Paulette Goddard, Ray Milland, and John Wayne Star in Cecil B. DeMille’s Waterlogged Would-be Epic.
DIRECTED BY CECIL B. DEMILLE/1942
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: SEPTEMBER 10, 2019/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
“12 stars! 2 great love stories! A thousand thrills!”
So boasts the trailer for Cecil B. DeMille’s nautical period action/soap, Reap the Wild Wind. By 1942 when this film was released, DeMille was long-established as the most important, most lofty director of spectacle that Hollywood has to offer. Two decades prior he’d shed his reputation as a purveyor of visual innovation in favor of being a populist ringmaster. A brand unto himself, DeMille had seen to it that his name on the poster, his face in the trailer, carried more weight than that of any single star. From there, the standard-issue boasts of each film’s individual sensations could freely pile up. And with this film, they’d better.
For a work that claims twelve stars, two great love stories, and a thousand thrills, Reap the Wild Wind sure is dull. There are, however, a few redeeming aspects. The many visual effects throughout- primarily consisting of miniature ships on the ocean and culminating in a rather remarkable undersea giant squid attack- are worthy of its win of the fourth-ever awarded Oscar for Best Visual Effects. The production value is never lacking- the 1840 Deep South aesthetic is convincing throughout, relative of the fact that they actually filmed in the Florida Keys (albeit a century later than the story takes place). The early three-strip Technicolor process, while not as eye-poppingly vivid as other such recent Blu-rays (Becky Sharp, Dr. Cyclops), compliments the film proper in its attempt at grandiosity. (Another blurb from back in the day: “Filmed in color that sets a new standard… In vivid realism!”) And the cast is never not fine in their individual and collective efforts. But on the whole, DeMille has steered his ship into the doldrums.
On Letterboxd, at least every other review of this not-quite-epic leads with the notion that DeMille was attempting some sort of seafaring Gone with the Wind. Never mind that all those reviews read as though they first thought of that; I must admit I’d had the thought as well. Ah do declare, Miss Paulette Goddard‘s turn as Loxy, a can-do salvager of ship wreckage who finds herself torn between two men (Ray Milland and John Wayne) shows up Vivian Leigh’s Scarlet O’Hara as a Southern belle protagonist. This heroine can not only pull off a ruffled hoop skirt and decorative hat but is also a competent boat-going girl-of-action.
KL Studio Classics has done a fine job in the presentation of this film on Blu-ray, but don’t be fooled by the star billing on the package. According to that, Reap the Wild Wind’s top stars are John Wayne and Susan Hayward (who’s role is strictly supporting). In truth, this film belongs to Paulette Goddard (a welcome and compelling lead in her own right) and Ray Milland. John Wayne by this point was most certainly a star if perhaps not yet an icon. This is evidenced in the fact that his character has something of a tough time competing for her affections with Milland’s society man- a guy who carries a small lapdog with him everywhere he goes and uses it for a ventriloquist’s dummy. One would assume him to be the Ashley Wilkes of the story… but he’s not. As for Wayne’s character, a disaster-prone would-be sea captain in a profession that tends to reward disaster, he might just wield a bit of a dubious streak. He’s not a bad guy… but yet…
KL Studio Classics includes an animated still gallery that runs over sixteen minutes and lacks the ability to click through the images individually. Among them are several on-set photos of DeMille in the type of vintage diving suit that Milland and Wayne don at the film’s climax when that giant squid shows up. One wonders just how much of this was Publicly Department nonsense. Unfortunately, what’s missing on the disc is the expected (for KLSC) film historian commentary track. This omission seems to say more about the apparent limitations of the label’s talent pool of otherwise skilled commentators. That this gang of usual suspects, so apt when it comes to European cult cinema, horror, and even 1970s made-for-TV, would generate no takers for this classic Hollywood DeMille title (if that is indeed how the process works) that stars John Wayne and many others is, if nothing else, telling of the shifting field of film scholarship. Classic Hollywood commentary veterans Richard Schickel and Rudy Behlmer (who, rather impressively, talked over Gone with the Wind for its entire running time) may be gone now, but it is a missed opportunity that, say, Jeanine Basinger or Molly Haskell couldn’t have been booked for this. A major production such as this that is bleeding talent yet fails to come together would be a most welcome chance to look more closely at the methodology of the classic studio system, and perhaps render Reap the Wild Wind more interesting by extension. But alas…
In concept and story, the layout of Reap the Wild Wind is not inherently uninteresting. DeMille, though, nevertheless finds a way to affix the boat anchor of self-seriousness, thereby dragging the otherwise promising Reap the Wild Wind to the ocean floor. In this case, he let the weight of his own name and the stature become a barnacle-shellacked liability. The film, as it lays, is an unfortunate wreckage that has been salvaged in fine form by the good people at KL Studio Classics.