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Sea Devils

Sea Devils(1953)

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teaser Sea Devils (1953)

Gilliatt, a fisherman-turned-smuggler on the isle of Guernsey, agrees to transport a beautiful woman to the French coast in the year 1800.

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teaser Sea Devils (1953)

For what is technically a British-American co-production, Sea Devils (1953) is certainly dominated by "Hollywood" artists: director Raoul Walsh, screenwriter Borden Chase, and stars Yvonne de Carlo and Rock Hudson (both loaned out by Universal). RKO released this film in the United States, but Sea Devils was produced in England by David E. Rose's Coronado Productions.

The script is loosely inspired by Victor Hugo's novel Toilers of the Sea (which was the film's working title), and is set in the Napoleonic era. Yvonne de Carlo, in a role originally offered to Joan Fontaine, plays an English spy in the year 1800 who falls for a fisherman-turned-smuggler played by Rock Hudson, setting the stage for scenes of derring-do between the English and the French.

The final product got mixed reviews, with The New York Times finding it "flat and pedestrian" but praising Walsh for keeping things moving. Variety gave a positive review, noting "Miss De Carlo particularly glamorous in her low-cut period gowns, which make all her scenes a pleasure. Walsh directs energetically, getting most out of both story values and beautiful locations."

But none of the principals involved seemed especially enthusiastic about this routine film, though they enjoyed working on location in the Channel Islands and Saint-Malo, France. In her memoir, De Carlo related that Walsh, "with his black eyepatch, was in his proper element. Walsh was the type of director who let his actors run free. I liked it fine, and didn't feel hurt when Walsh would end a take with a grunt rather than an accolade. With Rock it was more difficult. He was doing well by this stage of his career but he still wasn't the most secure actor in Hollywood, and he needed direction and personal nudges at times." One morning in France while shooting the landing of some small boats, De Carlo recalled, "a huge wave capsized the boat that was carrying Raoul and the cameraman. The cameras and our director went into the sea. Raoul was severely shaken and had to suspend work for a couple of days to recuperate."

But otherwise, Walsh seemed as interested in off-track betting as he was in directing. And according to her memoir, De Carlo herself seems to have been more engrossed by her burgeoning romance with the international playboy Prince Aly Khan. Khan would often visit her on location and take her for drives along the Normandy coast. One night in Paris, she recalled, the couple walked into a fine restaurant, and as they were seated, the orchestra started playing the theme from Laura (1944); they had mistaken De Carlo for Gene Tierney, who was romantically linked to Khan at the time. "Aly was embarrassed for me," De Carlo wrote. "I assured him I wasn't injured by the mistake -- that I was, in fact, flattered."

According to De Carlo, Aly Khan went on to tell her that he loved Tierney and that "no sex has ever quite come up to ours" -- which was more than De Carlo wanted to know -- and that his father, the Aga Khan, had decreed that he could not marry an actress or he would be cut off. So Prince Aly had reluctantly broken things off with Tierney, but of course things could also not progress much farther with De Carlo. De Carlo wrote that she wasn't especially bothered by this, and that she "settled then for remaining Aly's friend and lover for as long as it was convenient to both of us, happier with it that way because at least I knew where I stood."

Also in the cast of Sea Devils is young Bryan Forbes, an English actor who would soon become a noted writer and director. Forbes and Walsh had struck up a friendship in Los Angeles while making The World in His Arms (1952), in which Forbes had a small role. At that point, Forbes was having a terrible time in Hollywood -- his acting career was going nowhere, and his marriage had failed "in very ugly circumstances," as he put it. So Walsh bought him a one-way ticket back to London as a way of saving his life and giving him a chance to start fresh. Six months later, Walsh was in London to make Sea Devils -- and he had not forgotten his young friend.

As Forbes later wrote, he received a phone call from Walsh, who told him the script wasn't very good, "but I might be able to make something of it." And Walsh had a plan for finagling a plum part for Forbes. "Listen," Walsh said. "You'll get a call from the casting director in a couple of days to come and meet me. Don't shave, speak with an American accent, and you never saw me before."

Forbes did as instructed and went to the audition, where Walsh pretended not to know him. In front of the producer, David E. Rose, Walsh told the casting director that he liked Forbes and wanted him for the part of Willie, Rock Hudson's sidekick. The casting director protested that the part was earmarked for Barry Fitzgerald. "Yeah, well I've had second thoughts," said Walsh. "We've got to get some young blood in this epic. We're starting Rock Hudson, so we don't want to pitch him against a lot of old Irish ham cut straight from the bone. Let's cast the kid here instead."

Rose and the casting director were stunned. Walsh was offering the role to a young kid instead of the established Barry Fitzgerald, without even negotiating a price. Walsh turned to Forbes and asked if he was available. Forbes took his cue and said, "As a matter of fact I am considering a couple of other offers." (In his memoir, Forbes said that in reality, "Before [Walsh's] call I had been considering slitting my wrists in a warm bath.") When Rose protested that Willie was meant to be an older man, Walsh replied, "Then let's rewrite it." In fact, Walsh proceeded to convince Rose to let Forbes rewrite the part himself, thereby ensuring an even greater payment to his young friend!

Forbes later wrote: "The finished film now...reminds me both of happy times and, less agreeably, my ludicrous performance in a fairly ludicrous film."

Forbes also claimed that Rock Hudson told him during filming that he was in love with Forbes. "I told him it was very flattering but I did not swing that way," Forbes said. Overall, Forbes greatly liked Hudson: "He was a fun, totally engaging character, devoid of any pretensions, absurdly good-looking and a great companion. I always admire the way in which, starting from scratch, with no training as such, he slowly fashioned a spectacular career."

Forbes and Raoul Walsh stayed in close touch over the years. The last time they saw each other was near the end of Walsh's life. Walsh, now blind in both eyes, sat in his chair and said, "Didn't we have fun?" Forbes wrote: "It was an epitaph for the days the locusts had eaten, said without bitterness by a blind buccaneer who, to the end, was a man for all seasons, a true friend I shall never forget."

By Jeremy Arnold


Yvonne de Carlo with Doug Warren, Yvonne: An Autobiography
Bryan Forbes, A Divided Life
Bryan Forbes, Notes For a Life
Marilyn Ann Moss, Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood's Legendary Director

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