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Action in the North Atlantic (1943) was conceived as a short film tribute to the Merchant Marines, but it was soon expanded into a full-length feature. Because of the immediacy of the heavy losses incurred by the merchant marine ships in the early days of America's involvement in World War II, producer Jerry Wald had Action in the North Atlantic in production just five weeks after being given the assignment. Remarkably, two ships were built on Warner stages before screenwriter John Howard Lawson even completed the script for the film, which bore the working title "Torpedoed."
Warner Bros. veteran Lloyd Bacon was assigned as director and the whole film was shot on a Warner sound stage. The film required a great deal of elaborate special effects that needed to be housed in a controlled environment that only a sound stage could provide. The old freighter that is destroyed in the film burned brightly for several days before sinking, all in a tank on the studio's "Stage Nine." The effect of the burning ships was achieved by dozens of gas jets controlled at a set of valves that looked like an organ console. This was operated by a "smoke bum" who played the valves with such precision that the actors appeared to be walking through flames. But others on the set got closer to the flames than comfort and safety would allow. Director Lloyd Bacon and his assistant often had to don masks because of the intense heat and smoke emanating from the arc lights and special effects fires and on one occasion Bacon almost choked to death from smoke inhalation. It's no wonder the special effects frightened many in the cast and crew and forced them to stay on their toes.
The production eventually went 45 days over schedule. Jerry Wald, completing his last movie before going into the service, produced a few ulcers as well. Some speculated whether it was the fear of military service that gave him ulcers, or the protracted production of Action in the North Atlantic. At the New York premiere, more than a dozen merchant mariners and several hundred U.S. sailors presented Jack Warner with the Merchant Marine Victory Flag. Henry J. Kaiser, the ship-building magnate, thought the film was such a morale booster that he wanted it shown to all his war builders.
Despite the undeniable patriotic fervor on display in Action in the North Atlantic, there was a politically combustible side to John Howard Lawson's screen story. Appearing in 1943 when America and Russia were still friendly allies, the film occasionally focused on our ties with the Soviet Union. But in the postwar era of chilly American-Russian relations, parts of the film would prove to be an embarrassment to Warner Brothers, namely the climactic "tovarich" (comrade) scene, in which the heroic Bogart and his men are greeted by Russians cheering wildly. Bogart does not return in kind, prompting a crewman to ask why he remains silent. Bogart says, "I'm just thinking about the trip back." That line served a dual purpose. Indeed, the trip back home would be rough going, but it also implied that the comrade stuff is acceptable up to a certain point. The Cold War validated the line's prescience. In fact, the line was often omitted from Action in the North Atlantic when it used to play on broadcast television.
But the Cold War's worst effect was not on a single line of dialogue in a wartime picture. It was its impact on the lives of filmmakers like John Howard Lawson whose career came to abrupt end in 1948 when, as one of the Hollywood Ten, he was sentenced to a year's imprisonment for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Blacklisted by the film industry, Lawson continued to work while in self-exile in Mexico and authored several books on drama and cinema including Film: The Creative Process (1964).
Director:Lloyd Bacon, Byron Haskin (uncredited), Raoul Walsh (uncredited)
Producer:Jerry Wald, Jack L. Warner
Screenplay:A.I. Bezzerides, W.R. Burnett, Guy Gilpatric (story), John Howard Lawson
Music:Adolph Deutsch, William Lava (uncredited)
Art Direction:Ted Smith
Cast:Humphrey Bogart (Lieutenant Joe Rossi), Raymond Massey (Captain Steve Jarvis), Alan Hale (Boot O'Hara), Julie Bishop (Pearl), Ruth Gordon (Mrs. Jarvis), Sam Levene (Chips Abrams).
BW-128m. Closed captioning.
by Scott McGee