TCM Discoveries: Cecil B. DeMille’s ‘Reap The Wild Wind’

One of the best feelings for a classic movie geek is finally seeing a movie you’ve heard about for awhile, but just hadn’t had the opportunity to. While I’m sure TCM has aired Reap The Wild Wind (1942) before Sept. 3 – the first night of the Susan Hayward Star of the Month event – this was my first time seeing it. And boy, was the wait worth it. Reap The Wild Wind must be considered one of Cecil B. DeMille’s greatest achievements because it has everything a DeMille movie should have. There’s incredible special effects, a love triangle, a duel between good and evil, a long courtroom standoff… and a giant octopus. What more could you want in a movie?

ReaptheWildWind, 6/26/09, 12:33 PM, 8C, 11412x15984 (0+0), 150%, Custom, 1/25 s, R45.9, G47.0, B64.1

Reap The Wild Wind is based on a serialized Saturday Evening Post story by Thelma Strabel and follows the adventures of Loxi Clairborne (Paulette Goddard), a native running her deceased father’s salvage business in 1840s Key West. There, the evil King Cutter (Raymond Massey) plans shipwrecks so he can profit off the cargo. But Loxi doesn’t care about the cargo. She wants to save lives and one of the men she saves at the beginning of the film is Captain Jack Stewart (John Wayne).

Loxi instantly falls for the Duke’s charms, but he has to go off to Charleston. Thankfully, she’s going there too and hopes to get him a great position. Unfortunately, Jack’s boss, Steve Tolliver (Ray Milland) also falls for Loxi setting up the love triangle. Since he’s a powerful lawyer, he thinks he can easily win Loxi over. But doesn’t he know that women – well, at least the ones in the movies – always go for the handsome, rugged type?

Why exactly was Reap The Wild Wind on during a Hayward-centric night? This one comes very early in her career, so she only has a small bit part as Loxi’s cousin Drusilla. However, like most great Hollywood movies, even the smallest character can have a major impact on the story. While our attention is focused on Loxi, Steve and Jack’s drama, Drusilla is in a forbidden relationship with Dan Cutler (Robert Preston), King’s brother. Drusilla takes a fateful journey on the Southern Cross, which sets up all the climactic action that dominates the latter 45 minutes of the film. Without her actions, it’s possible that nothing is solved.

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While TCM aired the film to bring attention to Hayward, this is a really important film in The Duke’s career. Reap was the first time Wayne had a chance to work with a top-shelf director not named John Ford or Raoul Walsh since Stagecoach (1939) proved he could lead an A picture. Reap also proved that Wayne could lead a Technicolor, non-Western epic and it also shows that he could act. We can see the inner turmoil Jack deals with as he ultimately decides to throw away his dreams in anger. Jack is not a one-sided character and is easily the most interesting in the film. It’s sad that he winds up dead in the end, but the character is redeemed by saving Steve.

Other performances in the film are quite good, although this could never be considered Ray Milland’s finest. Raymond Massey plays evil to the hilt and Paulette Goddard appears to be playing the Scarlett O’Hara role she always wanted. (Goddard is seriously underrated as a comedic actress, another fact I’ve discovered through TCM.) Reap also features an interesting performance from Louise Beavers, who plays Maum Maria, Loxi’s slave. It feels a bit weird to laugh at her, since she is a slave after all, but this isn’t a movie about that issue.

DeMille really knew how to keep audiences entertained, something that is forgotten if you only think of DeMille as the guy who made The Ten Commandments. For 123 minutes, he keeps you engrossed and it’s easy to lose track of time. He even figured out how to get two climaxes – first there’s the enthralling courtroom sequence and then there’s the exciting deep sea dive. The squid might look fake, but the danger to our heroes is very real. DeMille even holds the squid back to show as little as possible, decades before Steven Spielberg tried to show as little of the shark as possible in Jaws. We fear what we cannot see, after all.

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Reap The Wild Wind is one those “they don’t make ’em like they used to” movies. Sure, that’s a cliché, but it is 100 percent true in this case. There are no “family adventure movies” made these days. Even the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have their adult innuendos and violence. But even without sex and violence, you can still make an adventure movie that children and adults will enjoy. Adults can get caught up in the love triangle, while kids will have fun with the sea scenes. And there’s nothing in the love scenes where you have to cover the little ones’ ears either.

This piece is part of the TCM Discoveries Blogathon hosted by The Nitrate Diva.

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