Sunday, November 01, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Spawn of the North (1938) - A Kino Lorber Blu-ray Review

SPAWN OF THE NORTH (1938), an atmospheric and exciting adventure film directed by Henry Hathaway, was recently released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.

SPAWN OF THE NORTH is one of a pair of rather "different" Paramount Pictures films costarring Dorothy Lamour (not to mention Akim Tamiroff) which have just come out on Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber.  

I reviewed the other title, DISPUTED PASSAGE (1938), a few days ago.  I found both films worthwhile, especially SPAWN OF THE NORTH.

SPAWN OF THE NORTH starts in fine style with an exciting score by Dimitri Tiomkin.  I really enjoyed all of the music in this film, including the songs sung by the cast.  The score does a wonderful job helping to define the film's Alaskan setting, along with the effective opening documentary-style footage of salmon and Alaskan wildlife.

Though written by a plethora of screenwriters including Curt Siodmak, the screenplay gels into quite an interesting movie which I came to feel was, in essence, a seafaring Western.  The ending may be a bit predictable, but in a good way, just like some Westerns; at the same time, a couple scenes, notably a romantic moment, end up in a completely different place than expected.

Henry Fonda and George Raft play Jim and Tyler, longtime friends and fishermen in Alaska.

The steadier Jim owns a salmon cannery and courts his childhood friend Dian (Louise Platt of STAGECOACH) when she returns to town after a long absence.

Tyler has a more fiery relationship with hotel owner Nicky (Lamour), who loves Tyler but worries about his propensity for taking risks.

One of those risks leads to tragedy when Tyler, anxious to get the money to upgrade to a bigger, better boat, throws in with Russian "fish pirates" headed by Red (Tamiroff).  Jim is put into the position of having to battle his lifelong friend when he catches him stealing.

I found this an interesting 110 minutes.  It starts off at a fairly leisurely pace, as we get to know the characters and come to understand both friendships and romances.  Color is added by characters played by John Barrymore (though he's frankly underused) and Lynne Overman, not to mention a pet seal!  And, as previously mentioned, there's some standout music backing it all up.

The town scenes build to seagoing battles involving harpoons, guns, and avalanches, including a critical moment where Jim must decide whether to shoot Tyler.  The relationships which the film has taken the time to develop give the well-staged action sequences real dramatic heft.

As I watched I was musing that just as TV's THE MANDALORIAN is a Western set in space, SPAWN OF THE NORTH was a Western "northerner" incorporating boats, with cattle rustlers replaced by fish poachers; the Alaskan fishing community's fierce vigilante justice is likewise very recognizable from Westerns, including overtones of THE VIRGINIAN (1946). The Alaskan village, including the hotel and its bar, is likewise a setting recognizable from any Western.

Fonda and Raft both give strong performances.  It wasn't much of a stretch for Fonda to play the more noble young Jim, but it's interesting to note that he played this part just before he began working with director John Ford, beginning with YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939).  He's very good here; it feels like something of a trial run for the fine performances he'd give under Ford's direction.

Raft can be rather variable, wooden in some films and more lively in others; this is one of his latter types of performances, and I enjoyed him in this.

I liked that the two lead female characters, while to some extent representing the "good" and "bad" women typical of Westerns, were interesting and well fleshed out.  Lamour's feisty Nicky always lets Tyler know where she stands but loves him despite herself; she's gutsy enough to sink his ship when she thinks it might save his life.  

I find Platt somewhat unique in looks and persona -- perhaps a tad reminiscent of Barbara O'Neil -- and I really liked her as the young woman readjusting to Alaskan life after time away.  Like Nicky, Dian is plainspoken and stands ready to help her man.

The movie was filmed in black and white by Charles Lang, with special photographic effects by familiar names such as Gordon Jennings, Loyal Griggs, and Farciot Edouart, among others.

Throughout the film I marveled at the effects, as I was never quite sure what was filmed on location and which scenes were process shots.  The movie received a very well-deserved Honorary Oscar for Outstanding Special Photographic and Sound Effects.

The quality of Kino Lorber Blu-rays is usually excellent so I think it's important to be clear at this juncture that this is a noticeably disappointing Blu-ray print.  There are not overt scratches and jumps, but the picture at times is unusually grainy, while other scenes are too washed out.  It's particularly disappointing that the light in the picture tends to flicker; the unstable look rather reminded me of a middling-quality VHS tape.  

I found the sound to be very good, but the Blu-ray picture was frankly surprising.  I would not let it stop anyone interested in seeing the film -- I think it's obvious from the above that I derived a lot of enjoyment from the movie despite the print -- but readers should know what they'll be getting ahead of time.

Blu-ray extras consist of a commentary track by Lee Gambin and Rutanya Alda, along with a gallery of trailers for five additional titles available from Kino Lorber.

Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray.

2 Comments:

Blogger DKoren said...

Oooh! I love this film. It's one of my favorite George Raft movies. (This one and Souls at Sea are my two favorite George Raft movie's.) I love him and the seal and Dorothy Lamour together. I own it on DVD and have to pull it out now and then cuz it's a lot of fun. I realize now that you point it out, that probably the reason I love it so much as because it is indeed a Western in a different setting! I didn't know why that didn't occur to me before, but yep, you nailed it. Going to have to rewatch soon now!

That is disappointing about the film print quality on the blu ray, though I'm glad this movie was released anyway, but still.

7:21 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Deb! I'm so glad to know you've seen and liked this as well!

I ordered SOULS AT SEA some time ago from Amazon UK -- because of Frances Dee and Gary Cooper -- and I still need to see it! I've really got to pull it out especially hearing that it's one of your favorite Raft films. I'm glad the comparison to Westerns worked for you!

Best wishes,
Laura

11:21 PM  

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