Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 1931. Fox Film Corporation. Directed by William K. Howard. Screenplay by Guy Bolton, Lynn Starling. Cinematography by James Wong Howe. Music by Carli Elinor. Production Design by Gordon Wiles. Costume Design by Dolly Tree. Film Editing by Jack Murray. Academy Awards 1931/32.
A thief cons his way onto a luxury steamliner voyaging to Europe, upon which are a variety of characters whose dramas suck him into their centre. There’s a banker whose fund collapses after the ship sets sail and who is cheating on his glamorous wife (Myrna Loy) with a hot to trot party girl (Greta Nissen), while Jean Hersholt appears as a scientist who is traveling with his daughter and is devastated by the collapse of the bank that he had all his savings invested in. Scenes of highly stylized grief and despair are interspersed with ritzy dining halls and a very fun swimming pool before we get to a climactic murder that seems to be an open and shut case for the accused killer…but the plot still has twists in store! A hallmark example of expressionist photography (by future Oscar winner James Wong Howe) and gorgeous art deco production design (for which Gordon Wiles won an Academy Award), this forgotten classic has long been unavailable due to its original elements being scattered to the winds. A recent MOMA restoration has seen a new print struck from combining the existing English soundtrack with a French dubbed film print, with a few moments of audio missing and replaced by subtitles, and the artists who made this happen have not left a single smudge on a film that gleams like new. The visuals are far more delectable than the drama, it’s something of a lesser Grand Hotel, but getting lost in the world that this movie creates is a great pleasure. Loy is a particularly interesting object of study here, obviously on her way to becoming a great actor but still unsure and shaky in her delivery (and I allow for the awkward early sound recording when I say that), which only makes her later becoming one of the most impressively confident and brilliant figures in cinema history that much more awe inspiring.