For a brief period of time, John Wayne took a break from his contract with Republic Studios and signed on with Universal to appear in six non-cowboy adventure films.
Within a year and a half, he returned to Republic Studios who put him right back in the saddle and riding the range once more in the genre for which he is obviously most well-known for.
The Universal films are therefore a bit of an oddity in JW 1930s career but still worth a look, so here goes with the first film in Wayne’s Universal period.
Sea Spoilers (1936) Universal, Dir: Frank Strayer, b/w, 63m
Cast: John Wayne, Nan Gray, William Bakewell, Fuzzy Knight, Russell Hicks, George Irving
In “Sea Spoilers” John Wayne plays Bob Randall, bosun of the Coastguard patrol boat “Niobe” which is assigned to patrol the waters off Alaska.
The tone of the film is set right from the very beginning when Bob is first seen engaging in a one-sided conversation with someone going by the name of Mabel, only for it to be revealed that Mabel is actually a sea lion.
Apparently, it was smuggled aboard by Chief Petty Officer Hogan, played by perennial cinema side-kick Fuzzy Knight.
When the boat docks Randall is greeted by girlfriend Connie Dawson, played by Nan Grey. As they’re about to move in for a smooch they turn and realise that the whole crew is gawking at them.
These boys have obviously been at sea way too long.
Passed over for promotion by the boss’s son, Lieutenant Mays, played by William Bakewell, junior turns out to be a bit of a martinet, instructing Bob that they will immediately set sail the following morning.
Bob decides he can’t leave without saying goodbye to Connie, who works as a singer and is currently employed to entertain guests at a party held on a yacht boat owned by a well-off old man called Reggie.
Unfortunately for Reggie he finds a smuggled sealskin and sets off a whole other world of trouble resulting in his murder.
Connie witnesses the crime so is kidnapped by sealskin villain Phil Morgan, played by Russell Hicks.
Bob arrives just not in the nick of time and, after one of those sequences involving a collage of newspaper headlines so beloved of low-budget filmmakers i.e. “Reggie Winton Slain” / “Connie Dawson Missing!” / “Coast Guard Uncovers Poachers”, the “Niobe” is off in hot pursuit of the bad guys.
“Try your best to look innocent,” says Morgan to a swarthy smuggler of indeterminant ethnicity called Johnny “Hop-Scotch” who sports a not very innocent looking moustache.
Another representative of ethnicity, an Eskimo (shouldn’t that be Inuit?) character called Oil, is espied on an island containing a seal rookery.
Bob tells his new superior Mays, who wants to go ashore and talk to Oil that he, Bob, should come along as well, otherwise Mays won’t be able to “understand the lingo”.
It soon becomes clear that, on finding out from Oil that the seal poachers have already visited the island, the name bestowed upon him by Bob and the crew is down to him drinking the stuff by the bottle. Don’t you just love those crazy foreigners?
When the boat gets back to base Bob finds out that Lieutenant Mays has transferred to the Coast Guard air service which means Bob is now back in charge of the “Niobe”.
Mays suffers from a phobia of rough seas in which he “goes to pieces”, but now he’s going to be up in the air which of course means, as any cinemagoer worth their weight in celluloid will tell you, that he’s on the road to redemption in helping Bob to find Connie.
Sure enough, when Bob and Hogan go undercover to try and track down the poachers, Mays gets in touch by radio and tells them he’s having problems with his plane.
He lands right next to the poachers who then kidnap him as well. The game is now afoot as Bob and Hogan go looking for Mays, only to find Oil murdered nearby. “We’ll search every cove and back bay of these waters” Bob declares over the body of his dead olive oil guzzling friend.
The boys track down Morgan and his murderous side-kick Nick Austin.
They pose as sealskin traders in order to ingratiate themselves with the villains as they try and locate the whereabouts of Bob’s squeeze, Connie, but Morgan sees through their disguise – it doesn’t help that Bob and Hogan introduce themselves as Smith and Jones – and throws them in the hoosegow alongside the captured Mays.
Morgan persuades Bob to help him divert the Coast Guard whilst he and his cronies smuggle two-million-dollars-worth of sealskins in another direction, the persuasion taking the form of having the living crap kicked out of Mays as well as the threat of imminent extinction of Connie.
With the villains listening in Bob contacts his Coast Guard friends but uses a hidden message that tells them the instructions he’s given them are bogus.
Just as the Coast Guard arrives Bob, Hogan and Mays escape incarceration with the help of Nick’s unhappy girlfriend who has a bad case of scorned woman.
A massive gun fire then ensues between the opposing forces with Morgan getting blown to bits in the process, helped on by a hand grenade delivered courtesy of Bob.
I have to say it makes a change to see JW riding the waves instead of the range but I’m not sure Duke looks that comfortable at home on a boat.
On the other hand, if you count yourself amongst the kind of demographic that likes to watch a film featuring a grown man being chased by a seal on account of his trousers smelling like fish then I’d say this one is definitely for you.
Trivia Note: The screenplay is by George Waggner or Waggonner as he was known back then and who went on to direct two later films with Wayne, “The Fighting Kentuckian” and “Operation Pacific”.