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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Ship of Fools

The fourth Best Picture nominee from 1965 is Ship of Fools, a typical effort from Stanley Kramer, who mostly made socially-conscious films that tended towards the self-important and lugubrious (the notable exception is It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, one of my favorite comedies). Ship of Fools has almost no levity, and was so lugubrious it could put a viewer in a bad mood.

Based on the novel by Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools is set on a German cruise ship headed from Veracruz, Mexico to Bremerhaven in 1933. It has a variety of passengers, and follows the template set down by Grand Hotel and many other films that take a location and focus on many different characters and stories. I wonder if the creators of The Love Boat were thinking of this film.

Of course, 1933 was a a portentous time in Germany, as the Nazi party had just come to power. This is represented by Jose Fertrer, as a publisher and fervent racist, who at one point advocates putting to death all useless people, including the old. He is tolerated by the other passengers, and the thoughtful ship's doctor (Oskar Werner) says he likes to listen to him, because he realizes none of this can ever come to pass. It's sort of like people today saying they are entertained by Donald Trump.

There are lots of loaded lines like that in the film. A Jewish passenger, used to the slights of Germans, is still proud to be a German. He tells his friend, the cynical dwarf (Michael Dunn) that he is not a fool--there are one million Jews in Germany, are they going to kill them all?

The main story is that of Werner, who has a weak heart and has lost his interest in life. It is renewed when a woman (Simone Signoret) comes aboard in Cuba. She has been arrested for supplying arms and support to workers and will be imprisoned on the Canary Islands. These two lonely people find solace together. Another passenger, Vivienne Leigh (in her last film) is a bitter middle-aged woman. Lee Marvin is an ex-ballplayer, forever bemoaning his inability to hit a curveball. George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley are a pair of young lovers who constantly fight--he's a painter who is for the downtrodden masses, she not so much.

The film is well constructed and acted: Werner, Signoret, and Dunn were all nominated for Oscars. I just found the whole thing a bit soggy and bloated. It's two and a half hours, and with an unrelenting dreariness. Dunn, as sort of a Greek chorus, is the only source of amusement, and tells us at the beginning that it is a ship of fools. But when you tell us something like that it kind of puts the cart before the horse. Also, some of the characters weren't completely fleshed out. I still don't know why a baseball player was headed to Germany, nor why Leigh was on the boat, either. It took 26 days for the ship to complete its voyage, so one didn't sail on a whim, I imagine.


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