Having only recently discovered the treasure-house that is YouTube in terms of sourcing early films -- sometimes only clips but often the full movie -- I have been like a child let loose in the candy store. I am saving some of the more delicious treats for future viewing with much of the joy being in the anticipation, but I have also managed to cross off half a dozen 'would-like-to-sees' from my famous list.
These include: "Mr. Krueger's Christmas" (1980) a rather saccharine Christmas short which James Stewart made for television in cooperation with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; a somewhat disappointing "Paris is Burning", a black drag documentary from 1990 (I somehow envisioned something even more flamboyant and subversive); "The Killer is Loose" (1956) which has mild-mannered bank clerk Wendell Corey engineering a raid on his own bank, seeing his wife killed in the crossfire when he is arrested, and then escaping prison to seek revenge on police officer Joseph Cotton by killing his wife, Rhonda Fleming; and a pre-code curiosity from 1932 "Thirteen Women" which had half-caste Myrna Loy (she had a lot of similar roles in her early movies for some reason) systematically wreaking havoc on the gaggle of women who had made her life a misery at school. The last of these was fascinating -- not good so much as weird.
However, the above captioned film has been on my list for yonks; I knew it was available on an U.S. DVD, but had never got around to buying a copy. The reason for its inclusion was that it features a memorable performance from one of my all-time screen favourites, Charles Laughton. It was in fact his American film debut and he is introduced in the front credits as the 'eminent English character actor". "The Old Dark House" was in fact made first, but released subsequently so that commercial hay could be made of his teaming with Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant (in one of his earliest films). Laughton plays a submarine commander at a port somewhere in the middle East who is obsessively jealous and possessive of his comely wife. There is obviously no love lost on her part, but whether her flirtations justify his worst suspicions is a moot point. Her first would-be love object is the dashing young officer Grant, so Laughton promptly dismisses him from his post, and he sadly disappears from the story. Bankhead runs off into the night and meets up with Cooper for a caution-to-the-winds romantic evening; however she discovers on the morrow that he is in fact Grant's replacement on Laughton's vessel, and her husband immediately plots their comeuppance.
When Laughton discovers that she is on board in the attempt to explain matters to Cooper, he launches the sub earlier than scheduled and sabotages the vessel, plotting to put an end to any possible romance between Bankhead and the attractive officer. However, he cripples the vessel so badly that everyone's life is in danger as water pours through the hatches. When Bankhead appeals to the crew that her hubby is well and truly gaga, Cooper mutinies and takes over command. It is then a mad scramble to save the lives of all on board. In a final scene between Coop and Charlie, with the former brandishing a gun and the latter waving an axe, Laughton finally locks himself in a separate compartment, hacks at a photo of Bankhead with his trusty axe, and laughing hysterically all the while finally sinks under the rising water. His is an over-the-top but bravura piece of acting and I can think of no other actor who could have gotten away with such histrionics.
Although she appeared in occasional silent movies between 1918 and 1928, Bankhead was primarily a stage actress. She had a Hollywood fling in 1931 and 1932 when she made six or seven movies of which this was the penultimate, but did not appear in films again until Hitchcock's "Lifeboat" (1944). Never having seen her on stage, I don't know whether she shone more brightly there, but in this film she serves mainly as a spur to the action and a rather elegant clotheshorse. She wears slinky gowns throughout, flattering her slim but womanly figure, and even manages to rise through the water to escape from the sub in a long cocktail dress and high heels! Cooper's role is strangely wooden -- he was certainly capable of more emotive acting later on -- but he plays the requisite tall, handsome hunk adequately. Grant's screen time is so limited that one gets only a small indication of the charmer he would become. Technical credits are excellent and the underwater scenes are both exciting and surprisingly expertly handled by jobbing director Marion Gering.
A big thank you to whoever uploaded this film (albeit in six parts) to YouTube. I enjoyed every bit of the extravagant drama and unexpected casting.