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Ship of Fools (1965)

by on April 30, 2010
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There’s a lot of stuff to like about 1965’s “Ship of Fools” — aptly described as “Grand Hotel on a boat.” But overall it’s a heavy-handed bit of social commentary along the lines of “On the Beach,” which was recently featured in the Reeling Backward column.

That’s no surprise, since both films were directed by Stanley Kramer. Kramer had a long and illustrious career as a producer and director, and often gravitated to material with a social conscious. Often the results were sublime (“Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” “Judgment at Nuremberg”) but sometimes it feels like a big lecture.

The cast of “Ship” is huge — Lee Marvin, Janet Leigh (in her final film role), Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Oskar Werner, George Segal, Heinz Ruhmann, Michael Dunn, Jose Greco, and on and on.

It’s all one big circus of human frailties and prejudices. It’s set aboard a German ocean liner in 1933, just when Nazism is on the rise. Virtually every Western society is represented, and almost always in a negative light.

The only truly good characters are the outcasts: The Jew and the dwarf. They sit together at their own dining table, even though the rest of the German passengers get a seat at the captain’s table.

Dunn, who was one of the first Little Persons to have a serious dramatic film career, even takes on the role of the narrator who addresses the audience directly at the beginning and end — not so subtly indicting those watching the movie for having the same flaws as the poor creatures they just watched.

Leigh is great as Mrs. Treadwell, an aging divorcee whose bitterness about the tatters of her own hopes and dreams seems to infect all of her interactions.

Marvin has an awful role as a racist American Southerner and ex-baseball player whose biggest problem in life was that he couldn’t hit the outside curve ball. He spends most of the movie tomcatting after this feminine object or that. He’s depicted, quite explicitly, as an ape.

I could spend a lot of time describing the rest of the characters, but I think you get the idea.

The centerpiece of the film is the plight of the ship’s Dr. Schumann. Disaffected and estranged from his family on shore, he falls for a rich Mexican woman whose paramour has been deposed. Because of her habit of aiding the poor and needy, she’s being deported to Spain, a country she’s never been to.

A high-class drug addict, she gloms onto Shumann for her fix, but they soon recognize the same world-weary resignation in each other. Their romance is doomed from the start, and they both know it, but they can’t help stirring the embers of their youthful passions.

I also liked Jose Ferrer in this film — but then, it is virtually impossible not to like Jose Ferrer in anything. He plays a rich industrialist and early proponent of eugenics and Nazism. A raconteur who enjoys shunning those who do not live up to his definition of proper Germans, he spends most of his time chasing a nubile blonde German half his age. There’s no meanness to the performance, though, but rather the wayward pride of a man who has confused patriotism with elitism.

There’s a lot to take in with “Ship of Fools.” But its high-mindedness gets the better of it.

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