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Motion pictures came on the scene just as the world's mighty sailing ships were being phased out. Yet steam and diesel could not replace the romance of the high seas, and ocean-going adventure remained a staple of Hollywood fare. Flicker Alley's disc Under Full Sail: Silent Cinema on the High Seas gathers a major silent feature and several pioneering short subjects filmed on real sailing vessels.
The Yankee Clipper is a Cecil B. De Mille production from 1927, directed by Rupert Julian of The Phantom of the Opera fame. It stars the handsome William Boyd, still eight years away from his career-making role as Hopalong Cassidy. Boyd is the intrepid American Sea Captain Hal Winslow, the master of a swift square-rigger that hopes to compete with English ships for the lion's share of the tea trade with China. A tea broker suggests a race from Foochow to Boston with the prize of a valuable contract. Winslow also accepts the other captain's proposal that the ships themselves be put at stake, racing "for pinks", as it were. The nominal story has Winslow become enamored of beautiful Lady Jocelyn, daughter of the captain of the competing ship (Elinor Fair, Boyd's wife at the time). Discovering that Jocelyn's fiancé Richard (John Miljan) is a cheating coward, Winslow takes them both with him on the racing voyage rather than lose her.
The race gives Richard ample time to reveal his craven nature to Lady Jocelyn. Other side interests involve Mickey, a spirited juvenile stowaway (Frank Coghlan Jr.), a typhoon and a water shortage that leads to a mutiny. Racial attitudes are what one would expect. Dark-skinned members of the crew skulk about like savages. Young Mickey riles an irate Chinese guard, whose dialogue inter-title is a welter of angry ideograms. Mickey shows his sensitivity toward foreigners by snapping back, "Aw, go eat a rat!"
Boyd and Fair make a fine couple but the appeal of The Yankee Clipper is the ship itself. Sailing ships look majestic from almost any angle, and cameraman John Mescall takes full advantage of the possibilities. When the crew sets the sails, we're treated to many breathtaking shots from high in the rigging. Other scenes use rather good miniatures; the Chinese port is an large landscape model in a water tank..
John E. Stone's insert booklet essay tells us that filming took place over six weeks on the ship Indiana as it sailed back and forth between San Diego and Santa Barbara. As with many ships used in movies of this period, the Indiana had been purchased from a company in Alaska. Idle since the Gold Rush days, it had been left at anchor in the cold northern waters "where wood-damaging sea life could not live".
The other films in the set are short subjects documenting tall-masted ships at work. Ship Ahoy (1928) is a brief study of a vessel that hauls lumber up the Eastern seaboard from the Carolinas. Enormous planks and beams are stacked high on its desks. 1932's The Square Rigger is a Movietone Newsreel with occasional sync sound, filmed on the beautiful white Polish square rigger Dar Pomoza. A school ship built in Germany in 1909, it was taken by France as a spoil of WW1 before being purchased by Poland. The maritime students sing "Anchors Aweigh" in Polish as they work a giant winch on the sunny deck.
Around the Horn in a Square Rigger from 1933 records a speed race by the four-masted bark Parma, then still in service hauling wool and grain from Australia to Europe. As Stone explains, a few sailing ships remained economical for bulk cargoes when a speedy delivery wasn't essential. By this time experienced crews were difficult to come by, and the Captain's daughter is seen happily pitching in with the deck work.
The final show is an excerpt from a 1922 production of the whaling story Down to the Sea in Ships, produced by the city of New Bedford to record the traditions of their forebears. The section chosen is a whale chase in longboats, an excellent recreation of men hunting the creatures with nothing more than hand-thrown harpoons
Flicker Alley's Under Full Sail: Silent Cinema on the High Seas is yet another quality DVD produced by David Shepard and Jeffrey Masino. The main feature The Yankee Clipper is in excellent shape and has been transferred with tints intact. The organ music score is by Dennis James, who also provides a track for the Down to the Sea in Ships excerpt. The other shorts are in fairly good condition, with The Square Rigger looking the best and Around the Horn in a Square Rigger intact but suffering from image deterioration. The vintage Movietone audio on The Square Rigger is quite clear. Eric Beheim contributes additional music backgrounds.
The insert booklet provides much more nautical detail and historical background on the ships pictured and the maritime traditions they represent; essayist John E. Stone is a U.S. Navy marine engineer as well as a film scholar. Organist and silent movie expert Dennis James contributes his own essay on his scores for the films, his working method and the giant Wurlitzer organ used for the recordings.
A special extra is an audio recording of the memories of 92 year-old Frank Coghlan Jr., the youthful star of The Yankee Clipper. Coghlan recalls being invited to act when he visited a movie set at the age of four, as well as other aspects of his long career. Serial fans will remember Coghlan in his role as Billy Batson in the original 1941 serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel -- he's the energetic kid who transformed himself with the magic word "Shazam!"
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