Vessel of Wrath (Erich Pommer / United Kingdom, 1938):
(The Beachcomber)

Erich Pommer as head of UFA worked with Murnau, Lang and Dupont, though his sole stab at directing reveals closer affinities with Marcel Pagnol, Germanic lighting and tracking at the service of a great, shambling hulk of a performance. Maugham's tale is a clash of contrasting kinds of "high faith" (sensualist versus evangelical) in colonial Dutch East Indies. Charles Laughton as the beached walrus awakens on his cabana's floor, gives his whiskers a dab of color before the mirror and strides into town with straw hat cocked; the prim nag (Elsa Lanchester) is given the corseted indignation of Christian soldiers, they first meet at the watering hole where the reprobate is busy wooing one of her students ("Madam, would you kindly remove your tea kettle to another saloon?"). Laughton is exiled when the missionary demands punishment, but since the local magistrate (Robert Newton) is his drinking chum, the "penal colony" he's deported to is a Gauguinesque idyll. Libertine and prig inevitably find themselves stuck for a night on the island, where the prospect of a pantsless Laughton going after her keeps Lanchester awake -- her virtue is respected and love rapidly grows, soon they're braving the jungle together, already mimicking their marital bickering in the middle of a malaria outbreak. The movie's paternalistic attitude toward childlike natives is nearly neutralized by the comic strangeness of the local cuties' swooning over shaggy old Captain Bligh himself, further heightened by Laughton's furtive unsettling of masculine standards. The material would be later revisited in The African Queen (and The Admiral Was a Lady and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), but hardly with the knowing gender nuttiness of Laughton and Lanchester. With Tyrone Guthrie, Eliot Makeham, and Dolly Mollinger. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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