Ghost Ship - 1943
RKO production 431
Producer and uncredited co-writer Val Lewton
Directed by Mark Robson
Writen by Donald Henderson Clarke and Leo Mittler
Actors: Richard Dix, Russell Wade, Edith Barrett, Ben Bard, Charles Lung, Skelton Knaggs
Production start August 3, 1943
Production end August 28, 1943
Running time 69 minutes
For a long time this was considered the "lost" Lewton film from his RKO years. As Ken mentions on his Lewton Home Page (no longer online), the film came about mainly through RKO execs telling Lewton to make a film using the expensive left-over set from 1939's Pacific Liner. This is not the same as handing him a title (like Cat People or I Walked with a Zombie) and being told to 'make a film to go with it,' but it is certainly similar. The film was also intended to be a movie for actor Richard Dix to be presented in a favorably vehicle for his last contract role at RKO (Dix is Captain Will Stone).
The film itself was unseen for decades because of a lawsuit brought against RKO claiming the movie plagiarized an unsolicited script that was dropped off (and according to Lewton, never read) at Lewton's office by a pair of scriptwriters named Samuel R. Golding and Norbert Faulkner. These plaintiffs threatened a $50,000 lawsuit but also offered to settle for $700. In a letter to his mother (which is partially reprinted in Joel E. Siegel's book Val Lewton: The Reality of Terror) Lewton says he was outraged by the blatant blackmail and refused to settle though RKO lawyers encouraged him to do so.
In court, RKO lost the case and had to pay $25,000 in damages and $5,000 in attorney fees because, according to Lewton, they could not in court prove that they might not have seen the script in question. This decision came down shortly after the premiere of Ghost Ship which then followed with the title being withdrawn from theatres. In limbo afterward, it ended up a part of a list of films sold by RKO to television in the 1950s and then was shown only rarely as the film was legally not supposed to be distributed.
The Ghost Ship has superficial elements that seem borrowed from the novels Moby Dick and The Sea Wolf. For example, in an initial scene, the blind beggar (Alec Craig) can tell things from a sailor's walk and other sounds, and who also predicts - accurately - that the Altair is a 'bad ship' - this reminded me of the beggar Elijah from Moby Dick who also prophecies a bad end for the Pequad.
Another similarity is that 3rd officer (and story hero) Tom Merriman (played by Russell Wade) after becoming certain of his captain's derangement, tries to convince his fellow crew mates of the danger yet only receives the same reaction given by the crew to Starbuck on The Pequad in Melville's Moby Dick, i.e., they don't want to hear about it, a ships captain is virtually a "god" when at sea, and is due the blind obedience of the crew (a twist on this theme is in Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny, in which a crew does act against a demented captain).
In another echo of other material, The Ghost Ship's Captain Stone (Dix) displays a kind of philosophical attitude and force of character not unlike that of Wolf Larson from Jack London's The Sea Wolf (which, incidentally, had been filmed in 1941 with Edward G. Robinson as the brutal but intellectual captain).
Besides that, though, the film is truly a Lewtonesque affair, and considering the psychological dilemmas of Captain Stone (a self-fear that controls him and then finally runs amok) it has more in common with The Cat People and The Leopard Man which both feature second-guessing by the lead "monster."
For a story based almost entirely at sea, the sea plays a very minor role in The Ghost Ship. The plot could play out just as easily aboard a space ship or wagon train, since it revolves chiefly around the isolation of a group of men led by a tyrannical leader.
Being as The Ghost Ship was made during World War II, I wonder if Lewton used it to typify the abuses (and lunacy) of the dictator powers that the Allies were fighting. The authority-worshipping Captain Stone could easily function as a leader of a country that has qualms, but not the guts, to question the authority of a power-mad leader (like NAZI-era Germans).
An unique feature of The Ghost Ship (which has been used in other films, for example Cornel Wilde's Beach Red from 1967) is the soliloquy voice-overs of the mute sailor Fenn (Skelton Knaggs). Regarded by his crewmates as something akin to a retarded man, Fenn actually is a watchful and astute judge of character and events. He also plays perhaps the most pivital role in the entire movie.
THE SPECTER OF THE GHOST SHIP Chapter 6 from Dreams of Darkness the Films of Val Lewton by J P Telotte Amazon Link
THE GHOST SHIP Chapter 5 from the Joel Siegel book on Lewton Amazon Link
The Lewton chapter from De Witt Bodeen's MORE FROM HOLLYWOOD (1977) - he mentions Ghost Ship in his bio of Lewton briefly. Amazon Link
ICONS OF GRIEF: VAL LEWTON’S HOME FRONT PICTURES by Alexander Nemerov. Features a chapter on The Ghost Ship and especially Skelton Knaggs. Amazon Link
FEARING THE DARK: THE VAL LEWTON CAREER by Edmund G. Bansak. Chapter Ten is on The Ghost Ship. - Amazon Link