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Starring Dean Stockwell
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,Down to the Sea in Ships

Down to the Sea in Ships (1949)

The title of Down to the Sea in Ships (1949) may have been inspired by Psalm 107:23 in the King James' version of the Bible, which reads "They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters. These see the works of the Lord and his wonders in the deep," but there was no divine intervention in getting the film made. In fact, Down to the Sea in Ships had been "lost at sea" for nearly eight years before the cameras rolled in 1948.

20th Century-Fox chief Darryl Zanuck had begun pre-production back in 1939, sending second-unit director Otto Brower down to Mexico to shoot extensive footage of whaling operations. Nearly 20,000 feet of that footage was included in the film, although Brower didn't live to see it, having passed away in 1946, two years before production began. The start delays came down to two factors: problems with Sy Bartlett's screenplay and John Lee Mahin's revisions, and the Unites States' entry into World War II in December, 1941. The war placed a damper on all non-essential film production, as clothing and building materials were heavily rationed. Much of Down to the Sea in Ships takes place at sea, but Fox was unable to build a mock-up of a whaling ship in the studio until materials were available. Once restrictions were lifted, director Henry Hathaway and art director Lyle Wheeler built a full-sized replica of the whaler Pride of Bedford. Real whale blubber for the processing scenes was imported from Vancouver Island to lend an air of authenticity.

Although there had been a 1922 silent film called Down to the Sea in Ships, which starred a young Clara Bow, there is no similarity between the two movies, other than the title and the setting of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The 1949 film tells the story of an old whaling captain (Lionel Barrymore) and his grandson, Jed (Dean Stockwell). The ships' insurance company won't cover the next voyage unless Jed can pass an exam proving that he has the education necessary to work on a ship, and that Captain Joy take on first mate Dan Lunceford (Richard Widmark) in case the disabled Joy is unable to lead.

Twelve-year-old Dean Stockwell was born in Hollywood and by 1949, he had been in films like Song of the Thin Man (1947) and The Green Years (1946) at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for three years. He was becoming a popular child actor, and his salary had risen to $750 a week when MGM loaned him and Lionel Barrymore out to 20th Century-Fox for Down to the Sea in Ships. Richard Widmark had made a spectacular debut at Fox as a psychopathic killer in Kiss of Death (1947), and the studio had kept him busy for the next two years playing similar roles in no less than four films. Dan Lunceford was Widmark's first good-guy role in film. Widmark's good-guy persona obviously spilled over into real-life, as he became very close to Dean Stockwell on the set. Stockwell, who was not close to his real father, came to regard Widmark as a father figure.

Although Lionel Barrymore had been a star on stage and screen for decades, he had been in a physical decline for over a decade. By the 1940s he was playing most of his roles from a wheelchair and, as director Henry Hathaway learned, the illness seemed to be affecting his memory. Hathaway later remembered that during production, Barrymore was to say a line that included the film's title. He stopped in the middle of the shoot and asked Hathaway what it meant. "I said, 'It's the name of the picture, Down to the Sea in Ships and you can't even remember it.' Oh, I just got so crazy that I went berserk. I said, 'I saw you at lunch. You had a double order of stew and you filled that plate and you don't take any exercise of any kind, you sit in the wheelchair and they wheel you around and put you up on the set and you stand up and say a line. You can't even remember the name of the damn picture.'" Later, when Hathaway was shooting a crucial scene between Stockwell and Barrymore, with Barrymore lying in bed, he ran into another problem. Hathaway's usual method of directing was to speak to the actors and explain what the scene was about and have a discussion, rather than tell the actor what to do. Hathaway walked back and forth, speaking softly because Barrymore was in bed, when Barrymore fell asleep and began to snore. "[Barrymore] came to me later and I said, 'You're not sick, you're just destroying yourself. I mean, you baby yourself.' He had everything wrong with him, most of it in his head." Reportedly, Lionel Barrymore later thanked Hathaway for being tough on him because he felt that he was "simply sitting there, waiting to die."

Because of Barrymore's physical limitations, Hathaway had to use actor and stuntman Richard Talmadge to stand in for him, claiming that it was Talmadge, who resembled Barrymore, had "90 percent of the shots in that picture. [...] His face, everything. He walked like him, he imitated him, and I even had him mouth words in the scenes and had Barrymore sitting on the side talking into the microphone." Ironically, when the film was released in February 1949, the National Council of Rehabilitation gave an award to Barrymore for overcoming a leg injury.

by Lorraine LoBianco

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