There is a scene in Souls at Sea where Michael Taylor (played by Gary Cooper) is looking for his best friend Powdah (played by George Raft) in a number of bars. They are seamen and Taylor is just about to embark but wants to say goodbye first. He cannot find him though so he borrows pen and paper from a bartender and writes a note. He first writes "Dear Powdah", then looks up, feeling embarrassed, and erases "Dear". It is a scene that sweetly captures the tone of the film, a film which is one of the high points of both the 1930s and Hathaway's career.
It is set in the 1840s and is about these two friends who work on slave ships. Taylor, called Nuggin, is actually trying to free slaves by working undercover inside the slave trade while Powdah is his partner and not necessarily in on the undercover scheme, he just does whatever Nuggin does, or tells him to do. It is a film about freedom, about rebellion, and of the fight against slavery. (In one powerful sequence a ship filled with slaves rebel, the slaves rising up against the ship's crew, turning the whips on them.) Eventually Nuggin is recruited by British intelligence to help them put a stop to the slave trade in a more official capacity.
The film is to a large extent set on a ship called William Brown (in the film "played" by a ship called Star of Finland). William Brown did exist in reality and the story of the film is based on real events. The historic ship sank after hitting an iceberg, but in the film it instead is a fire that brings it down. Since the ship is a commercial passenger ship from the UK to the US, and several of the passengers are presented and given parts in the film, Souls at Sea is also a sort of early disaster film.
But the action or the politics are not the focus of the film; this is a love story between two men caught up in the political upheavals of the mid-19th century. What matters are the emotions and the extraordinary images with which Hathaway tells the stories. As I have argued elsewhere Hathaway is one of the greatest visualists in American cinema and this might be the most visually impressive of his black and white films (with Niagara (1953) probably the most impressive of those in colour). The cinematography is by Charles Lang, who Hathaway worked with on several occasions in the 1930s, and also Merritt Gerstad, and it shows several of Hathaway's typical traits such as have closed spaces with multiple frames within frames, and use of great depth and canted angles. Whether it is a clandestine meeting in a dark room between Nuggin and a British intelligence officer, images of the ship at sea, a dance in the ship's mess, the images are equally striking, with various expressive touches.
In this particular shot the far back is not in clear focus though.
The literary script, filled with allusions to Shakespeare, poetry and songs, is by Hathaway's favourite writer Grover Jones, and he also made several films with Cary Cooper, so in many ways this is a quintessential Hathaway achievement.
Besides the obvious technical, visual accomplishments it is the scenes about the feelings of the characters, and Nuggin's and Powdah's relationship, which make the film so rich, and signal how Hathaway, here as elsewhere, is not really interested in a conventional narrative but the movements of feelings. In one scene Nuggin comes into his cabin with a flower in his hand, which he has got from a woman. He is very pleased with it, he smells it, he puts it into a glass of water, and sits down looking at it. Then he notice that Powdah is also in the cabin, and he immediately hides the flower. Perhaps because he is embarrassed by his strong feelings (like in the scene mentioned above when he writes "Dear" and then erases it). In another scene the two men sit together and sing, a song it seems they make up as they sing it. While Powdah comes across as less in touch with his own feelings, towards the end of the film he is bewildered when he falls in love with a woman for the first time. He does not really understand what is happening, but he blindly follows his feelings. She is on William Brown when it sinks, as is he (and Nuggin), and when she drowns Powdah stays with her, and drowns with her, because having found love and then lost it, there is no reason for him to go on living. There is a romantic, poetic sensibility to the film, visually as well as emotionally.
Hathaway did many very fine films in the 1930s but Souls at Sea is by far the best of them. It is tempting to speculate that had it been made in France it would be considered an important classic of "poetic realism". As a Hollywood film it disappeared in the crowd, just another tree in the forest.
Powdah and Nuggin.--------------
My earlier posts on Hathaway:
General introduction here.
Collection of additional online material here.
About Spawn of the North (1938)