The Ship from Shanghai (1930) DVD Review: Slippery When Whet

The Warner Archive Collection raises an early Sound Era seafaring thriller featuring Kay Johnson and Louis Wolheim.
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Were you to examine the wake of just about every cinematic maritime thriller pitting a random assortment of passengers against an onboard maniac, the trail will more than likely trace back to 1930's The Ship from Shanghai. As the title may indicate, the story opens in Shanghai. Well, it's technically an assortment of stock footage from the Orient and a Hollywood nightclub set ‒ complete with an all-too lively gweilo playing the drums in yellowface while an otherwise Asian band plays "Singin' in the Rain" in Chinese. Fear not, though, for the film shifts into an entirely different gear soon enough.

It is here where we meet our protagonists ‒ strong upper-class woman Dorothy Daley (Kay Johnson) and her weaker-willed counterpart, Howard Vazey (Conrad Nagel), who tends to enjoy "the drink" a bit too much. But Dorothy and Howard can afford to live life so frivolously, as they are true high society types. As are their friends, Paul and Viola Thorpe (Holmes Herbert and Carmel Myers, respectfully), and Dorothy's elderly (and usually indifferent) relation, Lady Daley. Deciding to set sail back to San Francisco, the quintet of holier-than-thous charter a yacht and its crew, none of whom they bother to vet before setting sail.

They'll soon wish they had, however, especially once they realize their steward ‒ an uneducated brute named Ted (Louis Wolheim, Gentleman's Fate), who refers to himself in the third-person ‒ is a complete and utter madman. Were things not already cumbersome enough due to the fact the ship's stupid, lumbering giant of an immigrant cook (Ivan Linow) has no idea how to prepare dining anywhere resembling "fine," our quintet of elitists are further thrust into an arena of alienating no-fun once Ted begins to mouth off to his social superiors at dinner. The horror! (Fun Fact: Ted's unique customer service isn't far off from that of my own when I wait tables.)

But that's only the tip of the iceberg in this voyage into terror. Ted next turns the tables on his guests completely: not only does he steal their firearms and kill the ship's fussy (outsourced) captain, but he forces the rich folk to ration their food and water after the yacht barely manages to survive a storm! Soon after, with the vessel severely damaged and drifting at sea, Ted tricks his mutinous crew into taking the lifeboats, leaving the madman and his dimwitted cook henchman reigning over the wealthy passengers. Especially that young hottie Dorothy, who may have to sacrifice more than her pride to save her fellow despairing travelers.

Stylishly, The Ship from Shanghai sets sail from an entirely different port than later ‒ more refined ‒ variations of this theme. It's a thoroughly crude and, at times, slow-moving pre-Code production, which really shouldn't come as a huge shocker to anyone, considering The Ship from Shanghai was one of the first sound flicks ever (the original poster art claimed it was "The First All-Talking Drama Filmed Entirely on the High Seas!"). Apart from a remarkably well-done storm sequence, the first and foremost reason to check this rarity from the Warner Archive Collection out is to marvel at the great Ted himself, Louis Wolheim.

A Cornell University graduate and former mathematics teacher, Wolheim's mug was prominent in silent pictures thanks to his trademark nose, which had been broken on numerous occasions. He was not permitted to "improve" his looks, however ‒ in fact, United Artists had a restraining order against him so he couldn't get plastic surgery! Off-screen, the performer ‒ who died a year after The Ship from Shanghai sailed ‒ was good friends with the highly decorated US Army soldier-turned-mercenary Sam "The Fighting Jew" Dreben, and the two reportedly, wreaked havoc regularly in Mexican cantinas together. That's a life worthy of a picture to itself.

The Warner Archive Collection launches The Ship from Shanghai as part of its Manufactured-On-Demand DVD-R lineup. The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio with mono sound, neither of which have been restored, but still come through quite well (apart from a minor glitch in the DVD-R disc I received, that is). No special features are included with this release, but this is a rare and obscure enough title that such frills should not be required anyway: just enjoy the fact that you can actually check out this precursor to an entire ocean-full of similarly-themed nautical terrors.

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