The Sea Beast (1926)
Director: Millard Webb
Cast: John Barrymore, Dolores Costello, George O’Hara
Synopsis: Whaler Ahab Ceeleyand his half-brother, Derek, are both in love with Esther Harper, a reverend’s daughter. To get rid of his rival, Derek shoves Ahab overboard during a frenzied hunt for the legendary white whale Moby Dick, making it look like an accident.
It has to be said that Millard Webb’s The Sea Beast bears about as much resemblance to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick as a Captain Birdseye advert, but then Hollywood never allowed a novel’s plot to get in the way of a screen adaptation. Here we have silent screen heart-throb John Barrymore playing Captain Ahab, a dashing young sailor in love with the sweet young Esther Harper (Dolores Costello). Their union seems made in heaven, but Ahab’s half-brother Derek (George O’Hara) also has a soft spot for Esther. Derek is also a sailor on the same ship as Ahab, so when they encounter the giant whale of Melville’s novel, he wastes no time in pushing his half-brother overboard and ringing the dinner bell. However, the whale only bites down on half of Ahab’s leg, leaving him embittered and alive, but Derek a little uneasy about whether his brother will work out that he’s to blame for him not being as much of a man as he used to be. I’d have thought that when you feel hands shoving you into the sea you’d immediately suspect the man standing behind you of being the culprit, but the idea never seems to enter Ahab’s mind.
Derek uses Ahab’s self-consciousness about his new fine-grain leg to engineer a parting of the ways between him and Esther in such a way that each believes the other has abandoned them. Ahab becomes so obsessed with killing the whale that ate his leg that he becomes a prematurely-aged salty sea dog, complete with lank hair and mad, staring eyes. And, of course, this being a Hollywood melodrama, it’s not long before fate conspires to have Ahab and Derek’s and Dick’s paths cross almost simultaneously once more with potentially fatal consequences.
At over two hours, The Sea Beast runs a good twenty minutes too long, and the movie could have benefitted from some editing in the first half when thing drag noticeably. Barrymore’s usual energy is constrained by the nature of the role, with only a few early scenes offering him the opportunity to demonstrate his athleticism, but he gives a good performance nevertheless and is particularly convincing in the later scenes when his character has been transformed by obsession and tragic romance. The whale, it has to be said, is nothing more than a bit part player. When it does finally make an appearance we see only its tail, which looks good but is a something of a disappointment when you’re expecting the whole thing.
(Reviewed 14th August 2013)