1935: Mutiny on the Bounty

  • Production Company: MGM
  • Year Released: 1935
  • Directed by: Frank Capra
  • Starring: Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone
  • Expect to Pay: $3-21

1935 saw the return of several talented people from the previous years coming together to make another winner. Frank Lloyd directed a second Oscar winner after 1933’s oft-forgotten affair Cavalcade and Clark Gable, still flush with his success in It Happened One Night, appeared in a Oscar winner for a second time in a row. While it was nominated for several different awards, it is, as of 2017, the last Bet Picture winner to win Best Picture and nothing else. What is unique about this film however is that Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone were a nominated for Best Actor (all three lost to Victor McLaglen for his performance in the John Ford film The Informer). Because so many actors from the same movie were nominated, the Academy decided it was time to create an award for the supporting roles. Thus, the category of Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress came into existence and has remained a staple of the awards ever since. Now that all of the history is out of the way, how was the film? Pretty damn good, actually.

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Image Courtesy of A March Through Film History.

Before I get into the story proper, I must say a few things about the nature of the film. Mutiny on the Bounty is an adaptation of a novel of the same name. The novel was based off a real mutiny that happened in the late 18th century. I don’t know how faithful the film is to the novel, as I have not seen it. However, any resemblance that this film has to the actual events of the mutiny is purely coincidental. Putting aside the historical inaccuracies, the film’s story is excellently told. Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable) and a rookie midshipman Roger Byam (Franchot Tone) become fast friends as they are assigned to HMS Bounty on an expedition for science.

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“Absolutely disgusting.” 

Their goal:Tahiti, where they plan to gather breadfruit trees, try to cultivate them in the West Indies and return back to England. The only problem? They are led by Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) perhaps the cruelest, most ruthless man in the Royal Navy. He regularly abuses his crew for kicks, with punishments including beatings, starvation, keel hauling, and flogging (even if the person is already dead). Christian can’t stand this treatment of the crew. Tensions boil until they erupt in a mutiny that would forever change how the Royal Navy treats its crew members.

The acting between the three leads is excellent. It was surreal to see Clark Gable without some form of facial hair, but he still managed to have an imposing physical presence in every scene that he was in. However, it was Charles Laughton that stole the show as Captain Bligh. For as short and pudgy as he is in the movie, he is downright terrifying. The film is an examination of what happens when you give a petty person even the smallest amount of power over people.

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Charles Laughton portrays a Bligh you do NOT want to mess with. Image Courtesy of The Best Picture Project. 

Bligh as a captain shows that it can lead to disaster. His method is very much of the thought “The beating will stop when morale improves.” This carries especially in his voice, which is so aristocratic and pompous that the instinctive urge to punch something wells inside a viewer. There were quite a few cringeworthy scenes involving the punishments I previously mentioned. I actually flinched watching some of them happen. If the movie could illicit that response in a jaded 20-something in 2017, I can’t imagine how brutal it must have been for movie-goers in 1935.

Speaking of brutal, the cinematography in this movie is unforgiving, and in a film about the sea, that is a good thing. The camera rocks and rolls with the waves of the ocean, making you as a viewer that makes you almost as seasick as the people in the story.  This film is also surprising in it content. Keep in mind that the production code by this point had been put into full swing. What this meant was that Hollywood could no longer be quite as blatantly sexual as they used to be in just the previous year. Did this code prevent Hollywood from making films with sexual content? Hell no. What this meant was that directors and screenwriters had to become more creative. For example, where the native women would have had bare breasts (as they do in remakes of this film), they had to have them cover up. Despite this, there are still instances of breast seen to the side. This only shows how the code was not as effective as those that implemented would have hoped. With all that said, the costumes and set pieces were all nicely detailed, and the models they used for the ships were exquisite.

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By this point in his career, Clark Gable was being established as a heart throb.

As for the music, it’s decidedly more subdued than some of the other fare that we’ve sampled thus far.

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It was a well-known, little-known secret that Charles Laughton was a bisexual. He was so talented however, that no one cared.

As I write this review, the only song that particularly sticks out in my mind is “Rule Britannia.” A great song to be sure, but perhaps the film could have used some other memorable tracks. There was also a subplot involving a father who wants to get back to his wife and child. He is executed at the end of the movie and he can no longer spend time with them. Yet the movie tries to end on a happy note. Don’t pull that bait and switch on me, movie. That’s not cool.

 

The score and that issue with the ending are just two small blemishes in what is otherwise a solid production. It is unfortunate that it did not win any more than just Best Picture, but I think what that says is that this film is greater than the sum of its parts. So, with all of that said, Mutiny on the Bounty gets a high recommendation from me. If you’re into sea pictures, you owe it to yourself to check it out. This time around, I’m going to agree with the Academy.

1936 sees a return of the musical with The Great Ziegfeld. This is quite a long film, so hopefully it’s worth the time and effort to watch. Find out next time.

Order Mutiny on the Bounty here.

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