Last Friday afternoon I had the great pleasure of attending a rare 35mm screening of Raoul Walsh’s uproarious but little seen 1933 comedy Sailor’s Luck at Northwestern University’s Block Museum. It was screening as part of the conference “Illuminating the Shadows: Film Criticism in Focus” and was introduced by current New York Times DVD critic and former Chicago Reader and Chicago Tribune critic Dave Kehr. Unfortunately, it was the only part of the conference I was able to attend (I had college film classes myself to teach in the suburbs on all three days it was being held) but the experience was revelatory; not only is Sailor’s Luck one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, the screening served as a bracing reminder of how many classic American films remain sadly unavailable on home video and how much my knowledge of film history has been shaped by what the home video divisions of the major studios have deemed worthy of being released on DVD.
One of the most surprising aspects of Sailor’s Luck is the degree to which it can be described as quintessential Raoul Walsh. Even though the film is basically an anarchic sex comedy about sailors on shore leave, it is also marked by the same sense of propulsive energy that drives the action-oriented films for which Walsh remains best known (such as The Roaring Twenties and White Heat). One example is the scene where the protagonist, Jimmy (James Dunn), shows up at the apartment of his new girlfriend, Sally (Sally Eilers), bearing gifts of lingerie. Upon finding evidence that he believes proves her unfaithfulness, he tears her new undergarments apart with his bare hands. There is something both savagely funny and unnerving about the scene, not unlike the similar moment in White Heat where James Cagney kicks a stool out from under Virginia Mayo. (Of course, Sailor’s Luck being a comedy, we know that Jimmy’s momentary insanity is merely a symptom of his love sickness and that, unlike the couple in White Heat, the characters here will end up happily together in the end.) Another surprising aspect of the film is its bold and risqué “pre-code” humor. Not only is Sailor’s Luck loaded with politically incorrect but frequently hilarious ethnic and gay stereotypes, it also features a memorable shot of Harrigan giving a hand gesture that Kehr estimates wasn’t seen again by American audiences until “well into the 1970s.”
Like all Walsh films, Sailor’s Luck is of incredible visual interest. The film’s use of depth staging is impressive, with scenes set at a public pool, a Hawaiian restaurant and a marathon dance all utilizing multiple focal points in the foreground, middle-ground and background. Kehr sees this as the result of Walsh’s experience shooting the early widescreen western The Big Trail three years earlier and applying the lessons he learned there to the standard square aspect ratio of the time. The idea that the activity in the background could be of as much interest as the activity in the foreground inspired Kehr’s memorable formulation that if Walsh had decided to move the camera closer to the background extras, he would have a whole new and just as interesting movie on his hands. This is particularly true of the marathon dance climax where dozens of characters square off against each other (sailors vs. mobsters!) in a riotously funny orgy of violence. Also adding to the visual interest is a charming use of wipe transitions in which one image replaces another by spiraling out from the middle of the screen, a technique I can’t recall seeing in another movie.
This being a Chicago-centric blog, I would be remiss if I didn’t also spare a few words for Kehr’s When Movies Mattered: Reviews from a Transformative Decade, a collection of his long form reviews for the Reader recently published by the University of Chicago Press. Not only does the book finally give cinephiles a chance to read crucial, previously unpublished analytical writing (whether the subject is late Godard or Blake Edwards) by one of America’s finest critics, there is additional value for Chicago residents as the book tracks film distribution and exhibition patterns in the Windy City over a 12 year period. Check out Kehr in 1979 on the failed attempt to bring George Romero’s truly independent Dawn of the Dead to the suburban Chicago theaters that have typically been a Hollywood stranglehold:
“But when Dawn of the Dead opened in some of Chicago’s most prestigious outlying theaters, it withered and almost died. The film was outgrossed, ironically, by another horror movie from the hinterlands (Oregon, this time), Don Coscarelli’s moderately interesting Phantasm. The distributors of Phantasm had the conservative wisdom to open their film in the conventional way: in a large number of theaters, mainly urban, backed by an intense exploitation campaign on television. Phantasm took away Romero’s hard-core audience and left Romero’s film to flounder in its own ambitions. It did do well where tradition might dictate – in the Loop and on the near north side – which suggests that the horror film audience simply feels a natural reluctance to drive ten miles and pay four dollars for a sensation that is available more cheaply and conveniently elsewhere.”
While that quote suggests that not much has changed in terms of the moviegoing habits of Chicagoans, When Movies Mattered is also studded with references to independently owned theaters that are either no longer in existence or no longer being used to exhibit movies – the Clark, the Village, the Fine Arts, the Biograph, the Carnegie, the Cinema, etc. – so much so that the book will read like a eulogy to anyone who has lived in Chicago long enough to witness this changing landscape. (Even the “Film Center” that Kehr writes about is the old single-screen theater located in the back of the Art Institute before it changed its name to the Gene Siskel Film Center and moved to its ritzy new digs on State Street.) The ultimate irony is that the gradual, inexorable shuttering of independent theaters and repertory houses in Chicago is a direct result of the boom in popularity of home video that began in the mid-1980s (around the time Kehr’s last pieces were published in the Reader). The idea, I suppose, is that distributors and exhibitors feel there’s less of a need to show theatrical “revivals” of old movies in the wake of VHS, DVD and, now, blu-ray. However, as Kehr points out, a lot of films that used to be readily available in the now defunct format of the 16mm print (like Sailor’s Luck) have never been released on home video at all and thus have sadly fallen through the cracks.
So thank you, Mr. Kehr, for coming back to Chicago and bringing Sailor’s Luck with you. It was one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life.