The Beachcomber (1938), AKA Vessel of Wrath
Under Comedy, on Roku’s “PubDHub” channel, I found The Beachcomber, starring Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester, real life husband and wife. Lanchester is most widely known from The Bride of Frankenstein and the most famous monster role of Laughton’s career was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Curious to see their work together, I took a seat with this oldie but goodie. Or, at least, oldie but not baddie. It is based on Somerset Maugham’s short story, The Vessel of Wrath.
Those who grew up moving their TV antenna to get better reception will understand my willingness to watch the soft, fuzzy edges of this old video copy. But the big, beautiful eyes of Elsa Lanchester, as Martha Jones, keep us riveted to her. Both actors keep this island picture afloat, but their characters aren’t very appealing. She’s a busy body Christian missionary who deplores strong drink and he’s a beach bum and a selfish drunk to boot. The couple’s acting and scenes together are the highlight of this one.
To its credit, Beachcombers uses the island’s indigenous people as actors as well, using their native language in multiple scenes. As was the way with many stories and movies of its time, its stance on colonialism and its oblivious disrespect for the native people is evident, though Laughton’s character, Ginger Ted, does challenge some of those assumptions, however modestly and hypocritically.
At its climax though is a harrowing showdown over vaccinations. The clashing cultures and religious practices of the missionaries and the traditional beliefs of the islanders come to a head on a frightful night in the jungle. Moody lighting, deep shadows, and ratcheting tension supply fans of classic horror films a taste of that flavor, but this is finally more of a screwball comedy with some lessons tossed in.
The film moves along and ends as you might expect but both characters, under their creators’ capable portrayals, become more likable. He bends her ways slightly and she does the same to his. One of Laughton’s best lines, delivered almost under his breath, “One more peep out of you, my girl, and I’ll spank you, ‘til you can’t sit down,” leaves Miss Jones wide-eyed but silent. All this leads to an expectedly satisfying ending.
I later found a copy of this movie on YouTube of about the same quality but one that has subtitles provided by the Closed Caption Media. Subtitles may be slightly visually obtrusive but helpful, as the sound is also a bit muddy. The Beachcombers is worth watching for fans of the actors, and it receives three stars in Maltin’s Classic Film Guide.