Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
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One of MGM's greatest classics, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) is the rousing adventure story of the sailing of the H. M. S. Bounty in 1787 and was adapted from the first two volumes of the Charles Nordhoff-James Norman Hall 1932 best seller.
The ship is captained by a tyrannical, sadistic disciplinarian, Captain William Bligh (Charles Laughton), and his well-respected First Officer Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable). Bligh's contempt for his crew and officers is immediate and permeates most scenes. He lectures the seamen: "The ship's company will remember that I am your captain, your judge, and your jury. You do your duty and we may get along. Whatever happens, you'll do your duty." At one point, Bligh orders a flogging of a dead man, to punish the infraction to the letter of the law. The incident that triggers the famous mutiny on board is Bligh's insistence that the sick, elderly ship's Dr. Bacchus (Dudley Digges) come topside to witness the flogging of five crew members caught attempting to desert the ship and return to Tahiti. When the deathly-ill, alcoholic doctor dies struggling to the deck, Fletcher breaks. He calls for mutiny, and the mutineers tie the Captain to the mast and taunt him. Christian saves Bligh from certain death at the hands of the mutineers, but refuses to give up the mutiny, charging Bligh with murder.
As fascinating and complex as this story sounds, it is actually rivaled by some of the behind-the-scenes struggles to create the film version. For one, Clark Gable did not want to play the part of Fletcher Christian. He felt this role (complete with pigtails, breeches and knee-pads) would attack his virile screen image. "I'll be damned if I'll shave off my mustache just because the British Navy didn't allow them" he was heard bellowing to the front office (interestingly, this would be the last time he would appear on screen without a mustache). For all of his reasons, many felt (including director Frank Lloyd and producer Irving Thalberg) that Gable's real apprehension was his insecurity as an actor. He was up against strong competition from the likes of Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone, both of whom were classically trained actors from the stage. Gable was worried that his voice would sound flat against theirs, while at the same time underestimating his star power.
In choosing the actor to play Christian's nemesis, Captain Bligh, Laughton was not the first choice. Shockingly, the role almost went to Wallace Beery, before he was deemed too American! Thalberg felt Laughton was a good choice, not just because of his acting pedigree, but his growing popularity at that point. He had just won an Oscar for The Private Life of King Henry VIII (1933) and was receiving excellent notices for a recent Hollywood hit The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) which was produced by MGM. Thalberg's decision was fortutious as Laughton's searing portrayal of the duty-obsessed Captain Bligh made the character one of the screen's most memorable villains.
The tension that is generated between Gable and Laughton really did have some behind-the-scenes resonance. It seemed that Laughton had the habit of not always looking into the eyes of the other actors he was playing. Laughton biographer Simon Callow justified this technique as Laughton's "view of his characters - a self-contained universe of pain, one that doesn't need to react off others". Still, this did not endear him to Gable, who felt Laughton was trying to exclude him from the scenes. Wisely, director Lloyd allowed this tension to serve the animosity between Christian and Bligh giving their conflict an extra dimension.
Mutiny on the Bounty took almost two years in the making, attaining an expenditure of almost $2 million - an extremely high budget at the time. Much of the overhead went into Lloyd's insistence upon authentic locale shooting in the South Pacific. Also, life-size replications of the ships Bounty and Pandora were built and actually sailed 14,000 miles from California to Tahiti, encountering torrential seas in the process. There were expensive repairs needed when both ships suffered damages while on the voyage. To make matters worse, the camera barge sank in a mishap and with it went $50,000 in vital equipment and, tragically, one technician drowned while trying to save it.
For all these problems and then some, the heads at MGM were understandably skeptical about the film's return profit. Happily, the film not only earned critical recognition (it won the Best Picture Oscar that year) but it would prove to be one of the biggest moneymakers in the 1930s, returning a gross of $4,460,000 during its initial run!
After 65 years, time has not diminished the fascination of this film, which remains a vintage example of superb Hollywood storytelling. It says much that despite two more recent versions with top stars: Mutiny on the Bounty (1962, starring Marlon Brando and Sir Trevor Howard) and The Bounty (1984, Mel Gibson and Sir Anthony Hopkins) both critics and fans alike consider Frank Lloyd's film to be the most exciting and definitive version.
Director: Frank Lloyd
Producer: Albert Lewin, Irving Thalberg (uncredited)
Screenplay: Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, Carey Wilson, based on the novel by Charles Nordhoff & James Norman Hall
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Editor: Margaret Booth
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Arnold Gillespie
Music: Walter Jermann, Gus Kahn, & Bronislau Kaper (song 'Love Song of Tahiti' all uncredited), Herbert Stothart
Cast: Charles Laughton (Capt. William Bligh), Clark Gable (Lt. Fletcher Christian Master's Mate), Franchot Tone (Midshipman Roger Byam), Herbert Mundin (Smith, Ship's Steward), Eddie Quillan (Seaman Thomas Ellison)
BW-133m. Close captioning. Descriptive video.
by Michael Toole