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Film Friday: "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935)

In honor of Clark Gable's 115th birthday, this week on "Film Friday" I thought I would tell   you a little bit about one of his most iconic pictures. Also, every "Film Friday" in February, in a sort of countdown to the Academy Awards, I am going to bring you a film that has either won or been nominated for Best Picture. As the 1935 winner, this film fits in very nicely.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Frank Lloyd, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) opens in Portsmouth, England in December 1787, with the HMS Bounty about to sail to Tahiti to collect a consignment of breadfruit trees to the transported to the West Indies and replanted to provide cheap sustenance for slave labour. The Bounty's crew includes William Bligh (Charles Laughton), the ship's sadistic captain, who routinely administers hard punishment to officers who lack discipline or defy his authority; Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), the ship's young lieutenant, who openly disapproves of Bligh's treatment of the crew; and Roger Byam (Franchot Tone), an idealistic midshipman who is divided between his loyalty to Bligh and his friendship with Christian.

When the Bounty reaches Tahiti, Bligh punishes Christian by refusing him shore leave. Following the intervention of the island's chieftain, Hitihiti (William Bambridge), Christian is finally permitted ashore, where he and Byam fall in love with two native girls, Maimiti (Mamo Clark) and Tehani (Movita Castaneda). At sea once again, Bligh insists that the ship's ailing surgeon, Dr. Bacchus (Dudley Digges), come topside to witness the flogging of five crew members caught attempting to desert the Bounty. The brutality proves too much for the physician, who soon collapses and dies. No longer able to tolerate Bligh's tyranny, Christian calls for mutiny and takes over control of the ship, casting the captain and his loyalists into an open-boat. While the mutineers sail the Bounty back to Tahiti, where Christian and Byam marry Maimiti and Tehani, Bligh is able to navigate the small boat back to land. A year later, Bligh returns with the HMS Pandora and arrests Byam and five others for mutiny, though Christian manages to escape. Back in England, Byam is sentenced to hang, but receives a pardon after he reveals Bligh's cruel conduct aboard the Bounty. In the meantime, Christian reaches the uninhabited Pitcairn Island, where he plans to build new lives with the others. After the Bounty crashes on the rocks, Christian orders her to be burned so they can never leave. 

Fletcher Christian: Well, this is goodbye, youngster. We'll never see each other again, that's certain. But I'll remember. When you're back in England with the fleet again, you'll hear the hue and cry against me. From now on, they'll spell mutiny with my name. I regret that. But not the taking of the ship! Every time I think of Bligh... Well, I'd do it again.

The mutiny on the Bounty has been exhaustively researched for over two centuries. Although the facts are by now well documented, debate still continues among historians as to the characters of William Bligh and Fletcher Christian, the nature of their relationship and the causes of the mutiny. The first reference to the events on the HMS Bounty was made on a letter written by Bligh to his wife Betsy upon his arrival on the Dutch East Indies in August 1789. According to Bligh, the mutiny took place on April 28, "at day light in the morning," when Christian and "several others came into my Cabin while I was a Sleep, and seizing me, holding naked Bayonets at my Breast, tied my Hands behind my back, and threatened instant destruction if I uttered a word." Bligh was perplexed by the sailors' actions: "It is incredible! these very young Men I placed every confidence in, yet these great villains joined with the most able Men in the Ship got possession of the Arms and took the Bounty from me." Although court-martialed for losing his ship, Bligh was pardoned and eventually rose to the rank of Vice Admiral. In late 1790, he published his own account of the events in a book entitled A Narrative of the Mutiny on His Majesty's ship "Bounty"; And The Subsequent Voyage Of Part Of The Crew, In The Ship's Boat, from Tofoa, One of the Friendly Islands, to Timor, a Dutch Settlement in the East Indies.

It has now become a matter of history that William Bligh possessed a tyrannical temper and frequently had misunderstandings with his officers and men. This, and the fact that many of the Bounty's crew had formed intimate acquaintance with the Tahitian people, doubtless caused them to conceive the plan of seizing the ship, after having disposed of the officers. Shortly before the mutiny broke out, Fletcher Christian became subject to Bligh's severe displeasure. It is said that through the advice of a young officer who later perished in the HMS Pandora, the ship sent in search of the mutineers, Christian first formed the design of mutiny, which was so effectually carried out. The friendship of Christian and Bligh, which dates back to the captain's days in the merchant service, makes the mutiny a rather mysterious event. Christian, who had twice sailed to Jamaica with Bligh before their expedition to Tahiti, was favored by the captain, receiving an early promotion to acting lieutenant aboard the Bounty. On their second voyage together, "Christian was often in Bligh's cabin and [...] had a key to Bligh's liquor chest." Some historians have suggested that the falling out between the two may have been a lovers' quarrel.

Clark Gable as Fletcher Christian
After serving in World War I, authors Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall were commissioned by Harper's Magazine to write travel articles set in the South Pacific. For research and inspiration, they decided to go to Tahiti and soon become inspired to write about the story of Captain Bligh and Mister Christian. Comprising Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), Men Against the Sea (1934) and Pitcairn's Island (1934), Nordhoff and Hall's best-selling trilogy recounted the historical events through a fictional first-person narrator called Roger Byam, loosely based on Captain Peter Heywood, who was acquited of mutiny at court-martial.

Following the release of the Bounty trilogy, actor, writer and director Frank Lloyd, who had worked on The Sea Hawk (1925), one of the great sea epics of the silent era, acquired the screen rights to the novels, planning to direct himself as Captain Bligh and shoot the entire picture on a replica of the original ship during an extended ocean voyage to Tahiti. After he sold the project to MGM, production head Irving Thalberg, with the help of a substantial fee, persuaded Lloyd to stick to directing and abandon his other two ideas. Reportedly, Lloyd only agreed if the studio's make-up department would outfit the actor in the role with bushy eyebrows like his own. (Some claim that Charles Laughton was so intrigued by Lloyd's eyebrows that he asked the MGM make-up artists to copy them for the role.) When Louis B. Mayer balked at the expense of making Mutiny on the Bounty, especially since the story had no roles for MGM leading ladies, Thalberg told him, "People are fascinated by cruelty, and that's why Mutiny will have appeal."

Clark Gable and Mamo Clark
Carey Wilson and John Farrow were the first writers  assigned to work on the screenplay for Mutiny on the Bounty. Thalberg, however, was dissatisfied with their initial draft and hired Talbot Jennings to polish it. He then had Jennings collaborate with Robert Hopkins to create comedy moments to offset the film's seriousness. Still not happy with the result, Thalberg brought in Allen Rivkin, who came up with the running gag of Herbert Mundin (playing mutineer Alexander Smith, whose real name was John Adams) trying to dump a bucket of refuse into the wind. In the end, the script was credited to Wilson, Jennings and Jules Furthman.

MGM undertook extensive research efforts to ensure the authenticity of every detail pertaining to the costumes, wardrobe and maritime law of the late 18th century, as well as the historical account of the mutiny itself. British genealogy charts were consulted for the purpose of contacting and interviewing living descendants of the original Bounty crew. Also consulted was a first edition print of Captain Bligh's book, British Admiralty records of the mutiny and construction specifications of the original ship. Nevertheless, the scriptwriters (as Nordhoff and Hall, in fact) took a few liberties on their recounting of the story. For instance, the Bounty's crew, unlike those on most ships of the British Navy at the time, did not include sailors forced into service the men of the Bounty were all volunteers, eager for a chance to see the recently discovered Polynesian islands. Notably, they confused Bligh with Captain Edwards of the HMS Pandora, who was sent in search of the mutineers to bring them to trial. Edwards is often made out to be the "man devoid of the humane feelings of kindness and pity" that Hollywood has portrayed Bligh as being.

Movita, Tone and Gable
When time came for casting Mutiny on the Bounty, Thalberg approached Clark Gable for the role of Fletcher Christian, but the 34-year-old actor felt himself ill-suited for period dramas. What primarily upset Clark was that he would have to wear knee breeches, shave off his signature moustache (facial hair was forbidden under maritime law in the 18th century), have his hair drawn back into a short tail and master a British accent (in fact, none of the film's American actor did except Eddie Quillan, who played mutineer Thomas Ellison). Clark was worried that audiences would not accept him in a role so radically different from how they were accustomed to seeing him. "You have guided me right many times, Irving," he told Thalberg. "But not this time. I can't do this. The public will never believe me as a first mate in the British navy. I'd be more believable as a first mate of a Puget Sound scow."

With all those concerns on his mind, Gable initially declined the offer to star in Mutiny on the Bounty. Reportedly, it was the head of MGM's story department, Kate Corbaley, who convinced Gable to take on the role. One day, she approached him and told him "that he was making a mistake, that she had read the script and that Gable and perfect for the part." The role called for "maleness and independence," she said, and those elements would be far more important to the role than whether Gable was seen in breeches or a three-cornered hat. She also told him that, in her opinion, Mutiny on the Bounty had all the signs of being a big picture in which Gable would be the hero, not the "heavy." Gable did not agree with her entirely, but he agreed enough to finally tell Thalberg he would take the role.

Laughton as Bligh
Thalberg hoped that some real real life animosity between Gable and whoever played Captain Bligh would make their character antagonism more authentic. With that in mind, he offered the role of Bligh to Wallace Berry, who actually disliked Gable so much that he did not want to spend the long location shoot in Catalina Island working with him. Thalberg then turned to Charles Laughton, thinking that Gable would be intimidated working with the classically trained British actor. In fact, Laughton, with his his ambiguous sexuality, seemed unsettled by Gable's self-evident masculinity. He unsettled Gable in turn by reinventing a Laughton characteristic as a Bligh trait that of not looking Fletcher Christian in the eye when he spoke to him. It put Gable so off his stride that he would be driven to storming off the set in frustation, complaining that Laughton was "cutting him out of the scene." Adding to the animosity between the two was Laughton's belief that he should have been nominated and won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Sidney Franklin's The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934); Gable won that year for Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934).

Franchot Tone and Clark Gable
Robert Montgomery was the first choice for the role of Robert Byam, but his schedule would not allow for the lenghty location shoot. MGM then considered casting Cary Grant, but his home studio, Paramount Pictures, refused to loan him out. Eventually, the part went to Franchot Tone, a member of the famed Group Theatre who had been a Metro contract player since 1932. Gable did not care for Tone either, since the two had been rivals for Joan Crawford's attention (she married Tone after Mutiny on the Bounty was completed). During location shooting, however, Gable and Tone bonded over their mutual interests in alcohol and romantic conquests.

Principal photography on Mutiny on the Bounty was preceded by an expeditionary voyage to South Seas, were background shots were captured in February 1935. Lloyd himself supervised the building of full-size replicas of the Bounty and the ship that captured the mutineers, the Pandora, both of which he sailed to Tahiti for location footage. A second replica of the Bounty, a stationery set, was shipped on two barges to Santa Catalina Island, where it was re-assembled in the town hall and used for interior shots. Additional filming took place on Pitcairn Island (the South Seas island populated by the descendants of Bounty mutineers) and on San Miguel Island near Santa Barbara, California, where 40 Santa Barbara State College athletes were used as extras. MGM also hired 2,500 Tahitian natives to serve as extras in two fully reconstructed 18th-century island villages that were built by the studio in Papette, Tahiti. The canoes that the natives used to paddle out to greet the Bounty's crew were all shipped to Tahiti from Hollywood.

By the time Mutiny on the Bounty finished production in May 1935, it had become to most expensive talking picture made to that date by MGM. Upon its release on November 8, 1935, Mutiny on the Bounty received extremely positive reviews from critics. Andre Sennwald of The New York Times wrote, "Grim, brutal, sturdily romantic, made out of horror and desperate courage, it is as savagely exciting and rousingly dramatic a photoplay as has come out of Hollywood in recent years. The Nordhoff-Hall trilogy was, of course, born to be filmed, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has given it the kind of production a great story deserves." The Hollywood Reporter hailed it as "one of the greatest film of all time," while Variety called it "Hollywood at its very best."

At the 8th Academy Awards held at the Biltmore Hotel in March 1936, Mutiny on the Bounty received nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Gable, Laughton and Tone), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Film Editing. Gable, Laughton and Tone all lost Victor McLaglen for his performer in John Ford's The Informer (1935), but Thalberg did collect the coveted statuette for Best Picture. Mutiny on the Bounty proved to be the biggest box-office draw for the 1935-1936 season, MGM's biggest grossing production since Ben Hur (1925) which, Louis B. Mayer boasted, had also feature Clark Gable... for all of 10 seconds.

Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography by Chrystopher J. Spicer (2002) | Mutiny of the Bounty and Story of Pitcairn Island 1790-1894 by Rosalind Amelia Young (2003) | Screen Saviors: Hollywood Fictions of Whiteness by Hernan Vera and Andrew Gordon (2003) | The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty by Caroline Alexander (2003) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) |


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