Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sixteen Fathoms Deep (1934)

Director: Armand Schaefer                              Writer: Barry Barringer & Norman Houston
Film Score: Oliver Wallace                              Cinematography: Archie Stout
Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Sally O’Neil, George Regis and Jack Kennedy

It’s difficult to know what to do with poverty row films from Monogram or PRC in that, in one sense, they could all be considered bad movies. The limited budgets, outdated equipment, bad acting and short production time guarantee that their quality will be low and they will never achieve what the major studios were able to--even with comparative resources. So I guess there has to be a concession right from the beginning that all of the criticism and praise for these kinds of films come with the caveat, “given the limitations of the production.” Sixteen Fathoms Deep is an early film featuring Lon Chaney, Jr., then still going by his given name of Creighton, and a perfect example of a poverty row film.

It’s a fairly pedestrian adventure story, with Chaney looking to purchase a sponge boat so that he can earn enough money to marry Sally O’Neil. But the only one who will loan him the money to buy the boat is his rival for O’Neil, George Regis, who owns the town and controls most of the fishing. After planting his henchman on Chaney’s boat, once out to sea, predictable perils ensue. In terms of production design, the picture does all right. And unlike the major studios who would have use rear-screen projection for most of the exteriors, the real location shots are a refreshing change. What really brings the film down severely is the lack of any kind of music to underscore the underwater shots and support the drama. There’s also the problem with the print itself. While Alpha Video did a nice job of giving the film a slightly blue tint, there is a terrific amount of extraneous movement, flutter of the picture, and sound dropouts in the first reel. It’s almost unwatchable, but then things settle down.

Chaney’s performance is the real reason for the film’s modern distribution. And Chaney, like the poverty row films themselves, is as difficult to assess. There is no consensus about Chaney’s acting ability. Many think he’s a no-talent hack, who brought the same limited skill set to every picture. If you really think about it, however, that’s what all actors do. Others, especially fans of the Universal horror films of the forties, think he’s great. I fall into the later camp. Whatever role he’s playing, he’s always Lon Chaney, Jr., and I don’t have a problem with that. He’s capable, enthusiastic, and seems to understand the demands of the role and does a great job. The other actors . . . well, they’re a different matter.

O’Neil, who worked for several years in silent films, is a bit too shrill on the microphone. Still, she has a fresh face, like the young Joan Crawford, and seems willing to strip down to her bathing suit on a moment’s notice--not necessarily a bad thing. Jack Kennedy overplays her father, the drunk innkeeper, to the point of sloppiness, and George Regis look as if he forgot to put on his handlebar moustache he’s so clichéd. Si Jenks’ sailor character is unfortunate as he dresses and acts just like Popeye, even down to the corncob pipe. Again, as long as there’s an understanding going in with the limitations of the production, Chaney fans will definitely want to see Sixteen Fathoms Deep. For everyone else, especially if you hate Chaney, you’ll want to take a pass.

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