Wed 25 Feb 2015
OMOO OMOO THE SHARK GOD. Screen Guild Productions as Lippert Pictures Inc., 1948. Ron Randell, Devera Burton, Trevor Bardette, Pedro de Cordoba, Richard Benedict, Mate Richards, Michael Whalen, Rudy Robles. Written & directed by Leon Leonard.
Two disparate books come together in one desperate film in Omoo Omoo the Shark God. Herman Melville is one of those Great Authors whose power has always…. well has always escaped me somehow. I labored through Moby Dick in college under duress, and fifty years later found Billy Budd a crashing bore. I can enjoy Conrad, Marlowe, Shakespeare and even de Quincey, but I find reading Melville akin to eating Brussels sprouts. Blame my literary taste buds.
At the other end of the spectrum, I thoroughly enjoyed a recent book called Talk’s Cheap, Action’s Expensive: The Films of Robert L. Lippert (Bear Manor Media, 2014) by Mark Thomas McGee. For those unfamiliar, Lippert was a producer of dubious ethics and even dubiouser taste, releasing films from the late 40s to the 60s. To his credit, we have The Last Man on Earth, The Fly, Rocketship XM, the Quatermass movies and the early films of Sam Fuller.
On the debit side, we have the other 70 or so films he bears responsibility for, almost all of them done quickly and artlessly with both eyes on the budget: Films like The Lost Continent (’51) with Cesar Romero and those crummy dinosaurs; King Dinosaur (’55) with even crummier monsters; Fingerprints Don’t Lie (reviewed here earlier;) the Lash LaRue movies; Sins of Jezebel; Queen of the Amazon; Superman and the Mole Men; The Alligator People, a whole bunch of British B-movies with faded American stars.
I could go on, but you get the point, or if you don’t you won’t. Lippert’s favorite actor was Sid Melton and his most-used actress was Margia Dean, with whom he was sleeping. I rather enjoy Lippert’s films myself. Some are touched with genius, some amusingly inept, and some are simply jaw-droppingly awful, but they all have that sense of quiet desperation Thoreau spoke of so movingly.
And oddly enough, the talents of Lippert and Melville once met, in a remarkable little film called Omoo Omoo the Shark God.
Well anyway the credits tell us this is based on Omoo, though I don’t recall any cursed idols, budding romance or native blood-brothers in Melville’s autobiographical novel. Perhaps writer/director Leon Leonard saw something in it I didn’t. (I told you I had a critical blind spot there.) Or maybe the film is an extended commentary on the book, a fictional critique and thematic riposte.
I guess we’ll never know. All I can say for sure is that the story revolves around an obsessive sea captain guiding his ship back to a remote island in search of some mystical black pearls he stole from the eyes of a native idol years ago and hid someplace. Romance blooms along the way between the Captain’s daughter and our hero (Devera Burton and Ron Randell), and once we get to the island sundry complications ensue, including hostile natives, greedy sailors and some sort of curse.
This is all done in typical Lippert style, played out on cramped sets and filled out with stock footage. I don’t believe there’s an original exterior shot in the whole movie. But one can clearly see the thematic references to Moby Dick: the mad captain, compelled to pursue a horrible fate; the inversion (White Whale becomes Black Pearls) and the incredible boredom as the story moves like a becalmed iceberg. The studio jungles are about what you’d expect from a movie like this, helped a bit by Benjamin Kline’s expert photography, and Albert Glasser’s music tries hard to convince us something’s going on, but this is basically an hour of nothing much. And yet…
And yet I find myself wondering what prompted writer/director Leon Leonard to this tawdry madness in the first place. He had no previous experience writing or directing for the movies; his only other screen credit is a bit part in an obscure Rudy Vallee short, Campus Sweetheart, and he seems to have worked mostly in the Theatre as a musical director. So how did he come to bring Melville to the screen?
Whence this film?
I tell you, it’s enough to make a man think.