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Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Castaways, Part 1 (originally published 7/98)

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip...oops, caught you singing along, didn't I? It's an incredibly silly song, written to introduce an incredibly silly television program that went off the air decades ago, and yet it's burned into most people's brains as indelibly as the Doxology. If you feel a trifle embarrassed about remembering "Gilligan's Island" fondly, you really shouldn't. There's a very good reason why this lightweight piece of fluff survives in our cultural memory. The fact is that the plight of shipwrecked castaways is one of the best storytelling premises there is. Sherwood Schwartz, creator of "Gilligan's Island," wasn't the first to use it, and certainly not the last, as the current release of "Six Days, Seven Nights" demonstrates. If the comic misadventures of Harrison Ford and Anne Heche caught your fancy, look for these castaway titles on home video.

"Male and Female" (1919). One of the most venerable of all desert island castaway stories is James M. Barrie's play, "The Admirable Crichton." It is the story of an English butler named William Crichton who is shipwrecked along with his upper class employers. Although the British class system dictates that the bluebloods are his superiors, when the society that supports that class system is stripped away and survival becomes the only concern it is Crichton who emerges as the group's natural leader. He possesses the necessary practical knowledge of how to provide food and shelter, matters which his employers have always had the luxury of taking for granted. "Male and Female" is director Cecil B. DeMille's silent film adaptation of Barrie's play. If you only know DeMille's work from "The Ten Commandments" (1956), you may be surprised by the virtuosity of his visual style in this early work. I'm glad to report that it has recently been released on video in a lovingly restored and packaged version from Kino Video, one of a series of silent DeMille films they have released over the past year or so.

"We're Not Dressing" (1934). Hollywood has never been shy about recycling story ideas, especially those with proven box office appeal, so here again is the "Admirable Crichton" plot. This time it was made into a musical vehicle for Bing Crosby. Carole Lombard plays a spoiled aristocrat who invites some wealthy friends to go sailing in the South Seas. Crosby is a deck hand, a person of no consequence to the invited guests. Then, of course, the shipwreck occurs, and the lowly deck hand, the only surviving member of the crew, becomes the master.

"Island of Desire" (1952). Here's an interesting twist: a love triangle on a desert island. During World War II, a marine and a nurse spend months alone together on an island after their ship is torpedoed. In typical Hollywood love story fashion, they start out detesting one another, then fall inevitably in love. When an RAF pilot makes a crash landing on the island, a romantic rivalry develops between the two men. To further complicate matters, the nurse finds herself attracted to both of them. Tab Hunter and Linda Darnell play the marine and the nurse, with Donald Gray co-starring as the pilot.

"Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" (1957). For my money, a much more interesting wartime story about a marine and an angel of mercy is this John Huston film starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. Mitchum plays the title role, a marine named Allison who finds himself stranded on a South Pacific island with a Roman Catholic novitiate (Kerr), a prospective nun who has yet to take her final vows. The tough and resourceful Allison takes charge of seeing to the business of survival, Admirable Crichton style, but finds himself tongue tied and self-conscious in the presence of a woman he recognizes as a symbol of innocence and goodness. The storyline is engaging enough, with Allison trying to protect himself and his companion from the Japanese soldiers who eventually turn up on the island, but it is the performances that make this film such a joy to watch. Mitchum and Kerr play off each other brilliantly. If you think Mitchum could only play wisecracking film noir tough guys, this film will be a revelation.

Next week we'll look at even more castaway movies, including one about a marooned Swiss family and one about a chap named Crusoe.

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