Across to Singapore
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Ramon Novarro (1899-1968) is best remembered today as the title-roleist of the silent Ben-Hur (1925), or, to cite its full title, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It holds its own quite handily against the more widely-known Charlton Heston Ben-Hur (1959). Like the most famous breakneck chariot race in film history, with which both versions climax, it stays the course, on the whole more urgently than the celebrated later version. And yet its troubled production history seemed to indicate it was an albatross in the making. Shot in Rome and Los Angeles, it went over budget, partly due to accidents. Its original director and star were fired. Novarro, who moved to Los Angeles with his middle-class professional family to escape the 1916 Mexican Revolution, stepped in. He was a rising star, earmarked to succeed Rudolph Valentino, who died in 1926, as Hollywood's leading Latin lover.
He had the imprimatur of nobody less than Irish director Rex Ingram, who had discovered Valentino and gave Novarro his breakthrough role in The Prisoner of Zenda (1922). For that film Novarro was paid $125 a week. Three years later, when his Biblical sex symbol pulled MGM out of a financial hole, he made $100,000 a week. He and John Gilbert were the Silent Era's leading romantic heroes of the latter 1920s. His career tailed off when sound came in, although Mata Hari (1931) opposite Greta Garbo was a hit. But the '20s were golden for Novarro. He made four more films for Ingram: Trifling Women (1922), Where the Pavement Ends (1923), Scaramouche (1923) and The Arab (1924) - five, if you count Ben-Hur, for which Ingram was one of four directors brought in to shore up the troubled production. He made 14 more films before the decade ended. One such was Across to Singapore (1928). A classic, no. But if you lay aside your 21st century compass, it's more engaging than you feel it ought to be.
It's a nautical adventure and period film, set in 1857. This cushions some of its archaic tropes, which illustrate Novarro's retrospective complaint that his romantic heroes were invariably idealized paragons permitted no human faults. Certainly that's the case here. As Joel Shore, youngest son of a retired Massachusetts sea captain, he fills his life with innocent play alongside childhood friend Priscilla Crowninshield (Joan Crawford), while waiting to take his place alongside his seagoing siblings. Like Joel, they all have Old Testament forenames - Mark, Matthew and Noah. Mark, played by big, burly Ernest Torrence, a Scottish actor usually specializing in heavies (he played Captain Hook to Betty Bronson's Peter Pan in 1924) is brutish and crude, but also noble-hearted and impulsive. Upon his return from two years at sea, he notices that Priscilla has grown into an attractive young woman, and while he tries to infantilize his kid brother, he also sees that Joel has become old enough to ship out with them.
Impulsively, Mark decides Priscilla is the girl for him. But instead of mentioning this to her, he talks to the two fathers and sets up a marriage. When it's announced in church, Joel and Priscilla, in their respective pews, look stricken. Although they never got around to saying so, Joel and Priscilla love one another, and now their unspoken dream is shattered. Mark is shattered, too, when Priscilla turns away from him as the ship sets sail and can't bring herself to kiss him. And so we have not a love triangle, but a love non-triangle, where each wants something they're not going to get because each is determined to do the right thing.
Second mate Finch (James Mason, not to be confused with the British actor of the next generation) realizes that Joel will get the first mate's job he himself covets, and so broods and plots. Mark mostly sits below listlessly, brooding and drinking, until a violent gale off Cape Horn threatens to sink the ship. When they survive it and reach a back lot version of the Singapore waterfront, Finch arranges to have boozy Mark knifed to death. It happens, and he sails the ship back with Joel in irons for not coming to his brother's aid. While the film avoids peg legs, eye patches and hornpipes, it's loaded with other nautical movie conventions, including a barroom brawl in which Joel joins his brothers and proves himself a man.
Not one to remain in irons back in Massachusetts, he recruits new crew members and, taking command, sails the ship back to Singapore to search for Mark. The latter hasn't died. He's being nursed in an opium den by Anna May Wong's (uncredited) waterfront siren. When Mark sees his ship offshore, he makes for it, not aware that Priscilla (dressed as if for a church social) is aboard as well as Joel. Finch, seeing Mark alive and realizing the jig is up, starts a mutiny. It's an energetic donnybrook, in which Mark plays a critical part, but the element of surprise does not figure in an ending that finds Mark, Joel and Priscilla settling their differences. Still, Across to Singapore gets the job done, often despite itself.
One sympathizes with Novarro's lament about the cardboard heroes he was assigned. Here, he has an additional problem. Although he got star billing, he's eclipsed by Torrence, whose imposing physicality, topped by beady eyes and a big beak nose, enables him to suggest a force of nature. It may be that this was novelist Ben Ames Williams' intention. In a 1923 version, the star billing went to Lon Chaney's Mark (a 1953 remake with Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger and Ann Blyth is inferior and not worth bothering with). Far from being a force of nature, Novarro's Joel seems a force of niceness, an impression reinforced by Crawford's supposedly genteel Yankee belle. In three scenes, she's the one who makes the advances, including a serious kiss before she learns she's betrothed. She's passionate, vital. Novarro's Joel seems comparatively sappy. Two films later and Crawford became a star in Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Here, with his tousled dark hair and big dark eyes, Novarro is prettier than she is. No wonder he wrote that he longed to be able to occasionally take a poke at his leading ladies.
By Jay Carr