Thursday, October 15, 2015

OVP: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

Film: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
Stars: Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Movita Castaneda
Director: Frank Lloyd
Oscar History: 8 nominations/1 win (Best Picture*, Director, Film Editing, Score, Adapted Screenplay, Actor-Clark Gable, Actor-Charles Laughton, Actor-Franchot Tone)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

It's rare that I get to see a Best Picture winner for the first time and know that it's a Best Picture winner.  After all, I almost always see the current one before it is crowned and the list of past ones are fleeting that I haven't viewed.  So perhaps the most significant Best Picture winner left on my To Do list was this seafaring epic starring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable, the film that famously created the supporting categories at the Oscars after Franchot Tone joined his fellow nominees in the Best Actor race (you read that right up top-there are three lead nominees in the same category here, something you can't even pull off with two in the same category anymore).  The film chronicles the merciless attacks of one Captain Bligh in a historically-questionable but still riveting tale of the sea.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows the Bounty and its voyage to Tahiti, focusing principally on a tyrannical Captain Bligh (Laughton), his lieutenant Fletcher Christian (Gable), and a young midshipman named Byam (Tone) who is of a more sheltered background but wants to go and create a dictionary of the Tahitian people.  The voyage to Tahiti, to try and get breadfruit, is fraught with peril and becomes all the worse under Bligh's greed and sadism, frequently finding ways to unjustly torture and demean the men on board, even resorting to keelhauling and beating a dead man.  By the time the crew are returning from Tahiti, they've had enough and assume that they may starve to death aboard the Bounty, so they throw Bligh overboard and he has to navigate the waters for 3000 miles and eventually makes his way back to England.  Byam does as well, and almost dies in a trial until we see that Bligh's viciousness was worth the uprising, and Fletcher Christian stays in Tahiti and colonizes an island called Piticairn where he and the men live forever, seemingly in paradise.

The film's historical accuracy is quite questionable (in real life Bligh wasn't nearly as bad as depicted here, and Fletcher Christian's end wasn't nearly as noble or as peaceful as he was likely murdered soon after the mutiny), but the two lead actors are riveting in the roles.  Admittedly Clark Gable occasionally feels a little miscast, as his 1930's rogue doesn't quite seem to leave him in this film, and occasionally you wonder if he should be aboard a ship that is entirely made up of Englishmen, but Gable has a movie star's tenacity and that's always enjoyable.  Better, but also only if you love his brand of bombast, is Laughton, who eats the scenery whole in his role as Captain Bligh, but he's insanely watchable.  There's absolutely no scene he's out there where you aren't wondering what's next, what terrible evil will come up from those bulbous eyes.  He is, of course, a one-dimensional cartoon but something worth watching, for sure.  As for Franchot Tone, it's easily a supporting role, one that it's hard to imagine making it in lead today and quite frankly it's hard to realize why then, as it's the sort of naive young man that you'd normally expect to be forgotten, except of course Tone was becoming a bit of a star at the time and this was probably a way to acknowledge that.  Still the acting is solid.

The best part of the film, though, may be the direction.  Frank Lloyd's ability to keep every scene compelling, particularly with a two-hour epic that has a narrative that even at the time most people would have been familiar with, is excellent.  The pace is sharp, the film's action sequences pop and hold-up well, and while the film has moments of racism on the island, we're not talking about Gone with the Wind-levels of cringe-worthiness.  I would have lightened up on the beginning and the end of the film, where Tone's naivete becomes obnoxiously plot-serving, but the middle, and particularly the showdown between Bligh and Christian are well worth the praise this film long ago acquired.

Someday (probably in a number of years) we'll get to the OVP for 1935 so if you have thoughts on Mutiny on the Bounty now is the time to share them.  Do you like this particularly noted film of the 1930's, or it is one of those AFI flicks you never got around to?  Who is your favorite of the three leading actors?  And what film actually deserved three Best Actor or Actress nominations other than Mutiny on the Bounty?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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