Monday, March 3, 2014

Three (Pre-Code) Sailors on the Town

I recently had the opportunity to see a pre-code film, Sailor's Luck (1933) at a Raoul Walsh Film Festival at AFI Silver.  It's a silly little movie, but as an example of pre-code film, it's quite interesting.

Three sailors, James Fenimore Harrigan (James Dunn), Bilge Moran (Frank Moran) and Barnacle Benny Cohen (Sammy Cohen) arrive in port, intent on having an entertaining shore leave. Benny is in search of his girlfriend, Minnie Broadhurst (the character is also known as Mme. Marvelle, and is played by Esther Muir), while Jimmy wants to find a girl - any girl.  Bilge is happy to tag along with Benny.  After our trio rob a man of two hands of bananas, Jimmy meets Sally Brent (played by Sally Eilers), and follows her to a swimming pool, where she has just landed a job as a swim instructor - despite the fact that she can't swim.

Racism, sexism, and - well, add your favorite ism here - are rampant in this film.  The banana salesman who gets robbed and the landlord in Sally's building are both Italian, and played with all the caricature possible. The Baron Portolo (Victor Jory), for all the world reminiscent of a low-level Mafia-style gangster, also seems to be Italian.  We have a gay bath attendant at the swimming pool (and oh, my, is he a stereotype), a Jewish sailor (Barnacle Benny),  who at one point pronounces his name as "Quinn" spelled C-O-H-E-N, with a pause for a laugh.  Why would that be funny? Well, the photo below gives you an idea of Sammy Cohen's very ethnic appearance (he's in the center).
The one character who is NOT a stereotype is Bilge.  Again, you can see him in the poster above (to the left).  He appears, to all intents and purposes to be a big, ignorant lug.  Yet, he plays classical music perfectly and with feeling, and reads philosophy.  He also seems to be engaged in a menage a trois with Minnie and Benny.  It gives one pause.

The film also manages to keep the lovely Sally Eilers as undressed as is humanly possible.  We even find her sleeping au naturale.  She is constantly being leered at and manhandled. And though she is careful of the proprieties, our Sally still allows a sailor to set her up in a hotel room, since she has no money.  It's clear she is not willing to sleep with him when they get to the hotel.  It's also clear that HE thought that she was.

It's rather fascinating that the film got a very nice review from New York Times  back in 1933.  It's not that it is a bad film.  Sure, it's rather silly and far-fetched, but the very things that make it pre-code are rather shocking to us in 2014.  It is, by far, the most politically incorrect film I think I've ever seen. 

Sally Eilers is very appealing in the film.  Having never seen her before, we were very intrigued with her as an actress.  She had a very substantial career, appearing in films from 1927 through 1950, though many were B pictures.  By the 1940's, she was only in a few films, and does not seem to have made the transition into television as did many of her contemporaries.  An interesting bit of trivia appears on the IMDB concerning her start in pictures.  She was discovered by Mack Sennett while visiting the studio to have lunch with an old friend named Jane Peters - better known these days as Carole Lombard.  After four marriages - husband number one was Hoot Gibson - and one child (who became a screenwriter), Eilers died in 1978 at age 70.

Mention should also be made of child actor Buster Phelps, who appears as Elmer Brown, Jr.  He is quite adorable in this film.  I had seen him a few times before (in Libeled Lady and in One Man's Journey), but his presence does a lot to show Sally in a more sympathetic light.  Her genuine affection for little Elmer make plain her innate goodness.

Luckily, we can give you a little taste of this odd little film.  Here we see Sally waking up after her night alone in the hotel.  And notice her lack of garb:


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