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June Moon: Moontide (1942)

This month we’re under the sway of the pale satellite in the night sky. Because it’s June, the spotlight is on the Moon. This week Samantha and Adam gaze upon Moontide.

ADAM: Like a Popeye cartoon steeped in barbiturates, Moontide plays with the archetypal rough and tumble seaside town to achieve a singularly depressive mood. The world of Moontide is rotted by the ocean’s spray and further degraded by the inhabitant’s perpetual melancholy. Bobo (Jean Gabin) is our sailor man; in this bleak version he grapples with evidence suggesting he may have strangled a man to death in an alcohol-induced blackout. Tiny (Thomas Mitchell) is the antagonist. Unlike Bluto, he is a weakling and a blackmailing parasite. Still, he lusts for Anna (Ida Lupino), the fragile hash-slinger with a heart of gold. Claude Rains as Nutsy fulfills the role of J. Wellington Wimpy—the soft-spoken intellectual contrast to Gabin’s animalistic aura.

SAMANTHA: I like how your brain works. Moontide is a difficult film to classify. It is part dock drama, part noir and part romance. It was not well-received in its day, but I enjoyed the unconventional ending. The writer was Willard Robertson, also an actor who appeared with Jackie Cooper in Skippy and with MacDonald Carey in Wake Island.

AW: Robertson’s novel was transformed into the film’s cloistered, studio-bound atmosphere, captured in velvety black and white by Charles G. Clarke (who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work). This ambiance is the film’s strongest feature, but I must admit it lulled me to sleep. Maybe it’s time we reassess the relative negativity surrounding a film's narcotic effect—really, should it be considered bad that a film comforts us to the point of slumber? It is a much better state than wide-eyed and irritated. Still, this movie is worth watching attentively.

SG: I've noticed that as I've gotten older, movies have a tendency to lull me to sleep more and more. I never understood why some people slept with the TV on, but there is something about a great black and white movie, especially if it is a silent film with a good music score, that feels like a comfy security blanket. I don't know how many of this movie's contemporaries would list this among their coziest watches.

Nina Watkins of Arkansas complained that her movie-viewing was spoiled by the casting of Ralph Byrd as the minister because someone in the audience yelled out “Dick Tracy!” when they saw his face. Another problem doubtless was the removal of the original director in favor of Archie Mayo. According to Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin, Fritz Lang was fired after spending a considerable amount of money on a Salvador Dali-inspired dream sequence which was cut from the film. The film opened to less fanfare because the opening coincided with an Army-ordered dim-out (similar to the blackouts in England) in New York.

AW: The Salvador Dali-inspired replacement sequence is still very cool. Jean Gabin makes his star-power felt in his first of two Hollywood features during the war.

SG: Jean Gabin, “he of the attractively ugly face” according to Catherine McCrohan of Detroit, is one of those actors who always seems to play the same kind of parts. He is gruff, manly and lower class struggling against the world. I always associate him with Marlene Dietrich because the first time I ever heard about him was in relation to their affair. She spent a good amount of time on the set of Moontide. This was Gabin’s first American film. According to Screenland magazine, Twentieth Century-Fox spent an estimated $85,000 in training and language coaching for him. “Thinking in another language is very difficult,” he said. “Yet you must understand what you are saying in order to give sincerity.” Gabin’s style is natural and subdued, sometimes to the point where he appears soft-spoken. According to Screenland’s Weston East, this was a scene stealing tactic which Thomas Mitchell picked up on. He responded in kind until it was difficult to hear the scenes.

AW: Ida Lupino was in the prime decade of her career, right in between High Sierra and Roadhouse.

SG: I like Ida Lupino more and more each time I see her. She could play tough, world-weary women but also innocence and vulnerability. Here she does both types, a woman trying to end her life because of the harshness of the world, but then sweet and feminine when she falls in love. The way her character is treated coincides with modern women’s issues. “If you’d smile a little more, I think you’d be a pretty girl.” This very phrase is heard frequently to this day, but it is called out as a sexist and demeaning one. Was it a trigger phrase then too?

AW: The local censors of 1942 had at least one issue with the film. When Bobo proposes to Anna, he explains the difference between the wife and all the “other girls.” He says, “The wife is the one you go on the honeymoon with after the marriage.” It seems innocuous enough but apparently the worldly views espoused by the Frenchmen crossed a line with the powers that be in Ohio. According to a review in the Akron Beacon Journal, this scene was clumsily scissored from the film. Critic Edward E. Gloss lamented, “Once again it is impossible to escape the feeling that either censors must be better acquainted with the literate form they slash—or the producers must recall the censored film and reedit the passed portions.”

One odd aspect of the film was the characters Dr. Frank Brothers (Jerome Cowan) and his mistress (Helene Reynolds), two blue bloods who have a propensity of awkwardly intruding into the story. This plot point culminates with their interruption of the big wedding day with a failing motor. This nagging presence—complete with a conspicuous United States flag on the back of their boat—seemed more than just a plot contrivance. The casting of Reynolds as the stand-offish mistress is notable. Born Kenyon Fortescue, Reynolds was the daughter of real-life blue blood Grace Fortescue who was charged with murder in a sensational case of vengeance for her daughter’s alleged rape outside a Naval base in Honolulu. This Clarence Darrow-defended case was just a decade old when Moontide was produced, so Reynolds association with the case could have been paramount on producer Mark Hellinger’s mind. Perhaps this rich yet sullen couple merely serves to contrast against the poor but noble Bobo and Anna, but they appear to have sailed in from an alternate film noir.

There is something about the combination of the salty sea and the French that triggers a dramatic response in writers. The critics piled on juicy adjectives to get at the atmosphere of Moontide. Bosley Crowther called it “misty” and “moisty.” The Cincinnati Enquirer’s E.B. Radcliffe described it as a “salt-sprayed, fog-shrouded, fishy idyll…” Mae Tinée of the Chicago Daily Tribune summed it up as a “drab, fisty, alcohol-scented tale.” The Washington Post’s Nelson B. Bell zoomed right past “fishy” and “fisty” in the race to be the showiest review: “It is a somber, unenlivened and frequently sordid and distorted study that imposes its greatest faith in the questionable virtues of retarded movement and understatement.” He continues with a koan-like statement, “Almost, but not quite, it succeeds in implying much of the power it fails to express.”

SG: Although waterfront films aren’t my usual choice, this one was well-crafted and had several very intense scenes that made it a notch better than average. Three stars.

AW: This is a dark yet calming movie, perhaps best enjoyed with a cup of espresso. As a Hollywood attempt at the French poetic realism trend, it succeeds in creating a strange one-off hybrid. Four stars.

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