Do you remember the first movie you saw in theaters? Mine was The Secret Garden in 1993. I had already seen the 1949 version with Margaret O’Brien and that was my preferred version, so I recall discussing the new film with my sister and deciding that we didn’t like the new version as much. Unfortunately, I recall this discussion more than I recall the movie. My brother’s first movie was The Jungle Book. It was re-released in theaters in 1990 at the same time that it was released on VHS. Supposedly, I was there, too, but I have no memory of it. My cousin tells me his first memory is when he was two years old, which is very impressive. He saw Toy Story 2 and ate Smartie and we were wondering if they still sale Smarties in theaters. I can’t recall seeing any.
When I asked my Nana what movie she first remembers, she said Lassie Come Home in 1944. However, she’s also told me the story of another movie that she didn’t remember the name of. She thought it was a Cecil B. DeMille film and starred Paulette Goddard. But that was more of a side-memory. What she always remembered was one specific scene, that stood out like technicolor. There was a ship with sails and a woman stows aboard it and hides in a trunk, but her scarf partially hangs out. There’s a storm or a wreck and the ship goes down and she remembered seeing the trunk underwater with the scarf floating in the water and thinking “Oh!” and realizing that the woman was dead. She never forgot that moment. She also recalled a squid.
So I thought it would be really fun if I could find out what the name of the movie was so we could watch it together. I looked up Paulette Goddard’s filmography and found that she made three movies with Cecil B. DeMille, but only one had ships in it: Reap the Wild Wind, released in 1942. In watching the trailer, there also appeared to be a squid attack.
The cast is impressive, as all DeMille’s cast are impressive: Paulette Goddard, John Wayne, Ray Milland, Raymond Massey, Lynn Overman, Robert Preston, Charles Bickford, Susan Hayward. When I read the cast list to Nana, she was quite impressed at how many names were in there, because as far as her memory of the movie goes, the men were quite negligible. It was all about Paulette Goddard, the squid and the lady drowning in the trunk.
And when we watched the movie together, we agreed with her early assessment. It is Paulette Goddard, the squid and the lady in the trunk that you recall. And the moment when Milland tries to spank Goddard. Golden Age Hollywood had the unfortunate quirk of thinking that it is amusing for a man to spank a women, but in this case it kind of was. I’d never seen anyone try to spank somebody in a hoop skirt before and it’s quite the visual. The skirt poofs out and I couldn’t help thinking he must be hitting more hoop than her. I also couldn’t help thinking that with a little imagination, a woman could really make a hoop skirt excellent protection, or even a weapon against men: perhaps with a few well-placed pins or some spiky whale-bone. If a man gets too close, you could always skewer him.
The plot occurs in the 1840s in the Key West area and concerns Paulette Goddard as Loxi Clairborne. She runs a salvaging business. When ships get stuck on a reef, salvagers come out in their boats and rescue them, getting paid for their efforts. But in competition with her is King Cutler (Raymond Massey), more pirate than salvager. He helps to arrange wrecks, as well as rescue people, and takes an exorbitant sum for his efforts. Fighting for Loxi’s affections are two men, rugged sea captain Jack Stuart (John Wayne) and dandy lawyer Steven Tolliver (Ray Milland), though Tolliver does turn out to be tougher and more wily than he initially appears. The lady of the trunk is Susan Hayward. She plays Goddard’s cousin and is in love with Cutler’s brother, played by Robert Preston.
Reap the Wild Wind is not a movie to be watched seriously, though it was made seriously. Perhaps that is why it was entertaining. Nana and I enjoyed ourselves immensely. All the stuff that Nana recalls occurs in the last twenty minutes of the film, which must speak volumes for DeMille’s capacity to craft an unforgettable finale. We’ve now determined that as a 1942 movie, it is indeed the earliest film that Nana saw.