Note: I typically confine myself to mid-century crime films here, but due to the spectacular rarity of this film, and to its status as an Academy Award nominee, I’m going to post first here at Where Danger Lives and will follow at Cin-Eater in a few weeks. (And hey, this one has a crime or two!)
It was such a pleasure to recently view the 1928 silent-talkie hybrid Sal of Singapore. This is truly one of the rarest films in the world, so I’ll relate a little more of the plot (including spoilers) than I might typically do otherwise. The film was produced by Pathé in the summer of 1928 and premiered in the United States later that year as a silent-only feature, then was rereleased in early 1929 — this time with two of the seven reels featuring dialog, music, and sound effects. The print of the film I viewed was complete but lacked sound, meaning that it was likely the first-issue all-silent version. However it’s difficult to imagine how sound would have added much in this instance, the film has a simple story that unfolds in a linear fashion — more on that later. In researching this essay, it has become clear that although there is very little information out there about Sal of Singapore, some of it — particularly concerning story points — is incorrect. And while I claim no mastery of the material covered here, I at least have seen the film, and am able to correct a few assumptions that have been made about its content. The movie is a loose adaptation of the novel The Sentimentalists by Dale Collins. Some sources claim Collins’s work is a short story, others a novella; but at 314 dust jacketed pages, it’s a full-blooded novel. And while the film’s IMDb page gives it a running time of only 70 minutes, it actually clocks in 83.
Before I dig into the movie itself, I want to talk a little about its star, Phyllis Haver. My first glimpse of her was as Roxie Hart in the 1927 version of Chicago. Her talent was tremendous — and matched by her sex appeal. Haver was an incredibly vivacious and attractive woman (funny too), who began her career as one of Mack Sennett’s original bathing beauties. The camera absolutely loved her; she was one of that particular brand of starlets who, at times, appeared ordinary off camera, but positively owned the screen. Sal of Singapore isn’t as noteworthy as Chicago — neither in terms of production value nor the talent on either side of the camera — which is just fine because Chicago, the better showcase for Haver, is available on DVD. Haver’s personal story, like so many others, is sad around the edges: she ascended the showbiz ranks through the teens and early twenties, first in skimpy outfits, then from minor to featured payer status, and finally as a bona fide star. Her career ended peculiarly when she walked away from Hollywood while still on top. (Though one could raise the possibility that she couldn’t make the transition to talking pictures, and had enough character to know it was over.) She married business tycoon William Seeman in 1929, and famously severed her personal contract with Cecil B. DeMille by invoking the ‘Act of God’ clause: When Demille asked, “What act of God?!”, Haver replied, “If marrying a millionaire isn’t an act of God, then I don’t know what is!” The director let her go. Her happiness didn’t last though, Haver and Seeman divorced in 1945 without having children, and she spent the remaining fifteen years of her life living alone. She took pills and died alone in her Milwaukee bedroom in 1960, following a failed suicide attempt the previous year. She left no relatives, and it was supposed that she was insufferably lonely, and depressed over the recent death of her old friend Mack Sennett.
Sal of Singapore opens at night, in some far-flung port. Three sailors row a boat across the harbor, creeping back to their ship after a night drinking and gambling. They receive a rude awakening, however, after they climb the pier in order to sneak back onto their nearby tramp steamer. Captain Erickson (Alan Hale) is waiting for them at the top of the ladder, flanked by his rough and tumble first mate and the ship’s cook. He dresses the men down first, then cold-cocks one for “disgracing the ship.” Just when he has us convinced that he’s some sort of Bligh-like martinet, he gives a wink and heads for the ladder himself — the intertitle tells us that he plans to get every bit as drunk as his men. Yet the bewildered captain finds something entirely unexpected waiting for him in the rowboat: a newborn baby, wrapped loosely in a blanket and crying its eyes out. His first reaction to the strange discovery is to order the newborn to “pipe down.” In what had to be a cliché even in 1928, the big fellow warms as soon as the child grasps his finger. The film allows the cliché to play out as the scene cuts to the vessel, where the three men (!) try to figure out what, and how, a baby eats. After a frustratingly funny sequence involving milk and a spoon, they finally realize someone with more experience is needed, and head back to shore in search of a woman, in the only place they know where to find them: the saloon! There Erickson hops from one table to the next, trying to find a woman who either understands English, isn’t passed out drunk, or doesn’t laugh in his face when asked whether or not she knows anything about babies.
Just as Erickson’s water is about to boil, he sees good-time girl Sal (Haver) standing in the light of her front door, nudging some fellow back out into the night… He tries to woo her, but Sal smells a rat and shifts her attention to his long-time rival, Captain Sunday (Fred Kohler), of the steamer Silverado. Sunday isn’t only looking for a good time, he offers to take Sal away to San Francisco, and the two arrange to meet later. Captain Erickson, however, has other plans…. Here’s the most significant place where the film veers sharply away from Collins’s novel, and consequently most of the existing plot summaries available on film sites: Erickson doesn’t woo Sal onto his boat, nor does he pay her. He doesn’t sell her a story in order to trick her on board either. When she turns him down he simply conks her on the head and knocks her out. Then he tosses her over his shoulder and quietly steams out to sea with the Shanghaied woman locked in his cabin. When she finally rouses, her shouting wakes the baby in the next room. Like Erickson, she is instantly smitten with the foundling, and soon proves her nanny chops when she explains to the sailors that the kid is wailing from hunger. In the following scene, she impressively matches up a beer bottle with the finger from a rubber glove nipple and manages to rig up an impromptu bottle.
The film’s middle reels are all set at sea, and find Sal and Erickson butting heads within the close confines of the set depicted in this photograph. Yet the gruff skipper becomes tender when he’s around the baby, and we discover that when she sheds the cheap nightclub dress, Sal is a real person too — not to mention an excellent “mother.” It would be inaccurate to say that Sal and Erickson are affectionate with one another, but as the film moves towards its climax they begin to warm. The Captain’s possessiveness — and his brutality — is apparent when the first mate notices Sal and makes a play for her. She reluctantly gives in, though only after he promises to help her escape with the baby once the ship reaches San Francisco. He agrees, but by the following morning his life — and disloyalty — has been summed up in a terse entry in the captain’s logbook: “Swept Overboard.” Sal accuses the captain of murder, and while he refuses to take responsibility for the mate’s death, he confidently promises Sal a similar fate if she tries to take the infant away.
Everything changes when — you guessed it — the kid becomes gravely ill. Sal remains steadfastly by the baby’s side for the duration of his fever, and her devotion finally convinces the captain that the child rightfully belongs with her. He promises to let her take the baby and go her own way after the ship passes under the Golden Gate. Yet Sal is troubled too, convinced that her sordid past has ruined her as a mother; she tearfully — and secretly — leaves both ship and baby the moment they dock. After finding her letter and realizing that he loves her, Erickson searches for Sal all over the waterfront, until he is told that she boarded the Silverado with Captain Sunday and is steaming out of San Francisco bay. Erickson rounds up his own crew and heads after her.
In the film’s most exciting — and well-made — sequence, the two steamers brush hulls for a good old fashioned brawl, bringing to mind a pirate film. Threats are shouted, men swing from ropes, and fists fly as the crews duke it out on the deck of the Silverado. When the dust settles Erickson is the last man standing. He finally sees Sal and asks her to marry him. She agrees, and in a clever twist the captain forces his rival to hitch them right then and there. All’s well that ends well.
If it sounds like a rather low-brow thing, that’s because it is. Sal of Singapore is a crowd pleaser, more of a Saturday afternoon matinee than anything else. The intertitle cards are few and far between compared to many other silents, and the language is equally unsophisticated. No matter though, the narrative doesn’t require much elaboration, the cast has no trouble communicating with their faces and fists, and Haver’s legs sure do plenty of talking — this is a film meant to brace the down-and-out masses. It’s a difficult picture to shove into a category, as it leaves an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink sort of impression. Heavy on melodrama, it’s nevertheless as sentimental as the title of the book it’s based on, but also bawdy, racy, violent, romantic, funny, and sexy as hell too.
Somewhat surprising is the movie’s Academy Award nomination in the Best Writing category. I use the term somewhat carefully, as there were a whopping eleven unofficial nominees (won by that Holy Grail of lost films, The Patriot) that year, and this nod likely results solely from the addition of the two talkie reels. Nevertheless, Sal of Singapore was the weakest film in the category that year, amongst more aspirant candidates such as Best Picture nominees The Patriot and In Old Arizona, as well as The Valiant with Paul Muni, Our Dancing Daughters with Joan Crawford, and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney with Norma Shearer.
A final note: A critic from the All Movie Guide claims that Sal of Singapore is a remake of the 1928 Richard Barthelmess and Betty Compson film Scarlet Seas. This clearly isn’t the case. While we know that both films had overlapping production schedules, Sal was released on November 4, 1928, while Scarlet Seas premiered almost two months later, on December 30. Furthermore, thanks to this entry on Jeff Cohen’s Vitaphone blog, we can easily see that the stories have very little in common. Nevertheless, Sal of Singapore does in fact resurface again, remade in 1931 with Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert as His Woman.
For even more information about Haver, visit this great thread at the NitrateVille message boards. I’d also like to thank the posters there for many of the images that accompany this essay.
Released by Pathé Exchange
Directed by Howard Higgin
Photographed by J. Joseph Mescall
Edited by Claude Berkeley
Art Directed by Edward Jewell
Titles by Edwin Justus Mayer
Adapted from Dale Collin’s novel by Elliott Clawson
Starring Phyllis Haver, Alan Hale, Fred Kohler, and Noble Johnson
Running time: 83 minutes