I Cover the Waterfront (1933) with Claudette Colbert and Ben Lyon

I Cover The Waterfront (1933)Danny Like Banner

 ICoverTheWaterfront2  ICoverTheWaterfront3  ICoverTheWaterfront4
Joe Miller
Ben Lyon
Julie Kirk
Claudette Colbert
Eli Kirk
Ernest Torrence
 ICoverTheWaterfront5  ICoverTheWaterfront6  ICoverTheWaterfront7
One Punch McCoy
Hobart Cavanaugh
Ortegus
Maurice Black
John Phelps
Purnell Pratt
Released by Reliance Pictures/Edward Small Productions | Directed By James Cruze

Proof That It’s Pre-Code

  • Seagulls keep ruining reporter Joe Miller’s hats.
  • Our intrepid reporter catches Julie Kirk skinny dipping. The discuss it, followed by this exchange: “I’ll be seeing you!” “You’ve seen too much of me already!”
Heh, yeah, if you look at this, you'll see Claudette Colbert's body double's extremely pixelated naked butt.
If you look closely at this, you’ll see Claudette Colbert’s body double’s extremely pixelated naked butt.
  • “You know what you can do with the story.”
  • Someone is stone cold murdered.
  • Copious uses of the word ‘Chink’ to describe Chinese men, and not in any nice way, either.
  • Eli likes to visit a boarding house which is quite clearly a brothel.
  • Joe’s sidekick, One Punch McCoy, has a pickup line he likes to use on all the ladies at the brothel: “I eat little girls like you!”
  • One news story Joe reports on is about three blondes from Europe who wear pants and kiss each other.
  • “Stick it in your back pocket!”
  • “Now you little son of a b–“
  • When one man is dying, he begs to see a picture to pray to. Eli thinks at first that he means this one:
Hell, I'll pray to that.
Hell, I’ll pray to that. (Click for big, and NWS!)
  • “I want to catch him with his pants down!” “And then you’ll find a Chinaman in his pants!”
  • “The smell of ether intoxicates me.”
  • We get to see a competent Chinese doctor who only has traces of an accent. No shit.
  • Upon returning home after his adventures, Joe finds it made up and redecorated. He turns to McCoy and pronounces, “If only you could cook!”

I Cover the Waterfront: Cold Water, Cold Hearts

“Men never know what the sea really looks like. Women know. When they’ve looked out there for years, waitin’ for somebody to come back.”

I Cover the Waterfront feels like a Warner Brothers’ take on Anna Christie. A dock full of broken, dejected people struggle day in, day out to survive. There’s some wisecracking and a fair share of wry smiles, but underneath the situation doesn’t change. It can’t, really– in a Depression, life is lived one day at a time.

Ben Lyon (who most would probably remember as the bootlegger from Night Nurse) plays Joe Miller, a Walter Winchell of the waterfront. He reports on ship arrivals and departures, on crew notices and little social tidbits. He hates his job, hates the paper he works for, and hates that the woman he loves is all the way back in New Hampshire. He hopes a big break will come and give him the opportunity to move up into the big leagues of journalism. He pins that hope on the suspicious form of boat captain Eli Kirk.

"Yo ho ho and a bottle of let's murder a dude."
“Yo ho ho and a bottle of let’s murder a dude.”

Eli has been smuggling Chinese men into the country on his fishing boat. This part may seem a little weird to modern viewers, but the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred all immigration from China. Motivated by, you know, outright racism, the act sought to keep the Chinese out of America. More than that, if you were Chinese and even left to return to China to see your family, you would be refused reentry. The act split husbands and wives and kept many opportunities from hard working men and women. The act wasn’t repealed until 1943 when a lot of people noticed that it was shitty to treat Chinese people as less than second class citizens while were busy trying to help them free their homeland.

So that put many immigrants in a desperate situation if they wanted to get into the country, and smuggling was widespread. Eli is just the sort of shady guy to take advantage of the situation. His character is hard to get a fix on, and I think Ernest Torrence does a wonderful job in conveying the life of a broken man. He’s clearly conflicted in his role so that even when it means that he has to resort to murder to cover his own hide, you can see it chew him up inside, but he doesn’t hesitate for a second. He has to provide for his crew and his daughter, Julie. Fishing just won’t cover it any more.

Desperation informs every action in the film, from the poor man who dredges the harbor hoping for something of value to the prostitutes down at the brothel who steal from their customers. The only one who aspires to anything more is Joe, and that might just be what gets everyone into so much trouble.

Or at least tied up and smooched.
Or at least tied up and smooched.

Joe decides his best bet in entrapping Eli is by going through his innocent daughter, Julie. If you can’t tell just by looking at her, Claudette Colbert is cast a bit against type as a girl from the docks. Julie is almost too clean cut, as she lacks any rough edges that someone growing up relative poverty might possess, but Colbert counteracts this by playing Julie as young and free spirited. She’s so kind and sweet because Eli, sheltering her from the toughness of his life, never really let her grow up.

Joe seduces Julie, and it’s one of the tougher seductions I’ve seen in a movie of this era. Even if he constantly has the advantage on her, whether it’s because he catches her skinny dipping or is willing to help drag her father home from the brothel, she can parlay his smarmy tricks back with the minimum of effort. He finally manages to get a kiss out of her when he takes her on a date to an old torture ship and locks her up in one of the more innocuous devices. And to drive home the point of when this movie was made, Julie looks pleased as punch to be put in her place, leaving us only a few whips and feathers away from a Bettie Page pinup.

There's also this scene of Joe taking Julie upstairs to his apartment at night before they sneak off stage right to where his bedroom his. Subtle? Nooooo.
There’s also this scene of Joe taking Julie upstairs to his apartment at night before they sneak off stage right to where his bedroom his. Subtle? Nooooo.

Eli, meanwhile, has only seen his troubles grow as Joe’s pursuit force him to be cagier. His crew takes on the dangerous task of shark hunting as a way to smuggle the Chinese men in. During the pursuit of one of the beasts, it gets a hold of his first mate, Ortegus, and rips his leg off. Eli and his crew pull Ortegus aboard and give him a chance to pray as he bleeds to death.

Why is this scene in the movie? I’ve never seen it in any plot summary I’ve read, and it’s completely superfluous to the film’s triangle relationship between Eli, Julie and Joe. But it’s this scene that does the best exhibit just why I loved I Cover the Waterfront so much. Besides throwing in a quick joke (with nudity, as noted up above), it’s about Eli and what he’s made of his life. In the first scene of the movie, we see him kill a man in cold blood. In this scene we realize it’s not that Eli doesn’t appreciate the gravity of death, it just might be that he knows death all too well.

There are other bits like this that just exist to deepen the characters. Take, for example, McCoy, a newspaperman looking for a job and more than prepared to take Joe’s at a moment’s notice. He appears at the beginning of the movie randomly in Joe’s bed, and spends most of the film stumblingly drunkenly two steps behind him in his adventures. Besides giving Joe someone to talk to, his entire character is Joe’s devil on the shoulder. Someone to discourage him, make his life trouble, and, of course, offer a drink right when it’s not needed.

In fact, if it weren't for a few gags, I'd almost be certain that McCoy is just a figment of Joe's imagination.
In fact, if it weren’t for a few gags, I’d almost be certain that McCoy is just a figment of Joe’s imagination.

I Covered the Waterfront climaxes as Joe uncovers Eli’s latest hiding place and shots are fired. Julie learns why Joe has been chasing after her, and Joe learns that there might be something more important to him than that big break. The two characters have a very telling conversation over breakfast the night after they sleep together. Joe admits that he hates the sea and finds the docks to be depressing, bad smelling and the same day after day. Julie cleans the dirt off his window and offers him a different view, the glass half full ideal. “Everything you want is right here. Even that book you’re writing.”

The movie ends on an upbeat note, even with a rather unpleasant amount of blood that ends up being shed. In a desperate world, happiness is where you find it, even if that entails surviving just by the skin of your teeth. Is it a cheesy message? Yeah, a bit. But like with a lot of old standards, when they’re played this good, they’re hard to resist.

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Trivia & Links

  • This one is based on an autobiographical book by Max Miller about his experiences covering San Diego’s docks. Apparently the original book didn’t have the romantic subplot in it at all, unsurprisingly.
  • Ernest Torrence’s last film, as he died shortly before its premiere.
  • Judy at Movie Classics covered this for the Journalism in Film Blogathon a while back. (I hit Platinum Blonde for that blogathon, if you care.) Besides feeling that Colbert was a bit miscast, she also thought McCoy’s drunkeness was over the top. (Better not let ol’ One Punch hear that!)
Pre-Code product watch: like Lifesavers, you can see that Arm and Hammer has been around for quite a while.
Pre-Code product watch: like Lifesavers, you can see that Arm & Hammer has been around for quite a while.
  • Midnight Palace has a nice article about Ben Lyon saying that he was often pegged as ‘the leading man’ but not as ‘the star’. He and his wife, Bebe Daniels, eventually moved to England where they had several successful radio shows, Lyons served during World War II, and they even had several movies made about their fictional personas. The capper? It’s widely thought that Lyons, when he was a talent agent at 20th Century Fox in the late 40s, discovered Marilyn Monroe.
  • The film’s title comes from the popular standard “I Cover the Waterfront”. Here’s its most famous cover from Billie Holiday:

Awards, Accolades & Availability

  • This film is in the public domain because it’s copyright wasn’t renewed. That being said BEWARE, BEWARE, there are lots of low quality dupes out there, with some (like the streaming version on Amazon) missing twelve whole minutes of film. The correct runtime should be 72 minutes. You can find the complete versions on YouTube, Archive.org and on a DVD from Alpha Video. And you should.
Claudette Colbert slapping a bitch

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Danny

Danny is a librarian who lives on the coast of California with his lovely wife, adorable daughter, and yappy dog. He blogs bi-weekly at pre-code.com, a website dedicated to Hollywood films from 1930 to 1934, and can be found on Twitter @PreCodeDotCom.

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