Thursday, June 26, 2014

The World In His Arms - 1952

The World in His Arms (1952) is unabashedly, unexpectedly sensual, often boisterous and sometimes savage, but over all, romantic.  It manages to be all this without really teasing the Production Code, which is the miracle of it.  The movie stands on all familiar conventions of adventure stories and of romance stories--in this case, the romantic triangle.  But in this film, the triangle is made up of two leads with exciting screen chemistry--and their director, whose thumbprint is on every frame, bringing the characters close to us, keeping it intimate.

It is, on its surface, a swashbuckling sea picture—and indeed, its seagoing action scenes, including a race between two schooners, is among the most thrilling and best ever filmed—but director Raoul Walsh’s creative rendering makes this movie appeal to both fans of action/adventure movies and fans of romance stories.  His celebrated skill in framing shots and selective editing-as-you-go filmmaking makes this a fast-paced movie where no sensation lingers too long, but where one experience after another hits us like a fresh and stinging and exhilarating sea spray.  Like any good storyteller, he knew what buttons to push.

Ann Blyth was 23 years old when she appeared in this film as an escaping Russian countess—escape sets the scene for many Walsh movies.  Handsome Gregory Peck is a New England sea captain, a rascal transplanted to the Pacific coast where he runs between Alaska, where he and his crew harvest seal pelts, and San Francisco, where he sells them and spends his money on saloon girls like Andrea King, whom we saw as Ann’s human rival in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid (1948), discussed here.  Miss King seems to have recovered from being bitten in the leg by Ann in that film, because she walks okay and even dances a little.

But we don’t see too much of the saloon gals, for very soon Ann Blyth invades Mr. Peck’s manly world of fistfights and clubbing seals as a damsel in distress, escaping from a forced marriage to Carl Esmond, whom we saw here as the Nazi head officer in Resisting Enemy Interrogation (1944).  Even though he’s a Russian Prince, he’s still a Nazi here, calculating, viciously cruel, and unable to rid himself of his Prussian bearing and German accent.

Raoul Walsh’s damsels in distress are never really so helpless that they don’t take an active part in their own salvation.  Ann’s Countess Marina has strong survival instincts, brains, courage, and a sense of responsibility to her few faithful retainers.  She goes after Gregory Peck as the best hope for her to get herself and her staff to Sitka, Alaska (which I think was not called Sitka, but New Archangel at this time period) and the Russian colony headed by her uncle, played by Sig Ruman, who we last saw here in Only Angels Have Wings (1939).  Also unable to handle a Russian accent, and cozy enough to resemble a figure from an operetta, Mr. Ruman is not her best choice for refuge, as we will see.  Carl Esmond has everybody in his power. 

Mr. Peck has an adversarial relationship with the Russians.  He is their chief competitor in the sealing business, and they regard him as a pirate encroaching on their territory in Alaska waters.  The movie takes place in 1850, when the Russians had already had a strong foothold in Alaska for more than a century.  Though Peck has no love for the Russians, Miss Blyth, at first pretending to be one of Andrea King’s saloon girls to attract him, soon becomes his whole world as he loses his heart, and nearly loses his ship and his life. 

About the only thing bogging this film down a little is the sporadic brawling that seems to start with little provocation.  Peck and his men become more interesting when their bravado, and their enjoyment of a good fight, is directed to a sense of purpose—the final rescue scene is quite exciting.

John McIntire, who keeps popping up as a favorite in this series on Ann Blyth, is Gregory Peck’s right-hand man, wry, comic, Bible-quoting, with Shakespearian delivery.  At one point he whacks Gregory Peck on the skull with a belaying pin, purely in the name of friendship.  It's a guy thing.

Bill Radovich is Ogeechuck, a barrel-chested native, chief pilot, and a cross between a barroom bouncer and Curly Howard. 

Anthony Quinn plays the captain of a rival schooner, a loud, boisterous thief who steals cargo, shanghais crews, whose playful exchanges with Peck sometimes end up with one or both of them getting hit on the head with a belaying pin.  It is such an obnoxious character, one can imagine Quinn might have had a lot of fun playing him.

Eugenie Leontovich has a small role as Ann’s chaperone and lady in waiting, and has the distinction of speaking with the most authentic Russian accent in this film.  No wonder, this esteemed stage actress grew up in Imperial Russia and escaped the Revolution when she fled to Paris.  Other members of her family, loyal to the Czar, were not so lucky.  She has a cute bit when, appalled by the odor of Bill Radovich, who has a habit of keeping fish in the hood and pockets of his coat, and whom she is constantly shooing away, turns up as her hero at the end of the movie.  He and the rest of Gregory Peck’s men disguise themselves as Russian Orthodox priests during an attempt to rescue Ann Blyth.  Madame Leontovich recognizes Mr. Radovich by his smell, is greatly relieved that help is at hand, and there is a twinkle in her eye when he winks at her.

Gregory Gay is Ann's loyal adviser and trustee, who is terrorized by teasing saloon girls.

Hans Conreid stands out as a harried hotelier who must endure the chaos Gregory Peck’s gang brings to his fancy hotel.

A few favorite scenes:  The schooner race between rivals Peck and Quinn, with fabulous cinematography by Russell Metty.  Rear screen projection is used sparingly, most of this is the real thing and it feels like we’re on board.

Ann Blyth, the well-bred and refined countess, educated in London and Paris, tries to copy the showy dress and common manners of the saloon girls because she thinks that’s the kind of woman Gregory Peck wants.  She never throws herself at him, rather merely dangles herself in his presence.  The throwing goes to Anthony Quinn, who picks her up roughly and smothers her with unwelcome kisses, and when Peck demands her release, Quinn tosses Miss Blyth to him.

Catch her expression when she lands in Peck’s arms.  Her surprise and discomfort has melted into coy pleasure. 

The scene on the hill above San Francisco, after they have spent an evening on the town together, and he loosens her hair from its tight bun.  Hairdo undoing may be an image corresponding to a woman’s undoing, but it’s also one of the most romantic gestures in storytelling.  You may already know she’s standing on a box for their kissing scene.  Ann frequently had to stand on a box for romantic scenes as many of her partners were quite tall.  She might not have had a career without that box.

Another sublimely romantic scene is when Gregory Peck takes her aboard his moored ship to show her around.  The ship is called The Pilgrim of Salem.  He is originally from Salem, Massachusetts, though his friends and enemies alike here on the Barbary Coast call him The Boston Man.

She puts her hands on the ship’s wheel and says, "She's lovely." 

He puts his hands atop hers, “And she always obeys me.”

“Perhaps because she likes the touch of your hand,” she replies, looking down with satisfaction at his hand covering hers. 

“She ought to; I’m in love with her.”

Modern films with love scenes showing two people writhing in bed are not more erotic than this scene under the night stars, so astonishing in its simplicity and effectiveness.

Most especially lending a mood of almost unbearable longing is the theme song, composed by longtime Universal Studio score composer Frank Skinner that sounds like an old Russian folk tune, sweeping and mournful and heartbreakingly beautiful.  It serves as the leitmotif of the film that resurrects the lovers’ passion in pivotal moments, and conjures the pain of hoping against all hope.

In one scene, Mr. Peck takes Miss Blyth to a restaurant run by Russian ex-pats, where she requests the song from a strolling violinist and hums to it, explaining its words.  She gets to speak a little Russian in the movie.  In the Cold War environment in which this film was made (more on that in a bit), there is a romantic nostalgia for the Imperialist Russia, yet equating the harshness of the regime to modern Soviet totalitarianism.  They are the villains, until they join the Americans and become “good Yankees” themselves.  They are all a microcosm of the world on this coast.  The Aleut native, McIntire the Nova Scotian, Peck the New Englander, Quinn is Portuguese, and Irish, Chinese, and Russians abound. 

In this movie, Peck has a business maneuver afoot to buy Russian Alaska for several millions, exploit its riches and boot out Russian control.  That would happen 17 years after this movie takes place, with or without Gregory Peck.  We may muse that when the movie was released in 1952, Alaska was still a territory, it's riches still barely exploited, and was not a state until 1959.

Peck’s seal harvesting business, incidentally, is strangely handled in this movie.  The scenes with the seals on the beach is rear-screen projection, and no clubbing of the seals is actually seen.  John McIntire gives a young seaman a lesson on conservation—the Russians are decimating the seal population by not carefully culling the herds of only the “bachelors” and instead taking all the female seals and cubs.  We see the men of the schooner land on the beach and herd seals, clubs in hand.  Next, we see them back on board, neatly stacking the skinned pelts.  The brutality of the killing is never seen.  I’m not sure if Raoul Walsh pulled a punch here, or if the studio just got squeamish.  It’s as if the seals, like in a cartoon, just unzipped their pelts, relieved to be rid of the hot fur coat, and walked away.

The romance between Peck and Ann Blyth really is a threesome, for we sense the strong presence of director Raoul Walsh in their scenes.  Despite his lusty testosterone-driven fights with belaying pins (I gotta get me one of them, so handy), his scenes with Ann Blyth are delicate and deep.  This shot of her bridal bouquet held at her waist as she, reluctant and heartbroken, is dressing for her marriage to Carl Esmond (she agrees to marry him to save Peck and his crew) is surprising.  A close-up on the flowers at her corseted waist, then pulled back to see the whole dress.  There is a feminine sensibility to this scene that I find touching, though I wonder if Mr. Walsh would balk at that.

In no scenes is she “taken” by Gregory Peck in abrupt embraces or rough kisses as we might see in other films where the damsel in distress is really just a prop, despite Peck's attitude of wild and lusty freedom to do pretty much what he wants.  Their attraction is mutual and they woo each other with patience and determination. There are too many obstacles for them to simply fall in love.  One senses the director’s appreciation not simply for Marina's sensuality, but for the actress playing her, perhaps expressed as well here by columnist Gene Handsaker who was allowed to watch a bit of the filming:

“Lord, what an actress!” the carpenter beside me breathed almost reverently.  We’d just watched Ann Blyth, as a Russian countess of long ago, burst into a dungeon full of chained men.
She rushes up to Gregory Peck, one of the prisoners, and swears that she still loves him.  She embraces him.  Her face is away from the camera, but there are tears, real tears, in her eyes.

Then she gets good news that will free Peck.  Annie rushes back up the dungeon steps, her back to the camera.  But from where the carpenter and I are watching, we can see her grinning excitedly at this wholly imaginary good news.

All of a sudden I remember a definition I once heard: Good acting is not acting at all.  It’s being…

The director often accused by actors of being difficult to work for was remembered more kindly by Ann Blyth in her interview with Eddie Muller (who called her remarks “generous”) on stage at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco in 2006, the transcript of which is quoted at The Evening Class blog (see below).

He was just a wonderful character, a devil-may-care kind of fellow.  He knew what he wanted and he was very short in his direction and if he didn't get it he'd just say, "Cut, let's try that again."  There wasn't too much "do it again."  He just had a wonderful way of getting the work done.  No fuss about it.

This estimation of Walsh may be more than just being “generous” or her customary habit of not badmouthing coworkers, but we could assume reflected her own serious approach to her work before the camera.  In a radio interview with host Casper Citron at WOR in New York City, November 1992, Ann noted:

I think you can work a scene to death.  I really do think that sometimes the first or second take …if you’ve rehearsed well and if the people you’re working with interact well with you, it seems to me that you should be able to do pretty much all that you can do, certainly within four takes—because they’re going to be covered from different angles as well.  So, you really do get other chances…Indeed, if an actor doesn’t come well-prepared, then I think many times it doesn’t matter who the director is.

…You have to know pretty much how you want to approach a role, and certainly to have input from a good director is most important. But you have to be prepared.

…I’ve always felt strongly about the roles that I’ve done and I’ve always felt that when I went to the set that I was going to be so prepared so that whatever the director decided to do, I would certainly have a say in how to approach a role.

There were other elements that might have given Walsh and Ann common ground: they were both Irish Catholics and both native New Yorkers.  Bryan Forbes, who plays the young seaman recalled in Raoul Walsh: the True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director by Marilyn Ann Moss that Walsh--the buddy of such tough guys as Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, James Cagney, and John Wayne--put a fine box on the set of TheWorld in His Arms.  “Anyone who swore in …the demure Ann Blyth’s presence…had to put money in it.”

One scene which shows Walsh’ judiciousness is when Gregory Peck is captured by Carl Desmond, who orders him to be whipped.  Peck’s shirt is torn open at the back, and the resident torturer (every bad guy has one), starts the job of whipping Peck, but the camera quickly shifts to Ann Blyth’s reaction.  Obviously, Mr. Peck is not really going to be tortured on camera; that is not possible, so the best option to show the cruelty of the moment is to show the reaction of one who is our proxy in the experience.  Ann’s tragic face is enough to make us feel the horror because she feels it.  We don’t really need to see Peck flayed alive.

This is a primary difference in the approach of drama between theatre and film.  Theatre is unselfconscious about using illusion to tell the story, whereas filmmakers are more self conscious about illusion and prefer to straightjacket the audience’s experience in what has come to be accepted as “reality,” though there is nothing real about film reality.  Here Walsh relies with admirable confidence on Ann’s ability to carry the message of the scene without needing to resort to the sadistic and, in the end, unrealistic, image of Peck bleeding, flinching and wincing over an experience that is not really happening.

The last scene in the film is one of its most passionate, where Ann stands at the ship’s wheel, steering the sleek schooner into the twilight while Gregory Peck stands behind her, his hands covering hers.  Anthony Quinn is about to ask for his cut of Alaska, but John McIntire wisely says that Peck is not interested in Alaska at the moment, "not while he has the world in his arms.”  And we see that Ann Blyth is not just a damsel in distress or prop, but a fellow adventurer, and a woman deserving to be his whole world.

Raoul Walsh is in the scene too.  He frames them against the darkening sky, with the wind billowing against the long elaborate skirt of the wedding dress for her aborted wedding to the bad guy.  That heartbreaking, gorgeous Russian theme song swoops down upon us, sad and lovely and ecstatic.  They are more than smiling, they are grinning, all alone in each other’s company despite having a ship full of his crew, Anthony Quinn and his crew, Ann’s faithful servants, and a seal named Louise. 

Ann says something. We can’t hear because that gorgeous music is making us tear up, and Peck leans in close to her, because, apparently, he didn't hear it either.  She repeats, and he laughs, and she laughs.  It is a joyous moment showing their enjoyment of each other, and so much more sensuous than the clichéd fadeout kiss.

It looks quite impromptu and natural.  She could have said, “You’re on my foot,” or “I brought a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.”  We don’t know, and it’s best left to our imagination.

I cannot believe that glorious tune was not released as a single, with lyrics.

In July 1952 The World in His Arms had its premiere at several military bases in Alaska, the outpost where the Cold War brought nuclear adversaries toe to toe.  Ann toured at these bases making personal appearances and performing.

At one base, two shows were scheduled, but not all the servicemen could be accommodated, so a third show, beginning at midnight, was held for them.  According to Kaspar Monahan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the performers…

…proceeded to put on their best performance of this tour….But the next day, Ann Blyth and her fellow performers were so tired they could hardly walk to the mess hall for their breakfast.

Alice Hughes of the Reading Eagle reported that the press and entertainers traveled by military transport planes from base to base, and that, “We were given instructions on how to put on the harness and the folded parachute in case of a need to jump.”  The group of 75 including 23 entertainers, included Joyce Holden, Jeanne Cooper, Lori Nelson, Claudette Thornton, Audrey Goetz, male crooner Robert Monnet, comic Buddy Hackett, and Palmer Lee and Kathleen Hughes, both of whom we last saw with Ann in Sally and St. Anne, discussed here.

The bases ranged from the far-flung desolate Adak Island to the Arctic Circle.  “Annie, as we came to call Miss Blyth,” reported Howard Pearson for the Deseret News Magazine (Salt Lake City) sang for audiences ranging from 30 men to over 4,000. 

Clyde Gilmour of the Vancouver Sun was disposed to forgive her for not dishing gossip on the folks back in Hollywood. 

…her guileless and sunny honesty and her lack of theatrical razzle-dazzle are almost legendary in a profession that includes more than its share of strutting poseurs and egomaniacs…has been mesmerizing everybody right and left with her radiant smile and her mellow Irish voice.

Ann Blyth had hoped upon her return to Hollywood to begin The Student Prince in a greatly anticipated rematch with Mario Lanza, with whom she had starred in The Great Caruso, but this was not to be—at least not yet, and not with Mario Lanza.  More on that next month.

Have look here for other reviews of The World in His Arms I've enjoyed very much by our friends Laura of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings and Kevin Deany of Kevin’s Movie Corner.

The movie is fortunately available on DVD, in a transfer really stunning for it's gorgeous colors and sharp cinematography.  Really a beautiful, beautiful-looking film.

The World in His Arms was one of the last films she made under her seven-year contract for Universal-International.  Come back next Thursday when we turn back the clock to 1944, when a 15-year-old Ann Blyth made her first two movies under that contract, Chip off the Old Block and The Merry Monahans.

This year-long series on Ann Blyth’s career has reached the halfway point.  I’ve enjoyed working on these posts more than I can tell you.  Several of you have asked about the possibility of turning this series into a book.  I’ve decided to proceed with that, to be available sometime next year.

Diana and Constance Metzinger over at Silver Scenes are hosting an MGM Blogathon June 26-29, and have graciously asked me to re-post my essay on Mrs. Miniver.  That will be up this Sunday, the 29th.

See you next Thursday for more Ann Blyth.


Daytona Beach Morning Journal November 9, 1951, syndicated column by Gene Handsaker.

Deseret News Magazine, (Salt Lake City) August 31, 1952, pp. 16-17, article by Howard Pearson.

Moss, Marilyn Ann.  Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director (University Press of Kentucky, 2011).

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 2, 1952, p. 16, “Time Hangs Heavy for Servicement on Bleak Adak Island.”

Reading (Pennsylvania) Eagle, June 28, 1952, article by Alice Hughes, p. 5.

The Spokesman Review (Idaho), May 30, 1952, p. 3.

St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press, December 16, 1951, syndicated column by Louella Parsons, p. 4D.

WOR (New York City) radio interview with Ann Blyth, Bill Hayes, and host Casper Citron, November 14, 1992.  
THANK the following folks whose aid in gathering material for this series has been invaluable:  EBH; Kevin Deany of Kevin's Movie Corner; Gerry Szymski of Westmont Movie Classics, Westmont, Illinois; and Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

UPDATE:  This series on Ann Blyth is now a book - ANN BLYTH: ACTRESS. SINGER. STAR. -

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

 "Lynch’s book is organized and well-written – and has plenty of amusing observations – but when it comes to describing Blyth’s movies, Lynch’s writing sparkles." - Ruth Kerr, Silver Screenings

"Jacqueline T. Lynch creates a poignant and thoroughly-researched mosaic of memories of a fine, upstanding human being who also happens to be a legendary entertainer." - Deborah Thomas, Java's Journey

"One of the great strengths of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is that Lynch not only gives an excellent overview of Blyth's career -- she offers detailed analyses of each of Blyth's roles -- but she puts them in the context of the larger issues of the day."- Amanda Garrett, Old Hollywood Films

"Jacqueline's book will hopefully cause many more people to take a look at this multitalented woman whose career encompassed just about every possible aspect of 20th Century entertainment." - Laura Grieve, Laura's Miscellaneous Musings''

"Jacqueline T. Lynch’s Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is an extremely well researched undertaking that is a must for all Blyth fans." - Annette Bochenek, Hometowns to Hollywood

Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. 
by Jacqueline T. Lynch

The first book on the career of actress Ann Blyth. Multitalented and remarkably versatile, Blyth began on radio as a child, appeared on Broadway at the age of twelve in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, and enjoyed a long and diverse career in films, theatre, television, and concerts. A sensitive dramatic actress, the youngest at the time to be nominated for her role in Mildred Pierce (1945), she also displayed a gift for comedy, and was especially endeared to fans for her expressive and exquisite lyric soprano, which was showcased in many film and stage musicals. Still a popular guest at film festivals, lovely Ms. Blyth remains a treasure of the Hollywood's golden age.


Hamlet said...

One of my high school friends (who unfortunately I've lost touch with) has a family connection to this movie. Apparently some second unit footage was filmed on a boat along the shore of Nova Scotia. My friend's mother answered an ad to appear as a stand-in for Ann Blyth, and one of her school friends got to be Gregory Peck. I've seen the movie, and I've never been sure which moment is actually them--or even if the shots of them were actually used.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Hamlet, and thanks for sharing this neat story. I didn't know any second unit footage was filmed off Nova Scotia. I love to hear about stand-ins.

Hamlet said...

I might have been skeptical had she not shown me a local newspaper clipping about her and her friend from the time period. I have to wonder why a movie of that period would come all the way to Nova Scotia for footage of a movie that doesn't take place here. Still, we have lots of seacoast, and that's probably what they were after.
I should add that my friend's mother looked NOTHING like Ann Blyth, but I suppose to be a stand-in you don't have to. As I said, I've been out of touch with this friend, so I don't even know if his mother is still with us.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Maybe they were after a particular-looking ship. Where best to go for such beauties than the home of the "Bluenose"?

Kevin Deany said...

Great news about the book. I'll buy the first copy.

I like this film a lot too. That final scene is one of my all time favorites in a movie and you do a wonderful job of describing it.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks, Kevin. I appreciate that. Now I won't be the only person with this book on my shelf.

I liked your review of this movie, and I also think the last scene is probably one of my all time favorites.

DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, I'm bowled over about your labor of love about your series about the remarkable, talented Ann Blyth, and THE WORLD IN HIS ARMS has wowed me! I must apologize that it took me a while to catch up with your stunning series; sorry it took so long, especially since I actually own THE WORLD IN HIS ARMS from my Gregory Peck gift set (been nutzoid busy recently here, so sorry. But wow, you've provided us readers with a wonderful gift for us readers; even Team Bartilucci fave Hans Conreid is in the cast! BRAVA, my friend!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Dorian. I must be part Bartilucci, because Hans Conreid is one of my favorites, too, and I'm always delighted to see him pop up in a movie.

Lucky you to have THE WORLD IN HIS ARMS in a Gregory Peck gift set. Neat.

Unknown said...

I like this movie a lot and stole shamelessly from it once for a book I ghosted.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Welcome, Bill. I won't tell anybody. And I can't say I blame you.

Blake Lucas said...

I happened upon this piece and wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading it. Really a great appreciation of a wonderful movie. Raoul Walsh is one of my favorite directors and this is the first of his movies I ever remember seeing--it was on the big screen back in 1952 so I guess that dates me but a movie like this was ideal for my age, both for the adventure and romance.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Blake. I would love to see this on the big screen, and I understand how it would be a lasting memory for you. It's a such a good movie, and I love hearing from people who enjoy it as much as I do.

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