I’ve always liked The Sea Wolf (1941), a Warner Bros. production that eschews formula clichés and offers a meaty, intelligent story. Edward G. Robinson gives one of his best performances as the brutal, would-be intellectual Captain Wolf Larsen, with Alexander Knox as a literary fellow who winds up on his devil-ship along with John Garfield (who’s been shanghaied) and Ida Lupino.
Robert Rossen adapted the Jack London story and provided juicy material for all these stars as well as a strong supporting cast, led by Barry Fitzgerald, Gene Lockhart, Stanley Ridges, and a young Howard Da Silva. But it’s the dynamic staging by director Michael Curtiz, working hand-in-hand with cinematographer Sol Polito and the ace visual effects men at Warners (who earned an Oscar nomination for their work) that really puts this across. No one ever stepped outside a soundstage to make the picture, yet it reeks with atmosphere. Studio fog, convincing miniatures, and other tricks of the trade pull this off because it’s the drama in the foreground that commands our attention.
But it turns out that The Sea Wolf we’ve been watching all these years on television (and lately on TCM) was incomplete! Jack Warner trimmed it in order to rerelease it on a double-bill with Errol Flynn’s The Sea Hawk in April of 1947—and the cuts were made in the studio negatives. Warners was able to rescue The Sea Hawksome time ago, but The Sea Wolf hasn’t been so lucky.
Warner Archive’s George Feltenstein explains, “We thought there was no extant 35mm material and John Garfield’s 16mm print from NYU would be our only source to complete the film. The Library of Congress (where we have the original on deposit) confirmed that the camera neg was indeed cut. They even sent us a photo of the splice in the negative where Jack Warner had Hal Wallis’ executive producer credit cut out! [talk about holding a grudge! – ed.] We thought we would have to use the 16mm material to cut back and forth with the existing short version to get to 100 minutes and the differences would be very noticeable and disappointing.”
Then inspiration struck. “I noticed that we had two fine-grain master positives at MoMA. They had been there for 30+ years. Thankfully, I had one of the nitrate fine-grains from MoMA brought here [to Warner Bros.] just on the off-chance it was complete… When the element arrived it turned out to be a great nitrate fine grain of the original release version. That meant we could not only present the film all from 35mm, but from a 2ndgeneration nitrate made off the camera negative in 1941. A lot of painstaking cleanup of picture and sound was required. It is somewhat of a miracle as we had given up all hope, but now it’s preserved. We released it on DVD as well as Blu-ray since many people still haven’t made the leap.”
George adds, “I would have released it on DVD years ago but didn’t do so, holding out for the long version.”
Whoever supervised the editing did an excellent job as it is unnoticeable in the shortened edition we’ve been enjoying for so many decades. But Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode says, “The complete version with the additional 13 minutes added heft to several of the scenes between Wolf Larsen (Edward G.) and van Weyden (Alexander Knox). The pursuit of Larsen and his vessel The Ghost by his brother in another ship also was addressed. In the cut version, this important plot aspect was barely mentioned.”
He adds, “Hal Wallis disliked the ‘philosophical’ interpretation of Wolf Larsen by Robinson and urged Curtiz to curtail this aspect and make Larsen meaner and more sadistic. He also told Curtiz that some of Robinson’s line readings sounded too ‘New Yorky.’ As usual, Curtiz paid his producer lip service, then ignored him and did what he wanted with the film. Some of the Robinson-Knox scenes were reduced from Rossen’s script which made Larsen into a Hitler figure. The anti-Nazi slant was one reason that Robinson was so enthused over the role.”
Fascinating stuff which further whets my appetite to read Alan’s upcoming book Michael Curtiz: A Life on Film, to be published next month by University of Kentucky Press. You can pre-order it from Amazon HERE. In the meantime, I urge you to watch or revisit The Sea Wolf. You can purchase the Blu-ray HERE and the DVD HERE.