Phantom Ship

How many times do I have to tell you?  My name is NOT Gopher!

A few years ago, I bought The Squirrel a mp3 player for Christmas.  It was a nice name brand player that not only played music but also movies.  I put it in my closet, where it was to remain until I had time to wrap it up and place under the tree on Christmas Eve. Let’s fast forward a few years, shall we?  Housecat and I are driving to the local market to pick up name brand toaster pastries (for her), cough syrup (I like it on pancakes) and probably some dog food or something.  On the way there, she was fooling around with her class ring and dropped it.  The player should have been in the shopping bag in the closet.  The ring should have been somewhere in my car.  And the crew of the Mary Celeste should have been on the ship, but they weren’t.  The life boats were there.  The cargo was there.  And there was no sign of a struggle; the crew simply vanished, like an errant class ring, or a Christmas mp3 player, forever haunting the imagination of those who’ve heard the tale.

Apparently the odd sailing vessel caught adrift without a crew was just one of those things that happened from time to time, and if it wasn’t  for the case of the Mary Celeste exciting the imagination of a young Arthur Conan Doyle, it too would have been forgotten.  The future author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries gathered the facts of the case, embellished them to heighten the drama and published it as a short story, J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement in the January 1884 edition of Cornhill Magazine (Heh-heh.  Cornhill).  It’s in the harbor of Doyle’s mind that an odd, but explainable incident at sea, becomes one the greatest maritime mysteries ever.

Phantom Ship (1935), released in the UK as The Mystery of the Marie Celeste, offers its own fictional explanation of how and why the Mary Celeste’s crew and captain vanished.  Doomed ghost ships are a subject that has been touched upon from time to time, but the story of the Mary Celeste itself has only been filmed once to my knowledge, in this very early Hammer Films offering, even though it presents some rather juicy plot possibilities.  In this case, the plot is a little problematic as the only version of the film that has come down to us is missing a full third of its running time and I was unable to find a copy of the script, leaving us with some gaping plot holes, which as of right now, I’m not able to fill.

Phantom Ship opens with the Marie Celeste’s Captain Briggs (Arthur Margetson) walking along the docks with Bilson (Edmund Willard), his first mate, giving him instructions to round up a crew for the voyage to Genoa, which leaves soon.  He goes on to explain that there will be no drinking or cursing on this voyage as there will be a woman on board – his wife.  Bilson gives him the “O rly” look.   Doh!  Briggs was clearly talking big, trying make himself sound important and stuff.  Realizing that he doesn’t have a wife and needing to get one, Briggs pops over to see Sarah (Shirley Grey), the fiancee of his bestest pal, Captain Morehead (Clifford McLaglen) and asks her to marry him.  She says, “Yes.”  Morehead arrives a few moments later to pop the question himself only to realize his girl has been poached.  Morehead plots revenge.

Next, a very haggard and down on his luck sailor, Anton Lorenzen (Bela Lugosi) stumbles into a bar near the waterfront.  He orders a drink that he can’t pay for and nearly gets thrown into the street before the bar owner realizes that he knows him.  We get a little well delivered exposition from Lorenzen, who after explaining that he’d been shanghai’d, pleads to be allowed the luxury of a little bunk time in the back room.

Briggs comes into the bar a bit later recruiting for his voyage, offering the bar owner a five dollar per head bounty for each sailor the owner can get to sign on for the voyage. Why all the trouble finding a crew? Well, apparently, Bilson, the first mate, has a reputation for being a dirt bag.  The bar owner manages to round up a crew, including Lorenzen, who all report to the Marie Celeste.  Briggs takes a head count and realizes he is still one hand short.  This part got me;  Briggs has the nerve to go to Morehead and beg for a loaner, which Morehead, for reasons of his own, is only too happy to supply.  Briggs clearly has a ruck sack the size of the basking shark’s mouth when it comes to pissing off Morehead.

The ending, that is the very ending, of the film couldn’t more plain if they named the movie Boatload of People Who Are Going to Die, but like  The Hindenberg or the Titanic, it’s not the destination but the journey that matters and this being the age of sail, the journey is slow.  It’s nearly twenty minutes into the movie before the doomed ship sets sail and it gathers momentum slowly.

A few things are readily apparent from the beginning, one being that Briggs bringing his new wife on the trip was the mother of all bad ideas.  Being that I’m seeing this from the point of view of a modern audience, by which I mean jaded, all I am thinking is, “Wow! The crew is gonna totally kill Briggs, rape her, then toss her over the side.“  It doesn’t help that Briggs is the most ineffective captain since Captain Crunch.  Honestly, I wouldn’t  follow this guy out of a burning potter’s shed on a rainy day.  The reason his crew doesn’t ignore Briggs or make him walk the plank is that Bilson, the first mate, will totally beat them to death if they tried anything.

The only thing that saves this movie from oblivion is Bela Lugosi, who is totally awesome in this.  His beaten down, shell shocked Anton Lorenzen is about as far from the suave, commanding Dracula as it gets and Lugosi plays the character with feeling.  It’s easy to call Lugosi a ham, and often as not, it’s unfair.  He gets top billing in Phantom Ship and earns it.

Phantom Ship never fully takes advantage of the claustrophobic potential that a shipboard environment provides, at least not the cut of the film we are left with, which is too bad.  The only tension we get is the possibility that Sarah Briggs is going to be attacked and film’s growing focus on Lorenzen, both of which pay off to a degree.  Phantom Ship is a good bet for Lugosi fans, but not terribly interesting otherwise.

Bela Lugosi
Shirley Grey
Arthur Margetson
Edmund Willard

Denison Clift

Denison Clift

Two of five Vincents

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.