Cast & Crew
In 1918, at the Allied Naval Base in Taranto, Italy, Lieutenant Commander T. J. Toler takes over command of an American submarine from Lieutenant Commander Thomas Knowlton. Immediately after assuming command, Toler imposes his tough and exacting personality on his sailors and orders his officers, including Knowlton and his best friend, Lieutenant Commander "Brick" Walters, to attend an officer's dance while on shore leave. Bored by the dance, Knowlton and Walters are about to sneak away when Knowlton spots pretty young Joan Standish, Toler's daughter, in a crowd of fat matrons. After the two officers compete for Joan's attention, Knowlton finally gets her alone and, while startled to discover that she is married, convinces her to accompany him to a local carnival. During the festivities, the town is attacked by German bombers, and the couple flees to safety in Knowlton's apartment. There Knowlton confesses to Joan that he loves her, but she resists his advances and is relieved when he is called suddenly to his submarine. While at sea, the submarine sinks two German battleships, and Toler orders several men, including Walters, to rescue the German survivors in a dinghy. Before the dinghy reaches the ship, however, German airplanes attack the exposed submarine, forcing Toler to dive without rescuing Walters. Although damaged by the bombing, the submarine survives and returns to the base for another shore leave. While seamen like MacDougal and "Ptomaine," the ship's cook and an aspiring dentist, cavort with boxing kangaroos and fiesty British sailors, Knowlton finds Joan working in a military hospital. There Joan introduces Knowlton to her husband Herbert, a British flight commander who was paralyzed in an airplane crash. Stunned by the introduction, Knowlton rushes off but is followed to his apartment by Joan, who finally confesses her love. After the couple pledges to remain together in spite of Herbert, Toler shows up and subtly warns Knowlton to stay away from his daughter. During the next sea patrol, Toler confronts Knowlton about the affair and forcefully advises him to terminate the romance. Later, as the submarine approaches a small fleet of German battleships, Knowlton spots Walter's dinghy in the periscope and asks that a rescue be attempted. When Toler refuses his request and orders his men only to watch the battleships, Knowlton countermands his superior and begins to bomb the Germans with torpedoes. Although two battleships are sunk, two others survive and immediately attack the submarine. The submarine is badly damaged and is forced to submerge to a dangerous depth. Although confined to the brig, Knowlton rushes to the control room when he discovers a chlorine gas leak. As the deadly gas seeps through the submarine, the sailors crowd into the control room and, using water-soaked cloth to delay the gas's effects, work frantically to start up the damaged motor. With only moments to spare, the engine is started by the surviving men, and the submarine maneuvers to safety. On shore, Knowlton is dishonorably discharged, but Joan is undeterred by the scandal and insists that Herbert be told the truth. When Knowlton learns that his rival has just been operated on and probably will walk again, however, he leaves the hospital without telling Herbert about the affair. Knowlton then returns to Joan and, in front of Toler, pretends to be drunk and callous. Shocked by Knowlton's behavior, Joan, who is unaware of Herbert's successful operation, dismisses him and prepares to return to her marriage. Before Toler's submarine leaves on a dangerous mission, Knowlton slips on board and, after revealing his sacrifice to Toler, is allowed to rejoin the crew. During the fierce battle, the submarine is hit while attacking a German fort. As the submarine sinks, Knowlton throws Toler overboard and then, while spraying the enemy with a final round of bullets, goes down with the ship.
John Lee Mahin
Lt. Comdr. Morris D. Gilmore U.s.n. (ret.)
Hal C. Kern
John Lee Mahin
Raymond L. Schrock
The commander, nicknamed "Dead-Pan," goes by the book while the younger officer has to face a court martial before he learns the true nature of responsibility and sacrifice. The underlying cause of tension between the two men is the lieutenant's attraction to the commander's married daughter (Madge Evans).
The film, based on Commander Edward Ellsberg's novel Pigboats, also features Robert Young as Montgomery's buddy, a lieutenant junior grade. Providing humor is the team of Jimmy Durante as the sub's cook and big-bellied Eugene Pallette as the torpedo master. (Durante, whose character is a would-be dentist, somehow gets into a boxing match with a kangaroo.) Also outstanding among actors playing the courageous crew is Sterling Holloway as an ill-fated seaman.
Appearing in uncredited bits are several character types who may be recognized by film buffs, including Maude Eburne as the wife of a British admiral, Babe London as an overweight Italian woman and Paul Porcasi as an Italian admiral.
Lt. Comdr. Morris D. Gilmore served as technical advisor on the film, which won praise for its believable attention to detail. MGM provides its usual first-rate production values, with art director Cedric Gibbons establishing the claustrophobic undersea world that would resonate in such later submarine films as The Enemy Below (1957) and Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), which reflects the character relationship of Huston and Montgomery in characters played by Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster.
Author Ellsberg, born in 1891 in Connecticut, was a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was noted for solving technical problems on passenger liners. In 1925 he led the salvage efforts to raise the sunken submarine USS S-51, for which he became the first sailor to earn the Distinguished Service Medal in peacetime and was promoted to Commander by a special act of Congress. He began his writing career in the 1920s and enjoyed a long and prolific career as an author.
Director: Jack Conway
Screenplay: Laird Doyle, Raymond L. Schrock, John Lee Mahin and John Meehan, from novel by Commander Edward Ellsberg
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Editing: Hal C. Kern
Original Music: William Axt (uncredited)
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Principal Cast: Robert Montgomery (Lt. Thomas Knowlton), Walter Huston (Lt. Cmdr. T.J. Toler), Madge Evans (Joan Standish), Jimmy Durante ("Ptomaine," Ship's Cook), Eugene Pallette (MacDougal), Robert Young (Lt. J.G. "Brick" Walters), John Lee Mahin (Lt. J.G. "Speed" Nelson), Sterling Holloway (Seaman Jenks).
BW-101m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe
According to an onscreen foreword, this film was "produced with the cooperation of the Navy Department" and is "dedicated to those officers and men of the United States Navy who, in peace and war, volunteer their lives in one of the most hazardous branches of its service-submarines." The working title of the film was Pigboats. A October 1931 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Harry Pollard was to direct the film. Another October 1931 Hollywood Reporter item stated that M-G-M stopped production on the film that month because of bad weather, but was planning to resume shooting in the spring of 1932. The same article mentions that a copy of the script was sent to the British Navy for approval, as the story detailed the operations of a World War I British submarine. In the final script, however, the submarines were American, not British. According to Film Daily, scenes in the production were shot in Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Hollywood Reporter news items add Matt McHugh, James Donlan, Frank Marlowe and Bradley Page to the cast. Their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Actor Edwin Styles made his screen acting debut in the film. According to a Film Daily news item, the photographic crew rigged up a "series of lenses and prisms" on the camera in order to film through an actual periscope and "sight a destroyer for a torpedo target." According to Daily Variety, the preview running time of the film was 155 minutes, indicating that considerable footage was cut for the general release. The Motion Picture Herald review in mid-April 1933 lists the running time as 78 minutes, while Variety, which reviewed the picture in New York in early May, gives a running time of 105 minutes. Motion Picture Herald release charts also give the running time as 105 minutes. It is not known if the Motion Picture Herald time is an error, or if the film was cut further before its general release. Variety notes that in New York the film enjoyed a "$2 dollar" run. When a 1931 Fox film, Seas Beneath (see below), was in production, Fox executives were concerned that Edward Ellsberg's novel, which was first published in Adventure on 15 November and December 1, 1930 and was copyrighted after their script was copyrighted, was suspiciously similar to their story. Fox did not pursue a plagiarism suit, however.