Captain Applejack (1931) Reviews

Danny INDIFFERENTThe 1931 feature Captain Applejack is a kind of movie that’s not entirely easy to encapsulate. Let’s begin at the beginning and work our way to somewhere attuned to sobriety, shall we?

The movie begins with a massive mansion on the cliff above the raging sea. It’s a dark and stormy night, and you will never forget that since the people working Foley for this film saw fit to include howls of wind and crashing waves loud enough to drown out every other line.

We cut to the inside where we find Ambrose Applejohn. You can tell he leads a boring life through a number of visual cues (and a title card, but that’s more because this was 1931 and they still wanted to throw the title card illustrators some work). First we see that his casual, evening in attire consists of a tuxedo. Second, he is playing the standing double bass, an instrument that is only of interest to jazz quartets and men desperately in need of jazz quartets.

Listening dutifully to his playing are his Aunt Agatha, reading a magazine, and his ward, Poppy Faire, sitting around with a star crossed look in her eye. Poppy is painfully obviously in love with Ambrose, and besides possibly years on unknowing indoctrination, it’s not clear why. Meanwhile, paging through the magazine, Agatha finds an advertisement for the house that they’re living in– Ambrose has decided to sell the estate and see the world.

“An Applejohn! Wanting to see things!” huffs Aunt Agatha. Ambrose admits he does, and soon his descriptions of how he sees his life abroad– matching wits with villains and rescuing helpless princesses– reveal a man who seems a couple of compass points away from due North, if you get what I mean. Poppy is, of course, lustfully jealous.

In most other movies, we’d follow Ambrose as his dreams are not met and he realizes that Poppy is his true love. Not here, though, for on this dark and stormy night we instead get a knock on the door. It’s Madame Anna Valeska, a former member of the Russian royal family on the run from an evil baron, intent on killing her and taking the jewels back. She quickly sets about seducing Ambrose, noting “Respectability and love… they have nothing in common!” She’s too happy to give up her body for a nice room and perhaps breakfast in the morning.

There’s another knock at the door and it’s a circus psychic and his wife, interested in looking at the house. Ambrose is too happy to oblige, though the audience is quickly let in that the two are searching for something a little different than a good bargain. They depart quickly and yet another knock at the door brings in Ivan Borolsky, a tall man in a cossack hat, precisely the kind of villain that Ambrose dreamed of dueling with not moments before.

If any of this seems ludicrous, well, sorry, we’re not quite all the way there yet. Though Ambrose manages to trick Ivan into giving him the fully loaded gun and ushering him out of the house, strange things still seem afoot. Poppy and Ambrose discover a loose panel with claw marks left by the psychic’s wife, and inside they find a letter written on ratty old parchment.

The letter clearly explains how one of Ambrose’s great old relatives was actually the pirate king Ambrose Applejack. Yes, he changed the name from Applejack to Applejohn.. clever. And no one really seemed to catch on until now.

This transforms the movie into a hunt for the old pirate’s treasure… well, soonly. Before that, we have our Ambrose, realizing his entire life was a lie, going into a trance and imagining himself as the elder Ambrose.

As if the movie couldn’t get any more ridiculous, actor John Halliday as Ambrose Applejack plays him as the penultimate horny pirate, with a leering madness that’s almost unsettling; he lustfully carouses the Portuguese version of Madame Anna. He shouts “Yay yay!” and she responds “Nay nay!” in perhaps one of the most punctually eloquent arguments ever.

Even more silly is the insistence of all the actors suddenly adopting pirate accents, which in this film’s world means that everyone simply uses ‘ye’ as every other word. There’s a threat of mutiny and I won’t dare spoil you on the fact that when you do ‘face card win’s, never let someone bring their own deck. Without you inspecting it. Or looking at it. Oh, come on.

The movie returns to the present and the mysterious castle here for a handful of identity revelations, a wacky chase, poor old Aunt Agatha getting mighty scared, and, what do you know, a big old bundle of pirate treasure. More and more people come in until the movie is bursting at the seams with villains for Ambrose to duel with, though strangely everyone who comes in and out from the raging storm outside sure seems awfully dry.

Captain Applejack is a strange mix of everything, a silly film that dips into vulgarity, parody, and slapstick without a blink. I can’t say I was wholly satisfied with the proceedings, but the movie contains a certain type of madness that ensured I was never bored.

Captain Applejack (1931)

This film is currently not available on DVD or on demand, and it’s really not too hard to see why.

Directed by Hobart Henley
Written by Maude Fulton
Starring John Halliday and Mary Brian