Recently I had the chance to see the Criterion edition of The Docks of New York. I’m a big fan of silent movies, but I’d never heard of this film until I checked in a copy that a patron was returning to the library. The film was made in 1928 but set years earlier, before Prohibition began. It’s a silent film directed by Josef von Sternberg, and it is amazing to behold.
The movie stars George Bancroft as ship’s stoker Bill Roberts and Betty Compson as a young woman he rescues from a suicide attempt. The ship’s crew only has one night ashore before they set sail the next morning. This romance between the stoker and the girl is doomed to failure … unless by some miracle it isn’t.
The film takes place in rough-and-tumble New York City, a place that seems as dangerous and filthy as the ship where Bill works as a stoker. There’s lots of drinking, dancing, and fighting on the docks where most of the film is set.
George Bancroft is, to my eyes, ruggedly good-looking. His face has a lot of character, and I think he looks a little like John Garfield. He’s … how can I describe this? He’s not good-looking like Leonardo DiCaprio or George Clooney, but good-looking like Humphrey Bogart was (i.e. – so captivating that whenever he comes on screen I can’t stop staring at him). (And on a related note, which category does Clark Gable belong to? Because I find him captivating, too, but then again he did have those big ears.)
Betty Compson plays the girl who tries to kill herself but gets a second chance at life with the man who saved her. She is sweet, sad, and angelic, with very expressive eyes. She is also heartbreakingly pretty in a way that few actresses have been before or since.
There is excellent chemisty between the two lead characters, which is especially difficult to achieve in a silent film where the audience can’t hear their voices. I have to say, this film aged REALLY well!
The film is evocative, dimly lit, and features lots of gas lamps, fog, & cigarette smoke. Every shot looks like a black and white photograph that you might see in a museum or an art gallery. It’s visually stunning!
In addition to the stoker and the girl, there are several other characters with pivotal roles. Bill’s boss on the ship is an engineer, a man who discovers the wife he abandoned years earlier working as a dance-hall girl. To complicate matters even further, he also desires the same girl that Bill rescued.
To me the most interesting character is that of the engineer’s wife. We watch the emotions play across her face as she watches the romance develop between the stoker and the girl, and she deals with her feelings of jealousy, sympathy, anger, and compassion. This must have been a very exciting and very difficult part for actress Olga Baclanova to play.
Miles of docks wait day and night for strange cargo — and stranger men.
Well, you gave me the air. It’s been three years — what did you expect me to do?
After a month in the stoke-hole, I got no sympathy for anybody that wants to quit a swell world like this!
Throw yourself into them new rags an’ give me a chance!
Are you goin’ to let me have a good time in my own quiet way — or must I take this place apart?
I sailed the seven seas, but I never saw a craft as trim as you.
Get me a parson – I’m goin’ to get spliced to my girl friend!
Anyway, if you’re a fan of silent films or just want to open yourself up to a great cinematic experience, you should definitely give The Docks of New York a try. The Criterion DVD offers some nice extras, including an interview with von Sternberg and a choice of two soundtracks (I had trouble accessing both soundtracks from the main menu, but I was able to listen to each one by using the audio button on my DVD remote). Both soundtracks are worth listening to, if you have the time to watch the movie more than once. Each one has a different mix of action, romance, and sentimentality. And one of the soundtracks occasionally uses vocals, which is an unusual choice for a silent film.