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John Wayne as a German sea captain and Lana Turner as a Nazi spy? That's the unlikely scenario for The Sea Chase (1955), an adaptation of the 1949 novel by Andrew Geer, directed by John Farrow.
Based on a true story, The Sea Chase stars Wayne as Capt. Karl Ehrlich, a German captain of an old steam freighter, who is in port in Sydney, Australia during the summer of 1939. A former naval officer who suffered repercussions for his anti-Hitler stance, Ehrlich sees that war is imminent and prefers to take the risk of sailing back to Germany, rather than be detained by the Allies. Along for the ride is an old friend, Britisher Jeff Napier (David Farrar) and his fiance Elsa Keller (Turner). Just before the ship leaves, the German Consul-General asks Ehrlich to help one of their spies escape. The spy turns out to be Elsa Keller.
Filming began in September 1954, with the cast and crew going on location to the Big Island of Hawaii, where Warner Bros. had purchased an old freighter and sailed it to Kealakekua Bay. According to Tab Hunter, it took two-and-a-half hours by boat each day to reach the ship, which took up precious time in the shooting schedule. Although this was a Warner Bros. production, John Wayne was able to hire his friends, like character actor Paul Fix, cameraman William H. Clothier and rising star James Arness, who Wayne would soon convince to take the role of Matt Dillon on TV's Gunsmoke. Also in the cast was Claude Akins and future Gilligan's Island star, Alan Hale, Jr. Tab Hunter, who had just signed a long-term contract with Warner Bros., had been looking forward to the film, but was dismayed at his small part, and even more upset when his big scene with Lana Turner was later cut.
The making of The Sea Chase was a mixed bag for all concerned. For Wayne, it was the best of times and the worst of times. Just as location shooting finished, on November 1st, (coincidentally the day his contentious divorce with his ex-wife was settled), he married his girlfriend, Pilar, in Hawaii. The Hawaiian adventure may have ended happily, but it had not started out that way. Wayne, who had just finished filming the ill-fated The Conqueror (1956), went to Hawaii a few days early with Pilar and had gone skin diving. The result was a bad ear infection that plagued him for months. As Paul Fix later remembered, "He was in so much pain when filming began that he was on strong painkillers. You'd see this glazed look come over his eyes from the medication and his ear was so swollen that for several days John Farrow could only shoot him from his good side." At one point, production had to be halted for several days so Wayne could be flown to San Francisco to see a specialist.
A pain of a different sort was Lana Turner. According to Wayne, Turner "took an instant disliking to our director. And she didn't much like the rest of the cast. In fact, she didn't much like anything." After a few days of Turner showing up late and hung over or not showing up at all, John Farrow fired her. Devastated, Turner went to Wayne for help. He scolded her for her unprofessional behavior, which made her cry, but her tears earned his sympathy. Wayne intervened on her behalf with Farrow and Turner was back on the picture. While she was grateful to Wayne, she was still highly insecure. Turner would insist that Wayne not touch her hair or smudge her makeup during their love scenes, which caused the puzzled Wayne to ask, "How am I supposed to make love to a woman who won't let me touch her?"
One member of the cast who remembered the experience in a brighter light was James Arness, who enjoyed working with his friends, going surfing with Claude Akins at White Sands Beach, and acting with Lana Turner, who he called "beautiful and very friendly with all of us. The movie was completed on schedule, without a hitch." Tab Hunter also remembered Turner fondly, "She was tiny but every inch the radiant movie star." When Hunter, then only 23, blurted out that he had been a fan of Turner's since he was a kid, Turner responded by sitting in his lap and smiling provocatively at him. Hunter, who is gay, admitted that he turned red and "didn't know what to do with [his] hands."
The critics didn't seem to know what to do with The Sea Chase when it was released in June, 1955. Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times lamented that it "might have been a tremendous movie--a genuine saga of Nazi arrogance on the sea--if producer-director John Farrow had stuck faithfully to Andrew Geer's book." Wayne fared no better, coming in for Crowther's criticism for acting "as though he were heading a herd of cattle up the old Chisholm Trail."
The Sea Chase may not have been a box-office hit, but John Wayne needn't have worried; he continued to make at least a film a year for the next two decades. James Arness would soon be Matt Dillon on TV for twenty years and Tab Hunter was on the verge of being a major heart-throb.
By Lorraine LoBianco
SOURCES:Arness, James, Reynolds, Burt, Wise, Jr., James E. James Arness: An Autobiography Crowther, Bosley " 'The Sea Chase'; John Wayne Stars at the Paramount" The New York Times 11 Jun 55Cusic, Don The Cowboy in Country Music: An Historical Survey with Artist Profiles David, Ronald L. Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne Hunter, Tab, Muller, Eddie Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star The Internet Movie DatabaseMunn, Michael John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth Roberts, Randy W., Olson, James Stuart John Wayne: American