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

Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons

ambersonsnovelBooth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons is a book I used to read and reread years ago, so much so that when I heard there was a movie with Orson Welles, I assumed immediately that he was perfect casting for George Minafer. I didn’t know at the time that it was a brilliant film by Welles much altered in the editing room, or that Tim Holt played the part. Holt was good, but I still think that the young Welles could and should have played it.

Put rather too simplistically, it’s the story of a declining family, the Ambersons, in a gradually industrializing town that’s passing them by. The protagonist is George Amberson Minafer, as insufferable a character as you’ll ever meet in fiction: proud, pig-headed, wielding class privilege like a whip–sometimes literally. His adoring mother, Isabel, had married George’s father, Wilbur Minafer, out of pique when her suitor, Eugene, showed up drunk one night and serenaded her. Isabel spoils George outrageously, as the town predicts she will.

When Eugene, now a widower, and his daughter, Lucy, return to their “Midland town,” Eugene falls in love with the now-widowed Isabel, and George courts Lucy, who loves him but is exasperated by his behavior. George forbids Isabel (his mother, remember) to see Eugene, and she dies without having had a chance to say goodbye to him.

On one occasion, Lucy tries to explain to Eugene, by using a supposedly Native American legend,  why she’s so attracted to George, even though he’s a character that the reader mostly wants to strangle:

“Vendonah [Rides-Down-Everything] was an unspeakable case,” Lucy continued. “He was so proud that he wore iron shoes and he walked over people’s faces with them. He was always killing people that way, and so at last the tribe decided that it wasn’t a good enough excuse for him that he was young and inexperienced—he’d have to go. They took him down to the river, and put him in a canoe, and pushed him out from shore; and then they ran along the bank and wouldn’t let him land, until at last the current carried the canoe out into the middle, and then on down to the ocean, and he never got back. They didn’t want him back, of course, and if he’d been able to manage it, they’d have put him in another canoe and shoved him out into the river again. But still, they didn’t elect another chief in his place. Other tribes thought that was curious, and wondered about it a lot, but finally they came to the conclusion that the beech grove people were afraid a new chief might turn out to be a bad Indian, too, and wear iron shoes like Vendonah. But they were wrong, because the real reason was that the tribe had led such an exciting life under Vendonah that they couldn’t settle down to anything tamer. He was awful, but he always kept things happening—terrible things, of course. They hated him, but they weren’t able to discover any other warrior that they wanted to make chief in his place. I suppose it was a little like drinking a glass of too strong wine and then trying to take the taste out of your mouth with barley water. They couldn’t help feeling that way.”

George eventually gets his come-uppance, as everyone in the town hopes he will, but virtually no one is there to see, or care, or remember the Ambersons.

ambersonsmovieOne of the things that Tarkington gets a lot right in the psychology of a small town is this idea of the figure that a town–or a media cycle in an election year, come to think of it– love to hate but can’t resist talking or writing about. The town doesn’t love George, or even like him, but as he does for Lucy, he makes life exciting for the town. There’s a sizable shelf of critical books on why protagonists don’t have to be likable (hello, Modernism!), but Tarkington hits on one idea–excitement–that’s often missing from these accounts.

Amlit updates: Experimental Harriet Beecher Stowe bibliography

I’ll be updating the American lit site over the next few months, including the bibliographies. Since what I generally want to find is what’s new on an author, the Harriet Beecher Stowe bibliography is arranged by the newest material first. http://public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/stowebib1.htm

It seems to me that since the combination of web and wordprocessing software provides multiple ways of changing and ordering texts, this would be a more efficient solution than putting the little “New” tag in as I have done in the past.

This is an experiment; the older bibliographies will be updated in the conventional way.

Let me know in the comments or by email (campbelld@wsu.edu) if you have any thoughts/preferences.

Bitter Tastes: Which American Women Writers?

 In case you were curious about which “American Women Writers” are in Bitter Tastes, they include the following:

  • Bess Streeter Aldrich
  • Mary Austin
  • Estelle Baker
  • Madeleine Blair
  • Virginia Brooks
  • Willa Cather
  • Kate Chopin
  • Kate Cleary
  • Rebecca Harding Davis
  • Mary Hallock Foote
  • Mary Wilkins Freeman
  • Alice Dunbar-Nelson
  • Sui Sin Far
  • Edna Ferber
  • Zona Gale
  • Ellen Glasgow
  • Emanuel and Anna Marcet Haldeman-Julius
  • Fannie Hurst
  • Edith Summers Kelley
  • Nella Larsen
  • Batterman Lindsay
  • Miriam Michelson
  • Elia Peattie
  • Ann Petry
  • Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
  • Elizabeth Robins
  • Evelyn Scott
  • Gertrude Stein
  • Edith Wharton
  • Lillie Buffum Chace Wyman
  • with side trips to Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, W. D. Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Harold Frederic, and Jack London. (Also, as the title says, silent films.)

The Realist Fable: John Steinbeck and Harper Lee

“The Epic Battle for To Kill a Mockingbird in this month’s Vanity Fair tells the story of how a literary agent allegedly (and just put “allegedly” before all the statements here) convinced Harper Lee to sign papers that would remove control of her copyrights from her and grant them to the agent. John Steinbeck’s sons and their heirs had also had dealings with this agent, and, as a side note, had signed over powers of attorney to Elaine Steinbeck, Steinbeck’s third wife, who willed the copyrights to her own heirs and away from Steinbeck’s sons, Thomas and John. Elaine Steinbeck died in 2003,  and they have contested the provisions of her will.

The legal battles in the article made me segue into thinking about Harper Lee and Steinbeck, both of whom had written what might be called “realist fables” about American social problems of race and class. Both wrote books that are still schoolroom classics and good reads, too. To Kill a Mockingbird, which in 2009 generated a jaw-dropping $1.68 million in royalties for six months, might be more universally taught, but Steinbeck’s The Pearl, The Red Pony, and Of Mice and Men must still be taught in secondary schools. The Pearl, through which generations of students were introduced to symbolism, is a good example of the realist fable, and so is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, although Papa would surely have hated hearing it called that. It would be interesting to teach Tortilla Flat alongside his last, unfinished The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, too, both as historical and as realist fables.

If you’re talking about the complexity of Steinbeck’s novels, however, he’s at his best when he can temper the “realist fable” part of his writing with the more straightforward and direct address of what, for want of a better word, you could call “moral commentary.”  This sounds more negative than I mean it to be, but the books of Steinbeck’s where he does both–the fable and the lecture, alternating back and forth–are those that have held up best: The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and The Winter of Our Discontent. 

In Grapes of Wrath, there are the stark scenes of desperation and fruit picking followed by commentary from Jim Casy and to a lesser extent Tom.  In East of Eden, the distinction is clearer between the allegorical Cain and Abel/Charles and Adam/Cal and Aron storyline and the dual strands of commentary by two “outsiders,” the philosophical Chinese servant Lee and the mystical Irish neighbor Samuel Hamilton. The Winter of Our Discontent has Ethan Allen Hawley’s first-person reflections on the series of moral tests that he encounters and the symbolic nature of the objects and the figures who tempt him (talisman, masks).

The alternation between “realist fable” and “moral commentary” sounds heavy-handed, but it’s not. At least for me, it’s what makes those books worth revisiting.