Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
The Sea Bat (MGM, 1930) – Directors: Wesley Ruggles, Lionel Barrymore. Writers: Dorothy Yost (story), Bess Meredyth, John Howard Lawson (s/p). Stars: Raquel Torres, Charles Bickford, Nils Asther, George F. Marion, John Miljan, Boris Karloff, Gibson Gowland, Edmund Breese, Mathilde Comont, & Mack Swain. B&W, 73 minutes.
The Sea Bat is a film that should have been better than it was, being as it was written by Bess Meredith and John Howard Lawson. But somewhere along the way it ran afoul of MGM management as director Wesley Ruggles was suddenly replaced by Lionel Barrymore. Why, we don’t know. But it may have had something to do with cost overruns, as Wesley filmed on location along Mexico’s Mazatlán coast and Barrymore’s scenes are indoors, particularly the diving scenes, which were shot in the studio tank.
Set on an island in the West Indies, the opening lines let us know what we’re in for: "Portuga island … through the night, the weird chants of voodoo worship … through the day, the weird industry of sponge fishing ..." However the film is not nearly as exotic as the opening lines would indicate, as it follows the the lives of the men who make their living as sponge divers. One of the perils of their trade is the “sea bat,” a huge manta ray that terrorizes the divers and gives audiences something to thrill over.
In the opening scenes, Nina (Torres) offers a pagan talisman to her beloved brother Carl (Asther) as he is going out on his morning sponge dive. Carl turns it away, showing Nina his cross and telling her he doesn’t need any voodoo for protection. The cast doesn’t know it yet, but this is to be Carl’s last dive, as he falls victim to the sea bat.
Nina is devastated. In despair, she turns to the voodoo rites of the natives, throwing herself in wholeheartedly. She also offers herself as the wife to whoever manages to kill the sea bat. While this is going on, the Reverend Sims (Bickford) arrives on the island to replace the outgoing reverend. But Sims is no reverend, he is actually John Dennis, an escapee from Devil’s Island in disguise. Nina’s father, Antone (Marion), the island’s mayor, is especially pleased to see the new reverend, as the island has been in need of spiritual guidance since the old reverend departed. But Sims is very reluctant to take up his pastoral duties; he’d rather be left alone. Antone, however, wants him to reform Nina and Sims agrees to give it a try. As he tries to save Nina’s soul, the two become strangely attracted to each other and fall in love. He tells her his real identity and they plan to escape the island by way of a motorboat.
However, Juan (Miljan), the villain of the piece, has figured out the reverend’s identity, and along with cohort Limey (Gowland) subdue Sims and tie him up. While they are taking him by boat back to Devil’s Island for the reward they are attacked by the sea bat. Both Juan and Limey are killed, while Sims makes it back to shore and a reunion with Nina. The episode has shocked the goodness back into Sims. He tells Nina he’s going back to give himself up and serve out his term. She tells him she will go with him and wait as the picture ends.
It’s a pretty straightforward plot; unfortunately much of the characterization necessary to fill in the blanks leaves us wanting. As Nina, Torres acquits herself well. She is a familiar character to those who are fans of these types of adventures: the Exotic. The Exotic is always a woman, a femme fatale – beautiful, mysterious, with a hidden agenda which the hero must discover before it engulfs him. In the early days of sound, the Exotic played a large role as movies took their audiences away from the humdrum of everyday life to new ports of imagination. Quite a few actresses got their start playing this type, including Lupe Velez and Myrna Loy. (Velez even did a parody of the character in the 1934 spoof Hollywood Party, playing The Jaguar Woman to Jimmy Durante’s “Schnarzan the Conquerer.”)
The fad died down in the ‘30s, only to be reinvigorated in the ‘40s, with jungle adventures aplenty. Who can forget Hedy Lamarr in 1942’s White Cargo with her famous line, “I am Tondelayo?” Even stripper Ann Corio got in on the act in PRC’s Jungle Siren (1942) and Monogram’s Call of the Jungle (1944). However, being as this is a Pre-Code film, Torres gets to flash a lot more flesh, at one point giving us quite a peek during a wet t-shirt type of scene (get a load of what’s not under the blouse) where she fights off would-be rapists Juan and Limey with a knife. And only in a Pre-Code film could she so blatantly offer herself as the reward to whoever destroys the sea bat. One thing that has always befuddled me is: why she didn’t have a bigger career? Latinas were in demand for movies during this time (Velez and Dolores Del Rio had good careers at this point), and yet the only thing she is somewhat famous for was playing Vera Marcal in Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers.
The movie’s other lead, Charles Bickford, doesn’t come off as well as Torres. After glowing reviews for his roles in Cecil DeMille’s first talkie, Dynamite (1929) and Anna Christie, opposite Garbo, Bickford seems to have squandered his capital with this performance, as he comes off rather lifeless and disinterested. I recall reading that he was a last-minute replacement for the ailing Lon Chaney, so perhaps the lack of preparation accounts for it. But considering that his talkie career began as a leading man, he quickly moved his way down the ladder to character actor and B-movie headliner in only a few years.
The problem with Bickford’s character as the “reverend” was his extreme reluctance to perform his ministerial duties; very odd since he came to the island as the pastor. But we are never let in on why he is so reluctant and the only thing I can surmise is that the studio didn’t want any trouble with censors over a phony playing a man of the cloth. This may be the case, for as the movie wears on, his character seems to be transformed from carrying around his pocket Bible. On the other hand, were Bickford’s character a real man of the cloth, we might have wound up with a pale imitation of W. Somerset Maugham’s Sadie Thompson, which Raoul Walsh and Gloria Swanson brought to the screen in 1928. (It was remade by Lewis Milestone and Joseph M. Schenck as Rain in 1932 starring Joan Crawford and Walter Huston.) His scenes with Torres are half-and-half – she’s convincing, he isn’t.
George F. Marion steals the film as Antone, the father of Carl and Nina. He is the island’s governor/mayor who also seems to double as the town drunk. Marion displays just the right mixture of officialdom and corruption as he tries to convince the islanders of his position and tries convince barman Dutchy (Swain) of his right to a free drink. John Miljan is his usual villainous self as Juan, and Gibson Gowland, who starred in Von Stroheim’s ill-fated Greed, is fine as Limey. As for Karloff, look quickly or you’ll miss him. Silent star Nils Asther, in his first talkie, also has a role that is all too brief. We aren’t given a chance to see how well he can do in the realm of talkies. And Mack Swain, known mainly as the adversary of Charlie Chaplin, makes for a good, blustery and tough Dutchy.
The unsung star of the film is the sea bat itself. Given the times, it’s a fine example of f/x work on the part of the studio. In reality, a manta ray is a gentle creature, but appearances are everything, so it made for quite a frightening monster, though from the way it’s photographed, it looks more like a shark than a ray. The only glitch is the scene where the manta ray bears down on Carl – we can see that Carl has been replaced by a doll. But the scene is mercifully brief and does not detract from the fun.
Give cinematographer Ira Morgan props for some fine photography, especially in the scenes with the sea bat. Barrymore handles the indoor scenes and the love scenes between Bickford and Torres with his usual professionalism, though the way he photographed her rather unconvincing voodoo dance leaves much to be desired.
For those Pre-Code fans out there, The Sea Bat is definitely worth the time. Other will enjoy it also, especially as it has not aged well and now comes off as a camp folly. Everything else aside, the chance to see Raquel Torres prancing around half-naked singing the song “Lo-Lo” a cappella is worth the price of admission alone.