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.
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.
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.