Ahab’s backstory, Hollywood-style (1926)

sea_beast_film_still_6In which Ahab acquires a love interest, a last name, and a half-brother, not in that order.

The Sea Beast, an adaptation of Moby-Dick, was a huge hit for John Barrymore and for Warner Brothers in 1926. The cast list does not show Ishmael, but it does show Ahab’s half-brother and rival for the affections of Esther Harper, “a minister’s beautiful daughter,” played by Dolores Costello, soon to be Mrs. John Barrymore, and, much later, grandmother of Drew Barrymore.

The Sea Beast retains characters such as Queequeg and Fedallah, the latter played by Sojin Kamiyana, although Winnifred Eaton Reeve (Onoto Watanna) had described his part as being a “coolie” in a 1928 interview with him. 

In Moby-Dick, Ahab explains his motivation to Starbuck as follows:

All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event–in the living act, the undoubted deed–there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.

But Warner Brothers, probably correctly deducing that something a little less metaphysical and “inscrutable” would be likely to bring more patrons into the theater, went with something more familiar to audiences: a love triangle, a vengeful brother,  and a happy ending in which Ahab gets over that obsession with striking the sun if it insulted him and all that.

AFI Catalog Description:

Ahab Ceeley and his half brother, Derek, are rivals for the hand of Esther Harper, a minister’s beautiful daughter. Because Esther favors his brother, Derek pushes Ahab overboard on a whaling trip; Ahab’s leg is chewed off by Moby Dick, a white whale; and he returns to Esther a broken and embittered man. Ahab, believing that Esther no longer loves him, becomes captain of a whaler and obsessively sets out to kill Moby Dick. Ahab learns of Derek’s treachery and, after killing the whale, kills Derek. Ahab return to New Bedford and, his obsession gone, settles down with Esther.

(Incidentally, I pity the poor high school students in 1926  who thought they’d save a little time by basing their book reports on the film version.)

You can see a clip from The Sea Beast here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVKsRIvSrkk

barrymoremobydickThe movie proved so popular that Warner Brothers made it again, four years later, in what people did not yet call a “reboot” of a “franchise.”

Here’s John Barrymore again, with all the original added features–love interest, vengeful brother–and an added mustache. Queequeg is played by the famous African American actor Noble Johnson, but Fedallah (and Sojin Kamiyana) is gone from the cast list. The love interest, now played by Joan Bennett instead of Dolores Costello, is still a minister’s daughter, this time the child of Father Mapple, who gives the famous sermon early in the novel.

In this 1930 ad from Motion Picture Classic, the film was still sporting the book’s title, Moby Dick (minus the hyphen in Moby-Dick) and some semblance of its original plot:

“Can he win revenge against this awful enemy–or will he perish in the giant maw that has been the graveyard of a hundred men before him?” There’s even a pod of spouting whales, though they’re dwarfed by John Barrymore’s famous profile.

The thing is, though, that in both these versions the white whale is clearly an instrument (Ahab’s “agent”) and not the entity responsible for the action (Ahab’s “principal”). He’s not to blame for taking off Ahab’s leg; it’s the brother’s fault for pushing Ahab overboard. The white whale acts in accordance with its nature, as Mark Twain would say.  Does this render Starbuck’s statement that Ahab’s desire for revenge is “blasphemous” any more or less true? Does Ahab’s quest make more sense if the backstory is a love rivalry?

If you want to challenge yourself with some questions on Moby-Dick, here are some to get you started: https://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/mddq.htm

Read the New York Times review of The Sea Beast: http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9E00E7DA1231EE3ABC4E52DFB766838D639EDE

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