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A World War I submarine adventure that not only offers fascinating details of the underwater technology of 1918 but also foreshadows the submarine dramas of World War II, Hell Below (1933) stars Robert Montgomery as a lieutenant who clashes with his commander (Walter Huston) as their sub does battle with the Germans in the Adriatic Sea.
The commander, nicknamed "Dead-Pan," goes by the book while the younger officer has to face a court martial before he learns the true nature of responsibility and sacrifice. The underlying cause of tension between the two men is the lieutenant's attraction to the commander's married daughter (Madge Evans).
The film, based on Commander Edward Ellsberg's novel Pigboats, also features Robert Young as Montgomery's buddy, a lieutenant junior grade. Providing humor is the team of Jimmy Durante as the sub's cook and big-bellied Eugene Pallette as the torpedo master. (Durante, whose character is a would-be dentist, somehow gets into a boxing match with a kangaroo.) Also outstanding among actors playing the courageous crew is Sterling Holloway as an ill-fated seaman.
Appearing in uncredited bits are several character types who may be recognized by film buffs, including Maude Eburne as the wife of a British admiral, Babe London as an overweight Italian woman and Paul Porcasi as an Italian admiral.
Lt. Comdr. Morris D. Gilmore served as technical advisor on the film, which won praise for its believable attention to detail. MGM provides its usual first-rate production values, with art director Cedric Gibbons establishing the claustrophobic undersea world that would resonate in such later submarine films as The Enemy Below (1957) and Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), which reflects the character relationship of Huston and Montgomery in characters played by Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.
Author Ellsberg, born in 1891 in Connecticut, was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was noted for solving technical problems on passenger liners. In 1925 he led the salvage efforts to raise the sunken submarine USS S-51, for which he became the first sailor to earn the Distinguished Service Medal in peacetime and was promoted to Commander by a special act of Congress. He began his writing career in the 1920s and enjoyed a long and prolific career as an author.
Director: Jack Conway
Screenplay: Laird Doyle, Raymond L. Schrock, John Lee Mahin and John Meehan, from novel by Commander Edward Ellsberg
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Editing: Hal C. Kern
Original Music: William Axt (uncredited)
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Principal Cast: Robert Montgomery (Lt. Thomas Knowlton), Walter Huston (Lt. Cmdr. T.J. Toler), Madge Evans (Joan Standish), Jimmy Durante ("Ptomaine," Ship's Cook), Eugene Pallette (MacDougal), Robert Young (Lt. J.G. "Brick" Walters), John Lee Mahin (Lt. J.G. "Speed" Nelson), Sterling Holloway (Seaman Jenks).
BW-101m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe