“The floor of the ocean is paved with the bones of slaves.”
Souls at Sea is not a very well known Gary Cooper film unless you are a big fan of his. The only reason I even found this film was because I was on a hunt for Frances Dee films. If you read my blog enough or click her name at the bottom of this post you will see that I have nothing but complete adoration and love for Frances Dee and that I occasionally go on and on about how hard her films are to find. I was so happy to have found this and it was a real bonus seeing Gary Cooper and George Raft in the film as well. The three of them made very good leads along with the story.
Michael “Nuggin” Taylor (Cooper) is standing trial for being a slaver and for the deaths of several people on board what is thought to be a slave ship called the William Brown. Several of the survivors defend him saying that he saved any lives he could, including theirs. Only one person, Margaret Tarryton (Dee), is upset with Nuggin. Towards the end of the trial a man comes forward telling the judge and the lawyers that he has evidence to prove that Nuggin is not a slaver. Through flashbacks we learn about Nuggin and how he came to be on the William Brown.
Nuggin was sailing on a different slave ship with his friend Powdah (Raft) when the captain was killed. Nuggin let the ship be caught by British patrol ships and brought to port. One of the patrolmen, Tarryton, does not like Nuggin or Powdah, he along with his superior had the two men handing by their thumbs on the ship. Later on land Nuggin is given a proposal by a British intelligence officer to help cripple the slave trade since the man Nuggin has done his own work to stop slaves from being traded. The man gives the sailor the job of journeying on the William Brown to gain information and bring the ship under British patrol.
At port in the city Nuggin sees Margaret and from the moment they lay eyes on each other there is an attraction. Unfortunately her brother is Tarryton the man who had Nuggin and Powdah by their thumbs. Tarryton is not a good man he plans along with another man to take over the slave trade in Havana. Margaret goes to her brother on the William Brown to plead with him to stay but because he had to tell her some of his plans she now has to go with him.
On board Margaret and Nuggin get to know each other and they do like each other but then her brother tells her that Nuggin is a slaver and she turns away from him for a while. But of course since she is the lead female and he the lead male they fall in love.
Tarryton plans to kill Nuggin the attempt falls apart when the ship catches fire and gun powder ignites blowing gaping holes into the ship. The ship going down does not stop Tarryton from trying to kill Nuggin. The two men get into a fight and Tarryton ends up dying. Margaret is furious with Nuggin she does not want to even look at him. He gets as many of the survivors on to the life boat. He tells Powdah to get in the boat but Powdah is beyond distraught when the girl he fell in love with dies from wounds from being crushed. He punches Nuggin knocking him back into the boat as he stays on board to stay with the body of the only girl he ever loved.
In the end Nuggin is cleared of being a slaver by the intelligence officer’s evidence.
The film is a lot better than I have described it. It is a period melodrama but one that is very bearable to sit through with a lot of action and great chemistry between the cast members.
Gary Cooper in the lead was perfect you can definitely see him as the courageous man his character was but with a sweet side. Frances Dee was nothing but wonderful. The films I have seen with her so far she was very natural it always seems as if she is the character not just an actress playing the part. She and Cooper had a very cute scene together: Margaret does not have very strong sea legs and gets seasick. Nuggin sees her running for the deck to be sick and he nicely says that he can help her to which she says “you cannot help me with what I am about to do.” He says he can with some powder he got in Africa, it really works but it will give her the hiccups. He forces it in her face when she is being stubborn about taking some. Her brother sees it and thinks he is harassing her. Margaret feels better but of course has the hiccups. Her brother comes over and knocks some of the powder about and gives both he and Nuggin the hiccups. The scene was my favorite it was adorable.
I have only ever seen George Raft in The Black Widow and by the time he made that he was older. I really liked Raft he was a good actor. He was so sweet and adorable as Powdah that at the end when the girl he likes dies you feel terrible for him. Raft had great chemistry with Cooper apparently they had a good time making the film and stayed friends when the film was done, you can definitely see their real friendship come through. I look forward to seeing Raft in more films now.
The direction by Henry Hathaway was excellent. He did a great job of capturing the feeling of being on a ship with the up and down movement and it being tilted to one side. I felt like I was a little queasy right along with Frances Dee haha. The actions scenes at the end were excellently filmed.
Robert Cummings has a small part in the film. The most he says is at the beginning but we see that he really admires Nuggin and helped him out a bit when the ship was going down.
Souls at Sea is a very well made drama. I very much liked how it was not ridiculously over dramatic as almost all period dramas tend to be. I think that comes down to the story the story was not a love story although there was some romance thrown in there but it was not the central theme. And also it comes down to the actors who were some of the best and did not over act at all. Even the bit actors were excellent. Souls at Sea is one of the best period films I have seen I enjoyed sitting through it.