The Bootleg Files: The Sea Beast

BOOTLEG FILES 682: “The Sea Beast” (1926 silent film adaptation of “Moby-Dick”).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm last exhibition of this film.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only on a DVD of dubious heritage.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Warner Bros., which owns the copyright, has never released it for digital home entertainment.

Maybe some day.

In 1851, Herman Melville’s novel “Moby-Dick” was published. During Melville’s lifetime, the book was a commercial failure – only 3,200 copies were sold in the 40 years between its initial release and the author’s death 1891. It was not until the 1920s that literary scholars re-evaluated the work and recognized its importance as a work of literary art.

One of the greatest devotees of Melville’s classic was the actor John Barrymore. When Warner Bros. signed him to a three-film contract in 1925, the studio planned to initially present him as the star of the romantic adventure “Don Juan.” Barrymore, however, insisted that the studio create a film version of “Moby-Dick” that would feature him in the complex role of Captain Ahab. The studio was not entirely pleased with Barrymore’s suggestion. After all, “Moby-Dick” had no major female characters, a racially mixed cast of characters, a central figure that was among the most psychologically warped creations in American literature and a massive man-versus-whale climax that would be heavily expensive to recreate. But due to Barrymore’s star stature, the studio reluctantly agreed to put “Don Juan” on hold and bring “Moby-Dick” to the screen.

For his part, Barrymore wanted to be fully involved in this production. He volunteered a wealth of suggestions to Bess Meredyth, the screenwriter – she reportedly ignored nearly all of them – and gave his input into designing the costumes and sets. Barrymore also tried to get Warner Bros. to capture a real whale to play Moby-Dick, but the studio diplomatically pointed out the problems in that endeavor.

Barrymore learned that the film would rewrite Melville’s work in order to accommodate a love interest subplot that was mandatory for the epics of that day. “What we are going to do for a love interest, I don’t quite know,” he mused. “He might fall in love with the whale. Hollywood, I am sure, will find a way.”

Actually, Barrymore called the shots in this aspect of production. The star initially wanted his paramour Mary Astor to play opposite him, but she was unavailable and the studio instead tapped Priscilla Bonner. But Barrymore became romantically enchanted with novice actress Dolores Costello before shooting began, so Bonner was unceremoniously dumped and Costello was brought in. Bonner turned around and sued Warner Bros., winning a handsome settlement for her ignominious exit.

In many ways, Bonner should have been fortunate that she was not in the film. Warner Bros.’ “Moby-Dick” recklessly jettisoned nearly all of Melville’s intricately constructed story and brought in a wobbly melodrama that dramatically changed the characters while introducing new subplots that gave new meaning to the concept of cornball.

Given the new title of “The Sea Beast,” the film creates a backstory for Captain Ahab, who is introduced as a virile young harpooner named Arab Ceeley. Barrymore was 43 when the film was shot, but in the early sections of “The Sea Beast” he displays the vitality and athleticism of a young twentysomething. The dashing Ahab wins the heart of Esther Harper (Dolores Costello), a minister’s daughter. But Ahab’s brother Derek (George O’Hara) also loves Esther – she doesn’t return Derek’s feelings, which embitters him.

Ahab and Derek are sailors on the same ship, and they are in the same whaling boat when Moby-Dick is sighted. The fact that anyone can see the whale is a minor miracle, considering that only its tail and a portion of its back is visible above the waves. During the pursuit of the whale, Derek pushes Ahab overboard – an act that is only witnessed by Pip, a hunchbacked young half-witted white man. (In Melville’s book, Pip is a black child slave who descends into madness after being left in the open ocean during a whale hunt.) Moby-Dick obviously has a taste for ham, as he spots Barrymore’s Ahab and promptly chews off his leg – all off-camera, of course.

Back on the ship, Ahab’s injury is treated with the primitive healthcare of the whaling era – a hot iron is used to cauterize the wound. The injury changes Ahab’s personality from carefree to sullen, and the fitting of a wooden peg-leg to replace the missing lower limb makes him self-consciousness among his peers. Derek’s machinations continue in putting a wedge between Esther and Ahab, and the lovers are driven apart. Ahab becomes obsessed in getting his revenge on Moby-Dick and he undergoes a physical transformation – the robust and physically beautiful young man is rapidly transformed into a lank-haired ghoulish figure with dark rings around his eyes and an air of near-madness. This Ahab also breaks with the racial protocols of the era by creating equal partnerships with the Arab Fedallah (played by the Japanese actor Sojin) and the Pacific Islander Queequeg (played by the African-American actor Sam Baker) on a new ship with the sole mission of finding and killing Moby-Dick.

Does Ahab kill Moby-Dick? Does he come to learn of Derek’s treachery? Does he reunite with his beloved Esther? Hey, it’s a 1920s melodrama – what do you think?

On its own terms without being compared to Melville’s work, “The Sea Beast” is not a dreadful film – Millard Webb, a director with a mostly undistinguished career, keeps the film moving at a crisp pace despite an overlong 2-hour-16-minute running time. While the whale’s on-screen presence is mostly elusive (and clearly not white-skinned, as per Melville’s vision), there is plenty of violent weather on the high seas to satisfy action and adventure fans. And for its time, “The Sea Beast” was unusual for treating the nonwhite Fedallah and Queequeg and the physically- and emotionally-disabled Pip as equals Ahab and not as comedy relief buffoons.

But as an adaptation of “Moby-Dick,” this is a complete joke. The film has characters named after the figures in Melville’s work – Flask, Stubbs, Daggoo – but they are reduced to bit parts with no bond to their origin. There is no Ishmael or Father Mapple, and the lovesick mania that overcomes Ahab bears no resemblance to the fully textured personality of Melville’s tormented captain.

But Warner Bros. did not care. It put “The Sea Beast” into a road-show release with a then-considerable ticket price of $2.00. While critics were mixed in their reviews, audiences were enthusiastic and the film was a major box-office hit, due primarily to Barrymore’s box-office appeal rather than the Melville literary source.

When sound technology changed filmmaking, Warner Bros. revisited this property in 1930, using the title “Moby Dick” and rehiring Barrymore while keeping the dueling brothers and the love story instead of the Melville text. Film audiences would have to wait until 1956 until John Huston, working from a Ray Bradbury screenplay, could see a film that corresponded with more accuracy to Melville’s text.

“The Sea Beast” is still under copyright to Warner Bros., which has never released the film for digital home entertainment channels. There is a DVD from the cheapo Televista label of “The Sea Beast,” but its contents (according to a pre-credits prologue) comes from a badly battered print donated by Warner Bros. to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. There is nothing on the DVD’s packaging to suggest it is being released with Warner Bros.’ permission – and considering that Warner Bros. has released Barrymore’s follow-up, the silent “Don Juan” (1926), as well as the 1930 “Moby Dick” on DVD, it makes no sense to imagine the studio would outsource a release of “The Sea Beast” with an inferior print to an obscure label. While no one is clamoring for a digital restoration of this title, it would certainly help if the film was available in a decent home entertainment version instead of the unsatisfactory (and, apparently, unauthorized) version floating around.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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