Watching 1939: Thunder Afloat (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: 
Thunder Afloat (1939)

Release date: 
Sept. 15, 1939

Wallace Beery, Chester Morris, Virginia Grey, Douglass Dumbrille, Carl Esmond, Clem Bevans, John Qualen, Regis Toomey, Henry Victor, Addison Richards, Jonathan Hale, Lean Ames (uncredited), Frank Faylen (uncredited), Milton Kibbee (uncredited)


George B. Seitz

Set during World War I, tugboat owner John Thorson (Beery) has his tug sunk by a German U-boat off the New England coast. Furious about the incident, John enlists in the Navy. Rocky Blake (Morris), who was John’s tugboat rival, is an officer in the Navy and clashes with John, who resists military discipline.

1939 Notes:
• By the numbers:
– Wallace Beery was in three films released in 1939.
– Chester Morris was in four films released in 1939.
– Virginia Grey was in six films released in 1939.
– Clem Bevans was in 18 films released in 1939.
– John Qualen was in seven films released in 1939.
– Regis Toomey was in 12 films released in 1939.
– Leon Ames was in 13 films released in 1939.
– Frank Faylen was in 18 films released in 1939.
– Milton Kibbee was in 25 films released in 1939.
– Douglass Dumbrille was in 9 films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• The film is based on the July 1918 sinking of the Perth Amboy tugboat off the coast of New Orleans.
• Franchot Tone was originally set as the male lead but was replaced by Chester Morris when Tone fell ill, according to “Chester Morris: His Life and Career” by Scott Allen Nollen and Yuyun Yuningsih.
• The film was released earlier than planned because war broke out in Europe.
• Filming locations included Annapolis, MD; around the Coronado Islands off San Diego, CA; and San Pedro, CA.

Wallace Beery and Virginia Grey in “Thunder Afloat.”

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
As the conflict unfolded in Europe in 1939, some Hollywood films wove messages into their films that reflected the events with an anti-German message.

Several of these took the form of World War I films, such as THUNDER AFLOAT.

The film takes place during World War I in a New England town. Pop Thorson (Beery) and Rocky Blake (Morris) rival tugboat owners. Pop’s daughter Susan (Grey) is caught in the middle of their feud: she supports her father but also is in love with Rocky.

Blake enlists in the Navy. Now with his tugboat out of the way, Pop has now competition, but he still runs into trouble. Pop encounters a German submarine while he’s out to sea, who sink his tugboat. To get even, Pop also enlists in the Navy … but finds himself reporting to Rocky. Pop has a hard time taking orders and runs into trouble, until he redeems himself.
THUNDER AFLOAT is entertaining with Morris and Beery in their usual type of roles. Beery is a blowhard and Morris is a tough guy. Virginia Grey is lovely as usual.

While the film is set in World War I, the message is for the conflict brewing in 1939. THUNDER AFLOAT was released earlier than planned after Germany invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939.

Most interesting is that the film was based on true events. In July 1918, the Perth Amboy tugboat sinking off the coast of New Orleans.

Movies like this may not seem important in the grand scheme of 1939 and Hollywood history. However, while the United States was neutral to the conflict in 1939 and 1940, some Hollywood films (like this one) toed the line in showing support for the allies.

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