Emerging from a troubled production history, Moontide seems overlooked in the annals of film history in general, and the story of 20th Century-Fox in particular. For instance, the entry on Moontide in The Films of 20th Century-Fox: A Pictorial History describes the film as “a moody waterfront melodrama”, and, after a brief synopsis, notes: “The rather gloomy picture is made interesting by the macho presence of [Jean] Gabin.”1 In the career of star Ida Lupino, meanwhile, the film is only briefly acknowledged, as seen in this piece by Jerry Vermilye: “In ’42, she went to Fox to appear opposite Gabin in his first American picture, Moontide, an atmospheric but not too exciting tale of a dock worker (Gabin) and an apathetic waif (Lupino) in a California fishing village.”2 These two brief extracts seem somewhat dismissive, which is a pity as the film is actually an intriguing mix of gritty realism and stylish noir, a fascinating meeting of Europe and Hollywood and a curious combination of aesthetic peculiarities and moving performances.
Moontide starts at the Red Dot Bar in San Pablo, California, with an inebriated Bobo (Gabin) being alternately friendly at the bar with other drinkers, and then fighting an angry man over a woman. After this drunken night, he wakes up the next morning, disorientated, on a barge that sells live bait. He is told that Pops, an old man he met at the bar during the previous night, was strangled – a revelation that clearly unsettles Bobo, hitting close to home (also, unbeknownst to Bobo, the cap that he has mysteriously acquired belonged to the victim). Later, while walking with fellow drinker Nutsy (Claude Rains), Bobo sees a woman – later identified as Anna (Lupino) – attempting to drown herself in the night-time sea. Bobo saves the suicidal Anna, and the two tentatively get to know each other. However, Bobo’s friend Tiny (Thomas Mitchell) threatens their burgeoning relationship, with the latter holding a murky secret related to Bobo’s past.
Moontide is an odd film that does not slot neatly into one genre; it is not strictly a noir and not really a love story, while its central murder mystery is dealt with rather cursorily. It is also a strange mix of rugged realism and dreamlike moods. As Tom Charity notes:
“This lesser-known proto film noir falls squarely into the curate’s egg basket. Jean Gabin’s first US movie (of two), it’s very much in the mold of the poetic-realist films that made him a star … Fritz Lang and Lucien Ballard shot the first two weeks, then ankled, leaving Mayo and Charles Clarke to take over (Clarke went on to pick up an Academy Award nomination).”3
Interestingly, William Donati’s biography of Lupino suggests why Gabin’s presence works in the film, noting: “Gabin’s hard-edged face and solid physique gave him a distinctive working-class image and considerable romantic appeal.”4 These are immediately apparent in the opening scenes in the bar. When Bobo tells a man to “beat it” so that he can sit with a woman, it is obvious that he can back up his words with actions. However, he does not just get drunk and talk with his fists. Although we see him beat up the guy, he then quickly offers to help the fallen man to his feet, neatly establishing the two sides to Bobo’s personality – tough, yet tender. He lives the romantic and rough life of a drifter, but there is also a chivalrous, loyal side to him, and these noble qualities are exploited by Tiny.
Lupino is also a forceful figure here, playing more than just a damsel in distress – she imbues Anna with a toughness and resilience. While she appeals to Bobo’s more sensitive side and will clearly be his romantic partner in the film, it is clear that, like him, her character has had a tough life alone. There are notable moments with both actors that convey their aspirations and desires. There is a shot of Anna briefly gazing out of the window of Bobo’s messy barge interior at a brighter barge across the way, an image of domestic bliss for which she longs. Later, there is a close-up of Bobo in the bar, in which the sudden realisation of his love for Anna gradually reveals itself on his face, a superb moment conveyed mainly through Gabin’s eyes.
Anna draws out Bobo’s sensitive side, his unspoken interest in a domestic life, while Tiny, when next confronting Bobo and asking him to work, pushes him to express himself aggressively. Tiny represents the violence and single-mindedness of Bobo’s past, while Anna, whom Bobo nicknames “Sunny Side”, represents a more hopeful, positive future of companionship. Both Bobo and Anna are rootless drifters who crave individual freedom, but also long to settle down with somebody. Bobo being in the barge with Anna, situated close to the sea but on a pier that is still connected to the land, mirrors his conflict: will he be committed – and landlocked – with Anna, or will he choose to be independent by himself at sea? Of course, this also speaks to Anna’s character: she maintains a link to the stability of the mainland, but settles on the barge by the sea, perhaps reflecting the precariousness of her life (as seen earlier with her walk into the water).
While the two leads are the main focus of the film, the supporting roles are also memorable, most notably Mitchell, who up-ends his genial screen persona in a more menacing role, and Rains, almost stealing the film with his witticisms and words of wisdom. As suggested earlier, though, production of Moontide was a turbulent affair. Fritz Lang, the film’s original director, explained why he was unhappy at the start of the shoot:
“Originally it had been planned to make the film on location on the quay at San Pedro. But the war interfered: it became a strategic area, the whole vicinity was mined, and it was impossible to do the film there. So [20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F.] Zanuck decided to do it entirely in the studio, although it was set mostly on the high seas.” 5
This incident, coupled with both Gabin’s apparent unhappiness with the script and “something personal” occurring between himself and Lang, resulted in the latter’s removal from the film.6
Replacement director Archie Mayo does a fine job keeping the film together, although the clashing tones never quite mix into a satisfying dramatic whole. Donati gives a brief insight into the working process of Mayo, revealing a director who put Lupino through trying times: “Ida found the picture tough work […] Mayo insisted on realism, to Ida’s despair. The worst moment came when the blackmailer beat her, then stuffed her into a tank filled with live bait. Ida’s reaction to the stench was exactly what Mayo had hoped to capture.”7 Interestingly, this moment is extremely brief in the final film, perhaps a victim of censorship or simply edited down by the filmmakers. As Charity notes, “John O’Hara wrote the screenplay from a tawdry novel by character actor Willard Robertson – but censor Joseph Breen cut all the guts out of it. The story scarcely holds together, but the artifice – notably an elaborately phoney harbour set, in the Alexandre Trauner style – is quite intoxicating.”8
In addition to the strong performances, it is the atmosphere and style of Moontide that linger in the mind: two notable examples of this are an early sequence, designed by Salvador Dali (a precursor to his contribution to a surreal set piece in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 film Spellbound), in which a drunken Bobo hallucinates images of collapsing clock faces and coalescing bar-room characters, and a climactic scene along a pier, where the swirling fog and pools of darkness bear the stylistic hallmarks of film noir. Most of the story occurs in confined spaces rather than out at sea, though, which strangely suits the film, adding to the tensions between the characters and reinforcing the dreamlike worlds and nightmarish landscapes. Still, while the striking style, stormy melodrama and behind-the-scenes stories are fascinating, it is the memorable star turns – particularly the convincing central relationship between Bobo and Anna – which ultimately make the film succeed.
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Moontide (1942 USA 94 mins)
Prod Co: Twentieth Century-Fox Prod: Mark Hellinger Dir: Archie Mayo, Fritz Lang (uncredited) Scr: John O’Hara, Nunnally Johnson (uncredited) Phot: Charles Clarke, Lucien Ballard (uncredited) Ed: William Reynolds Mus: David Buttolph, Cyril J. Mockridge Prod Des: Salvador Dalí
Cast: Jean Gabin, Ida Lupino, Thomas Mitchell, Claude Rains
- Tony Thomas & Aubrey Solomon, The Films of 20th Century-Fox: A Pictorial History – Revised and Enlarged Edition (Secaucus, NJ: The Citadel Press, 1985/1979), p. 128. ↩
- Jerry Vermilye, “Ida Lupino Is a Knowledgeable Trouper Who Hasn’t Been Fully Appreciated,” Films in Review 10.5 (May 1959): p. 273. ↩
- Tom Charity, “Moontide,” Sight & Sound 19.2 (February 2009): p. 89. ↩
- William Donati, Ida Lupino: A Biography (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1996): pp. 88–89. ↩
- Charles Higham & Joel Greenberg, The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak (London: Angus & Robertson Ltd., 1969), p. 111. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Donati, op. cit., p. 89. ↩
- Charity, op. cit., p. 89. ↩