This week’s mystery movie was Henry King’s 1930 picture “Hell Harbor,” with Lupe Velez, Jean Hersholt, John Holland, Gibson Gowland, Harry Allen, Al. St. John, Paul Burns, George Bookasta and Ulysses Williams.
Adapted by Fred DeGresac, from the novel “Out of the Night” by Rida Johnson Young. Dialogue and screenplay by Clark Silvernail.
Edited by Lloyd Nosler, scenario by N. Brewster Morse, photography by John Fulton, Max Stengler and Robert M. Hass (Haas), art direction by Robert M. Hass (Haas). Production staff Harry Ham, Louis King and Richard Harlan, settings by Tec-Art Studios, sound by Ernest Rovere. Music by Gene Berten, Harvey Allen, Sextetto Habanero and Ernesto Lecuona.
I picked “Hell Harbor” based primarily on this brief article in American Cinematographer. The movie was shot on location at Rocky Point Peninsula near Tampa, Fla., connected by a two-mile road to the mainland. Tampa welcomed the crew enthusiastically and honored various cast members with luncheons and, for Lupe Velez, a gala. Newspapers reported that local officials hoped the film would help establish Florida as a film center to rival New York and Hollywood.
“Hell Harbor” was filmed at a village built for the movie, and used many Tampa residents as extras. One of the people who showed up was Rondo Hatton, a reporter who came to write about the picture and was cast as a bouncer. A local boxer named Herman Weiner was drafted to appear in the picture as Ulysses Williams. The Tampa Times (Sept. 13, 1929) said many locals were cast in small roles, including Etta Allman as Hatton’s “wife”; Enrique Gonzales (“3 feet tall and bald as an egg”); D.B. Sota as the bartender; Cecil Cabanal, as an accordion player; and Ruth Ybanez, a daughter of one of the honkytonk gamblers. “The costuming has been done by (Richard) Harlan, Rosita Gil and the Count d’Esco, and is typical of what the popular of Hell Harbor would wear,” The Tampa Times said.
A hurricane struck during filming, pushing the ship onto the beach and breaking it in two. The storm threatened to swamp equipment and the set until the crew worked furiously to get the lights and gear back to the mainland and protect the sets with sandbags.
Note: The dialogue on board the ship was recorded using cables run to barges holding the sound equipment.
“Hell Harbor” was also picture of the month in Broadway and Hollywood Movies magazine.
Writing in Exhibitors Herald World (March 1, 1930), the T.O. Service column said:
Very, Very good. Mark this down in red; not in your ledger but in your date book as something that shouldn’t be missed. This is an old sure-fire plot about the Caribbean, a drunk of a father and his beautiful daughter, and an American trader who marries the girl.
Somebody, somewhere, is going to say the action is far fetched, but this is a misconception. A large part of the film is given over to a whimsical, ingenuous treatment where Lupe Velez and an old sailor and a small boy play at being killers. There isn’t enough of the Peter Pannish trait to make the actual story nonsense, but enough to make it appealing.
Lupe Velez sings here, and a thousand times better than expected. The photography is nothing short of genius and the direction inspired. The supporting case was born expressly for this picture, Jean Hersholt especially. If you get the impression that this is a review of a thoroughly enjoyable picture, all right, that’s intended.
Hollywood Filmograph (March 8, 1930) said:
Inspiration Pictures spent a lot of money on this picture. It is well worth the money that they spent, for it is a very fine vehicle for Jean Hersholt and Lupe Velez, and at the same time it is laid in the Caribbean Seas, although it was shot down in Florida and smacks of new territory where the other producers haven’t sent their companies and that is worth its weight in gold to the box office.
It is an all-talkie that holds you every minute that it is on the screen. Comedy relief is offered by a newcomer who admits that it is his first picture. Naturally we are to expect better things of him in the future, but what he does he does well–yes, well enough to cause gales of laughter. His name is Paul E. Burns. John Holland’s part is commonplace but he did it well and it was unfortunate for him that it was just an ordinary part.
Gibson Gowland gives one of the most dramatic portrayals of his career. He is vicious and commands attention every minute he is on the screen. He is a good foil for both Jean Hersholt and Lupe Velez.
Extra fine work was rendered by Harry Allen as a peg-leg character. George Bookasta is one of the most promising youngsters on the screen. Al St. John’s work was refreshing and new types loomed on the screen, picked up down south by the producers and director.
For Monday, we have a mystery gent. He neither approves nor disapproves of such goings-on.
Update: This is Ulysses Williams, also known as Herman Weiner, in his film debut.
For Tuesday, we have a mystery woman. She is intrigued by such goings-on.
Update: This woman is so far unidentified (I gave credit for Ruth Hall, who is a dance hall girl in another scene). This woman is most likely one of the Tampa residents King cast for minor roles. So far, I have been unable to find her name in the Tampa papers.
For “Hm Wednesday,” we have this softly focused mystery gent. He approves of such goings-on.
Update: This is Harry Allen.
We also have this saucy mystery sailor.
Update: This is Al St. John.
And finally, we have this unsavory mystery gent. It’s safe to say he has evil intentions at this point in the plot.
Update: This is Paul E. Burns in his film debut.
For “Aha Thursday,” we have this mystery guest, who has a high “Aha” quotient….
Update: This is Gibson Gowland.
And this mystery gent, whose “Aha” quotient is even higher.
Update: This is newspaperman Rondo Hatton in his film debut
Brain Trust roll call: Howard Mandelbaum (mystery movie and all mystery guests).
For Friday, we have our mysterious leading man.
Update: This is John Holland.
We also have this disreputable mystery gent.
Update: This is Jean Hersholt.
And finally, our mystery leading lady.
Update: This is Lupe Velez.
Brain Trust roll call: Thom and Megan (mystery movie and all mystery guests), Mary Mallory (mystery movie and all mystery guests), Howard Mandelbaum (Thursday’s mystery guests), Michael Ryerson (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guests), Chrisbo (right mystery guests, wrong movie), Sheila (Thursday’s mystery guests), B.J. Merholz (right mystery guest, wrong movie), Sarah (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guest No. 2), Dan Nather (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guests), Sylvia E. (mystery movie and Monday’s, Wednesday’s and Thursday’s mystery guests, and peering into the future to see Friday’s mystery guests) and L.C. (mystery movie and mystery cast),