I’ve always been fascinated with how creative processes get started. To me it’s really interesting to go back and experience the early works of established musicians and artists, partially for the opportunity to see something great in its infancy, but also because a lot of the time, an artist’s early works are just odd. They either don’t quite have a grasp on what their strengths are yet or they’re just throwing different things at the wall and seeing what sticks. This retrospection can be especially enlightening when an artist’s later works eventually devolve into a standard formula.
Hammer Studios pretty much encompasses all of the above things. Despite being ultra famous for their horror films, when they were first formed in 1934 they were just another British studio that produced a little bit of everything. “Everything” mostly meant cheap crime and detective films with names like Dick Barton Strikes Back and What the Butler Saw. It wasn’t until The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955 that they really hit on what they were good at, what would make them the most money, and what would keep them in business until almost the end of the 1970s (Frankenstein, vampires, and lot’s of fake blood). The two films I’ll be looking at here are from the studio’s first era, shortly after it was formed by comedian William Hinds (the studio actually takes it’s name from Hinds’ stage moniker, Will Hammer, which in turn was taken from Hammersmith, an area of London where he lived). The first era of the studio’s history runs until its first bankruptcy in 1937, which forced an almost decade long break from production. Seven films were produced during this time, only two of which seemed to have survived or are easily available to watch. In fact, these two films are totally legal to download online as they’re public domain and are up on the wonderful Internet Archive. Huzzah!
Ah, The Marie Celeste. Possibly one of the most famous real life mystery stories, and one that I read a lot about as a kid. The ship was discovered on December 4, 1872 floating in the Atlantic Ocean near Portugal. All it’s sails were up, it was still in perfect condition, and it appeared to be completely abandoned. Stranger yet, it still had ample provisions on board and none of its cargo had been touched, pretty much throwing an notions of an attack by pirates out the window. Nobody has ever been able to figure out what the heck happened to it’s captain and crew, although that hasn’t stopped people from trying. This version of the story, actually only the second film Hammer Studios produced, is an attempt to show what might have gone down during the ship’s fateful month at sea.
Our pilot for this voyage is Captain Briggs, played by Arthur Margetson, a British quickie regular who also starred in films with names like Action for Slander and The Nursemaid Who Disappeared. Briggs is a bit of a jerk. Well, more than just a bit. When we first meet him he’s stealing his best friend’s wife right out from under him and then he insists that she accompany him on a six month voyage. How’s that for a honeymoon? Six months on a stinking ship with nobody for company but a bunch of sex starved lowlifes. It goes about as well as you’d think.
After depriving two people of their happiness and not thinking much about it, Briggs then starts “recruiting” hands for the voyage. Meaning that he coerces a bartender into doing it for him. Notably most of them aren’t shanghaied, but are taken in with threats of violence. See, nobody really wants to sail on the Marie Celeste, since it has a reputation as a bad luck vessel (it’s also probably because the captain is a total knob). Nobody that is, except Anton Lorenzen (Bela Lugosi), a mysterious vagrant who seems all too eager to come aboard. In fact, he seems to have a strange seething hatred for this ship and it’s first mate, Toby Bilson (played by the rather intense Edmund Willard).
Shortly after the ship sets sail, someone starts killing off the crew, one by one. And that’s pretty much your whole movie. It’s basically Ten Little Indians (1965) at sea. What’s sad is just how little mystery there is to any of this. It’s not a spoiler to point out that you pretty much know who the killer is as soon as he comes on screen – he’s played by Bela Lugosi! Of course he’s the murderer, he’s always the murderer. If he starred in a movie about a man who loved ducks, it would still inevitably turn out that he was a murderer. If that’s not bad enough, there’s a scene early on where he pretty much expresses his hatred for the vessel since it had shanghaied him before and pretty much ruined his life. The red herrings are especially obvious as well, but let’s not even go into those.
So….the plot is weak and most of the actors, outside of Lugosi and Willard, are just going through the motions, what does this movie have to recommend it? This might sound odd, but what positions this film slightly above other cheap quickies of it’s type, is its attention to period detail. The studio obviously put some effort into researching how ships functioned in the 1800s and we get quite a few neat scenes of the crew at work. We also get several authentic sounding sea shanties, which tickled me to no end. I’m a sucker for that kind of thing and to hear Sally Brown and Poor Old Horse in a film was a special moment.
And, finally, while it’s not a great film, in a lot of ways it feels a lot like the American poverty row films of the 30s and 40s, and the fact that it’s the first Hammer horror film ever made gives it just a bit of cache. That and, again, Lugosi is pretty much worth watching even in his worst films (and, oh boy, did he ever make some bad movies).
This is a short film, running at just over an hour. The American version (Titled The Phantom Ship) cuts off about 18 minutes from the original British running time, which probably accounts for the movie’s odd pacing issues. This appears to be the only print that still exists. Crud!
When I said that Hammer was a studio that did a bit of everything early on, I meant it. Song of Freedom is probably the only “social justice” film that they ever made. But before we get into the actual movie, I want to talk a bit about the film’s star, Paul Robeson.
Robeson is, quite possibly, one of the coolest people that ever lived. A football player, actor, singer, political activist, and intellectual (he supposedly could speak 12 languages), he first achieved major fame in Hollywood through the musical Showboat in 1936, where he got to show off his incredible singing voice and record an iconic version of Old Man River. Despite being warned against it for financial reasons, he got into politics and advocated for, among other things, African American rights. Unfortunately, his ideas about socialism bringing about equality didn’t sit well with the government and he was blacklisted for telling the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) where to go. His films were subsequently pulled from distribution and his singing career stalled. Robeson made a comeback in the late 50s and early 60’s before poor health forced him into retirement. He lived in seclusion until his death in 1976, having done more with his life than most could dream of.
Robeson starred in the English film, Song of Freedom in 1936, after leaving Hollywood to avoid playing second fiddle to white actors and get stereotyped into demeaning roles (ironically he would play exactly that type of part in 1937’s King Solomon’s Mines, but he at least brought some dignity to his character).
Song of Freedom offers an interesting contrast to the films that Hollywood was making around the same time. For one, Robeson, a black man, is the main character, something almost unheard of at the time, and still far too uncommon in Hollywood today. He plays Johnny Zinga, a dockworker in London who also happens to be the descendant of an African king. Even though Johnny and his wife are comfortable where they are (and why not, they’re not in 1930s America) he longs to see Africa, an ancestral homeland that he’s never set foot on. In a bit of a snaky plot course, Johnny’s singing voice is heard by a jumpy opera star who puts him on tour and makes him rich. This leads to a chance meeting with a man who has been to the African island that Johnny’s grandparents were from and barely escaped with his life. It seems the place is now being run by a couple of evil witch doctors and the people are suffering as a result. Johnny puts his singing career and new affluent lifestyle on hold to head to Africa and take his rightful place as king of his people. Of course, it’s not going to be as easy as he thinks…
Song of Freedom is a strange film. In some ways, it’s very forward thinking for its time. Early on when our main character is living in London, the city’s slums are depicted as racially diverse environments where the different races can be friends, drink in the same bars, and are driven by the same goals. This is probably a major reason why the film initially did so poorly in America, where in the former Confederate states, Jim Crow segregation laws made all of this impossible at the time.
Having said that, the film is also regressive in many ways. While Robeson and his wife (the lovely Elisabeth Welch, who also has a beautiful singing voice) are intelligent, likeable, and dignified, they’re matched by a comic relief character named Monty, who’s very much an unbearably cringe-worthy outdated stereotype. Depicted as intellectual inferior, lazy and cowardly, this character ends up being Robeson’s servant when he heads to Africa.
Then there’s the underlying theme of the movie which is, like it or not, a very British one. The African colonies and the natives are presented as being hopelessly backward and unable to function without interference from the British empire. Robeson’s job is to bring the African people technology and ideas, something he’s depicted as being able to do because he grew up in a white society. This was, of course, the ethos of British imperialism – that the British were licensed by God to spread wisdom and civility to what were perceived to be savage lands. A brief look at the history of both Africa and India will reveal the consequences of these ideals.
The result is a strange mix of tolerance and racial stereotyping that in retrospect, does not work. And if Robeson wasn’t there to lend his charisma and acting ability, this movie wouldn’t be worth your time. His natural charm, screen presence, and incredible singing voice are really the stars of the show. But on the other hand, it’s not often that you’ll come across a film like this from this era. For all the faults, its attempts to be fair handed are kind of startling.
So, in essence, what we have is basically a famous studio still running around in diapers and trying not to slam into too many walls. These two early films are flawed productions that get by on the abilities of their main stars and an usual attention to detail – two things that Hammer would become known for much later in the game.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a film to write. It will be called Dick Punchfist: London Secret Spy. Since Hammer is revived and putting out films again, maybe they’ll produce it? I wonder if Christopher Lee would play Dracula again…