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W. Somerset Maugham's zesty story The Beachcomber was first filmed in 1938 as Vessel of Wrath (released in the U.S. as The Beachcomber), with Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester starring. In a romantic, humorous and dramatic yarn which bore strong resemblance to the recently published C.S. Forester novel The African Queen, Laughton played Ted, an unshaven, carefree, womanizing drunkard who drifts around the South Seas before finding himself marooned on an island with the strait-laced sister of a missionary, played by Lanchester. They loathe each other, then fall for each other as they try to save some neighboring islanders from a cholera epidemic, and Ted gradually reforms. Interestingly, Columbia Pictures acquired the rights to The African Queen in the 1930s and tried to set it up with Laughton and Lanchester, but they turned it down in favor of doing Vessel of Wrath instead.
For the second movie version of The Beachcomber (1954), Robert Newton and Glynis Johns took over the lead roles. Newton was a fine British stage and screen star who appeared in a variety of genres but left his most enduring mark as Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1950), a role that he repeated in a sequel as well as an Australian TV series. He also was memorable as Bill Sikes in David Lean's Oliver Twist (1948). Like his character Ted in The Beachcomber, however, Newton had a serious drinking problem which led to his death at age 50 in 1956. Incidentally, Newton was also in the cast of Vessel of Wrath, playing the British Colonial Resident who is outraged by Ted's behavior.
The Beachcomber was written, produced and directed by the British husband-and-wife team of Sydney and Muriel Box, with Sydney writing and producing and Muriel directing. The pair had a long and fruitful career together in film and theater. Muriel began as a script girl in the 1920s before a successful playwriting stint with her husband, in which they churned out many one-act plays in the 1930s. In 1940, Sydney began producing a slew of wartime documentary films, and a few years later he and Muriel moved into writing narrative features. One of their first efforts won them an Academy Award for Best Screenplay: The Seventh Veil (1945) was produced by Sydney as an independent production and was a big success critically and commercially on both sides of the Atlantic. British mogul J. Arthur Rank was impressed enough to make Sydney the head of Gainsborough Studios. Later, the Boxes went back to making their own films together, with Muriel directing (she made her directorial debut in 1949); one of these was The Beachcomber. Muriel Box would direct 15 films over 15 years.
Upon The Beachcomber's 1955 U.S. release, The New York Times offered a positive review, though it compared the film unfavorably with the 1938 original: "It is merely a pleasant adventure and not the riotous jape its predecessor was... [It] does not have the hilarity, incisiveness and stature of the original... Muriel Box, who directed from her husband's script, has kept things moving at a gentle pace, but she has infused the proceedings with enough tropic charm - palm-studded beaches, blue and green lagoons and island people and customs - to give an observer the wanderlust. It is, in short, a lovely and colorful diversion."
Producers: Sydney Box, William MacQuitty
Director: Muriel Box
Screenplay: Sydney Box; W. Somerset Maugham (story)
Cinematography: Reginald Wyer
Art Direction: George Provis
Music: Francis Chagrin
Film Editing: Jean Barker
Cast: Glynis Johns (Martha Jones), Robert Newton (Edward Wilson "Honorable Ted"), Donald Sinden (Ewart Gray), Paul Rogers (Owen Jones), Donald Pleasence (Tromp), Walter Crisham (Vederala), Michael Hordern (The Headman), Auric Lorand (Alfred, Major Domo), Tony Quinn (Ship Captain), Ah Chong Choy (Wang the Barkeep), Ronald Lewis (Headman's Son).
by Jeremy Arnold