This is my contribution to the Journalism in Classic Film blogathon organised by Comet over Hollywood and Lindsay’s Movie Musings – please do visit and read the other postings.
Many 1930s films about journalists are set in big city newsrooms, with multiple editions hitting the streets all through the day. Some even feature several rival newspapers battling for stories, and whole packs of reporters jostling to be first with the news. Pre-Code romantic melodrama I Cover the Waterfront is rather different. Ben Lyon stars as Joe Miller, a young journalist with a lonely and unglamorous job covering the ships which arrive and depart on an unnamed Californian waterfront. As author Max Miller wrote in the book of real-life stories which inspired the movie: “I have been here so long that even the seagulls recognise me.”
Inevitably, the apparently sleepy backwater soon turns out to be anything but, as Joe manages to dig out a sensational story, and finds himself caught in a moral dilemma to rival any in those big-city films. He deliberately sets out to romance Julie Kirk (Claudette Colbert) in order to get the dirt on her criminal father, fisherman Eli, who is smuggling Chinese immigrants into the country… but soon realises he is in danger of breaking her heart, along with his own. The result is a powerful drama where the investigative reporter is a hero, but his determination to nail his scoop at any cost also has its dark side.
There is no getting away from the fact that most of the characters in the film are disturbingly callous towards the plight of the unnamed Chinese victims, who have no opportunity to speak for themselves. I think we are supposed to take it that Miller does care about the people being trafficked and not just about his byline on an exclusive. His determination to jail Eli and his willingness to risk his own life demonstrate this. But nobody else seems to give a damn, and even Miller’s motivation is often confused.
As someone who worked in local newspapers for 30 years, I always enjoy the atmosphere in newspaper films, and in this one the grudging admiration and backchat between Miller and his editor (Purnell Pratt) work well – even if I suspect that a real-life reporter might not get away with some of Miller’s sarcastic cracks. Lyon is excellent as the hard-bitten writer, with his shifting expressions clearly showing his thought processes. He had starred in a number of silent films, where he must have developed this way of conveying a lot through his eyes.
By contrast, I’d have to say that Colbert is rather miscast as Julie – she seems too chic and sophisticated for the role – but she makes the character warm and likeable, with a couple of endearing scenes where she makes a fuss of a waifish young cat, which is clearly a double for her own character. It’s hard to believe that devoted daughter Julie could really be as sweet as she seems, blissfully unaware of her father’s criminal actions, but Colbert manages to carry it off, and is as compelling to watch as always.
As well as being a newspaper film, this drama also belongs to the genre of waterfront films, and its moody, shadowy cinematography, by Ray June, often reminded me of 1930s French films with Jean Gabin stranded in a succession of port towns. The famous song I Cover the Waterfront, a great standard written by Johnny Green and Edward Heyman, also in 1933, was inspired by the book and doesn’t actually feature in the film. However, the score was changed at the last minute to include its tune, and its mood of loss and yearning fits the bleak seascapes perfectly. Colbert also has a line very similar to the song’s lyric about a woman waiting for her lover to return and watching the sea. She says that men never really look at the sea, but women do, because they spend such a lot of time looking out over the water and waiting for their loved one to return.
The film features quite a lot of unmistakably pre-Code content, most notably a scene where Lyon and Colbert look round a former prison ship and he uses some of the torture equipment to trap her for a kiss. Colbert is also swimming in the nude when Lyon first meets her, although there aren’t actually any naked shots.
Scottish actor Ernest Torrence, in his final role, gives a memorable performance as Julie’s domineering father, Eli. Torrence, who was only 54 when he made this film but looked older, had played a whole string of villains, stretching back to roles in silent films like Tol’able David. He makes Eli believable as a callous criminal who is prepared to dump a Chinese passenger overboard, loaded with chains, in order to save his own neck… yet the next minute plays the good father to Julie, proudly presenting her with a Chinese dress which the murdered man had given him.
One weak spot is the supposedly comic relief from Miller’s sidekick, permanently inebriated reporter McCoy (Hobart Cavanaugh). I know Cavanaugh was a great character actor with an amazing list of films to his credit, but in this he is just annoying and his drunkenness is too over-the-top – he almost seems to have wandered in from another film. Director James Cruze had made a lot of silent comedies, so maybe he couldn’t resist including some slapstick here.
However, despite one or two flaws, overall I found this a powerful film which is even better on a second viewing. It’s a pity it didn’t include the song, which is now better remembered than the film itself, but you can make up for this by listening to a recording – Billie Holliday’s version is fantastic, and many other great singers have also performed it.
A word of warning – this film was made by Reliance Pictures/Edward Small Productions rather than one of the big studios, and as a result has fallen into public domain hell. It should be 73 minutes long, but there are prints around that are only 60 minutes and of appalling picture quality, so beware! Fortunately, the full-length film is currently available on Youtube.