Down to the Sea in Ships is rightly remembered for two things: 1) early Clara Bow, and 2) realistic whaling scenes. That is proper, though out of order.
I watched the film as the (near) final bit of research for a biographical piece I'm preparing about Marguerite Courtot and, to a lesser degree, her husband Raymond McKee. I had owned the movie on VHS several years ago but that copy is long gone so I found it playing on YouTube.
The version of Down to the Sea in Ships that I watched contained no score. It was completely silent. This especially made the beginning of the film drag and as I was watching on my desktop I found myself pausing it once or twice to check email and Twitter.
But, I tell you what, once Clara Bow shows up as young Dot Morgan, there's no need for music. With my screen completely silent young Bow expended so much energy that my mood changed and I kept my eyes glued to the screen. While Bow's lively antics help bring Down to the Sea in Ships to life, her Dot Morgan is more of a distraction than a necessity. That said, she is an appreciated exclamation point on Down to the Sea in Ships as a whole.
Raymond McKee's Thomas Allan Dexter, called Allan throughout, is the action hero of Down to the Sea in Ships. Marguerite Courtot plays his Quaker sweetheart, Patience Morgan, whose father (William Walcott) won't allow her to marry any man who isn't both a Quaker and a whaleman, just like himself.
Patience's father has his eye on Samuel Siggs (Jack Baston) as husband material. Problem is that Siggs is a criminal in disguise who is neither Quaker nor a whaleman. In fact he is an Asian American who passes for white, but just in case you weren't sure we get a few glimpses of his razor sharp fingernails. I suppose he didn't feel the need to trim those fingernails as part of his disguise. Just to hammer the point home a couple of references to his being "yellow" are also included in the intertitles.
Siggs wants the beautiful Patience as his own and so he has Allan sent to sea on a whaling ship that his partner Finner (Pat Hartigan) has taken over and aimed at some gold fields. While Allan starts out as low man on the ship he's obviously set up pretty well to become the whaler that Patience's father insists she have.
Clara Bow shares most of her scenes with a mysterious actor named James Turfler as Jimmy. Nothing mysterious about Jimmy, he's the all American boy, but nothing but dead ends in trying to discover who Turfler was.
He only appeared in one other film, Fox Films The Warrens of Virginia (1924), also directed by Down to the Seas director Elmer Clifton.
The best I can do is assume he is the James Turfler born in Brooklyn, NY, circa 1903. There's temptation wonder if his roots point to his somehow tagging along on fellow Brooklynite Clara Bow's journey to the screen, but his family appears to have relocated to Bergen, NJ by 1920 so that seems unlikely. I completely lose track of Turfler post-1920 except for his work in the two Clifton films. From there he seems to disappear.
It's odd, but Bow does not share much screen time with either of the two more experienced stars of Down to the Sea in Ships. She has one scene where she crosses paths with Courtot and Walcott, but so quickly I couldn't even manage a decent screen capture. Despite stowing away on the same ship that McKee is taken to I don't believe she is ever on camera at the same time with him.
She's a happy go lucky tom boy playing around with young Turfler. Her other scenes are shared with the nefarious Finner (Pat Hartigan), who looks her up and down like a starving man at a steak dinner.
Clara Bow is just an entertaining sideline in Down to the Sea in Ships. Problem is that sideline becomes the most enjoyable part of the movie. The heart of the story is Raymond McKee's character earning his whaling wings, in what is practically documentary footage at sea, and then his return to New Bedford to rescue his sweetheart from marrying Siggs.
Poor Marguerite Courtot receives top billing but is barely a presence. She's stuck on dry land the length of the film and doesn't have much to do other than make happy faces when McKee is around and sad faces when he isn't. Despite Bow's entertaining antics Down to the Sea in Ships is far and away intended to be Raymond McKee's movie.
Watching Down to the Sea in Ships was my final chore before sitting down to put my Marguerite Courtot biographical notes together. The shame of it is that Courtot's part in the film is so unimportant that the film, an important one for other reasons, only deserves passing mention in her story.
Well worth watching for the two reasons given at the top of the page and that is why I wanted to afford it some space on the site.
Clara Bow, in her second film, is a dynamo. If you're a fan you have to see her in Down to the Sea in Ships.
The whaling footage, which is lengthy, is an incredible historical reenactment that felt more like Moby Dick brought to life than even the 1956 John Huston movie starring Gregory Peck did. It was certainly aided in that direction by quotations from Melville being weaved in throughout the story.
The love story, a bit of a flop. The action, as entertaining now as it was then.
- For more about Down to the Sea in Ships, including background, please see this article by Bret Wood at TCM.com.