Ripe blockbuster cheese, but one that packs in a cannibal tribe, a voodoo queen, a ship-consuming monster cephalopod, the Flying Dutchman, Davy Jones’s locker, Davy Jones himself (Bill Nighy, with a captivating squid puss), a seaport tavern brawl, the infamous East India Company (as the ultimate corporate villain), and a cannon-blasting sea battle. Plus Johnny Depp, pounding so hard on his Keith Richards imitation that it seemed inevitable Richards would be cast as his father in the next sequel. Best of the four, count ’em four movies based on a ride at Disney World.
Patrick O’Brian’s literate, seafaring Aubrey-and-Maturin novels finally hit the screen, by way of director Peter Weir. Napoleonic warfare, survival at sea, and meticulous period flavor are all subsumed, as they should be, by the two protagonists (played by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany) and their ironclad, platonic bond to each other. Supposedly, 90 percent of the film was shot on the water.
After the 1930s, the luxury-ship-stowaway comedy fell, more or less, into remission until Stanley Tucci (who wrote, directed, and stars here) concocted this happy vaudeville about two lousy thespians (Tucci and Oliver Platt) who find themselves, quite by accident, on a cruise ship among European anarchists, spies, grieving ex-royalty, a pompous theater star (Alfred Molina), a suicidal nightclub singer named Happy Franks (Steve Buscemi), and sundry other broadly played types (including a Nazi-esque ship officer, triumphantly personified by Campbell Scott). It’s so unpretentious and dizzy, the entire cast conga-lines right off the set at the end, to boppin’ tango music.
Even if you’re the type who gets seasick in a wading pool, there’s something undeniably alluring about a 1940s cruise-ship liaison, and you’re not going to find a cuter and funnier dynamic than Barbara Stanwyck in a midriff-baring dress purring “Why, Hopsy!” at befuddled millionaire Henry Fonda. She’s part of a cardsharp trio out to fleece rich suckers, and he’s the chump. Preston Sturges wrote the devil out of this fluff in his customary fashion, and it might feature the hugest studio-built luxury boat ever dreamed up, with mansion-like ballrooms, sumptuous banquets, and endless moonlit decks.
A voyage to Singapore during a typhoon might not usually sound appealing, but if Clark Gable is the ship’s captain, women will be stampeding the gangplank. He’s already spoken for by Jean Harlow, as a loosey goosey with a cast-iron mouth and a marshmallow heart. Her brash talk soon has the typhoon brewing on board as well, and he gives her the deep freeze and betroths himself to a British aristocrat. Shipboard shenanigans include an attack by Malay pirates, redeeming heroics, boozy sing-alongs with the officers, and a drinking game called Admiral Puff Puff Puff, which is probably fun even if you’re not playing with Jean Harlow in a clingy dress. The high China seas, by way of the MGM studio water tanks, knock the ship about and put the tough-talking fun in a pressure cooker.
The first and greatest comedy feature about stowaways on a cruise ship, this Marx Brothers farce is unbridled, high-octane silliness, but everyone is dressed to the Gatsby nines (except the gangsters, a newly popular archetype in 1931), and the childlike experience of simply running amok amid luxury-consuming adults is infectious. You might have fun on your own voyage, but not this much.