Down to the Sea in Ships

Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) is a silent film about 19th century New Bedford whalers.  The plot centers arounddowntotheseainships Allan Dexter and Patience Morgan, who have fallen in love but are prevented from marrying by William Morgan, Patience’s father.  William Morgan objects because Allan is neither a whaler or a Quaker.  A subplot focuses on Siggs, a villain who also wants to marry Patience.  Much of the movie concerns Allan proving himself as a whaler.  Down to the Sea in Ships stars Marguerite Courtot, Raymond McKee, William Walcott, Jack Baston, James Turfler and Clara Bow.  Elmer Clifton directed, and John L.E. Pell wrote the screenplay.  A.G. Penrod and Paul H. Allen were the cameramen.

Quaker references abound in the film.  Patience and William Morgan are Friends.  Scenes were filmed at the Apponegansett Meetinghouse in Dartmouth.  The Meeting for Worship depicted there is accurate.  Women sit on the left; men sit on the right.  After a male Friend rises to give ministry, he removes his hat as do all other male Friends.  (Removing the hat while offering a message was a long Quaker tradition).  A visual joke should be noted, too.  During Meeting a Friend sits twiddling his thumbs, sign language for “Quaker”.  Title cards feature the plain language when it is used by Friends.

Down to the Sea in Ships is a well-made movie, if a bit melodramatic.  The whaling scenes are especially exciting.  (Clifton, the director, was an assistant to D.W. Griffith, and the Griffith influence is evident).  It was also Clara Bow’s second movie, and, as Dot, Patience’s younger sister, she lights up the screen.  The subplot is racist.  The villain is Chinese but is passing as Caucasian, and mention is made of his background repeatedly.  A film worth seeing.

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Gary Sandman

January 2019

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