Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
Hell Below (MGM, 1933) – Director: Jack Conway. Writers: Laird Doyle, Raymond L. Schrock (adaptation). John Lee Mahin, John Meehan (dialogue). Edward Ellsberg (book Pigboats). Stars: Robert Montgomery, Walter Huston, Madge Evans, Jimmy Durante, Eugene Pallette, Robert Young, Edwin Styles, John Lee Mahin, David Newell, Sterling Holloway, & Charles Irwin. B&W, 101 minutes.
“That’s Deadpan Toler. If he smiles it’s only a gas pain.”
Hell Below is a war film about submariners that starts off well but, by the time it gets to the finish, descends into the murky waters of cheap melodrama. It's a real shame because it boasts an excellent cast.
It’s 1918 and the United States submarine AL-14 has just docked in Taranto, Italy, for a furlough after some heavy combat in the Adriatic Sea that saw its commander badly wounded. As he is taken off the ship to a waiting ambulance, the crew commiserates and congratulates the ship’s second-in-command, Lt. Thomas Knowlton (Montgomery) on what is bound to be a sure promotion to commander of the ship. However, just as the ambulance takes off, a figure comes aboard. He is Lt. Commander T.J. Toler (Huston) and he has orders from command headquarters to assume command of the submarine.
Knowlton hides his disappointment well as he gives Toler a tour of the ship. One thing Knowlton learns immediately about his new commander is that he is a no-nonsense stickler to the book and the attention to detail it entails.
As Knowlton and his fellow officer, Lt. Ed “Brick” Walters (Young), are about to disembark for their shore leave, Toler tells them that they are to attend an officer’s ball being held that night as dance partners for the wives of high ranking officers. Naturally they resent this and after arriving at the party, are looking to duck out early until they spot pretty, young Joan Standish (Evans). They compete for her attentions, and it’s Knowlton who wins out. When he finds that she’s just as anxious to leave as he is, he escorts her to a local carnival. While they are riding the Ferris wheel, the celebration is suddenly halted by an air raid. Knowlton takes Joan back to his place, where they get to know each other a bit better. When she discovers it’s his place, she insists on leaving, especially after he confesses that he’s in love with her. But it’s no good as she is married. A moment later, a knock is heard at the door. It’s Brick, and they have orders to report back to the sub as it’s under attack from enemy planes.
While Knowlton is trying to make time with Joan, a sub-plot is developing involving “Mac” MacDougal (Pallette), the ship’s chief torpedo man, and “Ptomaine” (Durante), the ship’s cook, who is studying to be a dentist through the mail. At first, they are overjoyed to discover that British marines will work as the shore patrol while they are on leave, but Ptomaine gets into a fight with one of them (Irwin) for referring to him as a “pelican” due to his big nose. Ptomaine, for his part, calls the Brit “an elk” and notes that his tormentor has a big set of choppers, perfect for an aspiring dentist.
As the crew reports to the submarine, the AL-14 is put out to sea, where they come upon a German minelayer and score a direct hit with torpedoes. As the German crew abandons their sinking ship, Toler sends Brick out in a dinghy with some crewmen to see if they can grab the German ship’s codebook before it sinks. However, as Brick and his party are about halfway to the ship, a group of German planes attack the surfaced submarine. When a bomber is spotted making its way towards the ship, Toler has no choice but to submerge and abandon the boarding party. Everyone heeds the order except Knowlton, who stays at his machine gun firing on the attacking planes. He has to be cold-conked in order to get him aboard.
Although damaged, the sub makes it back to port for repairs and the crew resumes its shore leave. Ptomaine and Mac supply one of the film’s better moments when Mac talks the cook into a taking on a boxer for $5. Ptomaine signs up, and to his distress, discovers he’s going to fight a boxing kangaroo. As the fight progresses, Ptomaine is getting the worst of it. Hearing hecklers, he notices that one of them is his nemesis, the big-toothed Brit he calls “the elk.” Ptomaine jumps into the crowd to take on his tormentor. Mac wades through the rioting crowd to rescue his buddy before the MPs arrive, and as they leave, Ptomaine displays his trophy – one of his tormentor’s large teeth.
Meanwhile, Knowlton spends his leave looking for Joan, who he knows is a nurse and is working at a nearby military hospital. There, Joan introduces him to her husband Herbert (Styles), a British flight commander who was paralyzed in an airplane crash. She also lets him know that she’s Toler’s daughter. Knowlton, totally stunned, rushes off, but Joan follows him back to his apartment, were she confesses her love. They pledge to remain together in spite of Herbert.
While on their next patrol, Toler has it out with Knowlton over his affair with Joan. Toler’s orders for the mission are to map where new minelayers, now escorted by destroyers, are depositing their mines. Knowlton, on periscope duty, spots Brick’s dinghy floating in the water and thinks he sees signs of life on the boat. He requests that Toler dispatch a rescue party. Toler refuses, as the presence of three German destroyers makes it a risk not worth taking. But when Toler leaves the bridge, Knowlton orders the ship to fire torpedoes at the destroyers. Two of the destroyers are sunk and the sole survivor attacks, dropping depth charges and forcing the submarine to descend below its maximum safe depth. Air is running out.
After waiting for a time, Toler, who has Knowlton confined to the brig, decides to surface and take his chances in a fight rather than stay where he is and suffocate. As they attempt to surface, a crucial pump that will allow them to resurface fails. Knowlton, who has left the brig on his own, spots a chlorine gas leak, apparently caused when a torpedo got loose while being loaded. Seaman Jenks (Holloway), had his leg crushed while attempting to stop the warhead from hitting the submarine’s side. The room is evacuated, but Jenks is left behind, forgotten in the confusion. The door to the gas-flooded compartment cannot be opened or the whole ship will fill with gas. The crew must stand by helplessly and watch Jenks die as he bangs on the window for help. While attempting to repair the pump, another crewman, fearful that they are doomed, commits suicide. Finally, the pump is fixed and the ship is able to resurface and maneuver to safety. The final toll is eight crewmen dead.
Back on shore, Knowlton is court-martialed and dishonorably discharged. Joan, undeterred by the turn of events, plans to run off with him. This precipitates a battle with Toler, who is not only disgusted with his daughter for not doing her duty, but also with Knowlton, for encouraging her when he knows he faces a bleak future due to his dishonorable discharge.
Joan tells Knowlton to go to the hospital and inform her husband of his wife’s change in plans. When Knowlton visits, however, he learns that Standish is scheduled for an operation that will enable him to recover fully and walk again. Knowlton leaves without informing Standish of the change in plans, and during a later meeting with Joan and her father, pretends to be drunk and acts so callously toward Joan, who does not know of her husband’s upcoming operation, that she comes to despise him and breaks off the relationship, though Toler can see through the act.
In the finale, Toler is assigned a dangerous mission. He must take the AL-14, loaded with explosives, to block the only port in the Adriatic from which German submarines can operate. He is to ram a fortification beside the narrowest point in the channel that leads out of port and set off the explosives to block the port. The mission is timed to that Toler and the crew have enough time to abandon ship before it hits and be picked up by speed boats.
Knowlton has snuck aboard the sub unbeknownst to Toler, but when Toler discovers his wayward crewman, he lets him stay. The mission goes according to plan, but when the ship surfaces and the man jump overboard to be rescued, Toler is trapped by the incoming fire from the harbor’s defenders. Toler orders Knowlton to join the crew, but Knowlton throws Toler overboard and takes the craft in himself to his death.
Hell Below runs the entire gamut: it’s a war film, a romance, an action picture, a comedy, and finally, a melodrama. Based on Pigboats, a novel by Commander Edward Ellsberg, it was made with the full cooperation of the Navy and even has a dedication to the Navy in a forward.
The problem with Hell Below is that it keeps bouncing from sub-plot to sub-plot, as if the main plot of submarines in war and the men who serve in them isn’t enough to sustain the film. Part of this could be rooted to America’s negative attitude about the First World War as a waste of this country’s time and men, who were seen as being sent needlessly to their deaths in an unnecessary war. Other films about the war made during this period took the same line, notably All Quiet on the Western Front, Heroes For Sale, and A Farewell to Arms. Later, when our entry into the next war seemed inevitable, the studios refashioned World War 1 into an honorable and necessary war, especially as it looked like we were once again going to be fighting the Germans.
The strength of the film is in its cast. Those out there who aren’t sure about Robert Montgomery’s acting creds should check him out here. It’s amazing to watch him change the tone of his character as the film progresses, going from light-hearted to serious and back again. He plays the role of Thomas Knowlton quite well, as both a hero and a heel; a man ruled by his passions, which in hindsight is the reason why he wasn’t promoted to be the commander of the submarine at the beginning of the film.
Even in a scene as predictably sappy as when he pretends to longer care about Joan Standish, he comes through admirably. His tension with Huston’s Toler comes off as authentic, and his chemistry with Robert Young is nothing short of fantastic. We can understand why he is devastated at the loss of his friend and wants to rescue him, even to the point of recklessly taking on three enemy destroyers. Montgomery makes it all seem real. That he was one of MGM’s most popular leading men is no accident, as he combines matinee idol looks with solid acting. A couple of film bloggers have wondered how Montgomery could be billed above Huston, but the answer is easy. Huston was a freelancer and did a lot of character roles while Montgomery was an MGM contract player, playing the male lead while a solid draw at the box office.
Speaking of Huston, he gives what we’ve come to expect as the typical Walter Huston performance: impeccable. Huston had quite a good run in the early ‘30s, with leading or featured roles in Abraham Lincoln, The Criminal Code, The Beast of the City, American Madness, The Wet Parade, Kongo, and Gabriel Over The White House. Huston had the unique ability to play both leading men and supporting characters. Check out Huston in Kongo, a remake of Lon Chaney’s West of Zanzibar. I can think of nothing harder that trying to follow Lon Chaney (even Jimmy Cagney couldn’t do it in Man of a Thousand Faces), yet Huston pulls it off with gusto. One of the strengths of Hell Below is the relationship between Huston’s Toler and Montgomery’s Knowlton. It plays out in shades of gray rather than strictly black and white. Both have their strengths and both have their foibles.
Robert Young and Madge Evans do the best with their limited characters, though both benefit from having Montgomery to play off. Sterling Holloway, who rarely gets to show his ability in a film, makes the absolute most of his time as Seaman Jenks. His death scene, with his face in the portal begging for help as the rest of the crew watches helplessly in the next compartment, is the best and most unforgettable in the film.
If anyone comes close to stealing the limelight from leads Montgomery and Huston, it’s the team of Eugene Pallette and Jimmy Durante. They make for quite a formidable comedy relief duo and do much to lessen the tension, particularly in the scene where Durante ends up boxing a kangaroo. Pallette is often underused in many of his films, but when he gets a good part, as in The Kennel Murder Case, he makes the most of it without having to resort to the old ham bone.
The strength of the acting is complimented by the cinematography of Harold Rosson and the art direction of Cedric Gibbons. Rosson’s use of shooting through the viewpoint of the periscope lends a sense of realism and Gibbon’s design of the submarine perfectly capture the claustrophobia experienced by the crew. Lt. Comdr. Morris D. Gilmore, who served as technical adviser on the film, has to be given credit for the film’s incredible and totally believable attention to the details of life aboard a submarine in war. Hell Below would serve as the template for all later submarine epics, the most obvious being Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), with its relationship between Commander Clark Gable and his second-in-command Burt Lancaster.
MGM did its usual first-rate job with the film’s production values. They were loaned the use of USS S-31 to play the fictional submarine AL-14. The German destroyer that was torpedoed was the decommissioned WW1 destroyer USS Moody, which the studio bought for $35,000 and hired a demolition firm to stimulate the torpedo hit. There were some notable goofs in the film, however. For one thing, Evans and the other female players sport the hairdos and clothing of the early ‘30s rather than the styles of 1918, which were profoundly different. Also, during the air raid scene, check out the automobiles; all are of an early ‘30s vintage.
Although the film is definitely Pre-Code, the print run by Turner Classic is the version edited by the studio for a 1937 re-release. As a result, some of the characters are moving their lips, but no sounds are coming out. The editing to get the film passed by the censors gives us a good insight into the bluenoses who presume to dictate the entertainment for American adults. The bloodier aspects of the film are kept while any hints of “bad language” or sex is simply erased. Hell Below underperformed at the box office with a worldwide gross of $1,389,000 ($634,000 in the U.S.), which reportedly resulted in a loss of $52,000.
Overall, Hell Below is well worth watching, especially for the acting, even if the other parts of the film don’t exactly come together well.