Saturday, December 18, 2010

DVD Review: REAP THE WILD WIND (Paramount, 1942)

Mix together the historical ambience and romantic histrionics of Gone with the Wind, the maritime perils of 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, and the bizarre sight of Ray Milland performing "dog ventriloquism" and decking John Wayne with one punch in the same movie, and you wind up with the fizzing, fuming, infuriating, yet endearingly watchable bowl of "flip" that is Reap the Wild Wind. Cecil B. DeMille's second color film was a big hit upon its release in early 1942, at a moment when a nation recently rocked by Pearl Harbor and gearing up for total war was particularly amenable to a slice of pure escapism. The movie, despite garnering comparisons with GWTW at the time, hasn't sustained much of a reputation, and not simply because the giant squid that horns in on the final action sequence (and helped the movie win an Oscar for Special Effects) now looks so transparently phony. Several of the actors are either miscast or allowed to get away with two-dimensional portrayals of their roles, the dialogue veers from serviceable to (charitably) hokey, and there are numerous incidents of racial stereotyping that seem rather gratuitous, even for the era. If you stick with the film past its sketchy first half-hour or so, however, you'll find yourself becoming involved in the story almost despite yourself -- and the climactic events beneath the waves of the Caribbean are legitimately exciting, the sight of the pseudo-squid notwithstanding.

Set against a background of cutthroat salvage operations in the Florida Keys circa 1840, Reap the Wild Wind centers around a classic love triangle, with two-fisted sea captain Jack Stuart (Wayne) and well-coiffed, lapdog-canoodling Charleston maritime lawyer Stephen Tolliver (Milland) locking horns over feisty salvage-company president Loxi Claiborne (Paulette Goddard as an odd sort of cross between Scarlett O'Hara and Rebecca Cunningham). Having fallen for Stuart following the latter's wreck at the hands of the unscrupulous salvage-pirate King Cutler (Raymond Massey), Loxi plays up to Tolliver during a jaunt to Charleston, hoping to help Stuart get a gig as captain of a steamship belonging to Tolliver's company. Loxi does her job too well, causing Tolliver to fall for her, and the obligatory "complications" ensue. (To make matters worse, or at least more complicated, Loxi's Cousin Drusilla [Susan Hayward] has fallen for King Cutler's brother Dan [Robert Preston], the slimy King's partner in crime.) Stuart, convinced that Tolliver is actually trying to keep him from getting his new command, agrees to cooperate with the King in staging another wreck, but the treacherous deed has deadly consequences, with the result being that Tolliver and Stuart must both dive to the wreck to recover evidence needed in a trial. Cue the squid, which breaks up the love triangle for good but also ties up all the other plot threads to boot (you see, sometimes it helps to have eight arms).

Admittedly, there are a lot of things in this movie that will make the viewer uneasy, not the least of which are that (1) we are asked to buy John Wayne as a bad guy -- or a sort-of-good guy gone bad -- and (2) we are asked to believe that Tolliver can stand toe to toe with Wayne and fight him to a draw. DeMille reportedly had to do some serious lobbying to convince Wayne, whose breakthrough moment in Stagecoach (1939) was still recent enough to allow for some fears of backsliding, to play the role of Milland's foil. Massey is a solid villain, but so clearly a villain that it's a wonder he wasn't taken into custody long ago, much less taken out and keelhauled in such a wide-open milieu as the antebellum Keys. The character parts range from funny and enjoyable (Lynne Overman as a colorful "Yankee cracker-barrel Skipper" type who is Loxi's right-hand man in the salvage biz) to squirm-inducing (Louise Beavers as the Claibornes' maid, a likable enough version of a "Mammy" who nonetheless is afraid of the dark, references voodoo, and is made a fool of by Stuart's pet monkey). As for the dialogue, Stuart's patter contains about 50 too many strained sea-related metaphors, Milland's pathetic attempts to wring humor out of manipulating a dog's jaws are usually painful (and not just for the dog), and the romantic-clinch exchanges are at best banal. Given the technical limitations of the time, however, the scenes at sea are good, even the ones that obviously feature models in tubs, and the crowd scenes (on the docks, in a proper Charleston drawing room, and in a courtroom) are, as always in DeMille movies, first-rate. Even the squid would have worked had it not been for the sight of the creature's eyes, which look and move like the eyes on one of those "goo-goo" dolls.

The DVD version of Reap is the cut-rate variety, with extras limited to still menus describing cast and crew, plus the original theatrical trailer (introduced and narrated, of course, by DeMille himself). Perhaps, at some point in the future, an upgraded edition can be issued with commentary by someone like Scott Eyman, additional details on the technical aspects of the production, etc. Reap isn't a great movie, but it is interesting enough to merit a slightly more elaborate video treatment.

Finally, for those of you who refuse to believe that Ray Milland could EVER be passed off as a "he-man"...

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