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IT ISN’T THAT I’VE been ignoring Herman Melville’s saga of Ahab and the White Whale. Despite the fact that I’ve never actually read this epic nineteenth-century novel, SimanaitisSays has discussed “Mathematics and Moby-Dick” and the Orson Welles version that was part of “Operatic Oceantics.”
This time around, tidbits are gleaned from the 1930 John Barrymore version. What’s more, they prompt me to suggest a new parlor game. (Homes still have parlors, right? It’s where one entertains the insurance man when he comes collecting.)
The Plot. Barrymore’s Moby Dick is missing the hyphen of Melville’s original, but it more than makes up for this omission. It opens with a prequel that suggests an entirely new Ahab: He’s a light-hearted sailor arriving on a New Bedford whaler. He meets and falls for Faith, daughter of the local minister; so does his brother Derek. She’s heart-broken when Ahab signs on for another three-year stint, but promises to wait for him.
There’s no Ishmael, but South Sea heathen Queequeg befriends Ahab in this second voyage. Moby Dick takes Ahab’s right leg; Barrymore gets to emote in the cauterization scene, performed logically by the ship’s blacksmith.
Ahab returns to New Bedford prepared to give up marrying Faith; his brother neglects to tell him that she would take him peg-leg and all.
Ahab returns to sea with maniacal revenge against Moby Dick. Eventually he raises enough cash to buy his own ship, but other sailors are reluctant to join him.
No problem, First Mate Starbuck shanghais the needed crew—including (a good twist!) Ahab’s brotherly rival Derek.
In a killer storm, the crew is near mutiny led by you-know-who. Ahab and Derek fight, the latter having the upper hand, not to say a full count of legs. But Queequeg comes to Ahab’s rescue, and breaks Derek’s back.
Moby Dick is encountered, and anyone who knows the story is ready for Ahab fighting the whale to a mutual demise. Sure enough, he harpoons and mounts the vast cetacean for the kill.
Ah, but this is Hollywood. And in the subsequent scene, the crew is boiling down Moby Dick and singing merry chanties.
They arrive back in New Bedford. Ahab has a warm parting with Queequeg, “You’re a good heathen…..,” and he then strides, no, sorta hobbles, to the parsonage. Faith is reading a book. Their eyes meet. They embrace. The End.
Earlier and Later Versions. The Sea Beast was a 1926 silent Barrymore rendering along the same lines: boy meets girl, boy meets whale, boy limps back to girl. Ditto for a lost 1931 German version, Dämon des Meeres, Demon of the Sea, co-directed by Michael Curtiz (who went on to direct lots of films that weren’t lost, Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, etc.).
A New Parlor Game. Iconoclastic though the Barrymore Moby Dick is, it’s not unsatisfying and this got me thinking about Hollywood endings to other tragedies: For instance, Hamlet and Ophelia happily rule Denmark after Claudius and Gertrude go through an amiable divorce. Polonius never got it in the arras.
Macbeth sulks a bit about Duncan’s kingship, but his wife persuades him it’s no big deal. They thrive in Glamis. Macduff’s mother had a natural birth.
Lear’s daughters each marry well and move to the suburbs. He spoils the grandkids.
Jean Valjean cops the plea on the bread-stealing caper. Javert learns to swim. Name change to Les Formidables!
Aristophanes teams up with Aeschylus and The Oresteia is transformed into a musical comedy called Athena’s Holiday. The Greek Chorus includes dancing girls.
Gee, this is fun.
You’re encouraged to Hollywoodize your favorites. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022
Moby Dick was required reading in high school sophomore English Lit. Most of the interpretations preferred by the teacher would have, if moviefied (?) be at least R rated.
Gee, I’m sorry I missed those lectures. All I recall was it was about this wacko and a big fish. Duh.
I’m thinking Norman Bates marries Janet Leigh’s character and becomes a successful psychiatrist.
It’s a great book. I particularly liked how as Ahab and his crew become absorbed into the obsessive quest and approach their doom, the tone and language morph from light and even humorous to dark and Shakespearean. Dennis, you should absolutely read it when you have time. Parts of it are very gripping and the sense of approaching doom is suspenseful, although not in your face.
Everyone compares President TFG to King Lear, but I always thought the better analogy is to Ahab. Total obsession, narcissism, and a willingness to use others to achieve one’s own obsession…leading to a descent into complete denial and madness…and dragging almost everyone with him into the abyss.