Moby Dick (1930) DVD Review: The Version You Never Thought Possible

Anyone who has seen a single Hollywood adaptation of a classic (or even contemporary) work of literature knows full well how much Tinseltown can change even the most simple of premises. Sometimes, liberties are taken in the scriptwriting and/or filmmaking processes because of budgetary restraints or per the request of certain thespians who probably never had a very good grip on the subject matter to begin with. In other instances, time-honored tales are completely rewritten in the bold attempt at making them seem “fresh” ‒ a move which usually culminates in widely distributed box office debuts that would fare far better were theater owners capable of charging crickets.

And then there are those weird moments in the history of moving pictures wherein you’re just not really sure what sort of drugs they were on. This brings us to the loading bay of Lloyd Bacon’s 1930 mind-numbing Moby Dick, starring the Great Profile himself, John Barrymore, as one of literature’s most tormented individuals, Captain Ahab. But before you get your hopes up too terribly high (say, higher than some of the toy models used in this film), this is notthe Captain Ahab we love to hate. Rather, you’ll hate to love Barrymore’s manic take on the character, who is essentially a bizarre melding of Ahab and the original story’s main protagonist Ishmael ‒ a central figure of reason and understanding who doesn’t even appear in this tale!

What’s more, Moby Dick‘s story by Oliver H.P. Garrett (who penned the 1932 version of A Farewell to Arms) and screenwriter J. Grubb Alexander (who brought us one of Barrymore’s better-known vehicles, Svengali, the following year) ‒ like Captain Ahab’s obsession ‒ goes the extra mile in its quest to make this film version of Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece as unlike its source material as possible. And it does so admirably by adding a love interest ‒ for Captain Ahab! Joan Bennett, the actress whose latter-day career would include intentional horror films such as House of Dark Shadows for Dan Curtis and Dario Argento’s Suspiria, is the suffering beauty created solely for this film, Faith Mapple ‒ virginal daughter of the story’s priest, Father Mapple.

But Faith isn’t the only relative added to the mix. 1930’s Moby Dick also features a new character named Derek Ceely, as played by Lloyd Hughes, who is actually the brother of Captain Ahab Ceely (yes, they even gave the previously-mysterious Captain Ahab a silly surname in this very loose, very weird, very hilarious take on the subject), who is as close to an Ishmael as we get when Barrymore’s multiple personalities aren’t in play. We even get a long introduction with a happy two-legged Ahab before he falls from God’s grace. And since we are on the subject of great falls, the added character of Ahab’s brother Derek (?!) is so central to this movie that, once he takes a plummet from the crow’s nest and is crippled, he is forgotten about completely.

Of course, nothing compares to the surreal finale, which switches back and forth between miniatures in a pool, a life-size papier mache monstrosity with Ahab atop of it, and close-up shots of Barrymore being sprayed with fake blood as his tortured character successfully vanquishes his demons! To say the metaphor may have been lost at sea is an understatement. But there’s more, kids: after that, hero Ahab ‒ and you may want to sit down for this, kids ‒ returns home to his two true land-based loves: the ever-pure Faith and his trusty canine companion. In fact, they’re both so pleased to see him, neither wonders what happened to Faith’s secondary suitor, Derek (admit it, Derek is the perfect addition to biblically-inspired names such as Ahab and Ishmael, isn’t it?).

Other, meatier characters from Melville’s story greatly reduced here, such as Queequeg, played here by actor Noble Johnson, who ‒ despite being of African-American heritage ‒ still appears in blackface. Character actor Nigel De Brulier almost brings the character of Elijah to noticeable life, while Mr. Stubbs is portrayed by frequent Laurel and Hardy nemesis, Walter Long. John Ince appears as Reverend Mapple (they even changed his denomination, apparently). The weirdest part of it all is that this was actually a remake of a bastardized silent film version from 1926, The Sea Beast, which also starred John Barrymore. Apart from this version being a talkie, the most notable difference for this seafaring epic is its brisk runtime: a whopping 78 minutes.

Yet, despite the many drastic differences between this and Melville’s timeless tale, Lloyd Bacon’s Moby Dick is still strangely watchable. Perhaps it’s Barrymore’s bizarre take of the character, a part he is quite comfortable with, having already played the part one time before already. Bacon’s direction is also commendable, keeping up the pace (by pre-Code standards, that is) throughout without losing his way ‒ even if everyone else involved in the creation of this miscreation had long since done so. The Warner Archive Collection dusts off this early sound oddity from Warner Bros., giving the well-worn print a chance to surface on DVD and show both film and fiction enthusiasts all over the world just how much Moby Dick really can blow.

Recommended for all the wrong reasons.

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Luigi Bastardo

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