John Ford's Submarine Patrol
(July 7, 2014)
For reasons that I don't understand, Ford's other 1938 release, Submarine Patrol, was omitted from the Ford at Fox collection. Submarine Patrol can almost be considered a lost Ford film. It's never legally been available on VHS or DVD. John McElwee, of the essential blog Greenbriar Picture Shows, doesn't believe the film has run on the Fox Movie Channel and says that the film lost $132,000 on it's initial release, so it was never particularly popular.
I wouldn't say that Submarine Patrol is first- or even second-tier Ford, but it is unmistakeably his work. It looks back to films like Men Without Women, Seas Beneath and Up the River and looks forward to They Were Expendable, When Willie Comes Marching Home and Donovan's Reef. Anyone familiar with Ford would immediately recognize it as his work from the supporting cast and the style of humour. While it doesn't come together into anything you could call great, Ford's themes and approach are strong throughout the film. While Four Men and a Prayer may have been an obligation to the studio, Submarine Patrol was a film that Ford was interested in making. By 1938, Ford was already in the U.S. Naval reserve, and one of the freighters in the film, the Maria Ann, sails out of Portland Maine, Ford's home town.
I will recount the plot simply because the film is so little known. During World War I, a rich socialite named Perry Townsend, played by Richard Greene, joins the Navy expecting to be assigned to an impressive ship. Instead, he's assigned to be chief engineer on a 110 foot wooden submarine chaser manned by a crew of recruits who lack discipline. Lt. John Drake, played by Preston Foster, was responsible for letting a destroyer run onto the rocks while on watch and was court-martialed for it. Now, he's assigned to the same submarine chaser and has the job of getting the crew into shape.
Townsend meets Susan Leeds (Nancy Kelly), daughter of a freighter captain (George Bancroft), and falls in love with her. The captain thinks his intentions are dishonourable in the parlance of the time and is against their relationship. Susan's resistance to her father foreshadows Mary Kate Danaher's resistance to her family and husband in The Quiet Man.
Through various plot twists, Townsend, Drake and the captain all end up on the sub chaser when they go on a mission to sink a German submarine. Drake is commended for the action, and the captain approves of Townsend's marriage to his daughter, but the necessities of war prevent it. Duty comes first, though Susan pledges to wait.
The plot elements are hardly novel. The disgraced officer who regains respect and the rich kid who learns discipline to become a team player were not new even in 1938. The same plot elements would be used in many movies made during World War II just a few years later.
Ford doesn't do much to add depth to either of these plots, and I suspect it's due to the actors he's working with. The best performances in Ford films come from actors who are capable of expressing their thoughts through their facial expressions. Think of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath preparing to leave her homestead for the last time. Ford consciously pushed his actors in this direction. In Stagecoach, he changed John Wayne from someone who spouted expository dialogue in B movies to a performer silently exposing his innermost thoughts through his reactions.
While Ford had worked with Preston Foster in The Informer and The Plough and the Stars, Foster was an actor whose emotions don't go very deep. There's no complexity or subtext to his performances. Richard Greene is even worse. His dialogue delivery is all at the same pitch and the same tempo; there's little modulation in how he delivers his lines. While he is handsome, his eyes are not expressive. There are shots towards the end of the film where Greene and Bancroft are both in the engine room of the sub chaser while it is traveling through a minefield. The contrast in their performances is striking. Ford gives extended close-ups to Bancroft because Bancroft's love for his daughter and the danger of his situation read clearly on his face. Greene's face reveals no comparable emotion.
Knowing that he couldn't add depth to the main stories, Ford concentrated on the supporting cast to add comedy and Fordian grace notes. That's where the value of this film lies. The supporting cast is full of Ford's stock company of the time. John Carradine, Ward Bond, J. Farrell MacDonald, Jack Pennick, Slim Summerville, Warren Hymer, Harry Tenbrook and Harry Strang had all been in previous Ford films. Charles Trowbridge would appear again in later Ford films. Elisha Cook, Jr. might have become a Ford regular but for an accident during filming that upset Ford. Cook's bandaged left thumb can be seen towards the end of the film.
Ford's comedy is broad and knockabout. There are gags about sea sickness, Navy food, malapropisms, slot machines, drinking and "The Monkey's Have No Tails in Zamboanga" is sung as in many of Ford's Navy films. J. Farrell MacDonald, 63 years old at the time, leads the men in calisthenics, jumps a rope railing and knocks out a complaining seaman. A subplot with Maxie Rosenbloom has him stealing Richard Greene's initial girlfriend and winning a slot machine jackpot, a gag later used in Donovan's Reef. Slim Summerville is the main comic relief, playing a sad sack Navy cook who claims everything he serves is lamb stew and is so dumb he throws garbage into the wind. Henry Armetta plays an over emotional waiter who cries when he's happy or sad. Everyone except the lead characters adds humour to the film, and often just a facial expression is enough to provoke a laugh.
There are two sequences where Ford evokes melancholy emotions. When the sub chaser leaves New York to head out to sea, the crew stares at the shore, remembering parts of their past lives and aware that they may be saying goodbye permanently. Later, when the sub chaser successfully destroys a German sub, a sailor asks Jack Pennick if they should cheer or something. Pennick says no and salutes his fallen opponents. Ford previously had Germans salute a fallen American in Seas Beneath. Even in victory there is loss, and loss is a recurring theme in Ford's work. As in They Were Expendable, the enemy is never demonized; death is something to be respected, not celebrated.
Submarine Patrol deserves to be better known. It's a pleasant film for casual viewers and full of Fordian moments and humour for fans of the director's work. Let's hope that Fox releases it on DVD or at least runs it on their movie channel.