Monday, May 9, 2016

Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Director: Frank Lloyd                                       Writers: Talbot Jennings & Jules Furthman
Film Score: Herbert Stothart                            Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone and Donald Crisp

From the moment Herbert Stothart’s frenetic music comes up beneath the MGM logo and a male choir sings lustily behind the opening credits of Mutiny on the Bounty, there’s a sense that MGM is in a desperate chase to catch up with Warner Brothers’ Captain Blood, though that certainly wasn’t the case as both films were produced during the same time period of time and Warners’ film was released a month later. MGM needn’t have worried, however. Even though the Errol Flynn swashbuckler was far superior in nearly every respect, Louis B. Mayer’s picture, with its combination of historical pedigree and prestige actors, earned for the studio its third best picture Oscar in seven years. The film was based on the first two volumes of The Bounty Trilogy by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall, the most recent of which had been published just two years before. Jules Furthman and Carey Wilson wrote the original screenplay, but producer Irving Thalberg brought in Talbot Jennings to rewrite it more to his liking. Interestingly, while the film earned several other nominations, including best director, screenplay and score, it failed to win an award in any other category. The Informer from RKO was the big winner at the Oscars that year.

The film begins in 1787, as the H.M.S. Bounty lies in port preparing to sail to Tahiti. Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian is seen marching through the streets with sailors behind him. He’s leading a press gang to procure additional sailors from a local pub for the voyage, including the recently married Eddie Quillan. From there the scene shifts to the aristocracy, where Henry Stephenson explains to Spring Byington why her son, Franchot Tone, must do his duty and go to sea for two years. Onboard the ship the sailors and their women are celebrating but when Quillan attempts to escape, Gable cheers him up instead of bawling him out. Nevertheless, when Charles Laughton as Captain Bligh comes aboard he orders all of the women and peddlers off. Herbert Mundin, the cook and comedy relief, has a bad feeling about him. Tone’s enthusiasm is also tested when Laughton has a man flogged, even though he’s already dead. Experienced sailor Donald Crips has a few choice words to say about it, under his breath and Quillan eagerly joins him in his hatred of the captain. Vernon Downing, on the other hand, is the one officer who enjoys meting out Laughton’s punishments. Gable tries to give Laughton some advice about dealing with the men, but Laughton believes that only fear can control the “rascals and pirates” that he has for a crew. On the way to the Cape of Good Hope, the captain’s penchant for punishment becomes and anathema to the men.

The film actually skips one of the most arduous parts of the voyage, the unsuccessful attempt to round the tip of South America. The ship turns east, stopping on Cape Horn in Africa, food and then continues through the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, Laughton’s capricious discipline rankling the men, including the officers, and especially Gable. Just as things are about to come to a boil, the ship reaches Tahiti and things cool down for a while. Once the king of the island convinces the captain to let Gable come ashore and join Tone--who is writing a Tahitian dictionary--he falls in love with the king’s granddaughter. The breaking point comes on the way back, when the breadfruit plants they’ve come for are given all of the water and the men are left to suffer at the hands of Laughton’s increasing cruelty--behavior that is expressly intended to get Gable to snap. Unfortunately for Laughton, the rest of the crew is in accord with him and he is left with no one to defend him. He’s set adrift with some of his men, and the iconic image of the mutineers tossing the breadfruit from the stern is one that would be repeated in every film version of the story. Though there are several places in the film that diverge from the original history, the story remains a powerful one centuries later. And it’s probably that aspect of the film that earned it the Academy Award, because it’s difficult today to see how it could have lost to Captain Blood, which was also nominated for the same award.

This film was the only time in Academy history that three actors in a picture were nominated for best actor, Laughton, Gable, and Tone. Laughton’s Blye is a crazed megalomaniac who won’t listen to reason. Gable, on the other hand is . . . Clark Gable, but it works. Tone was almost a necessary alternate protagonist, because Gable’s character actually breaks the law, no matter how morally right it was, and he probably does the better job of the three. His youthful idealism, shattered by Laughton’s character is the focal point of the film. Much of the story is reduced to a few set pieces and the overall brevity of the piece precludes any genuine sense of wrestling with the morality of taking the ship. But it is in keeping with the mid-thirties style of filmmaking though, again, it pales in comparison to Captain Blood. MGM spent the astronomical amount of two million on the picture, but were rewarded with grosses exceeding four million. Ultimately, Mutiny on the Bounty is an interesting historical film, and has a terrific group of character actors as well as stars, but it’s not a swashbuckler in the traditional sense and that’s what keeps it from being a truly great film. And while it might outrage a lot of fans, the 1962 remake with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard is probably the better film.