Sealed Cargo (1951)
Directed by Alfred Werker
Starring: Dana Andrews, Carla Balenda, Claude Rains, Philip Dorn
* Published specifically for The Third Annual Claude Rains Blogathon hosted by Tiffany & Rebekah Brannan at The Pure Entertainment Preservation Society *
When War engulfs the world, giant forces are marshalled for conflict. Smashing victories are won and heroes are heralded far and wide. Often forgotten are the small victories, the acts of great personal courage by the little people. This is the story of one small victory in World War II.
The year is 1943 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a coastal town in New England. A primary source of income there is fishing halibut although in recent years the activity has slowly been halted due to the outbreak of World War II. Most boats are plagued by a lack of crew members to man the vessels (many of these men have been drafted into the military) or because their vessels have been destroyed by enemy torpedoes. This leaves one sole fishing boat left in service — the Daniel Webster, piloted by Captain Pat Bannon (Dana Andrews).
Bannon manages to acquire an extra hand with the help of a friend in town. Konrad (Philip Dorn) is a Danish sailor whose ship was blown to pieces by the Nazis, leaving him stranded in Gloucester. He is welcomed aboard the Daniel Webster despite Bannon knowing nothing about him or his past. Before heading out to their next fishing expedition, Bannon very hesitantly takes on a female passenger by the name of Margaret McLean (Carla Balenda), a nurse who desperately needs to reach Trabo, Newfoundland. She needs to see her ill-ridden father before she reports to the Canadian Navy in 6 weeks time.
Their voyage starts out without incident but it does not take long for trouble to arise. It is discovered that the ship’s radioing devices have been sabotaged and Konrad is the first to be suspected by both Bannon and a fellow Dane deckhand, Holger. Shortly thereafter, they start to hear heavy gunfire in the very close distance. It is not clear whether it is combat gunfire or if it someone sending Morse code-like messages. Bannon and his crew decide to brave it and continue on until they once again come upon gunfire. This time, they see several flares go up in the sky and as the fog dissipates, the shelled out remains of sailing ship are revealed.
It turns out to be a Danish ship which propels Bannon to take both Konrad and Holger along with him to inspect the vessel’s exterior. Along with the lifeless body of a middle aged man, they come upon the bewildered Captain Henrik Skalder (Claude Rains) who claims that he is the lone survivor of a Nazi ambush. While the rest of the boat’s crew ran or went overboard, he and his long-time business acquaintance Erik stayed on. Erik was killed (thus it is his body that is located on the ship’s deck) and Skalder was left terrified that he would be next. Skalder agrees to accompany Bannon to Trabo despite it not being his original destination. In any case, Bannon has decided to tow the ship since it has a valuable amount of illegal rum on board.
Once in Trabo, Bannon and Skalder are introduced to Margaret’s father and are invited to stay at their home. Bannon cannot shake a feeling that he is being double-crossed and heads to the ship in the middle of the night where he meets another crew member of the Daniel Webster… but which one? Together they discover that the barrels of rum are only a cover for the real cargo that is aboard the ship: dozens upon dozens of Nazi torpedoes. Now it is only a matter of time before help is signalled and before the double agent Germans are identified.
Thoughts and Discussion
This film first came to my attention when I was searching for any and every film with Dana Andrews. When I saw that he had starred in a picture with my beloved Claude Rains, I did not hesitate for one minute in purchasing the film. Both Dana and Claude have long been amongst my favourite Hollywood leading men. Claude, of course, won my heart in Mr. Skeffington while Dana completely blew me away in Fallen Angel. Since these humble beginnings, I have discovered an integral portion of their respective filmographies with a great deal of delight.
Sealed Cargo was not a high profile project and was made at a time when both of these men’s professional futures were in doubt. Moreover, Howard Hughes had been running RKO for a number of years and did not have the best judgement when it came to financing projects. Often times, he chose to back films with huge budgets that ended up tanking at the box office, causing the studio to pay twofold. Smaller projects were generally afforded fewer perks although Hughes sometimes had a lapse in judgement, such as for Behave Yourself! (also from 1951). However, the production cost of this barely B film was hardly as exorbitant as the worldwide press tour he authorised for its stars Farley Granger and Shelley Winters.
Despite any of these shortcomings, I was pleasantly surprised with Sealed Cargo and with the performances given by the main credited cast. Dana Andrews was in top form, giving much realism to his character and looking as if he had been on a boat for most of his life. He gave me the same impression when he climbed into the scrap yard fighter jet near the end of The Best Years of Our Lives. Whether it was playing a detective, a cop, a war pilot or an ordinary Joe, Dana knew how to completely incarnate these characters without even looking like he was trying. Indeed, Dana is one of the most underrated actors of his time and along with Claude Rains, shares the unjust distinction of having never been awarded an Academy Award. As time goes on, the list of those not having won an Oscar becomes more distinguished than those who have “won”.
Leading lady Carla Balenda was an attractive woman and a fine choice to play Margaret McLean. Balenda was a minor actress although she had some meaty roles in low budget pictures at both Columbia and RKO Studios. The character of Margaret had a lot of room for development but her presence sort of fizzled out by the second half of the film. She did continue to pop-up here and there, mostly to share a few cosy moments with Pat, but it was a disappointing result after a promising entrance. At the time of writing this, Ms. Balenda is on the cusp of celebrating her 95th birthday. 🙂
The most valuable player of the film is Philip Dorn whose character is a vital part of the story throughout the picture. Dorn had more mainstream success in the early 1940’s appearing in Calling Dr. Gillespie, Random Harvest and Reunion in France for MGM as well as Passage to Marseille for Warner Bros., amongst others. He was Dutch-born who had appeared in numerous German films before moving to the United States. His thick accent likely prevented him attaining greater heights in American cinema though, at the same time, the slew of wartime films gave him plenty of roles playing enemies to the Allied effort. Sealed Cargo is the last American and English-language film in which he starred before returning to Europe. Perhaps I will sound repetitive in saying that it is a shame that he bowed out of Hollywood in such a neglected fashion. Hollywood was thankless in that regard, however. If MGM did not even give a dignified farewell to Clark Gable, how could others expect any differently?
So Good at Being Bad
Claude Rains was a guy who was very well liked by his colleagues in Hollywood as well as by his family and friends in private life. He happened to also be very popular with the opposite sex, seemingly never lacking for female companionship. Aside from several ex-wives, there were not many people who did not revere him and his talent. That irresistible, distinctive charming quality certainly radiated through his performances even when he was playing some not-so-nice characters, such as the one in Sealed Cargo.
His Captain Henrik Skalder was not unlikeable although there was something about him that warranted an instant distrust. Even before he opened his mouth, his story just did not seem to add up. That transparency is probably the most regrettable part about Claude’s less than meaty role. While Skalder is present for two-thirds of the film, Claude’s screen time is hardly abundant which is why it is so disappointing to have pinpointed his enemy status so early on. There also leaves many questions about the story itself, such as how a Danish schooner came into the hands of the Nazis in the first place.
This is not the only time that Claude has played a Nazi or a Nazi sympathiser. He famously portrayed corrupt préfet de police Captain Louis Renault in 1942’s Casablanca. Then in 1946, he was cast as Nazi Spy Alexander Sebastian in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, again appearing with Ingrid Bergman. In between these two pictures, he starred alongside his good friend Bette Davis in Mr. Skeffington (1942), in which he played Jewish businessman Job Skeffington who suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis in a concentration camp. Claude’s most famous villainous portrayal is undoubtedly that of wretched Prince John in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. He also has the distinction of incarnating the most murderous Universal Monster, Dr. Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man (1933).
Those who are fans of Claude Rains will appreciate his performance as Skalder because it is simply a pleasure to see him on-screen and to hear his distinctive voice. It is also a treat to see him playing a baddie because he was so convincingly good at doing so. The film is clearly a vehicle for Dana Andrews who, unbeknownst to him, was at the beginning of a long period of career decline. The transition to Claude’s career was important as well:
Sealed Cargo marked the end of Rains’ three-picture deal with RKO. The programmer was another notch on his belt (“Claude Rains clicks in his characterization of the German officer, getting across his menacing aspect underneath his quiet, cultured front”), but nothing of real import. The actor wouldn’t make another feature film on a Hollywood soundstage until 1959.*
Claude Rains: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference by John T. Soister & JoAnna Wioskowski, g. 179