Volume 2: Filmography

 

THE COFFIN SHIP

 

 

June 20, 1911 (Tuesday)

Length: 1,000 feet

Character: Drama

Cast: William Garwood

Location: The water scenes were filmed in Long Island Sound.

 

ADVERTISEMENT, The Moving Picture World, June 17, 1911:

"One of the most skillful sea stories that has ever been devised, and it plays up that heart interest element that has been such a feature of the best Thanhouser efforts. You must appeal to the heart and the sympathies to get a picture 'over' best. Here the spectator's heart is drawn instantly to the bonnie bold skipper, his beauteous bride, and, lastly, to the father and his grief. Incidentally, let us tell you that the seascapes are nothing less than cinematographic gems. And the sinking ship - but wait till you see it sink!"

 

SYNOPSIS, The Moving Picture World, June 17, 1911:

"A wealthy ship owner cared for but two things in life, his gold and his daughter. But the selfish love of the girl led him to frown upon her suitors, while his grief for gold induced him to follow niggardly policy so far as his ships were concerned. He insured them, it is true, but he begrudged the money he spent for repairs. He looked at it from the viewpoint that sailors were cheap, and could be much more easily replaced than the money of which he was so fond. Therefore, when one of his captains insisted upon repairs being made, he was gruffly rebuffed. The owner told him that he could sail the ship as it was or hunt another job, and the captain decided to stick to the ship, hoping that things were not as bad as he imagined them to be. For the captain was married, although the fact had been kept a secret. His bride was none other than the daughter of his employer, the miserly shipowner. They were waiting for a favorable chance to break the news to him.

"The girl wanted to sail with her husband. He refused, but did not tell her the real reason, as he knew it would frighten her, and cause the time on shore to be days and nights of dread. But the girl refused to accept his commands, and secretly stowed herself away on the ship, revealing herself when the ship was out at sea. The captain was glad to see her, but his joy was mingled with forebodings. He knew that he had an undermanned leaky ship, and the chances were only even that he would reach port. When the father found a letter from the girl, telling him what she had done, he broke down completely. He had never worried about his 'coffin ship' before, but never before had the only person he loved been aboard one of them. The blow that he had expected came, for the ship was reported lost with all on board. And the old man realized that his niggardliness had lost him something that he would have given all his wealth, miser though he was, to retain.

"He neglected his business, he grew to hate his once beloved gold, and at last, half demented, decided to end his life. The vision of the daughter, for whose death he was responsible, was constantly with him, and he decided to die as she did, in the water. He went to the dock from which the ship had sailed and gazed down in the cool depth. There was oblivion. On land was only sorrow and remorse. He was about to leap overboard when he heard excited cries. Looking up he saw some people landing from a ship nearby. One of them was his daughter, or else it was a vision. But he decided to approach anyway. It was no vision, but a living, loving daughter, who flung herself into his arms, and rained kisses upon him. Her husband was with her. They had been rescued after a harrowing experience in an open boat at sea. They did not have a chance to ask the father's forgiveness. He humbled himself to them and diffidently asked him to accept his love. He realized that the tragedy was due to him and him alone, but determined the lesson that he had been taught would never be forgotten, that he would do his duty to the men who risked their lives to bring him wealth and never count the cost when human lives were at stake."

 

REVIEW, The Billboard, June 24, 1911:

"A thrilling sea story is told in this film with the use of some very extensive property and by remarkably good acting. A frail ship is started on a voyage by the owner, although the captain has warned him that the ship is not seaworthy. The owner's daughter has been secretly married to the captain and, in order to surprise him, stows away, not knowing the condition of the ship. Shortly after making her presence known aboard, water begins to leak into the hull, and before long the ship is about to sink. The captain and the girl get aboard a raft and after many days are picked up still alive but weak from fatigue and hunger. In the meantime the girl's father has suffered untold agonies worrying over his daughter's plight of which he had been informed and vows never to allow unsound vessels to leave the port again. The scenes of the sinking ship are splendidly worked up and also photographed. The scene on the raft and the rescue are good, and in fact the film is a feature from start to finish."

 

REVIEW, The Morning Telegraph, June 25, 1911:

"This is one of the best films of the week, both as regards its story and for the manner in which it is presented. It tells of a ship owner whose daughter is in love with the captain of one of his vessels, much against her father's wishes. The father has for years been extremely careless of the condition of his ships, and this one in particular has been allowed to become almost a wreck. In fact, it later proves to be what the title of the play says, 'a coffin ship,' and it is lost at sea. The daughter has decided that love is better than fortune at home, and she runs away and stows herself aboard the captain's ship, leaving a note for her father at home informing him of her plan. She presents herself to her lover when the boat is under way. The storm arises and all hands have to take to rafts, the captain and his sweetheart on one and the others of the ship's crew on another. All are lost save the twain, who are rescued by another vessel and brought to port. The father meanwhile reads of the wreck and the announcement of the loss of all on board, and when the two arrive home safely, having married meanwhile, he is quite willing to forgive and forget and to put his other vessels in fit condition. The sea scenes and the many scenes taken on a lumber schooner are particularly fine. One scene is especially so, this being the one with the boat in a sinking condition, her hull far down in the water, which is several inches deep on her decks. One might question the likelihood of such natty uniforms being used aboard an ordinary lumber schooner. It may be picturesque, but is it true to actualities? Secure this film. Patrons will enjoy it."

 

REVIEW, The Moving Picture World, July 1, 1911:

"One seldom sees on the film a better story than this might easily have been. It has a tensely dramatic situation. The daughter of the miserly owner of 'the coffin ship' has secretly married its captain and is stowed away in order to be with him. When her father gets her note he is in despair, but this is not represented with very telling power. The worse faults of the film are in the conduct of the wreck and rescue episodes. The waterlogged ship just before the raft is launched is too plainly aground; there is no suggestion of danger. The story didn't need that scene at all. The raft would hardly have kept the captain and his wife afloat on the sea for an hour, and it might easily have been larger. The ship which rescued them didn't seem to be afloat, nor was it necessary for the film to picture. The story is an old one and at such will likely be received more critically than would a news story. Yet as it is, it is very interesting and will be acceptable."

 

REVIEW, The Moving Picture World, July 8, 1911. Excerpt from an unsigned article, "Words from the Watch-Tower":

"One of the satieties (if I may coin the word) of the motion picture operator is found in the film which tries to be and isn't. A producer gets hold of a good scenario, or invents a fine idea, then falls down in the working out of it so glaringly that all truth is eliminated from it, and we, the audience, see merely a series of pictures which fail to portray what they are suppose to portray - pictures which make no appeal, arouse no feeling, show no life, because they are obviously pictures, not reality. A case in point is Thanhouser's The Coffin Ship. There is nothing the matter with this plot, but there is everything the matter with its treatment. The ship owner has a daughter, secretly married to the captain of one of his ships. The captain begs for repairs, that the ship not be sent to sea in an unseaworthy condition, but the ship owner refuses. His daughter, unknowing of this, decides to stow away on the ship to be with her husband, and leaves a note to tell her father. He, of course, is heartbroken and very frightened and now that his own loved one is on the ship he knows to be unsafe. The ship has found a leak, and supposedly sinks; the captain and his wife go off on a raft, the father finds in a newspaper the account of the loss of the ship and all on board and is broken-hearted again; and when his daughter is restored to him, he declares that never again shall a coffin ship leave his docks.

"All right as a plot, isn't it? Now for the 'breaks.' To begin with, the writer is no mariner, although he has had many experiences on shipboard, he nevertheless believes that he is right in stating the captains of lumber-laden ships rarely, if ever, dress in uniform, and certainly sailors of such ships don't dress in navy uniforms! However, passing this point up, he rises with this question - where would a captain take a ship owner to show him the unseaworthy condition of a hull? He pauses for an answer. When he gets it, it won't be the answer the film made - all on the deck, down between piles of laths!

"When a ship springs a leak at sea, the crew may well be forgiven for being terrified. But when a ship springs a leak in water so quiet that not a ripple breaks its surface, yet alone a wave, almost any crew would be reasonably certain of getting to shore, either by boats or spars or working the ship to land, which can't be more than a mile or two away. So that when we see the cowardly crew making off with the boats on what looks surprisingly like river water, although the camera is carefully pointed downward so you don't see any shore, we are surprised, we are still more startled when we see the captain desert part of his crew and escape on a raft with his bride, leaving said crew to founder with his ship! They 'drift the whole night through,' so the title tells us, and we see him supporting the girl and bathing her brow with seawater - why, deponent sayeth not. Looked pretty, maybe. The raft is a pretty small craft and it's a good thing there were no waves, otherwise it would upset and there would have been no story. Still, they are in a hard fix, these young people, only we don't think that it is so very bad when they were picked up the next morning. But the captain, very strong until rescued, collapses for a moment on being brought over the rail, yet manfully recovers in time to help his wife over, regardless of their terrific experience of all night on a raft in perfectly quiet water and warm weather. What? How do I know the weather was warm? Why, in what other kind of weather would one bathe one's wife's head in seawater?

"We must even pass over the fact that father arrived at the dock when the ship was not more than a couple hundred yards away, but could get no boat to send after her and call her back, but we cannot forebear asking - why was the captain, who escaped with the girl, while all the rest were lost at sea, regarded as a hero and cheered? The present scribe had a knock to hand Selig on the spar they used in Jim and Joe recently, but he must speak up here and say that their wreck looked probable, since the boat was in a violently tossing sea, and the spar floated in real waves. In just a degree that one picture had a wrecked boat in waves, and the other a sinking ship in a flat calm, does the Selig picture (barring the absurd spar) beat the Thanhouser picture in point of fidelity to nature."

 

REVIEW, The New York Dramatic Mirror, June 28, 1911:

"The realism that Thanhouser is bringing into his backgrounds by actual scenes of the subject at hand is again manifested in this picture. One is carried around the wharves and aboard two old smacks, one of which to all appearances goes through the process of sinking. The story is naturally and consistently told and is well enacted. Jack, the captain of the coffin ship, has married secretly the owner's daughter. The old man refuses to repair the ship, and Jack is obliged to put to sea in a rotten boat. When the ship is well underway Jack's young wife appears before him. She had concealed herself in the hatch to surprise him. The strenuous use of the pumps fails to keep the water out of the ship and she gradually sinks. The men escape with the only boat, and the captain and wife seek safety on a raft. They are picked up by a passing smack and taken back home, where the father vows that no more coffin ships shall go to sea - a natural ending; most producers would have had him suffer some tragic end. This man's sufferings were mental."

# # #

 

Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.