Proof That It’s Pre-Code:
- I love this line and the way Fay Wray delivers it: “I want to get into your diving suit. It’s just for one picture. That would be alright, wouldn’t it?”
- Our hero picks up a dog by the scruff of its neck and has to severely resist throwing it overboard.
- A prostitute plays a large part in the film’s plot.
- Fay Wray’s reaction to Ralph Bellamy‘s kiss: “Does this come under the heading of science or art? Whichever it is, you have definite possibilities.”
- Fay: “He’s curious about fish, I’m curious about human beings.”
Ralph: “You mean men, don’t ya?”
Fay: “Quite so! Men are the most interesting of human beings.”
- Not exactly Pre-Code necessarily, but this film has a rather high body count, as both a sailing ship and a u-boat get blown to smithereens with only one man surviving.
Poor Fay Wray. She never really seems to get a break when it comes to the giant monsters. Earlier in 1933 it was King Kong. Now, in Below the Sea, she’s got a double whammy of a killer octopus and Ralph Bellamy as her leading man. Bellamy’s scarier by a hair– you should see how much eye shadow he gets to layer on for most of the picture– but she has to handle both brutes in this picture with only her large lung capacity to save her.
But Below the Sea doesn’t so much set out to make her the protagonist, but as the instrument of change that redeems Bellamy and wipes that makeup off of his face. He’s a crooked diver, who has seen his fortunes at a low point after he makes a deal with a former German U-boat captain to scavenge some lost Kaiser gold from the sea floor.
Yes, ‘lost Kaiser gold’. It’s funny to think that Germany’s always been seen as this vile nation that produces treasure just for brave young adventurers to seek out.
Anyway, the U-boat captain had a pretty funny story himself (and I’m actually working my way back to the beginning of the picture here), as he was on the U-boat when it was attacked by a privateer and both ships sunk. The movie daringly begins the film on the U-boat, and we’re treated to the captain’s perspective for the first twenty or so minutes of the movie. While it’s not a positive portrayal of Germans, it’s still remarkably demanding of the audience’s good will.
He charters Bellamy to recover the gold after getting rescued from a desert island and being presumed dead. He goes through a third party– a prostitute— and together they set out to find the gold. Only to have that ship sink, too, in a spectacular storm.
Meanwhile and about three years later, Wray’s a slightly eccentric heiress who’s chartered a bright shiny scientific expedition to explore the mysteries of the deep. Bellamy and the captain, who’ve apparently been biding their time for three years, scheme to use their new diving bell to sink down and grab the gold themselves.
Wray is the proverbial wrench in their plan, as she easily seduces and breaks Bellamy of years of greed and growling. Wray is such a calculated ball of frenzied seduction that Bellamy is almost taken aback. When he tries to assert himself over her, she even gets a chance to fight back by making some kissy faces with another guy.
Of course, then he tries to kill her by cutting off her oxygen, which puts them at odds with each other and finally makes Bellamy snap out of his haze. Ralph Bellamy– who was great back in Picture Snatcher as a drunk newspaper manager– hasn’t really got the charm for a romantic lead, and in this specific scenario especially. Not many romantic movies get away with the male lead almost murdering the female, and even if Bellamy were Cary Grant here, this wouldn’t look too shiny.
Lucky for him Wray’s there, as her pep and moves make the movie infinitely better than it would been otherwise. She’s got a bounce in her step like the best of the Pre-Code dames, even though she seems to have been confined to the monster movies.
“A lady likes to be conscious when she’s kissed…”
There’s also not a lot to analyze or talk about with Below the Sea, since this is another Pre-Code that turns into a different movie every ten minutes. German submarine thriller? Doomed deep sea diving expedition? Adventure flick about two rivals who are stuck with each other? Snappy romantic comedy? Giant squid out of nowhere? Ironic revenge on a greedy villain? Check, check, check, check, and check. And check, in case I missed one.
And, as I’ve stated before, this freedom is something I really love in Pre-Codes. They take the loose ideas of structure from the silent films and morality that’s a lot closer to today’s than anything you’ll see in the films of the 40’s and 50’s and you’ll discover something wondrously liberating.
Bellamy’s attempted murder of Wray would never happen in a movie today, never, and the movie uses it to teach him a valuable lesson. It’s like when John Cussack learns to be a self obsessed dick in High Fidelity, only instead of revisiting his exes he ties Liz up by the neck until she passes out and he realizes that was probably a bad thing to do. And then they kiss and make up!
According to IMDB, there is a short portion of film missing that was shot in two strip technicolor, and it’s not hard to pick out where the missing footage is since a scientist fades out saying, “here is some amazing new footage from under the sea” and then the film immediately fades back in with “that sure was some amazing footage, huh?” It’s a shame that portion is missing, since I think the film is really missing the ten minutes of “nature documentary” that would have really rounded out the package.
As it is, with Bellamy’s okay performance and a rather anticlimactic giant squid fight, Wray’s gusto and the film’s adventurous spirit overcomes all of it. This is one of the strangest expeditions I’ve ever seen, but I couldn’t help but be swept away by its charms.
Did you… did you see what I did there? Swept away? It’s an ocean movie? … I’ll shut up now.
Erich Kuersten · May 14, 2013 at 12:20 pm
I just found this site trying to find out if Whoopee (1934) was pre-code. This is some awesomeness you have here. I tried to watch Below the Sea when it was recently on TCM – I’m a sucker for giant octopi, if you’ll forgive the expression, but just couldn’t seem to get into it. Now I’m kicking for myself for having deleted it from my Tivo to make room for I already forget what. Good times! Keep up the good work. And never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump. I thank you
Danny · May 16, 2013 at 6:54 pm
Thanks for the compliment! Yeah, I think this is the first movie where I really saw just how charming Fay Wray is. The movie isn’t great– good god, why anyone tried to make Ralph Bellamy a romantic lead is beyond me– and I don’t totally blame you for giving up. If it ever resurfaces (HA), give it a chance. It gets better!
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