Transatlantic comes from that small sub-genre of melodramatic movies about groups of strangers whose lives intersect while being stuck in a particular place for a brief amount of time. The most famous example from the early 30s is of course Grand Hotel, where the lives and loves of a group of seemingly disparate characters unfold and cross over, revealing new and previously unknown connections and ultimately, changing the characters profoundly in the process. Transatlantic predates Grand Hotel by a year but uses the same formula, relocating the drama to a (you guessed it) transatlantic liner.
Where Transatlantic differs from the aforementioned film and its imitators is that unfortunately we are not treated with an all-star cast. Here we have to make do with an actor early in her career (Myrna Loy), a B picture star in the middle of his (Edmund Lowe), some solid character actors (John Halliday and Jean Hersholt) and some whose careers ending up being brief and unfulfilled (Lois Moran and Greta Nissen). But no matter, for it’s off to sea for, as a press release described it, “thrills let loose in a super-whirlwind, on a gigantic ocean greyhound. Love and dalliance, intrigue and millions…a supreme creation of heart gripping suspense.” What’s not to like?
And what is causing this super whirlwind of thrills? Well, since you ask, Edmund Lowe stars as likable rogue Monty Greer, a man on the run hoping to start a new life at the destination of the voyage. On board he meets wealthy banker John Halliday and his long-suffering wife Myrna Loy. Halliday’s character Henry Graham is infatuated with Greta Nissen’s nightclub singer Sigrid. Monty attempts to solve the problematic love triangle whilst also helping father and daughter Lois Moran and Jean Hersholt when they too get sucked into the drama. Add in a robbery, a couple of betrayals and an attempted murder and everything is swinging on the high seas.
The film opens with a beautifully fluid tracking shot where the camera takes in all the various details of the hustle and bustle as the ship leaves port. We follow a crowd of happy people rushing from the pier to the gangplank and finally on board the liner. The camera surveys a wedding party, heaps of confetti, crowds pushing and laughing, brass bands playing, porters unloading luggage (including a confused dog accidentally on the luggage conveyor that looks like Asta), flashbulbs clicking and much more. Once on board, goodbyes are said, as relatives hurriedly leave the ship and lovers make tearful goodbyes. A gong is sounded, lots of feet click past, a steam horn blows, a man in a monocle and top hat waves a fond goodbye to the shore and the ship leaves in a cloud of confetti, music and shrieks. As an aside – when did this sort of thing stop happening? And why did it stop? Sea travel in the 20s and 30s, at least in the movies, looks like the most wonderfully romantic way to travel. What went wrong?
Anyway, the brass band fades and is replaced by the endless dull whirring and grinding of the giant engines as we pan down to see the faceless workers below decks tirelessly feeding the great cogs and pistons, like a shot out of Metropolis or Asphalt. The whole opening sequence lasts seven and a half minutes and is astonishing in its combination of pace, editing, storytelling and detail and perfectly captures the romance, industry and drama of not only ocean travel but the film to come. It’s the type of economic cinematic shorthand that seems to be a lost art these days.
Despite the aforementioned drama not quite living up to this introduction, the cast give it a good try. We are quickly introduced to Billy Bevan’s knowing steward Hodgkins, who in case we missed it tells Edmund Lowe that, “No two crossings are the same. The ship is like a little world…with all sorts of people bundled together…shaking hands and making friends and loving each other and hating each other…” Right, well that’s the premise sorted out then. Amusingly, Bevan continues to trot out the speech at various points in the film (including the final scene of the movie) until Lowe virtually knows it word by word and looks visibly pained each time he has to endure it. This is a clever ploy to not only milk some humour from the situation but it also acts as a knowing wink to the audience, highlighting that we all know such words are in themselves trite and cliché, much like the plot
We then enter the sad world of Myrna Loy’s Kay Graham, who stands by as her husband flirts openly with Greta Nissen (doing a sort of cod-Garbo Scandinavian showgirl floozie). It turns out that Loy knows Lowe from an earlier encounter in Havana five years before, wearily remarking “I was certainly young then, I didn’t know what real happiness was”. It’s a strange thing that they have the 25 year old Myrna Loy play a supposedly middle aged woman. I guess the idea could be that she’s actually young but just worn down by her husband’s philandering but she plays the part with the resigned and restrained poise of a much older woman. Anyway, whatever is being attempted it doesn’t quite work as Loy is plainly too young for the role. This mis-casting was probably another reason why she quit Fox shortly after shooting Transatlantic since they obviously had little understanding of her ability or idea of what they wanted to do with her. In her autobiography, Loy remarks that Fox had triumphantly attempted to re-brand her as the “Revamped Vamp” then proceeded to give a mixture of unsuitable roles, of which this surprisingly was one of the better ones. In the end they got bored and started giving her vamp roles again so she left.
A later highlight of the movie is, once the murder plot is in full flow, a gripping chase through the engine rooms. The ship hits a storm, although everyone continues with their partying - well it is 1931, (including Nissen vamping it up in a top hat, this time trying her best Dietrich). The storm then gets worse and the beat of the jazz music gets faster and faster, cleverly mirroring the drama on the sea and also the escalating trouble below decks. The chase itself is beautifully shot with angular jets of steam randomly spraying out and combining with the glowing heat of the engines (and contrasting nicely with the storm outside). This casts eerie pulsing shadows that loom in and out of the deserted bulkheads as Lowe and the hoodlums tussle amongst the unblinking steel and iron of the machines. As if to emphasize the overwhelming presence of the machines even the sound of the final and lethal gunshot is masked by the endless pulsing of the great engines. The glimpses given of this metal underworld, despite being brief are the moments that set this movie slightly above its peers and an underlying theme such as the dominance and reliance on the machines perhaps could have given the film a slightly more unusual tone. The cinematography and art direction certainly give the situation an inhuman, oppressive feel. As it is these glimpses give Transatlantic an almost European mood at times, despite the comparative everyday nature of the above deck melodrama.
Overall, this European feel is achieved by the tight direction of William K. Howard, a director whose work I’m not too familiar with (I’ve seen The Power and the Glory which is excellent and Evelyn Prentice which is pretty good). In her book, Myrna Loy was certainly pleased to work with him saying, “I admired his meticulous methods, and his films retain an original quality derived from them. He had respect for me and my work, which pleased me no end”. Of course, in Transatlantic he is ably assisted by the phenomenal cinematography of James Wong Howe and the Oscar winning Art Direction of Gordon Wiles. The combination results in some set pieces that belie the poor script and lack of star power the movie was given and at times hint at something fairly ahead of its time. Sadly, like in many other movies made quickly by the studios I’d guess that there just wasn’t the opportunity to take any complex ideas about mood, lighting and deep focus to their artistic conclusions so I suppose we should be thankful for what we have.
All in all Transatlantic is a mixed bag. It’s not Grand Hotel, but then again it doesn’t have to be. There are no standout performances, though Billy Bevan is excellent and Edmund Lowe is very appealing and shows some depth with a difficult and under written character. However, Myrna Loy is miscast and actors like John Halliday and Greta Nissen despite their talents come across as types rather than people (Halliday is really just Lewis Stone, Nissen is Garbo or Dietrich depending on the scene). With Fox, the lavish production of MGM just isn’t there and the script is merely acceptable, but behind all these faults lie some truly great cinematic flourishes, from the amazing opening scene to the shadowy climax.
Ultimately, Billy Bevan’s tired old speech about people loving and hating each other comes to fruition, not only in terms of the central characters, but also in terms of it’s cliché value, as highlighted by a passenger muttering on his way out that it was a ”horribly dull voyage, don’t you think?” Though perhaps the unknown guest was right, in true melodramatic fashion, some passengers are changed forever, some are unaffected, and in the end the vessel emerges from the storm triumphantly as it ends one voyage and readies itself to start another, with it’s new cast of characters. Ah, the romance of travel…