Watching 1939: Pacific Liner (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Pacific Liner (1939)

Release date:  Jan. 6, 1939

Cast:  Victor McLaglen, Chester Morris, Wendy Barrie, Barry Fitzgerald, Alan Hale, Emory Parnell, Halliwell Hobbes, Allan Lane, Paul Guilfoyle, Cy Kendall, Florence Lake (uncredited), Douglas Walton (uncredited), Ernest Whitman (uncredited)

Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures

Director:  Lew Landers

Set in 1932, Crusher “The Dragon” McKay (McLaglen) is the engineer of a cruise ship heading from Shanghai to San Fransisco. McKay is no-nonsense and works his men hard, especially in the boiler room, so that the ship will run at a fast pace and make good time. When there is a cholera outbreak in the decks below, Doctor Craig (Morris) takes over and calls the shots.

1939 Notes:
• Chester Morris was in four films released in 1939.
• Victor McLaglen was in eight films released in 1939.
• Eddie Bracken’s first film role as an uncredited junior officer.

Other trivia: 
• This is an Academy Award-winning film. Music director Russell Bennett was nominated for Best Music (Original Score).
• Val Lewton reused the ship in “The Ghost Ship” (1943)

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
“Pacific Liner” (1939) is one of those movies that begins and you think it will take a predictable plot path, but surprises you (in a good way) by heading in a completely different direction.

Set on a luxury cruise ship, the film’s plot doesn’t follow the guests playing shuffleboard or dancing in evening clothes. Instead, our central characters are those making the ship move — the sweaty, hardworking men in the boiler room who are a stark contrast to passengers on the ship.

When the film begins we meet the ships new doctor, played by Chester Morris, and his nurse Wendy Barrie — and the two have a past. Head engineer Victor McLaglen also is smitten over Barrie. So naturally, you think, “Oh this is just going to be a movie about these two fighting over Wendy Barrie.”

Not so much.

McLaglen is notified that a stowaway from Saigon is on the ship. Shortly after he’s discovered, the stowaway dies from cholera in the boiler room and all of the workers are quarantined. McLaglen, who is used to calling the shots, is angry and pushes back as Chester Morris has to take over; quarantining the men, instructing them not to touch what others have touched, and giving them shots.

“Listen to them dancing, on the lid of a coffin,” one of the boiler room works says about the guests dancing above.

McLaglen has always prided himself for his job of being able to keep ships at a fast pace. But as his men get sick — or die — the ship slows down. The men are also reluctant to work when death is staring them in the face.

When the workers threaten mutiny, it raises the question: Would you work in the same situation? If your coworkers were dropping dead around you from a disease, would you continue to shovel coal just so rich ship passengers can make it across the ocean?

My only real question with the movie was why the decision to set it in July 1932. I couldn’t find any reference to other cholera outbreaks, so I thought it was an interesting plot point.

The studio built a full steamship set for this film, which was not generally their practice. The ship was later reused in the Val Lewton film, “Ghost Ship” (1943), according to Fearing the Dark: The Val Lewton Career by Edmund G. Bansak.

“Pacific Liner” (1939) is also an Academy Award-nominated film. Composer Robert Russell Bennett was nominated for Best Music, Original Score, but the film lost Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Adventures of Robin Hood” score. Released in January 1939, the film nomination was recognized in the 11th Academy Awards for the films released in 1938, held February 1939.

“Pacific Liner” may not be an “A” budget picture, but I would say it steps just above a “B” film. Running at an hour and 12 minutes, it’s exciting and also has moments where you are concerned and even sad.

The leading men Victor McLaglen and Chester Morris could not be two more different people, which worked perfectly with their roles. McLaglen was loud and boisterous (but you still love him) and Morris is calm, collected but stern under the strain of an outbreak.

Wendy Barrie’s character has very little screentime. While her past with Morris is interesting, it isn’t discussed much. I have a feeling she was only written into the script so that there would be some sort of storyline.

The supporting cast is also great and conveys most of the story, emotion and angst that the workers are feeling. Some of the highlights are the characters played by
Barry Fitzgerald, Alan Hale and Ernest Whitman.

“Pacific Liner” is not only a good movie but was a pleasant surprise. The cholera outbreak added intrigue and made me genuinely concerned for the characters, and was also refreshing instead of a two-men-arguing-over-a-girl plotline.

“Pacific Liner” is now available on DVD through Warner Archive.

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2 thoughts on “Watching 1939: Pacific Liner (1939)

  1. RKO did not generally produce “poverty row” films, they were always considered a major studio, as all the studios that owned their own theater chains were. They produced a number of major hits in 1939, including THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and GUNGA DIN. PACIFIC LINER was a programmer on their schedule, but had a much larger budget than something coming from true “poverty row” studios like Monogram or PRC.



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