Our review of Stanley Kramer Film Collection, published February 22nd, 2008, is also available.
Who knows? If you look closely enough, you may even find yourself on board!
What do a dwarf, anti-Semitic Germans, tolerant Jews, Spanish political prisoners, and 600 Mexican deportees all have in common? They're all on board the Ship of Fools, an epic seafaring melodrama directed by the legendary Stanley Kramer (It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World). Nominated for eight Academy Awards in 1965, it's an uneven but wholly watchable picture made better by at least one excellent performance, and a host of familiar faces from Hollywood past.
Facts of the Case
The film is set in 1933 aboard an ocean liner sailing from Mexico to Germany, and tells the interlocking stories of the ship's diverse, eclectic group of passengers. Among them are: Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh, Gone With the Wind), an aging former beauty desperately seeking a way to recapture her youthful charm; Bill Tenny (Lee Marvin, The Dirty Dozen), a washed-up American ballplayer with little regard for anyone; La Condesa (Simone Signoret, the original Diabolique), a Spanish noblewoman deported as a political prisoner for aiding revolutionaries; the ship's doctor (Oskar Werner, Fahrenheit 451), unhappy with his lot in life; Sigfried Rieber (José Ferrer, forever Cyrano de Bergerac) a German publisher whose virulently anti-Semitic outbursts foreshadow the horrors of the Holocaust, and Julius Lowenthal (legendary German actor Heinz Rühmann), a passive Jewish passenger who withstands Sigfried's verbal attacks; David (George Segal, The Owl and the Pussycat) and Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley, Happiness), a young unmarried couple whose relationship is crumbling before them; and Carl Glocken (Michael Dunn, Dr. Miguelito Loveless in the TV classic The Wild Wild West), a good-hearted dwarf who, because of his perpetual outsider status is able to see things in the others they do not see for themselves. And all of them blissfully unaware that the cataclysmic events of the next ten years will change the world as they know it.
Ship of Fools has often been referred to as Grand Hotel at sea—an apt, if superficial, description. While it doesn't quite compare to that 1932 classic, the similarities are many. Both films begin and end with a suggestive monologue from a semi-peripheral character (the concierge in Grand Hotel; the dwarf in Ship of Fools) setting up the stories about to be told and, finally, tying them together. They are similarly structured, as they tell the interlocking stories of their international casts of flawed characters. And both films take place in the same pre-World War II setting of the early 1930s, with one major difference—the makers of Grand Hotel were unaware of the events to come, while Stanley Kramer, the director of Ship of Fools had the advantage of living through the events before making the film, and used them to ironic effect. Unfortunately, it is these heavy-handed attempts at irony that make Ship of Fools feel somewhat dated, while you might think it would be the other way around. In one scene, for example, Heinz Rühmann's passive Jewish passenger remarks, "There are over one million Jews living in Germany. What are they going to do, kill all of us?" Oy vey.
As one might expect, the various stories told in Ship of Fools are hit-or-miss. The most involving is the romance that develops between the ship's doctor, Wilhelm Schumann, and the Spanish noblewoman played by Simone Signoret. Signoret delivers what is easily the film's best performance, exhibiting a quiet mixture of dignity and deep, underlying sadness. Her La Condesa is accepting of the fact that she will likely end up in jail upon return to Spain, and feels no regrets about offering aid to the revolutionaries in Mexico, though she wishes things would have turned out differently. Her romance with Schumann takes on a genuine tenderness, aided enormously by their own awareness that the relationship isn't meant to last.
The least interesting story, by comparison, is the bland romance between George Segal's David, a self-absorbed painter, and Elizabeth Ashley's Jenny, his dutiful lover. Segal and Ashley are certainly capable actors, but their relationship never comes off as anything more than pithy and cloying. Their various quarrels and reconciliations soon grow tiresome, so that when the resolution of their story finally reaches its zenith, the feeling for the audience is more relief than empathy.
The rest of the stories all hold varying degrees of interest. The film gets a lot of mileage out of the overriding theme of racial, religious, and ethnic tension but, as stated previously, it's about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the forehead. Jose Ferrér is solid as the hate-mongering Rieber, but the character is awfully one-note. Heinz Rühmann fares a bit better as the recipient of Rieber's barbed attacks, as his Lowenthal's passivity becomes maddeningly frustrating for his fellow passengers. The film's overall examination of the hypocrisy of the German passengers is sharply drawn, but it would perhaps have been better had it not been stated so obviously.
And as is usually the case when attempting a project as ambitious as this, director Kramer bites off a bit more than he can chew, leaving some of the subplots gasping for attention. At 149 minutes, the film is never boring, but there are a number of minor stories that feel half-baked, as if Kramer didn't feel he had included enough confusion and felt he had to tack on some more needless subplots. The most pointless concerns Johann, a 19-year-old German who becomes obsessed with having his first sexual experience with Amparo, the ship's resident hooker. Another has to do with a 16-year-old girl pushed around by her overbearing parents and worried that she won't be able to attract a man. Both of these stories come off as unnecessary padding for a film that doesn't need it, and though they were probably included in the film's source novel by Katherine Anne Porter, it would have been better if they'd just been left out.
For Vivien Leigh, this would be just her third American film, despite appearing in Gone With the Wind some 25 years earlier, and it would also be her final screen appearance (she would be dead two years later). The troubled British actress was famous for playing parts that mirrored her own life (witness her Oscar-winning performance as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire), and her work in Ship of Fools is no different, as she plays a former beauty now fed up with life and love, hoping to recapture her onetime charm. In her climactic scene, Leigh's Mary Treadwell confronts herself in a mirror and suffers an emotional breakdown as she realizes that her youth has left her and won't return. It's one of the great cinematic cases of art imitating life, and Leigh proves in it that even in the final stages of her own life, her talent for playing troubled characters was second to none.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Columbia's DVD of Ship of Fools is another in their recent line of bare-bones classic releases that nevertheless features a decent full-frame black and white transfer, with one unforgivable exception—it's pan-and-scanned. Why Columbia chose to include the cropped version is beyond me, as for a rather highly regarded film such as this, one would expect at transfer presented in the original aspect ratio. But no—we get a stable B&W image with the sides lopped off and dead space added at the top and bottom of the frame, which amounts to an insult to discriminating DVD owners. Image quality is generally good, if a little soft at times, with minor blemishes occurring here and there and noticeable dirt present in the nighttime scenes. But the pan-and-scan transfer is unacceptable, and Columbia should be advised to get with the times—even MGM, noted for their cheapie classic releases, presents their bare-bones titles in the OAR. Sheesh.
The audio quality is what it is—Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and the track is free of any pops or hisses. The disc includes subtitles in English, French and Japanese. No extras are included, save for the film's original trailer and the trailers of some other Columbia titles (Born Yesterday and From Here to Eternity).
Ship of Fools, while dated in parts and uneven as hell, ends up being slightly better than the sum of its parts. Though Columbia's decision to release the title in its cropped form is unforgivable, the film's better aspects (Vivien Leigh's final performance, Simone Signoret, Oskar Werner) should warrant a rental for those interested in this kind of 1960s soap opera.
The film's cast are all free to go, while director Stanley Kramer is reprimanded for reaching a bit too far in packing in the subplots. Columbia, on the other hand, is found guilty as charged for their hack-job transfer and lack of extras, and is sentenced to life at sea without promise of return. Case dismissed.
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