Friday, June 30, 2017

Destination Unknown

Destination Unknown. Pat O'Brien (Matt Brennan), Betty Compson (Ruby Smith). Betty Compson got started in Al Christie comedies, had her breakthrough in George Loane Tucker's ("he taught me everything I know") legendary The Miracle Man starring Lon Chaney (one of the films believed lost that I would most like to see; the fragment I have seen is electrifying), appeared in England in films by Graham Cutts, including in Woman to Woman and The White Shadow (with Alfred Hitchcock as an assistant), and married James Cruze. Her most famous film today is Josef von Sternberg's The Docks of New York.

Director: Tay Garnett. Year: 1933. Country: USA.
    Section: Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years (Part Two)
    Scen.: Tom Buckingham. F.: Edward Snyder. M.: Milton Carruth. Mus.: W. Franke Harling.
    Int.: Pat O’Brien (Matt Brennan), Ralph Bellamy (il clandestino), Betty Compson (Ruby Smith), Alan Hale (Lundstrom), Willard Robertson (Joe Shane), Tom Brown (Johnny), Russell Hopton (Georgie), Stanley Fields (Gattallo),
    Prod.: Carl Laemmle Jr. per Universal Pictures Corp. 35mm. D.: 66’. Bn
    The hymn: "In the Sweet By and By" (Sanford F. Bennett, 1868).
    [Not released in Finland].
    From: Universal. A Comcast Company.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna.
    Screened with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti at Cinema Jolly, 30 June 2017.

Dave Kehr (Il Cinema Ritrovato): "The early years of the Great Depression saw a number of films – such as Gabriel over the White House and Outward Bound – that imagined divine intervention as an answer to social ills, but perhaps none so explicit as Tay Garnett’s Destination Unknown."

"At one sordid and stylish, in the patented Garnett manner (Her Man, The Postman Always Rings Twice), this wild allegory concocted by Garnett and his frequent writing partner Tom Buckingham imagines the nation as a ship adrift in a dead calm, its hold full of illegal liquor intended for thirsty Americans in these last years of Prohibition. The chief of the smugglers – a gruff, unshaven Pat O’Brien – has control of the only supply of fresh water left on the ship, which gives him dictatorial power over the crew (led by Alan Hale, whose Swedish accent marks him as the sort of Northern European immigrant who can be trusted). Stowing away in the dead captain’s quarters is O’Brien’s vengeful ex-mistress (Betty Compson). The stand-off is complete until a mysterious stranger (Ralph Bellamy, burnished with a back-lighted nimbus) emerges from deep in the hold, to announce that the barrels of contraband wine have now become water."

"Garnett staged Destination Unknown almost entirely on a genuine three-masted schooner, suspended by cables against a black velvet background on Universal’s largest soundstage, his camera mounted on the giant crane that Universal had built for the 1929 Broadway. In a late interview, Bellamy claimed that the cast and crew systematically stayed drunk throughout the shoot – and in the process protected themselves against a flu epidemic that had brought all other production on the Universal lot to a halt." (Dave Kehr, Il Cinema Ritrovato)

AA: Divine intervention failed to convert the incredulous audience of Il Cinema Ritrovato anno 2017.

The account of the desperate journey in the first half of the movie is thrilling. The ship's journey has stopped because there is no wind, and now there is hardly any drinking water left.

Destination Unknown is an apocalyptic film, all allegorical implications intentional.

It has also sociological and philosophical relevance as a dramatization of the prisoner's dilemma, a classic case in game theory, all too topical in geopolitics and the ecocatastrophe of today. Perhaps we can project a certain carrot top president on the Pat O'Brien figure here.

There is no water, but the ship is full of smuggled liquor, and everybody gets drunk on rum as the ship is sinking.

The survivors join for the last supper, "the twelve of us". The hymn "In the Sweet By and By" is sung.

Then a stowaway (Ralph Bellamy) who has been hiding below emerges and reveals that there is water instead of wine in the barrels. He has known Ruby Smith (Betty Compson) since they were kids. The ship is no longer sinking because the seams may have swollen shut, as he knows because he used to be a carpenter once. He knows how to navigate by the stars, helped by the doctor whose paralyzed hands are healed.

Destination Unknown is a Christian mystery play, a miracle play. I was reminded of Frank Borzage's Strange Cargo (1940) with Ian Hunter as the Christ figure.

The non-believer may watch Destination Unknown as a symbolic tale about the better angels of our nature. The force of good exists in all of us, and in a desperate situation it is our only salvation.

There is a darker intepretation to the story. The key is the hymn "In the Sweet By and By", about longing for the beyond. The "sweet by and by" when "we shall meet on that beautiful shore" is the transition from the here to the beyond. In this interpretation Destination Unknown is a death trip and the second part of the story a death dream.

In fact, Sutton Vane's play Outward Bound, the inspiration of Destination Unknown, turns out to take place in the beyond.

A brilliant print.


Following a violent storm in which the captain and first mate of the Prince Rupert are killed, the ship, broken and disabled, drifts helplessly through seemingly endless days of no wind.

The ship's crew, led by the Swedish bosun Lundstrom, are held in check by Matt Brennan, a rumrunner, who, by virtue of a gun he brandishes, controls the dwindling water supply. Although the ship has 5,000 cases of liquor onboard, there is only one barrel of water left. Brennan refuses water to the sailors until a wind will come.

When Johnny, the mess boy who is sick, convinces Brennan to let him have some water, a near-crazed sailor tries to jump Brennan, who shoots and wounds Johnny.

Meanwhile, in the dead captain's quarters, Ruby Smith, Brennan's ex-mistress, sleeps. Previously, while the ship was in Tahiti, a man named Maxie brought her aboard for the captain, in exchange for a ride. Ruby, who wanted to get away from Brennan, boarded the ship not knowing that Brennan was going to ride with the rum. She is now afraid that Brennan, who doesn't know she is onboard, will kill her when he finds out.

When Joe Shane, a sailor, sees a steamer light, Lundstrom tells him not to send up a rocket and hits him because he is afraid that the steamer would take the rum, which Lundstrom plans to steal. Johnny tells Ring, the cook, that he has a letter with money in it, which he received when his father died, and in exchange for water, Johnny tells Ring where the letter is.

As Ring reveals a hidden stash of twelve gallons of water in the boiler, Lundstrom sees them. He then pours water into empty bottles and surreptitiously gives some to Shane, fooling Brennan, who thinks he is drinking rum.

Meanwhile, Johnny faints at the boiler and accidentally lets the water pour out. After Lundstrom finds Johnny at the spilled water, he describes to Brennan's henchman, Gattallo, the horrible experience he will have if he dies from thirst and convinces him to get him Brennan's gun in exchange for water. With the gun, Lundstrom now refuses to give his sailors water and forces them work the pump because the ship has sprung a leak. The pump soon breaks, and realizing that the ship will sink in eight hours, the men get drunk on the rum.

As the twelve men replicate the "Last Supper" tableau, Johnny sees a light in the form of a cross, and a stowaway, who does not identify himself by name, appears carrying a lantern. The men complain that now, with the unlucky number of thirteen men onboard, the ship cannot survive, but the stowaway, who is carrying Johnny, shows that he has died. He then reveals that there is plenty of water onboard in the barrels that were supposed to be filled with wine. Although the men are saved by this revelation, Brennan is angry that he has been swindled.

As the sailors carry the barrels to the deck, one of them discovers Ruby, and she locks her door. Lundstrom breaks it in, and he is about to attack her, when Brennan comes in and pulls a gun on Lundstrom. The stowaway enters and calms the situation by revealing that the ship has stopped sinking. He guesses from his experience as a carpenter that the seams may have swollen shut. Ruby thinks she recognizes him from somewhere. The stowaway then offers to navigate by the stars.

After Brennan gets the gun back from Lundstrom, the crew decide to kill the stowaway, whom they think is bad luck. However, as one sailor starts to choke the stowaway, he suddenly stops, and the two men exchange greetings as friends. Ruby and Brennan reconcile, and when the seas turn rough, the ship's doctor, who had lost the use of his hands, is able to steer again. As dawn breaks, the stowaway steers, and the ship hits a rock. The men abandon ship and swim to the beach, where they see the ship sink. They notice that the stowaway has gone, and Ruby, looking at the sun behind the clouds, says that she remembers where she knew him.

Sanford F. Bennett (1868)

    There’s a land that is fairer than day,
    And by faith we can see it afar;
    For the Father waits over the way
    To prepare us a dwelling place there.
        In the sweet by and by,
        We shall meet on that beautiful shore;
        In the sweet by and by,
        We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
    We shall sing on that beautiful shore
    The melodious songs of the blessed;
    And our spirits shall sorrow no more,
    Not a sigh for the blessing of rest.
    To our bountiful Father above,
    We will offer our tribute of praise
    For the glorious gift of His love
    And the blessings that hallow our days.

This is a popular hymn sung by many great performers. A favourite of mine is Johnny Cash.

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