The Yankee Clipper (1927)
Director: Rupert Julian
Cast: William Boyd, Elinor Fair, Frank Coghlan Jr.
Synopsis: Capt. Winslow agrees to race a British clipper ship from China to Boston in order to win the hand of young Englishwoman Lady Huntington.
he character of Captain Hal Winslow, rugged skipper of the eponymous trading ship, is the kind of role that would have suited John Wayne in the 1940s, but he’s played here by another Western star, William Boyd, who would later gain lasting — if more modest — fame as Hopalong Cassidy. Boyd never possessed the screen presence of The Duke, but he does a decent job here in a movie that remains entertaining, and which boasts some fine cinematography from Robert LaPresle and John J. Mescall.
The film’s story is based on truth, but as with most such Hollywood movies, it merely uses the truth as a starting point around which it weaves a romantic plot. In the 1850s, the American’s sought to loosen the British stranglehold on the transportation of tea from China to the States, and were offered the opportunity by a powerful Chinese magnate who offers to award the contract to whichever of their two ships can transport their cargo back to the States in the fastest time. It’s to Captain Winslow that the Americans turn. While observing the British ship through a telescope prior to setting sail, Winslow spies Lady Jocelyn Huntington (Elinor Fair) checking him out through her own telescope and falls instantly in love.
Jocelyn is engaged to marry the dastardly Paul de Vigny (John Miljan), whom we can tell from the first moment that we see him is a wrong ‘un, not only because he’s in a clinch with an accommodating Chinese hooker (Wing Toy) but because he dresses like a dandy and wears one of them high toppers favoured by dastardly movie villains. Miljan looks remarkably like John Carradine in Stagecoach, but with fewer — in fact no – redeeming features. Not only is he a villain, he’s a coward too; when Lady Jocelyn is swamped by Chinese beggars, it’s up to Winslow to protect her while de Vigny cowers in a doorway. Quite what Lady Jocelyn sees in him is never really clear. Anyway, through some far-fetched plot machinations both Lady Jocelyn and de Vigny end up on Winslow’s clipper instead of the British ship on which they intended to be when both ships set sail.
Winslow has to contend with the usual trials and challenges during the lengthy voyage, including a cheeky young stowaway named Mickey (Junior Coghlan), a slightly deranged shipmate called something like Iron Head Mike, who takes a shine to Lady Jocelyn, a shortage of drinking water, an attempted mutiny and a fierce sea storm. He also has to convince Lady J that he really isn’t a bad sort, a task that is complicated by de Vigny’s tricks to make him look like an uncouth bully (just check out Boyd’s expression when Lady Jocelyn accuses him of hitting de Vigny (‘a poor, defenceless man’), it’s absolutely priceless).
The Yankee Clipper works because it has no pretensions. It simply aims to deliver a straightforward adventure yarn which it does with some style. Directed by Rupert Julian, the man behind Lon Chaney’s silent version of The Phantom of the Opera, the movie is produced by Cecil B. DeMille. The action is concisely directed, and Boyd makes a capable leading man, even if he does have a tendency to strike many manly poses.
The Yankee Clipper might not quite be a classic — it actually failed at the box office — but it’s still first class silent entertainment.
(Reviewed 7th September 2013)