erik lundegaard

Monday January 10, 2022

Movie Review: I Cover the Waterfront (1933)


This is a helluva find, a recently restored, pre-code Universal Studios flick that reminded me of Thomas Hobbes’s quote about life: nasty, brutish and short. In 72 minutes, it gives us murder, death by shark, over-the-top racism, and Claudette Colbert tied to a torture rack and forced to kiss the male lead. Don’t worry, she’s charmed by it.

It’s obviously drafting off of other movies, too. The title recalls Warners’ hit from the previous year, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” and we get elements of “The Front Page,” with reporter and editor forever bickering. But it’s its own thing.

Joe Miller (Ben Lyon) is a carping reporter who hates his beat, the San Diego waterfront, but as long as he’s there he’s pushing to do a big story on a Chinese smuggling ring. Sadly, his editor, John Phelps (Purnell Pratt), waves him off to go after titillating stories like a girl who swims in the nude. Hey, turns out the girl, Julie Kirk (Claudette Colbert), is the daughter of the guy Miller thinks is behind the Chinese smuggling ring, Eli Kirk (Ernest Torrence). Nice coincidence. One of many.

When I first heard about the Chinese smuggling ring, I assumed it was the Chinese doing the smuggling but they’re the ones being smuggled. It’s 50 years into the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), and illegal immigration is their only way into the country. Oh, and Miller is right: Kirk, a weatherworn fisherman, is the smuggler. “When you can’t make a living off tuna,” he says to his deckhand, Ortegus (Maurice Black), “you just as well might fish for yellowtail,” then nods toward a trussed-up Chinese guy on deck. He adds, philosophically, “You know, they ain’t bad folks. And somebody’s got to do the washing.” 

Brace yourself. It gets worse.

I was trying to figure out why the Chinese guy was trussed up when the Coast Guard, with Miller on deck, steams toward them to search the vessel. Ah, so maybe they hang him off the side so he can’t be found? Nope. Kirk just puts chains on him and sinks him. Afterwards, he feels kinda bad about it but he still keeps the dude’s $700 and the beautiful Chinese robe it came wrapped in. Julie gets the robe.

Miller exchanges words with Kirk and shortly afterwards we get our nice big coincidence. Miller's next story is about an old trawler—a guy in a rowboat who dredges treasure from the harbor. And guess what he brings up?

Trawler: Well, son, this here chink didn’t put them there chains around his feet his self. … Looks like he was dunked. Seeing as he’s used to it, I’ll dunk him again.
Miller: Oh no, you don’t! This poor chink tried pretty hard to get in the United States. I’m taking him in. … Sell me this chink. He’s news!

Even with the dead body, the editor still thinks it isn’t a story. He thinks Kirk needs to be charged before it’s a story. So Miller decides to woo Julie to get inside info.

Now for our third coincidence. Miller and his pal, the perpetually drunk, perpetually grabby One-Punch McCoy (Hobart Cavanaugh, a kind of ur-Walter Brennan), are coming out of a speakeasy when they hear Kirk playing piano and singing in the speakeasy next door. Miller figures a drunk Kirk might spill the beans so in they go. Oddly, they never approach him. Instead: 

  • Kirk goes upstairs with a call girl
  • Julie shows up
  • Miller dances with Julie
  • Julie sees her father has been rolled
  • Julie beats up the call girl to get the money back

She might look like Claudette Colbert but she spent time on the mean streets of Singapore, baby.

As Miller tries to woo her, we get the best lines of the movie: 

He: C’mon, let’s play a love scene.
She (dryly): Let’s fall in love first.

And later:

He: You wouldn’t go for that kiss now, would ya?
She: Say, I thought you came down here to work.
He: If you don’t think it’s work getting a kiss out of you, you’re nuts.

At that point, they’re on a tourist attraction, the prison ship Santa Madre, 25 cents. Which is how she gets tied up for the kissing scene. He even puts a belt around her neck so she can’t move her head. “Enough torture?” he asks after several go rounds. A big smile from Julie. “Mm-mm. I could take it.”

And that’s how she falls. Afterwards, we get lovey beach scenes and a pre-code evening together (his place, fadeout, breakfast). But they argue about the future. She loves San Diego, he talks up Vermont. So there’s a problem. Besides the fact that he’s pumping her for information to convict her father.

He finally gets the info: He’s told the old man is returning that evening to a Chinatown port after a shark-hunting expedition. But he wonders: Why hunt shark when the tuna are plentiful? Because you’re not really hunting shark! You’re really picking up Chinese in the south! So he alerts the Coast Guard. 

Except Kirk was hunting shark, and those scenes, while primitive, are fascinating. Kirk’s boat seems a forerunner to Quint’s in “Jaws”; and when he and Ortegus go out on a rowboat and harpoon a big guy, they’re dragged along—again like in “Jaws”—and the rowboat goes under. Ortegus is attacked, loses a leg, dies. Did Steven Spielberg ever see this? Definitely feels like it.

All this time, though, we’re wondering, along with Miller, why Kirk is hunting shark, and back in port the Coast Guard find nothing—just the dead shark. Then One-Punch McCoy literally stumbles upon a fish in which Kirk has hidden a bottle of booze—we’d seen that in the first act—which makes the lightbulb go on above Miller’s head. And on the dock, Miller cuts open the shark and out spills a Chinese immigrant. Fleeing the cops, Kirk catches a bullet but escapes; Miller gets the headlines but feels awful for betraying Julie.

All that’s left are the final confrontations and reconciliations. Kirk finds a snooping Miller, shoots him, admits he’s a tough kid. Miller admits he gave Julie a raw deal while Julie admits to her father that she loves Miller. Being the good father, he helps save Miller’s life, then dies. And upon returning from the hospital, Miller finds his dingy room spruced up and Julie emerges from the bedroom all smiles.

As for the Chinese? 沒有了。

“Jaws” 1933

“I Cover the Waterfront” was based upon a book of the same name by Max Miller, a San Diego reporter, which was apparently so popular it led to a song of the same name, covered by everyone from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra.

The billing is interesting. Ben Lyon had been the star of Howard Hughes’ highly touted “Hell’s Angels” in 1930, even flying his own plane in the stunt scenes, and he was still a big-enough star to get top billing here; but he’s on the way down. Colbert, on the other hand, is about to shoot into superstardom with “It Happened One Night” and “Cleopatra” and remains a legend to this day. They’re movie stars passing in the night. You get why it happens, too. She’s effortlessly charming while he’s kind of brittle. She’s attractive while he’s OK. But what a fascinating life. In 1930, he married actress Bebe Daniels, the original Ruth Wonderly in 1931’s “The Maltese Falcon,” and the original Dorothy Gale in 1914’s “The Wizard of Oz”—she was also cousin to DeForest Kelley—and during World War II they lived in England, where they hosted a radio show, “Hi, Gang!” After the war, he became a casting director for 20th Century Fox and apparently suggested that a young actress named Norma Jean Baker change her name. Maybe to something alliterative. With MMs in it.

Third-billed Ernest Torrence was a 6’4” Scotsman who made his name as a silent-movie villain, playing, among others, Capt. Hook and Prof. Moriarity. He was the tough “Steamboat Bill” to Buster Keaton’s “Jr.” as well as King of the Beggars in Lon Chaney’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” He’s great, but this is his last movie. Four days after its premiere, he died—of gall stones, of all things. It feels like there was a lot of sudden deaths in Hollywood in the early 1930s.

Motion Picture Herald ad using the praise of waterfront reporters rather than critics. 

Posted at 07:31 AM on Monday January 10, 2022 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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