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Originally slated as an exploitation quickie, Pacific Liner (1938), through the efforts of its first rate cast and crew - plus a tense narrative concerning a pleasure cruise affected by a deadly outbreak of cholera - quickly ascended from steerage to A-deck status in RKO's production schedule. A look at the cast and crew involved makes it easy to see why studio executives agreed on the upgrade.
The passenger list alone in Pacific Liner includes some of the most distinguished and memorable character actors of the thirties and forties - Alan Hale, Barry Fitzgerald, Allan Lane, Paul Guilfoyle, Cy Kendall and Halliwell Hobbes. It's just one reason this disaster-at-sea flick remains an obscure favorite amongst movie buffs. But every ship needs an experienced seaman, and Victor McLaglen, who played enough "Old Salts" to qualify for a maritime pension, fit the role like a glove.
Soldier of fortune, prizefighter, circus strongman and Wild West show performer, McLaglen, the son of the one-time Bishop of Claremont in South Africa, landed his first movie role on a lark in The Call of the Road (1920). Well received, this began his stint as a star in British silents before arriving in America, where he appeared in the first versions of The Unholy 3 (1925) and Beau Geste (1926). He soon became a popular leading man, working for Howard Hawks (A Girl in Every Port, 1928) and, most notably, John Ford, who guided him through a number of popular vehicles including The Informer (1935), wherein the surprised star copped the year's Best Actor Oscar. McLaglen rode out the 1930s by settling into boisterous, tough-as-nails character parts, making him a natural for the role of Crusher McKay in Pacific Liner.
As for the film's love interest, those duties fall to Chester Morris and Wendy Barrie, respectively cast as the ship's doctor and nurse. In the brisk 77-minute narrative they manage to find time for a romance in-between combating a deadly plague and a potential mutiny aboard the ill-fated S. S. Arcturus. Morris was born into a show business family, making his film debut in a 1910 short. Oscar-nominated for his first talkie, Alibi (1929), Morris quickly became a major star of the early 30s, playing opposite such female luminaries as Norma Shearer (The Divorcee, '30) and Jean Harlow (Red-Headed Woman '32). Barrie was the godchild of famed Peter Pan author, J.M. Barrie, and first gained notice on the screen in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Graced with charm and poise, her talents were nevertheless soon relegated to the RKO B-unit where she reluctantly took up residence in the Saint and Falcon detective series (Barrie, in fact, self-proclaimed herself as "the Queen of the Bs"). None of her on-camera action in crime dramas matched her tumultuous private entanglement as the girl friend and one-time fiancee of the notorious Benny "Bugsy" Siegel. Barrie's very active romantic social life often generated more publicity than her screen roles. Reading like a veritable male Who's Who of the rich and famous, the actress' myriad of suitors included A.C. Blumenthal, Tyrone Power, Howard Hughes and Fritz Lang to name a few.
In addition to a first-rate cast, Pacific Liner also had some impressive talents behind the camera. With nearly 150 feature films to his credit, director Lew Landers enjoyed the freedom of working in almost every movie genre, from uncompromising horror pictures to rough house comedies to westerns and non-stop action sagas. Best known for his official 1935 debut, The Raven, a Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi shocker that repelled critics with its spurts of sadism and violence, this now-acknowledged 30s classic paved the way for later work like Pacific Liner which equally disturbed many reviewers for its shots of infected bodies being tossed into the stoker's ovens.
Van Nest Polglase and Albert D'Agostino, known specifically for their elegant art direction in Astaire-Rogers musicals, created a lavish shipboard set for Pacific Liner with art deco trimmings that stood out as an ironic contrast against the grim storyline. The cinematography is by Nicholas Musuraca, who specialized in moody, atmospheric black and white imagery and would later put his distinctive stamp on RKO's horror fantasies produced by Val Lewton (Cat People, 1942, The Seventh Victim, 1943). And last but not least is music composer Robert Russell Bennett who copped an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score for Pacific Liner (competing against such heavyweights as Victor Young, Alfred Newman and Franz Waxman). However, the coveted award went to maestro Erich Wolfgang Korngold for his magnificent work on The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Producer: Robert Sisk
Director: Lew Landers
Screenplay: Derek N. Twist, John Twist, story by Anthony Coldeway & Henry Roberts Symonds
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Cinematography: Nick Musuraca
Costume Design: Edward Stevenson
Film Editing: Harry Marker
Original Music: Robert Russell Bennett
Principal Cast: Victor McLaglen (Crusher), Chester Morris (Dr. Craig), Wendy Barrie (Ann), Alan Hale (Gallagher), Barry Fitzgerald (Britches), Allan Lane (Bilson), Halliwell Hobbes (Captain Mathews), Cy Kendall (Deadeyes).
By Mel Neuhaus