The Prisoner of Shark Island by matthew c. hoffman

“Once before I was a doctor. I’m still a doctor.” ~ Warner Baxter as Samuel Mudd

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Transcript from our screening on 5/22/14:

Today, director John Ford is best remembered for his many Westerns with John Wayne. But Ford’s career is much broader than that, as most film buffs know. Though some of the films he made in the 1930s are well-known– or should be– such as Drums Along the Mohawk, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Stagecoach, other films from this decade in his career are in need of rediscovery. For instance, the trilogy of films Ford made with Will Rogers were all considered for this program. Instead, I chose a film that I had played at the LaSalle Bank Theatre many years ago. The Prisoner of Shark Island is one of John Ford’s finest. It’s a brilliant film that reflects the obvious influence of D.W. Griffith, a filmmaker Ford greatly admired.

Tonight we finish what we began in March when we screened Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln. The Prisoner of Shark Island, which stars Warner Baxter, is the story of Samuel Mudd, the Maryland doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg and was subsequently put on trial as an accomplice in Lincoln’s assassination. With the rules of evidence thrown out the window, Mudd is sent to Fort Jefferson, an island prison off the Florida coast. Here, in what can be described as America’s Devil’s Island, he must contend with the cruel Sergeant Rankin, played by John Carradine: “Dr. Mudd, I’ve been waitin’ for you,” he ominously intones. Harry Carey, who had starred in many silent films for John Ford, plays the commandant of the prison who will call upon Mudd when the island is stricken with Yellow Fever.

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Ford biographer Joseph McBride wrote, “Employing a visual style fully as virtuosic as that of The Informer, Ford and cameraman Bert Glennon depict Dr. Mudd’s nightmarish ordeal in military court and prison with starkly expressionistic camera angles, subtly distorting wide-angle lenses, and heavily shadowed compositions. But this film’s Goya-esque vision of torture and suffering is conveyed with greater emotional urgency and less abstractions than was displayed in Ford’s more-lauded exercise in expressionism. Shark Island does not dwell on pictorial effects for their own sake, but maintains the relentless narrative drive so characteristic of Zanuck’s filmmaking philosophy.”

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At Darryl Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox studio, the story was the star—not the director or actor. The screenplay was written by Nunnally Johnson but based largely on an original treatment by Raymond Griffith. The story is still topical as it deals with political issues that are as relevant today, such as the erosion of civil liberties in the name of patriotism. Some commentators have drawn a comparison to the Guantanomo prison controversy in which prisoners of war were held indefinitely—even though they weren’t American citizens. But within the context of our story, the country is depicted as being on the verge of national hysteria with rioting in the streets. In the wake of Lincoln’s assassination, the voice of the court becomes the voice of the people.

Though the film’s story leaves the impression that Mudd’s name has been cleared, legally speaking, his name is still Mudd. Samuel Mudd has never officially been exonerated by the U.S. government; he was only pardoned by President Andrew Johnson on his last day in office. In reality, it appears that Samuel Mudd did in fact know John Wilkes Booth, but for the sake of drama and audience identification, it made more sense to have Warner Baxter as an innocent victim of circumstance.

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John Ford was a director who dealt with myth, not necessarily reality. Don’t let facts get in the way of the legend. The Prisoner of Shark Island needs to be viewed on its own terms as a work of cinema and fiction—like The Count of Monte Cristo— not as a historical document. Though based on a true story, very little of it is factual. Even the name of Mudd’s wife is wrong. In the film she is called Peggy when her real name was Sarah. But this isn’t a world history course; it’s a film appreciation program. The only things that are true in the film is that Lincoln was assassinated by Booth, Mudd was put on trial as an accomplice, he was sent to prison where he later tried to escape, and he did help combat the spread of disease on the island.

Though it doesn’t recreate history, it does conjure up the essence of those early post-war days. The use of the song “Maryland, My Maryland” and other traditional songs add to that evocation of a time and place. It is here in this vision of a genteel South where the influence of Griffith is strongest. The homecoming scene is almost a tribute to Griffith’s romanticism as it recalls a similar ending in The Birth of a Nation. Since John Ford was a Yankee, I can’t say that Griffith’s views were also Ford’s, but the film is sympathetic towards the South. With the exception of the revered Lincoln seen at the outset as a reconciliatory figure and the fair-minded Carey, who perhaps best represents the director’s own sensibilities, the North is depicted in a negative light. The Union soldiers who enter Mudd’s home are uncouth, the military commission that sentences Mudd is insanely unjust, the sergeant at the prison is downright evil, and the black Union soldiers who barricade themselves within the prison are shown as child-like. This latter scene in which they respond to Mudd only because he is a Southerner, will undoubtedly be the most offensive scene to modern viewers. Their faces are like a gallery of racial caricatures. But what’s so interesting about this aspect of the film is that the black soldiers are in charge of the prisoners who had once been their masters.

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Warner Baxter is no stranger to our classic film program. On Opening Night we saw him as a drunken doctor in West of Zanzibar. Much later in his career Baxter was the Crime Doctor in a B movie series for Columbia Studios. In between he was one of the most dependable leading men in Hollywood. Though he had played Jay Gatsby in a 1926 silent version of The Great Gatsby, it wasn’t until the late 1920s when he became a star. His performance in 1929’s In Old Arizona won him an Academy Award for Best Actor. Baxter is probably best known as the producer urging Ruby Keeler on to come back a star in 42nd Street.

Producer Darryl Zanuck had originally wanted Fredric March for the role of Samuel Mudd, which makes sense since March had played a similar role of the unjustly convicted Jean Valjean in 1935’s Les Miserables. (There’s a scene shortly after Mudd’s failed escape where he’s been thrown into a hole in the ground and is visited by the commandant with a plea for help. What Baxter says in this scene—and how he says it—is very reminiscent of March’s delivery. “What’s all this to me?”) But Baxter was certainly up to the challenge of this role and gives a forceful and sympathetic performance while conveying his belief in duty to his profession. The courtroom scene is the best showcase of how good an actor Warner Baxter was. Originally, he had a more noticeable Southern drawl, but Zanuck stormed onto the set and had him tone his accent down. This led to a rather contentious scene between Zanuck and Ford. Despite the arguments, they would go on to work together on a total of ten films. Zanuck, whose role in shaping Ford’s films cannot be underestimated, was the only studio executive Ford respected.

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Gloria Stuart, who plays Mudd’s wife, gained a new generation of fans when she appeared in 1997’s Titanic as old Rose, but in the 1930s she appeared in many classic films including The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man for director James Whale. She had worked with John Ford previously in 1932’s Air Mail, starring Ralph Bellamy.

Claude Gillingwater is the feisty grandfather ready to lead another charge against the Yankees. He’s a typical Ford character who provides the comedy relief. O. P. Heggie, an Australian actor best known as the blind hermit in The Bride of Frankenstein, plays the doctor in charge at the prison. This would be the last film for Heggie as he would die two weeks after filming. Ernest Whitman, an African-American stage and screen actor, gives a moving performance as loyal Buck. Audiences might also remember him from Jesse James, which we had played three weeks ago at the Pickwick. He is the one black actor in the film who doesn’t come across strictly as a racial stereotype—despite fathering twelve kids. There is a genuine bond between him and Samuel Mudd that transcends race.

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And finally, there is John Carradine, who was never more sadistic than in his portrayal of the sergeant. He is so intense that the final scene with him feels forced. But up until that point, Carradine is great as the prison guard with a fanatical admiration for Lincoln. His crazed determination registers onscreen with the close-ups of Carradine’s gaunt face. Originally, Carradine had tested for the role of Abraham Lincoln, which instead went to Frank McGlynn, who had played Lincoln before on the stage.

There’s a funny story about Carradine’s relationship with John Ford. In Tag Gallagher’s biography on Ford the author writes, “Another person Ford never could intimidate was John Carradine. The actor was terribly absent-minded and was forever messing things up. Few things made Ford more furious; over and over he would fly into a rage, and go on and on calling Carradine a god-damned stupid s.o.b. and every name he could think of. It did no good. Carradine would watch him with an indulgent smile and when Ford had finished would come over, pat him on the shoulder, and say, ‘You’re o.k., John,” and walk away. And Ford would be almost sputtering, because there was no way he could get under Carradine’s skin.”

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The Prisoner of Shark Island is composed of a series of well-written and visually engaging scenes. But if there’s one sequence in particular that encapsulates what makes the film so dynamic it’s the prison escape. Of course, in truth Mudd’s escape was nothing more dramatic than him walking up a gangplank and sneaking onboard a ship tied to the dock, but that would never do for a Zanuck production. Bert Glennon’s striking photography highlights Mudd’s escape through the gloomy and cavernous prison. The Prisoner of Shark Island stands out primarily for its pictorial qualities by Glennon, who also shot Stagecoach, and Young Mr. Lincoln among others.

This sequence, as well as the assembled whole, caught the attention of Otis Ferguson, who was an outstanding film reviewer. I’d like to end with a quote from his review, which is a fine piece of film criticism. It was published in The New Republic on March 4, 1936:

“’The Prisoner of Shark Island’ is a powerful film, rarely false or slow, maintaining the relentless cumulative pressure, the logical fitting of one thing into another until the audience is included in the movement and carried along with it in some definite emotional life that is peculiar to the art of motion pictures at its best.”

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