shown on TCM in the US, so there should be a reasonable print around).

I saw The Sea Beast online, at YT, in a very poor quality print, so I can’t really review it properly but just wanted to say something about it while it is fresh in my mind. There was a DVD release in region 1 by Televista, now deleted, but I gather from comments at the imdb that the quality of the DVD is also dire, very pale and washed-out. The film could really do with being restored and released in a double set with the talkie version.

John Barrymore and Dolores Costello

It seems that both Barrymore versions of Moby Dick rather sideline Ahab’s obsession with the whale and concentrate on a prequel centred on a lurid love story – leading to a tagged-on happy ending. So Barrymore has little scope to portray the tragic monomania which I had been hoping to see. I can see that this is similar to the version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in which he starred in 1920, later remade as a talkie with Fredric March, which also has a love story not in the original novel – but in Ahab’s case the reworking seems to take away from the essence of the character. Another similarity with Jekyll and Hyde is that there is a haunting contrast between the young and beautiful hero at the start and the tortured older version. Many of the characters Barrymore plays in his films have this double quality about them, with some scenes showing his “great profile” and others where his looks are swathed in shadows, make-up and facial hair.

Another problem in The Sea Beast is that there are too many title cards in the later section of the film, seeming to interrupt the actors every few seconds. I can see that there is impressive footage of the sea and the crews (though the whale itself only seems to be glimpsed occasionally) – but it is impossible really to get an idea of how powerful any of this would have been originally on the big screen.

Another shot of the central couple

The quality of the print in the earlier part of the film is slightly better, and there are also fewer title cards, so it is more possible to see Barrymore’s facial expressions here, as the handsome young Ahab who falls in love with Esther Harper (Dolores Costello, Barrymore’s real-life wife). Their romantic scenes together are heady stuff, including an amazingly long screen kiss which leaves Esther swooning in her lover’s arms. Costello is very good as the lovelorn heroine.

Unfortunately, Ahab’s evil half-brother, Derek (George O’Hara) also loves Esther and throws his brother into the path of the whale, leading to the loss of his leg – then wrongly persuades him that Esther will no longer love him in his damaged state. “She always thought you were so strong and perfect,” Derek tells him cruelly in one scene, as he lies on his bed in the ship racked with pain. It’s wild melodrama, of course, but for me the film’s most powerful scenes are Ahab’s agony after losing his leg, including sections where he goes back to dry land and glimpses Esther through windows dancing with others, including Derek, who seems to be his younger replacement.

I’m glad to have seen this film, even in such a poor condition – but I’d love to see it properly restored. I’d also be interested to hear from anyone who has seen the talkie version and who has a view on how the two compare.

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15 thoughts on “The Sea Beast (Millard Webb, 1926)

  1. First of all Judy, I want to wish you and your family a very Happy Easter. Stateside in the NYC area we seem to have a lovely day brewing with perfect temperatures in the low 70’s.

    You have again unearthed an exceedingly desirable title, one that has inspired me to do some research on. Barrymore again eh, well we can never get enough of this acting titan. Like you I am hoping Warner Archives will get around to this title, perhaps even going with the double feature you aptly recommend. I read MOBY DICK in its entirety for a graduate course titled “Poe, Hawthorne and Melville” in the early 90’s, and it was for all sorts of reasons an unforgettable experience, as you have attested to yourself here. But also like you I am a bit underwhelmed by the artistic decision to temper the interpretation of Ahab with the love story prequel and the tacked on happy ending. This would seem to severely compromise the work, though I’ll admit I’ve not yet seen it. In an e mail conversation with Allan, he indicates he’s seen it years back, but I can only muster up some serious enthusiasm for Barrymore’s performance, which of course is the main point of contention in yet another terrific MOVIE CLASSICS post. In any case I like the parallel you pose with Barrymore’s work in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE too!

    Have a great day!

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    • Thanks very much, Sam – we have had lovely weather over Easter in the UK too, and the temperatures in my area, East Anglia, have been in the mid-70s!

      I’ve been watching a lot of John Barrymore in the last few weeks, and thought I’d write about a few of his movies before they fade in my mind. I have the impression that Warner Brothers always wanted to show him as a great lover and so added in the whole love plot, which is a shame in this case, as you say. All the same, he does a lot with the part he has, even if it bears little relation to Melville. Must agree the novel is unforgettable (though I’ll admit I skimmed over some of the chapters about whales) – I keep meaning to read more of his work. Thanks again, Sam, and I hope your family has been having a good Easter break too.

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  2. Judy, I can recall the talkie Moby Dick being shown on TNT back when it was TCM with commercials, so it ought to be in the hopper should someone on the current TCM want to show it. I don’t remember watching the whole film so I can’t comment on its faithfulness to either the novel or The Sea Beast. The Archive really ought to put both films out in a 2-for-1 package.

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    • Many thanks, Samuel – that is interesting to know. I would definitely like to see the two films released together – the archive has released several Barrymore titles, so let’s hope it happens. TCM in the UK still has commercials now, by the way, though I gather the channel bears little relation to the US one in general – I wish we had access to the programming you get!

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  3. Pingback: Maurizio Roca’s “Film Noir Countdown,” W.C. Fields’ Festival, Stage Play “Angels in America Part 2,” and Tribeca Festival on Monday Morning Diary (April 25) « Wonders in the Dark

  4. There is a play of Moby Dick, Moby Dick Rehearsed by Orson Welles. I’ve seen it mounted twice. Everyone is done symbolically (as in that Nicholas Nickelby 4 night play) with barest of suggestive props (though enough to build a ship). What’s remarkable is it still does focus on the whale even though that’s one element the conjure up simply by words. The double plot of the people rehearsing and play rehearsed does make for a new story but it’s not allowed to become central.

    I agree on the strangeness of this insistence of substituting conventional love stories or inserting them into stories where the author consciously eschewed such matter. Ellen

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    • That’s very interesting, Ellen, many thanks – I gather from the imdb that the Orson Welles play was also shown on TV in the 1950s, but don’t know if the footage still survives. I would very much like to see the production on stage.

      I have seen a different play of Moby Dick, a touring production which was staged at my local theatre in Ipswich a few years ago and which I remember as making a powerful impression, although I don’t now remember the detail of it. It didn’t have the play within a play element to it.

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  5. Very interesting. I’ve only ever seen the John Huston movie, and rather shamefully gave up on the novel after 80 or so pages years ago – it rests on my shelf to this day – but I’ll get round to finishing it eventually, I hope.

    The addition of a romantic sub-plot sounds quite bizarre, bizarre enough to be worth seeking out.

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    • Thanks, Colin – I found the novel compelling, but must admit that I skimmed through some of the long sections about whales, which I couldn’t really take in. I have also seen the John Huston movie, a few years ago – I do remember I thought Gregory Peck was good as Ahab, if a bit young.
      The romantic plot certainly is bizarre!

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  6. Well, Judy, this is one of those films that I am totally unfamiliar with. I saw Huston’s MOBY DICK way too many years ago and should revisit it again when it pops up on TV. Hopefully, THE SEA BEAST will get its own release and be more readily avaiable. An informative posting!

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    • Thanks, John – I would really like to see this one properly restored, as it is only barely watchable in its current form. I’d like to see Huston’s version again too.

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    • Thank you, Kid – it really depends what sort of thing you like, but I’ll give it some thought and get back to you!

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  7. I just saw the 1930 Moby Dick and I can tell you that it follows The Sea Beast pretty closely, though the brother does not throw Ahab into the path of the whale. However, he does try to kill Ahab later in the film and ends up in a bad way. Both Barrymore versions are apparently based on a stage play that I have been able to nail down, but the play added the romantic interest and the characters in the love triangle relating to Ahab. It’s such a weird twist on the property, and I found it amusing, though a real Melville-head would be aghast.

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    • Thanks very much for the info, Dave – I am really hoping the two versions get a proper release now that the 1930 version has had a showing on TCM in the US. Agreed that both versions are unlikely to appeal to Melville purists!

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