Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Son of Fury (1942)

The subtitle to Son of Fury is "The Story of Benjamin Blake." I guess that would mean something if you were familiar with Edison Marshall's novel Benjamin Blake, but I wasn't, so Son of Fury is more than okay with me.

I wish I knew more about Edison Marshall though and how much of his novel made it into the movie, because I loved this film. It starts off like a Dickens story. Young Ben (played by a 14-year old Roddy McDowall) is an orphan and lives with his kindly grandfather, a Bristol gunsmith. Unfortunately, the other side of the family comes calling in the form of Ben's uncle, Sir Arthur Blake (George Sanders being more sadistic and less charming than I like to see him, but wow how effective). Turns out that Sir Arthur's older brother was Ben's dad. There's no record that Ben's dad was ever married to the gunsmith's daughter, so Ben is technically a bastard and no threat to the family holdings. Sir Arthur isn't taking any chances though, so he wants to keep Ben close where he can make sure the young heir can't prove anything or cause any trouble.

Sir Arthur has Ben legally transferred to his custody, but puts him to work in indentured servitude as a stable boy. For completely convincing reasons that I won't go into, Ben chooses to stay. Ten years later, he's become Tyrone Power and has fallen in love with Sir Arthur's daughter Isabel. That relationship ultimately leads to Ben's needing to escape, but he does so as a wanted man and flees to sea, hoping to make his fortune and eventually return to England to free his grandfather (who's been jailed for aiding Ben), prove his lineage, claim his inheritance, and marry his first cousin Isabel. "Ick" on that last part, but it what are you gonna do? It was the eighteenth century.

At sea, Ben meets a fellow sailor named Caleb (John Carradine) and they hatch a plan to jump ship near an island that Caleb hears is rich in pearls. They do, they make friendly with the natives, they make a fortune, and Ben falls in love (again) with an unbelievably gorgeous island girl (Gene Tierney). The conflict at that point becomes about whether another ship will ever pass their way to take them back to England. And if one does, if they'll get on it.

I won't spoil the end for you. I went into the movie without knowing anything about it and I'm sure that's a huge part of the reason I loved it so much. I struggled a lot during the island part because it's so obviously Paradise and I sort of hated Ben for not seeing it and for being so focused on getting back to Cousin Isabel.

I can't claim any kind of moral ground though. I admit that I'd forgotten all about poor Grandfather back in jail, so clearly I was distracted by Gene Tierney, grass huts, luaus, oyster diving, and all the fresh fruit and roast pig you can eat. Who's to say what the right choice is?

I'm not the only one who struggled either. John Carradine's Caleb clearly has the same dilemma and my appreciation for Carradine grew a bit more as it always does when I find him in another movie. I was introduced to him as Dracula in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula and didn't like him at first, but I've grown to enjoy his quiet menace as I've rewatched those films. It's the same, subdued sense of danger he gives off in stuff like Son of Fury and Captains Courageous. He's so thin he looks like you could snap him into pieces, but then you see that glare and there's no way you'd want to try. There's also a loneliness behind that reined-in fury that I find fascinating and it's always uplifting in those movies where he finally opens up and befriends the main character.

Another horror icon making an appearance in Son of Fury is Elsa Lanchester, the Bride of Frankenstein herself. She has a small, but important role as a tavern wench who helps Ben escape Bristol. It's not a unique part - basically the Hooker With a Heart of Gold - but she sells it and makes it memorable.

I'm going to let the poster above talk about Gene Tierney for me. Except to say that there's no way you'd get me off an island with her on it. I don't care how hot or rich my cousin was.

Five out of five hula girls.

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