#25 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.
This is a fine little movie from the 1930s. Anchored by a rather outrageous performance from Edward G. Robinson, it’s the story of two men in love with the same woman set to the backdrop of the tuna fishing industry out of San Diego. It’s perhaps too short, but it effectively uses its time to tell its story well enough.
Mike Mascarenhas (Robinson) is the captain and owner of a fishing boat who lost his hand to a tiger shark when he was lost at sea, and he has incredible trouble with women. None seem to want anything to do with him despite his ownership of a successful fishing outfit that regularly brings in tens of thousands of dollars a year to himself and employs at least a dozen men. His thick Portuguese accent, constant bragging, and overbearing personality probably have something to do with it, but he’s also a short, not terribly attractive man to boot, especially when compared to his first mate, Pipes played by Richard Arlen. Their first scene is Mike approaching Pipes and his new girl, talking about the girl that Mike had spoken to the night before who he hasn’t heard from since. Pipes’s girl reveals that Mike’s girl had gotten away as fast as she could, despite whatever Mike was bragging about that morning. Pipes, being a good friend and first mate, ends up protecting Mike’s reputation and feelings with another crewmate, Fishbone, tries to rag on Mike for being unsuccessful with the ladies.
On their trip out, a crewman, Manuel Silva, falls into the water and gets half eaten by a tiger shark, dying in the process. One of the most interesting things about this film is the clear-eyed view it has on the fishing industry. It’s almost a documentary of the efforts men went to bring tuna back to American markets, and one of the most striking moments is when Mike demands that his crew catch that shark to cut it open and return Manuel’s legs to him. Manuel is going to face St. Peter whole, Mike decides, and we watch them catch the shark and even beat it to death while it’s on the hook. This film does not look away from this industry and the men who made it work.
Mike, being a good captain, takes Manuel’s possessions to Manuel’s daughter, Quita played by Zita Johann. Quita is a young, attractive woman with no means of support anymore, so Mike becomes instantly smitten and supports her financially to the point where he proposes to her. She’s cautious though because, as she admits to him fully before she makes any response, she does not love him and is unsure if she ever will. That’s important. He insists that she will grow to love him, and they get married in a big elaborate ceremony thrown at the last minute that ends with Mike getting too drunk, falling asleep, and Quita left to clean up after the party. There’s never going to be love here.
Time goes on, Mike’s business becomes less successful, and in the few days that Mike is in port, Pipes and Quita begin to get to know each other. This is not unpredictable stuff, but they begin to fall in love. Pipes is loyal to Mike and doesn’t want to hurt him, though, so instead of following through on his passions, he decides that he needs to simply leave Mike’s company and join a cargo ship instead of Mike’s fishing vessel. However, an injury while pulling fish from the sea, a hook grabbing him by the neck, puts him out of commission, sending Mike back to port to help Pipes recuperate at Quita’s hand. This is where the romance between the two becomes undeniable to both Quita and Pipes, with Mike still completely blind to the reality of it.
Quita decides to go out on the next fishing expedition, and Mike is happy to have her along while Pipes keeps his concern quiet. On the trip, obviously, Pipes and Quita cannot keep themselves from each other, finally succumbing to a physical manifestation of their affection (a kiss) only to have Mike witness it. In his rage, Mike locks in the rest of the crew, knocks Pipes out, throws him into a boat, and forces a leak with tiger sharks all around. Mike let his better side out, and he saves Pipes from the trap that he set himself, only to get attacked by the shark instead.
One smaller problem I have with this movie is the length of Mike’s death scene. It’s one of those Hollywood deaths where the character speaks plainly but somewhat breathlessly for as long as it takes to get all of his thoughts out. It ends up feeling artificial no matter what he says, and what he says in this particular instance ends up feeling a bit too generous. It’s not really the wrong note if he thinks he’s going to die and his best friend and wife are truly in love, but there’s no anger from a character prone to outbursts, just simple acquiescence. It feels a bit off.
I should take a moment to highlight Zita Johann, though. Mike is the actual center of this movie, but I think one of the reasons that this movie works as well as it does is Zita. She’s a strong woman who knows what she wants, and it’s not Mike. She also knows that she’s trapped into abject poverty if she doesn’t take up his offer. She appreciates Mike for everything he does for her, but it hurts her that she simply does not love him. Zita’s performance is the real anchor for the whole film, giving pathos to the film’s final moments where Mike’s death misses a bit.
Still, as a simple tale of a love triangle involving two professional friends, it’s solid. As a look at an unusual and tough industry, it’s fascinating. It’s a little movie in Howard Hawks’ career that’s been pretty much forgotten entirely, but it’s worth checking out.