The Prisoner of Shark Island


1h 35m 1936
The Prisoner of Shark Island

Brief Synopsis

After setting the leg of John Wilkes Booth, Dr. Samuel Mudd is sent to prison as a conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Film Details

Also Known As
Shark Island
Genre
Drama
Historical
Biography
Prison
Release Date
Feb 28, 1936
Premiere Information
New York opening: 12 Feb 1936
Production Company
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Distribution Company
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 35m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
8,666ft (10 reels)

Synopsis

On the night of April 9, 1865, the day of General Robert E. Lee's surrender, revelers parade to the White House, where President Abraham Lincoln appears on the balcony. His request for the band to play "Dixie" is greeted by exuberant cheers. On April 14, while the president watches Laura Keene in Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre, popular actor John Wilkes Booth assassinates Lincoln and breaks his own leg jumping to the stage. During a raging storm, Booth and his comrade, David Herold, ride to a Maryland cabin where they ask for a doctor. A black man directs them to the home of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who, not knowing Booth's identity, sets the leg. The next day, while Dr. Mudd is away delivering the baby of his former slaves, Buck and Aunt Rosabelle, soldiers invade his home searching for Booth, and when one discovers Dr. Mudd's young daughter Martha playing with Booth's boot, Dr. Mudd is arrested for conspiracy in the assassination. Although Booth is killed in Virginia, eight persons are tried as conspirators by a military court because the assassination has brought the country to the verge of hysteria. After Assistant Secretary of War Erickson instructs the members of the court-martial not to let their judgment be troubled by "pedantic" regard for the customary rules of evidence or by the notion of reasonable doubt, the hooded prisoners are tried and three are publicly hanged. Dr. Mudd is sentenced to life imprisonment at the military prison at Ft. Jefferson in Dry Tortugas, an island in the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida Keys, which is surrounded by a moat filled with sharks. Shunned by the prison doctor, Dr. MacIntyre, and sadistically threatened by Sergeant Rankin, Dr. Mudd is cheered to find Buck, now in the regiment of black guards, with news from his wife Peggy that a judge, who has stated that Dr. Mudd's conviction would not hold up in a civil court, has agreed to reopen the case if Dr. Mudd can get to Key West. Dr. Mudd plans a breakout with Buck, but during the attempt, Rankin has Buck arrested and orders his men to bring back Dr. Mudd dead. The soldiers shoot at Dr. Mudd on the prison's ledge, and when he falls into the moat, the sharks are driven away by the gunfire. Dr. Mudd reaches Peggy's boat, but Rankin, who has been ordered by his commandant to bring him back alive, boards the boat with soldiers, who fight and kill Peggy's elderly father, Colonel Dyer. Rankin retrieves Dr. Mudd and throws him and Buck into a pit below the prison. When a yellow fever epidemic spreads and Dr. MacIntyre is striken, the commandant asks Dr. Mudd to help without the hope of a reward. The doctor convinces the black soldiers, who have barricaded themselves in the mess hall, to help, but he gets the disease himself. When boats offshore with doctors and medicine refuse to come nearer, Dr. Mudd, brandishing a pistol, orders the black gun crew to shoot their cannon at them, whereupon the ships head in. After the epidemic is controlled and Dr. Mudd is out of danger, Rankin, whom the doctor cared for, is the first to sign a letter to the President urging executive clemency. The doctor returns home to Peggy and Martha with Buck, who is overjoyed to greet Rosabelle and their twelve children.

Film Details

Also Known As
Shark Island
Genre
Drama
Historical
Biography
Prison
Release Date
Feb 28, 1936
Premiere Information
New York opening: 12 Feb 1936
Production Company
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Distribution Company
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 35m
Sound
Mono (Western Electric Noiseless Recording)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
8,666ft (10 reels)

Articles

The Prisoner of Shark Island - Warner Baxter Stars in the Historical Drama THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND, Directed by John Ford


A highly entertaining, fast-moving film with endlessly fascinating subject matter, The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) is also one of director John Ford's less-talked-about pictures. Now that it's available on DVD as part of the mammoth "Ford at Fox" box set and as a stand-alone disc, it has a chance of being rediscovered.

Warner Baxter stars as Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, the doctor who unwittingly helped John Wilkes Booth mere hours after Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. (At least it's "unwittingly" in the movie; there remains to this day some doubt as to just how innocent Dr. Mudd was.) A compelling opening sequence shows Lincoln performing an act of reconciliation by asking a band to play "Dixie" for an assembled crowd (a true event) before taking his seat in Ford's Theater, Washington, DC. The assassination is depicted true to historical fact, and Booth then makes his escape, his leg broken in his fall to the theater stage. He rides into Maryland and, needing a doctor, happens upon Dr. Mudd's home, where the good doctor sets the leg and Booth is off once more. The next morning, soldiers arrive, deduce that Booth was there, and arrest Mudd.

Then, in a sequence astonishingly relevant to the world of 2007, Mudd and seven other prisoners are led, hooded and shackled, into a courtoom where military judges have been instructed to think more about placating angry mobs than about dispensing proper justice. The concept of reasonable doubt is "an obnoxious creation of legal nonsense," they have been told by the Assistant Secretary of War. The prisoners are to be tried in a military rather than a civil court because their punishment must be swift and hard in order to prevent any further public discontent. They will not be allowed to mount a defense, or even speak.

It doesn't matter that at least some of the accused are innocent. A few are executed and others are sent to prison, in Mudd's case for life. Off he goes to Fort Jefferson, on Dry Tortugas near the Florida keys and sort of an American Devil's Island, where the rest of the drama plays out. Harry Carey plays the Fort commander, but it's John Carradine who really runs things there, and he is deliciously evil and nasty in one of the most memorable performances of his career. Warner Baxter as Mudd gives perhaps THE best performance of his own career, and the rest of the cast are also excellent: Gloria Stuart as Mudd's feisty, attractive wife; Ernest Whitman as Mudd's slave who goes to Fort Jefferson to help him (the role is similar to the one he would later play in Jesse James, 1939, in which he is equally superb); and John Ford's brother Francis in a bit.

The movie is beautifully shot by Bert Glennon, who would go on to shoot Stagecoach (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Wagon Master (1950), among others, for Ford. The Prisoner of Shark Island moves very quickly, but there are still some great, highly pictorial "Fordian" moments, such as the slow closing of the gates at Fort Jefferson as a bugler plays taps, and the lowering of a veil over Lincoln's face - a purely visual expression of not only the death of a great man but the poignant close of a chapter of American history. It's downright poetic in its simplicity.

Fox Home Entertainment's DVD boasts superb image and sound. Extras include a restoration comparison, an interactive press book, and photo galleries. There's also a commentary track in which film historian Anthony Slide offers biographical sketches of the cast and throws in factual context to the story so we know what was embellished for the sake of drama. Slide does err, however, in claiming that the expression "His name is mud" refers to this Dr. Mudd. The expression actually first appeared in print in 1820, 45 years before Lincoln's assassination, and refers to British slang of the time for "dope," and later on, "scab."

Slide also at times sarcastically repeats pieces of dialogue right after we've heard them as a way of lamenting their political incorrectness, which is annoying and unnecessary and tells us more about him than about the movie. He's better when he makes observations such as the following about an attempted-escape sequence: "The impressive camera angles help divert our attention away from the artificiality of the sets."

Twentieth Century-Fox had only very recently been formed from the merger of the two studios when this picture was made. The opening credits announce "A Twentieth Century Production," though the copyright credit reads "Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation."

To order The Prisoner of Shark Island, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold
The Prisoner Of Shark Island - Warner Baxter Stars In The Historical Drama The Prisoner Of Shark Island, Directed By John Ford

The Prisoner of Shark Island - Warner Baxter Stars in the Historical Drama THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND, Directed by John Ford

A highly entertaining, fast-moving film with endlessly fascinating subject matter, The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) is also one of director John Ford's less-talked-about pictures. Now that it's available on DVD as part of the mammoth "Ford at Fox" box set and as a stand-alone disc, it has a chance of being rediscovered. Warner Baxter stars as Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, the doctor who unwittingly helped John Wilkes Booth mere hours after Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. (At least it's "unwittingly" in the movie; there remains to this day some doubt as to just how innocent Dr. Mudd was.) A compelling opening sequence shows Lincoln performing an act of reconciliation by asking a band to play "Dixie" for an assembled crowd (a true event) before taking his seat in Ford's Theater, Washington, DC. The assassination is depicted true to historical fact, and Booth then makes his escape, his leg broken in his fall to the theater stage. He rides into Maryland and, needing a doctor, happens upon Dr. Mudd's home, where the good doctor sets the leg and Booth is off once more. The next morning, soldiers arrive, deduce that Booth was there, and arrest Mudd. Then, in a sequence astonishingly relevant to the world of 2007, Mudd and seven other prisoners are led, hooded and shackled, into a courtoom where military judges have been instructed to think more about placating angry mobs than about dispensing proper justice. The concept of reasonable doubt is "an obnoxious creation of legal nonsense," they have been told by the Assistant Secretary of War. The prisoners are to be tried in a military rather than a civil court because their punishment must be swift and hard in order to prevent any further public discontent. They will not be allowed to mount a defense, or even speak. It doesn't matter that at least some of the accused are innocent. A few are executed and others are sent to prison, in Mudd's case for life. Off he goes to Fort Jefferson, on Dry Tortugas near the Florida keys and sort of an American Devil's Island, where the rest of the drama plays out. Harry Carey plays the Fort commander, but it's John Carradine who really runs things there, and he is deliciously evil and nasty in one of the most memorable performances of his career. Warner Baxter as Mudd gives perhaps THE best performance of his own career, and the rest of the cast are also excellent: Gloria Stuart as Mudd's feisty, attractive wife; Ernest Whitman as Mudd's slave who goes to Fort Jefferson to help him (the role is similar to the one he would later play in Jesse James, 1939, in which he is equally superb); and John Ford's brother Francis in a bit. The movie is beautifully shot by Bert Glennon, who would go on to shoot Stagecoach (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Wagon Master (1950), among others, for Ford. The Prisoner of Shark Island moves very quickly, but there are still some great, highly pictorial "Fordian" moments, such as the slow closing of the gates at Fort Jefferson as a bugler plays taps, and the lowering of a veil over Lincoln's face - a purely visual expression of not only the death of a great man but the poignant close of a chapter of American history. It's downright poetic in its simplicity. Fox Home Entertainment's DVD boasts superb image and sound. Extras include a restoration comparison, an interactive press book, and photo galleries. There's also a commentary track in which film historian Anthony Slide offers biographical sketches of the cast and throws in factual context to the story so we know what was embellished for the sake of drama. Slide does err, however, in claiming that the expression "His name is mud" refers to this Dr. Mudd. The expression actually first appeared in print in 1820, 45 years before Lincoln's assassination, and refers to British slang of the time for "dope," and later on, "scab." Slide also at times sarcastically repeats pieces of dialogue right after we've heard them as a way of lamenting their political incorrectness, which is annoying and unnecessary and tells us more about him than about the movie. He's better when he makes observations such as the following about an attempted-escape sequence: "The impressive camera angles help divert our attention away from the artificiality of the sets." Twentieth Century-Fox had only very recently been formed from the merger of the two studios when this picture was made. The opening credits announce "A Twentieth Century Production," though the copyright credit reads "Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation." To order The Prisoner of Shark Island, go to TCM Shopping. by Jeremy Arnold

The Prisoner of Shark Island


Based on the true story of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland physician sentenced to life in prison for his alleged involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) combines history with histrionics in an exciting production expertly directed by John Ford. Remarkably, Ford had already directed over eighty films in Hollywood since starting his career in 1917, including, the year before this film, the acclaimed Irish rebel drama The Informer, for which Ford won the Oscar® for Best Director. Though The Prisoner of Shark Island has often fallen somewhat under the radar in the hall of fame of John Ford's achievements, its star is rising as film scholars rediscover the stark and powerful imagery and intriguing political nuances found in the production.

The Prisoner of Shark Island was made for Twentieth Century-Fox under the aegis of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, the self-made and incredibly successful Hollywood writer-producer who had cut his teeth in silent films, including a stint with Mack Sennett. He co-created the successful Rin Tin Tin canine adventures for Warner Bros., and became head of production for the studio at age twenty-three. Frustrated with his inability to rise higher in the Warner Bros. management hierarchy, Zanuck left his comfortable berth at the studio in the early 1930s in order to form his own 20th Century Pictures, which he later merged with the Fox Studio in 1935. After a string of producing successes including Les Miserables and The Call of the Wild (both 1935), Zanuck teamed with the tough-minded director Ford for The Prisoner of Shark Island, the first of many illustrious Zanuck-Ford collaborations (Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Tobacco Road (1941), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), among others) that thrived on the feisty relationship between the two expert and opinionated moviemakers.

The Prisoner of Shark Island was penned by screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, a Georgia-born, former New York City newspaperman who transitioned into the movies in the early 1930s. Whether or not Johnson's Southern background influenced his particular retelling of Dr. Mudd's unusual story is still up for discussion. In fact, the entire extent of the involvement of Dr. Mudd in the Lincoln assassination is, to this day, an open book. Up until a few years ago, when the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of Dr. Mudd's conviction (because the case was filed past deadline), the surviving members of the Mudd family, including his grandson who passed away in 2002, repeatedly petitioned for Dr. Mudd's conviction to be expunged from the records. Even though he had been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869 after some of the events chronicled in The Prisoner of Shark Island, Mudd's relatives felt that he had been wrongly sentenced during the trial of the assassins.

As it was, Mudd narrowly avoided execution by hanging, the punishment meted out to four of the conspirators (Mary Surratt, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Payne) with the other four (Mudd, Arnold Spangler, Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlen) sent to Florida's sweltering Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas prison compound for the rest of their lives. The actual assassin of President Lincoln, the dashing, daring and possibly demented actor John Wilkes Booth, had of course been shot and killed--against orders, by a lunatic soldier--after a two-week long pursuit through the Washington D.C.-area woods and swamps. Saddened and enraged by the death of Lincoln, the country (especially the North) demanded swift justice, hustling the accused into a hasty military trial where the customary rules of evidence weren't strictly upheld and passion and grief may have stepped in where cooler heads were not to be found. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Dr. Mudd repeatedly claimed he did not know the identity of the two men who knocked on his door in the dark of night, one of them in great pain from a broken leg, and who left the next day after paying him for his services, in truth Mudd was being less than candid.

He later admitted, and research has shown, that he did in fact know John Wilkes Booth, who had visited him at his farm on a horse-buying excursion, and whom he had also socialized with in Washington D.C. well before the events of April 1865. Although there does not seem to be evidence that Mudd conspired in any way in Lincoln's assassination, he may have been marginally involved in an earlier plot to kidnap the President, also orchestrated by Booth. During his trial, Dr. Samuel Mudd was surely being disingenuous when he claimed no recognition of the assassins as they stopped by his house, though of course Booth clearly hadn't planned on breaking his leg in his leap to the Ford's Theatre stage (thereby requiring medical assistance), and would not have sought out his acquaintance Dr. Mudd had the unforeseen injury not occurred. Indisputable evidence notwithstanding, the fact that Mudd had aided the assassins by giving directions to the pair as they prepared to leave his house was enough to seal his fate in the eyes of the military court.

In The Prisoner of Shark Island, Dr. Mudd is clearly seen as a victim, an innocent man caught up in the frenzy for justice brought on by Lincoln's murder, a viewpoint that can be understood from several angles; not the least of them is the fact that an innocent man trying to escape from a brutal prison packs more dramatic punch than a justly-implicated man doing the same. Despite the sympathy for Mudd the man, the death of the President is shown as every bit the tragedy it was for the nation. The actual assassination of President Lincoln is faithfully recreated to great dramatic effect with the frequent Lincoln portrayer Frank McGlynn briefly seen as the martyred leader.

The cast of The Prisoner of Shark Island is first-rate. Warner Baxter, silent screen matinee idol, Best Actor Academy Award winner for his work in In Old Arizona (1928, as the Cisco Kid), and the Broadway producer who urged young Ruby Keeler to stardom in 42nd Street (1933), had one of his best roles as Dr. Mudd. After breaking into films he made over fifty movie appearances in the 1920s, and continued his career--including his Oscar® win--up until his death in 1951. Baxter is intense, sympathetic and haunted as Mudd, though his early attempts at a Maryland Southern accent did not meet with Darryl Zanuck's approval. After viewing dailies, the producer stormed onto the set to confront director Ford about Baxter's performance. After Ford threatened to quit if Zanuck interfered, the producer barked back at the pugnacious director "I throw fellas off this set. They don't quit on me." Ford had met his match and a productive professional relationship was born.

Actress Gloria Stuart (who would have her biggest smash hit as Rose, the elderly survivor in 1997's Titanic) played Dr. Mudd's wife. In her second film directed by John Ford (1932's Air Mail was the first), the lovely Miss Stuart realized that Ford was a minimalist director when it came to actors. In her autobiography she relates how he would place the actors, plot their movements, and call for a rehearsal. After one scene he asked her for a "little more reaction," the most direction she ever recalled getting from him. Regardless of her technique, Stuart's performance as the wife of the imprisoned doctor is heartbreaking and realistic, given the extreme circumstances of their separation. Unfortunately, good roles such as Peggy Mudd were rare for Stuart who could have been a major star in Hollywood if she had been given better opportunities.

Perhaps the most striking performance, other than Warner Baxter's, in The Prisoner of Shark Island is that of John Carradine, who plays the wild-eyed prison guard Sgt. Rankin. Though he had appeared in over twenty-five films since starting his movie career in 1930, Carradine had still not found his breakout role. He originally auditioned for the role of Lincoln, but after a contentious screen test where Carradine and director Ford didn't get along, Ford instead asked the actor to read the part of the sadistic Yankee guard. Though Carradine balked at Ford's request to play Rankin as a fanatical half-wit, he tried to placate Ford yet also toss in his own interpretation of the sergeant, to Ford's disapproval. Certain that he had blown the audition, Carradine stalked off the set, only to be informed by the other actor in the scene that the part was his. That other actor was John Ford's brother Francis Ford, who appears as Corporal O' Toole in the film.

John Carradine's distinctive performance as the cruel Sgt. Rankin, who eventually comes to respect Mudd after the doctor saves the prison colony from a yellow fever epidemic, was uniformly praised for its often disturbing physical nature; some of it was due to Ford's decision, and that of his cinematographer, the talented Bert Glennon, to shoot Carradine with a strong face light, causing the actor to squint maliciously in key scenes. A number of effective close-ups, memorably vicious action sequences and Carradine's frightening gaunt visage earned the actor much praise and a contract with 20th Century-Fox, both worth their weight in gold. Carradine later explained that even though Rankin was on the surface a villain, the audience could empathize with him since his cruelty was a manifestation of his extreme love for Abraham Lincoln and his hatred of anyone connected with the death of his beloved leader. John Carradine would eventually make a dozen movies with John Ford.

The rest of the supporting cast was impressive as well, including Harry Carey, Sr., a huge star of early westerns (many directed by Ford) who had been a close friend and associate of the director for many years until their friendship faltered in the early 1920s, reportedly over Carey's marriage to his leading lady, whom Ford also fancied. It wasn't until Ford cast his former pal as the prison commandant in The Prisoner of Shark Island that their friendship was mended.

Veteran screen actor Francis McDonald played the small but crucial role of assassin John Wilkes Booth, one of nearly three hundred and fifty movie and TV roles, many in westerns, the Kentucky-born thespian made over his career which started in 1913. The important part of Buck Milford, Dr. Mudd's former slave who is assigned as one of his prison guards and aids Mudd in his attempted escape, was played by Ernest Whitman in an earnest and moving performance. Despite arguable depictions of slavery and some uncomfortable remnants of Hollywood's less-than-ideal attitude towards race, Whitman's Buck is powerful, courageous and one of the high points of the film. Actor O.P. Heggie, who plays the prison doctor who succumbs to yellow fever, died just two weeks after finishing his role in the film.

While critics were overall impressed with The Prisoner of Shark Island, some complained that they'd seen it all before, notably in movies about the Dreyfus affair and his wrongful imprisonment on Devil's Island. The fact that this was an infamous chapter in American history didn't sway some of the critics, though many were pleased to see these colorful real life characters brought to the screen. Most agreed however that John Ford's direction was superb, a more-than-merely-capable combination of grim and moody courtroom and prison scenes, along with heart-pounding action sequences, including the failed prison escape, hungry shark attacks, and prison rebellions, that moved the fascinating story along. While truth isn't always stranger than fiction, it actually is in The Prisoner of Shark Island, a story of a still-contentious and always-fascinating event in United States history. With John Ford at the helm, it might even be enough to send some audience members back to the library to learn the real story behind his intriguing movie.

Producer: Nunnally Johnson, Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Film Editing: Jack Murray
Art Direction: William Darling
Music: R.H. Bassett, Hugo Friedhofer
Cast: Warner Baxter (Dr. Samuel Mudd), Gloria Stuart (Mrs. Peggy Mudd), Claude Gillingwater (Col. Jeremiah Milford Dyer), Arthur Byron (Mr. Erickson), O.P. Heggie (Dr. MacIntyre), Harry Carey (Commandant of Ft. Jefferson).
BW-96m.

by Lisa Mateas

The Prisoner of Shark Island

Based on the true story of Dr. Samuel Mudd, the Maryland physician sentenced to life in prison for his alleged involvement in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936) combines history with histrionics in an exciting production expertly directed by John Ford. Remarkably, Ford had already directed over eighty films in Hollywood since starting his career in 1917, including, the year before this film, the acclaimed Irish rebel drama The Informer, for which Ford won the Oscar® for Best Director. Though The Prisoner of Shark Island has often fallen somewhat under the radar in the hall of fame of John Ford's achievements, its star is rising as film scholars rediscover the stark and powerful imagery and intriguing political nuances found in the production. The Prisoner of Shark Island was made for Twentieth Century-Fox under the aegis of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, the self-made and incredibly successful Hollywood writer-producer who had cut his teeth in silent films, including a stint with Mack Sennett. He co-created the successful Rin Tin Tin canine adventures for Warner Bros., and became head of production for the studio at age twenty-three. Frustrated with his inability to rise higher in the Warner Bros. management hierarchy, Zanuck left his comfortable berth at the studio in the early 1930s in order to form his own 20th Century Pictures, which he later merged with the Fox Studio in 1935. After a string of producing successes including Les Miserables and The Call of the Wild (both 1935), Zanuck teamed with the tough-minded director Ford for The Prisoner of Shark Island, the first of many illustrious Zanuck-Ford collaborations (Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Tobacco Road (1941), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), among others) that thrived on the feisty relationship between the two expert and opinionated moviemakers. The Prisoner of Shark Island was penned by screenwriter Nunnally Johnson, a Georgia-born, former New York City newspaperman who transitioned into the movies in the early 1930s. Whether or not Johnson's Southern background influenced his particular retelling of Dr. Mudd's unusual story is still up for discussion. In fact, the entire extent of the involvement of Dr. Mudd in the Lincoln assassination is, to this day, an open book. Up until a few years ago, when the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal of Dr. Mudd's conviction (because the case was filed past deadline), the surviving members of the Mudd family, including his grandson who passed away in 2002, repeatedly petitioned for Dr. Mudd's conviction to be expunged from the records. Even though he had been pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in 1869 after some of the events chronicled in The Prisoner of Shark Island, Mudd's relatives felt that he had been wrongly sentenced during the trial of the assassins. As it was, Mudd narrowly avoided execution by hanging, the punishment meted out to four of the conspirators (Mary Surratt, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Lewis Payne) with the other four (Mudd, Arnold Spangler, Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlen) sent to Florida's sweltering Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas prison compound for the rest of their lives. The actual assassin of President Lincoln, the dashing, daring and possibly demented actor John Wilkes Booth, had of course been shot and killed--against orders, by a lunatic soldier--after a two-week long pursuit through the Washington D.C.-area woods and swamps. Saddened and enraged by the death of Lincoln, the country (especially the North) demanded swift justice, hustling the accused into a hasty military trial where the customary rules of evidence weren't strictly upheld and passion and grief may have stepped in where cooler heads were not to be found. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Dr. Mudd repeatedly claimed he did not know the identity of the two men who knocked on his door in the dark of night, one of them in great pain from a broken leg, and who left the next day after paying him for his services, in truth Mudd was being less than candid. He later admitted, and research has shown, that he did in fact know John Wilkes Booth, who had visited him at his farm on a horse-buying excursion, and whom he had also socialized with in Washington D.C. well before the events of April 1865. Although there does not seem to be evidence that Mudd conspired in any way in Lincoln's assassination, he may have been marginally involved in an earlier plot to kidnap the President, also orchestrated by Booth. During his trial, Dr. Samuel Mudd was surely being disingenuous when he claimed no recognition of the assassins as they stopped by his house, though of course Booth clearly hadn't planned on breaking his leg in his leap to the Ford's Theatre stage (thereby requiring medical assistance), and would not have sought out his acquaintance Dr. Mudd had the unforeseen injury not occurred. Indisputable evidence notwithstanding, the fact that Mudd had aided the assassins by giving directions to the pair as they prepared to leave his house was enough to seal his fate in the eyes of the military court. In The Prisoner of Shark Island, Dr. Mudd is clearly seen as a victim, an innocent man caught up in the frenzy for justice brought on by Lincoln's murder, a viewpoint that can be understood from several angles; not the least of them is the fact that an innocent man trying to escape from a brutal prison packs more dramatic punch than a justly-implicated man doing the same. Despite the sympathy for Mudd the man, the death of the President is shown as every bit the tragedy it was for the nation. The actual assassination of President Lincoln is faithfully recreated to great dramatic effect with the frequent Lincoln portrayer Frank McGlynn briefly seen as the martyred leader. The cast of The Prisoner of Shark Island is first-rate. Warner Baxter, silent screen matinee idol, Best Actor Academy Award winner for his work in In Old Arizona (1928, as the Cisco Kid), and the Broadway producer who urged young Ruby Keeler to stardom in 42nd Street (1933), had one of his best roles as Dr. Mudd. After breaking into films he made over fifty movie appearances in the 1920s, and continued his career--including his Oscar® win--up until his death in 1951. Baxter is intense, sympathetic and haunted as Mudd, though his early attempts at a Maryland Southern accent did not meet with Darryl Zanuck's approval. After viewing dailies, the producer stormed onto the set to confront director Ford about Baxter's performance. After Ford threatened to quit if Zanuck interfered, the producer barked back at the pugnacious director "I throw fellas off this set. They don't quit on me." Ford had met his match and a productive professional relationship was born. Actress Gloria Stuart (who would have her biggest smash hit as Rose, the elderly survivor in 1997's Titanic) played Dr. Mudd's wife. In her second film directed by John Ford (1932's Air Mail was the first), the lovely Miss Stuart realized that Ford was a minimalist director when it came to actors. In her autobiography she relates how he would place the actors, plot their movements, and call for a rehearsal. After one scene he asked her for a "little more reaction," the most direction she ever recalled getting from him. Regardless of her technique, Stuart's performance as the wife of the imprisoned doctor is heartbreaking and realistic, given the extreme circumstances of their separation. Unfortunately, good roles such as Peggy Mudd were rare for Stuart who could have been a major star in Hollywood if she had been given better opportunities. Perhaps the most striking performance, other than Warner Baxter's, in The Prisoner of Shark Island is that of John Carradine, who plays the wild-eyed prison guard Sgt. Rankin. Though he had appeared in over twenty-five films since starting his movie career in 1930, Carradine had still not found his breakout role. He originally auditioned for the role of Lincoln, but after a contentious screen test where Carradine and director Ford didn't get along, Ford instead asked the actor to read the part of the sadistic Yankee guard. Though Carradine balked at Ford's request to play Rankin as a fanatical half-wit, he tried to placate Ford yet also toss in his own interpretation of the sergeant, to Ford's disapproval. Certain that he had blown the audition, Carradine stalked off the set, only to be informed by the other actor in the scene that the part was his. That other actor was John Ford's brother Francis Ford, who appears as Corporal O' Toole in the film. John Carradine's distinctive performance as the cruel Sgt. Rankin, who eventually comes to respect Mudd after the doctor saves the prison colony from a yellow fever epidemic, was uniformly praised for its often disturbing physical nature; some of it was due to Ford's decision, and that of his cinematographer, the talented Bert Glennon, to shoot Carradine with a strong face light, causing the actor to squint maliciously in key scenes. A number of effective close-ups, memorably vicious action sequences and Carradine's frightening gaunt visage earned the actor much praise and a contract with 20th Century-Fox, both worth their weight in gold. Carradine later explained that even though Rankin was on the surface a villain, the audience could empathize with him since his cruelty was a manifestation of his extreme love for Abraham Lincoln and his hatred of anyone connected with the death of his beloved leader. John Carradine would eventually make a dozen movies with John Ford. The rest of the supporting cast was impressive as well, including Harry Carey, Sr., a huge star of early westerns (many directed by Ford) who had been a close friend and associate of the director for many years until their friendship faltered in the early 1920s, reportedly over Carey's marriage to his leading lady, whom Ford also fancied. It wasn't until Ford cast his former pal as the prison commandant in The Prisoner of Shark Island that their friendship was mended. Veteran screen actor Francis McDonald played the small but crucial role of assassin John Wilkes Booth, one of nearly three hundred and fifty movie and TV roles, many in westerns, the Kentucky-born thespian made over his career which started in 1913. The important part of Buck Milford, Dr. Mudd's former slave who is assigned as one of his prison guards and aids Mudd in his attempted escape, was played by Ernest Whitman in an earnest and moving performance. Despite arguable depictions of slavery and some uncomfortable remnants of Hollywood's less-than-ideal attitude towards race, Whitman's Buck is powerful, courageous and one of the high points of the film. Actor O.P. Heggie, who plays the prison doctor who succumbs to yellow fever, died just two weeks after finishing his role in the film. While critics were overall impressed with The Prisoner of Shark Island, some complained that they'd seen it all before, notably in movies about the Dreyfus affair and his wrongful imprisonment on Devil's Island. The fact that this was an infamous chapter in American history didn't sway some of the critics, though many were pleased to see these colorful real life characters brought to the screen. Most agreed however that John Ford's direction was superb, a more-than-merely-capable combination of grim and moody courtroom and prison scenes, along with heart-pounding action sequences, including the failed prison escape, hungry shark attacks, and prison rebellions, that moved the fascinating story along. While truth isn't always stranger than fiction, it actually is in The Prisoner of Shark Island, a story of a still-contentious and always-fascinating event in United States history. With John Ford at the helm, it might even be enough to send some audience members back to the library to learn the real story behind his intriguing movie. Producer: Nunnally Johnson, Darryl F. Zanuck Director: John Ford Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson Cinematography: Bert Glennon Film Editing: Jack Murray Art Direction: William Darling Music: R.H. Bassett, Hugo Friedhofer Cast: Warner Baxter (Dr. Samuel Mudd), Gloria Stuart (Mrs. Peggy Mudd), Claude Gillingwater (Col. Jeremiah Milford Dyer), Arthur Byron (Mr. Erickson), O.P. Heggie (Dr. MacIntyre), Harry Carey (Commandant of Ft. Jefferson). BW-96m. by Lisa Mateas

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

The working title of this film was Shark Island. After the opening credits, a quotation by George L. Radcliffe, U.S. Senator from Maryland, is presented: "The years have at last removed the shadow which rested upon the name of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd of Maryland, and the nation which once condemned him now acknowledges the unjustice it visited on one of the most unselfish and courageous men in American history." According to a news item, Congress cleared Dr. Mudd's name shortly before the film's release. Mudd died in 1883. A New York Times news story from January 1992 states that the Mudd family had lobbied Congress for seven decades since the pardon by President Andrew Johnson to have the charges dropped entirely. The latest attempt, as stated in the article, occurred at a hearing before a panel of the Army Board of Correction of Military Records on 23 January 1992.
       According to news items, in February 1935, Twentieth Century Pictures, before they merged with Fox, purchased the rights to the book The Life of Dr. Mudd by Nettie Mudd Monroe, the doctor's daughter. The film's credits, however, make no reference to Monroe or her book. Modern sources state that Darryl Zanuck, Twentieth Century's vice-president in charge of production, got the idea to make the film after he read an article in Time magazine about the prison camp for political prisoners on the Dry Tortugas island.
       When the planned film was first publicized in February 1935, Fredric March was announced to play the lead, but in October 1935, Warner Baxter was assigned the lead instead, as March was scheduled to be loaned to Warner Bros. In August 1935, Henry King was announced as director, and in October 1935, a news item stated that the studio wanted Jack Holt for the prison commandant. Harry Carey later played that role. The screen credits erroneously spell sound recordist Roger Heman's name "Hemen." The Twentieth Century-Fox trade paper advertising billing sheet lists the release date as April 10, 1936, while release charts in Motion Picture Herald list it as February 28, 1936. The trade paper billing sheet also states that the film was "personally produced by Darryl F. Zanuck" and that it had "a cast of one thousand." According to Daily Variety, for the preview at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood on February 11, 1936, the film ran 105 minutes. Frank McGlynn, Sr. was known for his impersonation of Abraham Lincoln. E. C. Ward was listed for sound, and William Stelling was listed as a cast member in Hollywood Reporter production charts, but their participation in the final film have not been confirmed.
       According to news items in New York Times, director John Ford stated about the film that "it has some of the qualities of The Informer, but it's more Hollywood." A New York Times news item states that Ford was outraged that the film was edited by studio head Zanuck without his participation and was reported to have declared that he would never go to the Twentieth Century-Fox lot again. Ford, in fact, directed a number of subsequent films for the studio. This was screenwriter Nunnally Johnson's first film as an associate producer. Modern sources report a story related by Johnson that Zanuck, after he viewed early rushes, told him to have Ford do something about Baxter's "phony" Southern accent. When Zanuck subsequently viewed more rushes with Baxter using the same accent, he confronted Ford on the set, whereupon Ford threatened to quit. After Zanuck yelled that nobody threatens him, Ford walked over to Baxter and talked to him about the accent. Modern sources list Whitney Bourne and Robert Parrish as additional cast members. In 1958, the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse presented The Case for Dr. Mudd over the CBS television network, which was produced by Jerry Stagg, directed by Allen Miner and starred Lew Ayres.