Cinevent Notes: EIGHT BELLS (1935)

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Richard M Roberts
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Joined: Sun May 31, 2009 6:30 pm

Cinevent Notes: EIGHT BELLS (1935)

Postby Richard M Roberts » Wed Apr 23, 2014 5:44 pm

Well, with this year’s Cinevent now basically a month away, we will start running some of the program notes I’ve written for this year’s show to whet your appetites to think about coming.

If you are thinking about coming, here’s the link to Cinevent’s website:

And here’s the notes to one of the sleepers worth seeing that’s being shown this year:

EIGHT BELLS began life as a Broadway play by Percy G. Mandley,which ran for seventeen performances in Oct-Nov 1933, a pity since it featured a powerhouse cast that included John Buckler, Colin Clive, Rose Hobart, and Sig Ruman. Author Mandley turned the failed play into a novel in 1934, which Columbia Pictures then bought and turned into a film the following year.

It’s the story of a ship race to Shanghai to get a cargo there in time to seal a five-year contract with a Chinese Railroad, or be penalized five-thousand dollars for every day lost over schedule. Walker (Spencer Charters), one of the Steamship Line owners, puts their best freighter, the Comermere, on the job, but puts Roy Dale (John Buckler), the fiancé of his daughter Marge (Ann Sothern), in charge of the ship over its regular Captain, Steve Andrews (Ralph Bellamy), who is demoted to First Officer. Problem is, Dale’s only experience is as a First Officer on passenger ships, and has little knowledge of freighters. To make it more fun, Marge stows away on board to be near Dale, and First Officer Andrews has a lot on his hands trying to keep the ship from being scuttled by “Captain” Dale, while still getting it to Shanghai on time.

EIGHT BELLS is a crackling adventure picture with a terrific ensemble cast. Among the ship’s crew are the likes of Arthur Hohl, Charlie Grapewin, Emerson Treacy, Sidney Bracey, Dick Wessel, and Franklin Pangborn as the Cabin Boy! Watch for Keye Luke in an early appearance and Andy Clyde’s Brother David Clyde as the other partner in the Steamship Line.

Keeping EIGHT BELLS afloat is the underrated and talented Director Roy William Neill, who himself was born on a Steamship which his Father Captained off the Coast of Ireland in 1887. Though remembered today by film Buffs as the main Director and guiding hand of Universal’s Sherlock Holmes Series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Neill was a fine Director with decades of Hollywood experience under his belt. Starting in 1915 as an Assistant Director to Thomas H. Ince, Neill was directing on his own the following year and helmed many a major silent feature for a number of studios in the 1920’s. A contract director for Fox from 1925-27, Neill freelanced to the end of the Silent Era, handling things like the Technicolor feature THE VIKING (1928) for MGM, then ending up under contract to Columbia Pictures when Sound came in, handling a number of stylish thrillers and mysteries from THE AVENGER (1931) with Buck Jones, THE CIRCUS QUEEN MURDER (1933) with Adolph Menjou as Detective Thatcher Colt, to the very Deco Murder Mystery THE NINTH GUEST (1934), the voodoo-tinged BLACK MOON (1934), with Jack Holt, to THE BLACK ROOM (1935) with Boris Karloff.

Neill returned to England in the late 30’s to make more fun films like DR. SYN (1937) with George Arliss and a number of comedies with Variety Superstar Comic Max Miller. The War sent Neill back to America in 1942 where Universal put him back to work on espionage thriller like MADAME SPY (1942), and horror films like FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN (1943) before he took hold of the Sherlock Holmes films, due to his own expertise on Conan Doyle’s famous character. Though set in WW2 Modern Day, between Rathbone and Bruce’s great chemistry, and Neill’s eye for atmosphere and character, the Sherlock Holmes films were some of Universal’s most popular of the 1940’s. When the series ended in 1946, Neill made the very fine film noir BLACK ANGEL (1946), based on a Cornell Woolrich story, and might have become a top-notch noir director if it hadn’t been for his untimely and unexpected death on December 14, 1946 from a heart attack while on a Christmas Holiday in London.

There was a time in recent past when Ralph Bellamy seemed indestructible and capable of going on forever. Considering his last film was PRETTY WOMAN (1990) with Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and his had been a regular face seen in Film and Television all through the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, it must be said that he had an amazing career. While remembered best for his string of second leading man roles, and quoted as saying “If I can’t get the girl, at least give me more money”, Bellamy did have some decent leading parts in his early career as well. Becoming a stage Actor right out of College in 1922, Ralph Bellamy tread the boards and learned his craft touring with Chautauqua Road Companies for five years before he started his own touring troupe in 1927. Two years later, he was on Broadway in TOWN BOY and two more years later had already developed a Broadway reputation as a fine and busy actor.

Hollywood beckoned in 1931, and Bellamy made his film debut playing a gangster in THE SECRET SIX. Early leading roles in films like John Ford’s AIR MAIL (1932) brought him much more work, much of it at Columbia, where he starred in TWO different Detective series in the same ten year stretch (as Steve Trent in the early 30’s and Ellery Queen in the early 40’s). Yet Bellamy found more success playing the steady-but-dull number two man, losing the leading lady to Cary Grant in both THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937) and HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940). It was a pity, because Bellamy was quite capable of both intensity and relaxation in his performances, as EIGHT BELLS readily shows, along with a steely intelligence that came in handy when he was sleuthing.

Bellamy tired of his also-ran typecasting as the forties progressed, and he escaped Hollywood back to Broadway by the end of the decade, doing some fine stagework and making major inroads into the infant industry of Television, starring in one of the first TV Police Shows, MEN AGAINST CRIME in 1949. One of the founders of the Screen Actors Guild, Bellamy also served four terms as the President of Actors Equity, from 1952-64, coming on in the dark days of McCarthyism and building up the Union’s financial assets and creating the Actors Pension Fund. A life-long Democrat, Bellamy took on the greatest stage role of his career playing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Dore Schary’s play SUNRISE AT CAMPOBELLO, winning a Tony Award in 1958 and recreating the performance in the 1961 film version.

In the 1960’s, Ralph Bellamy continued to do interesting work in many media, with roles in three different television series, THE ELEVENTH HOUR (1962), THE SURVIVORS (1969), and THE MOST DEADLY GAME (1970), and could even take an odd turn and make his kindly demeanor menacing as he did playing the Doctor in ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968). The Seventies continued to be busy as he made numerous TV movies, and guest appearances and by the 1980’s, when in his eighties one would think Ralph Bellamy would be slowing down, playing the part of a cynical millionaire in John Landis’s TRADING PLACES (1981) revived both he and his partner-in-millions Don Ameche’s career for another decade. Ralph Bellamy received a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1987, played FDR once again on the mini-series WAR AND REMEMBRANCE in 1988, and after completing his final film, the afore-mentioned PRETTY WOMAN in 1990, passed away November 28, 1991 at the age of 87.

Ann Sothern was just beginning her career as a leading lady, having signed with Columbia in 1933 where she ground away in the B movie grist mill under Harry Cohn learning her craft until she escaped to RKO in 1937 where the parts did not improve. Jumping ship once again in 1938, she took a one-shot part playing a woman of ill-repute in MGM’s TRADEWINDS which led to a contract there, but she found herself cast as a brassy showgirl in an MGM “B” called MAISIE in 1939 that cemented her stardom and kept her in that long-running series of comedies until 1947, but also allowed her to shine in A pictures, sometimes for other studios like BROTHER ORCHID (Warner Brothers 1940), CRY HAVOC (MGM 1943) and A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (20th Century-Fox 1949).

When movie roles started drying up at the beginning of the 1950’s, Sothern also made the leap to Television in a successful series called PRIVATE SECRETARY that ran from 1953-57, then THE ANN SOTHERN SHOW from 1958-61. Ann’s head for business allowed her to slow down her performing career in the 1960’s, but she would still take on the odd part like the voice-over role as Jerry Van Dyke’s Mother reincarnated as a 1928 Porter Touring Auto in the unforgettably forgettable MY MOTHER THE CAR’s short-lived 1965 season. Sothern remained semi-retired in the 70’s and 80’s, but returned to films in 1987 for an Oscar-nominated supporting role in THE WHALES OF AUGUST with Lillian Gish and Bette Davis. Ann Sothern passed away in 2001 at her home in Ketchum, Idaho at the age of 92.

One more of EIGHT BELLS leads that we should discuss is the only original member of the Broadway Cast to make the film and that is British Actor John Buckler. The son of actor Hugh Buckler, John was a distinguished Broadway veteran who had appeared in such hits as Michael Arlen’s THE GREEN HAT in 1925 and THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET with Katherine Cornell and Brian Aherne in 1931. Buckler had actually played the Ralph Bellamy part in the Stage Version of EIGHT BELLS, but found himself recast in the role of the Usurper, Captain Roy Dale that Colin Clive had played on Broadway.

John Buckler had just come to films in 1934 and had just completed the role of “Ham” in the MGM version of DAVID COPPERFIELD before making EIGHT BELLS. Sadly, Buckler would only make three more films, including a role in another Roy William Neill-directed Columbia, THE BLACK ROOM (1935) with Boris Karloff before tragedy struck on October 30th, 1936, when he and his Father Hugh drowned together when their car skidded off the road during a rainstorm and overturned in the waters of Malibu Lake in California. Both were trapped in the car which was not discovered until the following morning. John Buckler was only thirty years old and on the way to becoming a solid character actor at the time of his death, he makes the dangerously inexperienced and hard-to-sympathize-with part of Captain Dale quite human in EIGHT BELLS, and it is his best role in the six films he made.

EIGHT BELLS is yet another fine and unfairly forgotten Columbia Picture from the 30’s proving that Harry Cohn’s little studio made up for lack of budget with all sorts of talent on both sides of the camera. It’s an intense and exiting story, told atmospherically by a fine Cinema Craftsman like Neill, beautifully shot by Columbia’s ace cameraman Joseph Walker, and played by a cast of pros willing to bring surprises to their roles. You won’t forget this film.


Gary Johnson
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Re: Cinevent Notes: EIGHT BELLS (1935)

Postby Gary Johnson » Thu Apr 24, 2014 10:22 am

Very nice Richard.
Just like your earlier essay on EARLY TO BED (36), these pieces do whet the appetite for films which probably haven't had any broadcast airings since the early 70's. You and I have discussed how familiar film lovers have become with the Thirties programmers turned out by Warners, MGM and RKO, thanks to TCM. Now we just need one more cable station to pick up the slack of Paramount, Universal and Columbia and many of these little films will stop being "unfairly forgotten".

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