The Waterfront in the Metropolis X 2

1. I Cover the Waterfront

1933, 70 mins., B & W
Director: James Cruze
Screenplay: Wells Root and Jack Jevne, from Max Miller’s novel of the same title

Although this film does not have an overwhelming labor focus, it nonetheless portrays the illegal immigration of Chinese workers, its risks, and its horrors. It also established the identification of the waterfront as a key locus of crime, a cinematic tradition which continued in many (if not all) future waterfront labor films.

Max Miller’s “novel” was no doubt part of the wave of “front page” exposes pioneered by Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArther’s successful play and later film, “Front Page.” Actually Miller’s book is amazingly soft, for a book that sold so many copies. (Perhaps one might say that of self-help books today.) The films based on these books were part of what might be called Depression glam, since the hardhitting reporter as a rule alternates between scandalous goings-on in the big city and brassy dames, such as Peggy Grant’s gal-reporter Mary Brian in “Front Page” (1931) or Claudette Colbert in “I Cover the Waterfront.” The New York Times reviewer noted with heavy sarcasm that Ben Lyon plays “one of those newspaper geniuses to be found only in motion pictures.”

The central spine of the film’s plot–reporter courts woman whose dad smuggles illegal immigrants–has been created for the film, although one thin chapter in Miller’s book involves the reporter’s friendly visit to a sardine boat. The night the reporter is on board, the sardine boat actually catches a giant load of sardines–“the first time all week–friend,” says the skipper, hint, hint. Since the skipper can “only get twenty dollars a ton for all that” (the only interesting line more or less retained in the film), it is clear that the sardine boat “had made contact” with a “mother ship off the coast” and gathered in a human harvest. The reporter cheerfully and ironically notes that it was his presence that kept the boat from being searched by the Coast Guard.

The film will have none of this passivity. It needs a crusading journalist who eventually will find out that fishing for “yellow tail” (Chinese immigrants) pays more than fishing for tuna. This reporter is willing to fish out the body of an expendable “Chinaman” dumped into the water and deposit it on his editor’s desk. The closing sequence, in which the skipper’s use of a giant (dead) shark as a container for smuggling live immigrants, is one of the best in the film. The romance between the reporter and the skipper’s daughter (despite a mildly kinky scene with Colbert in irons in a prison ship museum), however, simply does not rise above the waves.

Further reading:

“I Cover the Waterfront.” “Variety,” 23 May 1933. Reviewer admits that the film succeeds somewhat when it keeps the original novel’s “waterfront reporting color alive,” but that’s about it.
Hall, Mordaunt. “The Screen.” “New York Times,” 18 May 1933, 17. A “stolid and often grim picture.”

Miller, Max. “I Cover the Waterfront.” New York: E.P. Dutton, 1932. Popular source book (catalogued by libraries as a novel but who knows?) for the film, with ten printings in the first year of publication, with an insufferably pompous narrator, who seems to be the author himself, with just a glance or two about the kind of scandal (smuggling immigrants) which gives the film adaptation a little jolt.

2. Slaughter on Tenth Avenue

1957, 103 mins, B & W
Director: Arnold Laven
Screenplay: Richard Carter, from William J. Keating and Richard Carter’s “The Man Who Rocked the Boat”

Although the title for “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” comes from the Richard Rodgers ballet number used in “On Your Toes,” a gangster musical comedy from 1936, this film is not another labor musical like “The Pajama Game” or “Never Steal Anything Small.” It does use, however, the association of unions and gangsterism typical of the earlier, and much better film, “On the Waterfront.” It is also typical of a number of Hollywood feature films of the 1950s that pretended to be documentaries. For example, “I Was a Communist for the FBI,” a feature film based mostly on the phony Red-baiting memoir of Matt Cvetic, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1952. (With no such excuse for Cole War hysteria, Peter Watkin’s fictional “The War Game,” won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1967.)

The film follows crusading district attorney William Keating’s autobiography, The Man Who Rocked the Boat, a book with numerous sensational stories about crime on the docks. In the film, Keating’s first big assignment is to discover who killed Solly Pitts, a longshoreman opposed to gangster control of the docks. Keating gets to work with Pitts’s widow, played by one of the quintessential film-noir pinups, Jan Sterling, and two helpful longshoremen who also want break the gangsters’ hold over them. Keating also gets to punch baddie Al Dahlke, played by Walter Matthau, very much against the latter’s type. He also has to battle in court the gangsters’ lawyer played by Dan Duryea, who made a career out of playing seductive sleazebags. And, finally, to top out this amazing cast, is thug Big John, played by Mickey Hargitay, whose offscreen record (muscle man for Mae West’s nightclub act and later Jayne Mansfield’s husband) was much more versatile than his acting ability.

Both this film and “On the Waterfront” deal with the “code of silence” that may have functioned as a protective mechanism for workers organizing in a difficult industry but has become the gangsters’ preferred method of operation. Although out of circulation now (unfortunately), it is another film that solidified the popular image of crime-infested unions. Perhaps its distinctive twist, however, is that the district attorney’s office is fairly corrupt as well.

Further Reading:

Brode, Douglas. “Lost Films of the Fifties.” New York: Citadel Press, 1991. Here “lost” really means “neglected,” as Brode celebrates both the film and its musical score as part of “the film noir style of darkly lit black-and-white urban tales but grafting on that format an influence of Italian neorealism with its strong documentary flavor.” Whew!

Keating, William J., and Richard Carter. “The Man Who Rocked the Boat.” New York: Harper, 1956. Exciting memoir by the assistant district attorney and counsel to the “private citizen-supported” New York City Crime Committee, including his own jail time for refusing to testify to a grand jury about illegal wire-tapping.

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