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Tugboat Annie Sails Again
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Tugboat Annie Sails Again

It was seven years after actress Marie Dressler's success in MGM's Tugboat Annie that the cantankerous female ship captain appeared on the screen again. Dressler had died of cancer only a year after the film's 1933 release, and though other actresses had been considered to reprise the popular role, the studio never went ahead with a sequel. In 1940 the rights to author Norman Reilly Raine's stories, originally written for the popular weekly magazine The Saturday Evening Post, were sold to Warner Brothers, and the studio quickly put Tugboat Annie Sails Again into production.

Based on the real-life exploits of Tacoma, Washington sea captain Thea Foss who started her own barge company in 1889, Tugboat Annie Sails Again (1940), directed by Lewis Seiler, featured veteran actress Marjorie Rambeau in the title role. Rambeau had matured from her early fame as a celebrated Broadway beauty to become a reliable Hollywood character actress, and often found herself being cast as down-and-out women and alcoholics. Twice nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, including one for Primrose Path which was released just before Tugboat Annie Sails Again, Rambeau was a skilled performer who found herself in a difficult place: trying to replace a beloved Hollywood actress in one of her most famous roles. One basic change was made to Tugboat Annie's circumstances – she was now a widow operating her own in her tug business (Tugboat Annie had featured Wallace Beery as Annie's husband), sailing her boat the Narcissus out of fictional Secoma, Washington. Annie's chief rival in this sequel was the bluff and blustery Captain Horatio Bullwinkle, played by Alan Hale.

On board to play the requisite young romantic lead was Warner contract player Ronald Reagan, a steady presence by that time in over twenty features, playing both light and dramatic roles, including Brother Rat (1938) and Knute Rockne All American (1940), the movie he made just before Tugboat Annie Sails Again. The studio chose up-and-coming actress Jane Wyman as Reagan's love interest. Wyman and Reagan had appeared in several movies together before, and a real-life romance developed between the pair. The couple married in January of 1940 – Reagan's first marriage but Wyman's third - and by the time Tugboat Annie Sails Again began filming in June of that year, Wyman was pregnant and beginning to show. Her baby bulge necessitated creative camera angles – Wyman's belly was situated behind furniture and other actors placed to block her body in certain shots – and a specially-designed wardrobe helped hide her condition.

The two younger actors were surrounded by a cast filled with veteran Hollywood character actors including Clarence Kolb, Charles Halton, and Paul Hurst (who had over 300 credits to his name when he died in 1958). Other cast members in Tugboat Annie Sails Again were Victor Kilian (who enjoyed belated fame on TV's Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and was sadly beaten to death in a 1979 home invasion), Harry Shannon, John Hamilton (known to all baby boomers as Perry White in TV's The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves), and Chill Wills, who later became the voice of Francis, the Talking Mule and received a Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his role in 1960's The Alamo. Neil Reagan, Ronald Reagan's older brother who had a brief movie career, made his screen debut in Tugboat Annie Sails Again.

Tugboat Annie Sails Again utilized location filming at the nearby Port of Los Angeles, specifically the San Pedro Harbor area; it was the home of many busy wharves where authentic tug boat captains, along with other maritime workers, plied their trade. Ronald Reagan reportedly was delighted with the opportunity to pal around with the harbor denizens and thoroughly enjoyed the location work for the movie.

Reviewers were neutral to negative about Tugboat Annie Sails Again, all acknowledging the huge shoes that Rambeau had to fill in replacing Marie Dressler. Variety felt that the movie "displays neither freshness nor originality in its unfolding" and that Rambeau "overstresses in playing the role, and resorts continually to much mugging in an effort to catch attention." Time magazine called Rambeau "frog-voiced" and judged the movie "passable, not irresistible." The New York Times was less than impressed, deeming the movie "labored" and opining that the entire cast performed with "no more than a moderate competence in a film which is only fair."

Without the memory of the unforgettable Marie Dressler to beg comparison, Tugboat Annie Sails Again might have been appreciated for its own merits. Despite its tepid reception – Warners did not make another Tugboat Annie movie - Republic Pictures tried out Jane Darwell in Captain Tugboat Annie five years later, and in the 1950s there was a brief syndicated television series about the character starring Minerva Urecal. Though a female ship captain wouldn't be quite the novelty today that it was then, Marie Dressler certainly set the gold standard by which all other Tugboat Annies would be judged, as Marjorie Rambeau found out in Tugboat Annie Sails Again.

Director: Lewis Seiler
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon; Norman Reilly Raine (characters)
Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Art Direction: Ted Smith
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Film Editing: Harold McLernon
Cast: Marjorie Rambeau (Tugboat Capt. Annie Brennan), Alan Hale (Capt. Horatio Bullwinkle), Jane Wyman (Peggy Armstrong), Ronald Reagan (Eddie Kent), Clarence Kolb (Joseph B. 'Joe' Armstrong), Charles Halton (Alec 'Alex' Severn), Paul Hurst (Pete).
BW-76m. Closed captioning.

by Lisa Mateas

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