Edward Sedgwick | Spring Fever
| West Point | Murder in the Fleet
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Edward Sedgwick made both silent and sound films. He worked with such
comedians as Buster Keaton and William Haines. He and Keaton reportedly
helped train Lucille Ball in comedy, as she prepared for I Love Lucy.
Common subjects in the films of Edward Sedgwick:
- Sports (baseball: Hit and Run, baseball: Slide, Kelly, Slide, golf: Spring Fever,
football: West Point, football: Maker of Men, football: Saturday's Millions,
baseball: Death on the Diamond, racing: Burn 'Em Up O'Connor)
- Sports reporters (West Point, Saturday's Millions, Death on the Diamond)
other reporters (hero: I'll Tell the World, Murder in the Fleet)
- Membership in a Corps, and male bonding (West Point, Murder in the Fleet)
- Non-series whodunits with glamorous backgrounds (baseball: Death on the Diamond, Navy: Murder in the Fleet,
racing: Burn 'Em Up O'Connor)
- Sinister bribery attempts, rejected by hero (Death on the Diamond, Murder in the Fleet)
- Radio (listening to big game: West Point, radio station: Remote Control)
- Realistic working areas (shipping office: Spring Fever, ship scenes: Murder in the Fleet)
related (documentary look at West Point: West Point)
- Outdoor areas with complex grounds (country club, golf courses: Spring Fever, West Point: West Point)
- Ship board locations (sailing to school: West Point, Navy ship: Murder in the Fleet)
- Trains (Slide, Kelly, Slide, West Point)
- Characters horizontal on the ground (Haines as golf instructor, falling in awning: Spring Fever)
- Falling murder victims (Death on the Diamond, Murder in the Fleet)
Spring Fever (1927) is a silent film comedy, starring William Haines as a
golfer. Spring Fever is one of numerous films Sedgwick made about sports. The first half of
Spring Fever, which is a comedy about the hero's sports adventures, is better than the
second half and its romance.
Haines works in the shipping office of a large company, along side his father and many
other working class people. The office is surprisingly "real" looking. It almost
seems documentary. It anticipates the realistic ship scenes in Murder in the Fleet,
also work areas.
During his golfing scenes with Joan Crawford, Haines winds up on the ground, adjusting her stance
- and also flirting. Sedgwick characters sometimes assume such horizontal, on the ground positions.
Haines also winds up falling on his back, in the slapstick awning sequence on the wall outside Crawford's room.
West Point (1928) is a silent film about a football player
at West Point, the United States Army's military academy in New
York. The film was shot on location, and stars William Haines
as the cadet, Brice Wayne. The film is unexpectedly entertaining
and emotionally involving. It clearly is one of the neglected
gems of the silent film.
William Haines was one of the most popular stars of the silent
era, and this is one of his best vehicles. He ranges from comedy
to drama here. One can see why he was one of the idols of the
day. His early scenes show his brash comic intensity, as an cocky
young man with an attitude the size of Gibraltar. People clearly
loved seeing someone this confident, and fun loving.
William Haines is one of the heroes of the gay civil rights movement.
He was blacklisted in Hollywood, despite his box office popularity,
for refusing to hide his gayness. West Point is unexpectedly
rich in a gay sensibility.
The last section of the film deals with Brice's desire to be part
of the Corps. On the surface, this is a militaristic theme. But
in the film, it evokes other issues. Gay people have been systematically
excluded from society. What many gay people want, more than anything
else, is to be accepted by society, and to be part of the team.
The film shows Brice's overwhelming feelings on the subject, and
his struggle to become accepted by the social world around him.
These sections awake deep feelings in the viewer. They emotionally
invoke a whole world of gay experience. Haines' performance
is strongly felt and expressive. He conveys to the viewer exactly
how these situations feel. The screenplay and direction also closely
reveal this world, with a step by step emotional logic.
There is not an exact correspondence between the surface
story of the film, and the experiences it evokes. Brice has cut
himself off from the Corps by his own arrogance. By contrast,
in the real world, gay people do not have to do anything wrong
to be rejected. Society will reject even the finest gay human
beings, without any provocation.
Many of the middle sections of the film concentrate on Brice's
relationship with his roommate, Tex MacNeil (played by William Bakewell).
MacNeil is clearly in love with Brice, and the film
comes very close to being about a gay love relationship.
Bakewell's performance is also emotionally charged. He has not held back;
instead his romantic feelings spill out all over the screen.
Links to Sunrise
West Point recalls the film Sunrise (1927) of the year before.
Sunrise was highly influential in Hollywood, often in terms of film technique.
But the influence of Sunrise on West Point is especially a matter of story.
Both films start with characters from the outside world,
arriving in a rural location by boat.
Both films have their male hero committing an act that deeply offends those around him.
The hero then repents, and spends the rest of the film trying to gain re-acceptance
from those he has offended.
Both films have the hero running to catch a train that is already
leaving and in motion. In both, his fierce running and leaping onto the moving train,
visually symbolizes his efforts to rejoin the world and gain acceptance from those
he has offended. Stars George O'Brien of Sunrise and William Haines of West Point
show a remarkable physicality and sense of energy in these scenes.
In both films, the running is more important than the final jump on the train.
In both, the hero physically attacks (West Point) or attempts to attack (Sunrise)
a Significant Other in his life, and then seeks forgiveness. In Sunrise,
this is the hero's wife. In West Point, it is the hero's roommate Tex MacNeil.
Having a male-male relationship at the core of the story, modeled on a
husband-wife relationship in another film, is an indication of how strong a gay sensibility
is embodied in West Point.
Sunrise contains a temptress character, who lures the hero away from his marriage.
There is no such analogous character in West Point. Hero William Haines'
own arrogance and ego does him in in West Point, without any encouragement from anyone else.
In Sunrise, it is the temptress who arrives on the boat at the start.
In West Point, it is hero Haines.
Haines' character thus combines a bit both the hero and temptress roles from Sunrise.
Location Filming and Landscape
West Point was shot on location. It offers a documentary
look at what the school was like in the 1920s. It especially looks
at student life there. One does not have to try to imagine what
a 1920s West Point football practice session looked like: the
film shows it in detail.
The film is also strong on showing beautiful
West Point landscapes. Silent filmmakers loved "pictorial
values", as they were called back then, and were always looking
for striking landscape views to put in their films. West Point
is in this tradition. Sometimes these landscapes are in the background:
for example, during the boat ride up the Hudson River that brings
the characters to the school at the start. In others scenes, the
characters are in the center: the outdoor staircases down which
Brice runs on the way to the train are especially beautiful.
There is a long overhead pan, showing him running down a whole series of staircases.
Sports Stories in the 1920's
West Point evokes a whole world of 1920s college prose
fiction and films:
Sedgwick and Haines had previously collaborated
on other sports films: Slide, Kelly, Slide (1927) is about
baseball, and Spring Fever (1927) about golf.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald
became famous when his first novel, This Side of Paradise
(1920), was published, offering an inside look at Princeton student
life. He also wrote some fine short stories dealing with college
football heroes, who both Fitzgerald and the general public idolized.
- Harold Lloyd's screen comedy The Freshman (1925) shows
the life of a rather unlikely college football hero. Joe Franklin's
essay on Haines in his Classics of the Silent Screen (1959),
still one of the best short pieces on Haines, suggests that Haines'
typical screen character is based on and extends Lloyd's. Both
men played brash young go-getters. Both Lloyd's hero in The
Freshman and Haines have tremendous problems being accepted
by other male students.
- Long before this, Wallace Reid had had some of his biggest hits
playing athletes, such as race car drivers.
Tell It To the Marines
Haines had had one of his biggest commercial successes two years
before with George Hill's Tell It To the Marines (1926),
in which he plays a raw recruit who is hounded by tough Marine
Sergeant Lon Chaney. As Joe Franklin pointed out, this film has
been imitated endlessly ever since. Allan Dwan's
The Sands of Iwo Jima (1948) featured John Wayne's even tougher
Sergeant Stryker. I did not like Tell It To the Marines at all.
Haines shows little of the charm here that flows through West
Point, King Vidor's Show People (1928), or his other
best films. George Hill's mise-en-scène is unpleasant,
too. Hill specialized in portraying awful, grim, gritty and downright
disgusting looking militarized institutions, both here, and in
the pioneer prison drama The Big House (1930). These places
are just plain depressing, and Lon Chaney's nasty Sergeant hardly
makes them seem any more fun.
One can see some symbolism in West Point in the choice
of numbers worn by the football players. Haines' hero Brice Wayne
wears 10 on his football uniform, both during practice as a plebe,
and at the big game at the end. This perhaps reflects androgyny:
1 is a male, phallic symbol, and 0 is a female symbol. He is wearing
numbers symbolizing both genders. Everyone in West Point
wears two digit numbers, so 10 is also the lowest number worn
by football players in the film. There are none of the single
digit, phallic symbol numbers here such as 1, 7 or 9 that run
through Lloyd's screen comedy The Freshman. Please see
my article on Sports Numbers and Their Symbolism
for a history of such numbers in film and comics.
After he shows his stuff during an early football practice,
the hero is congratulated by other team members. Many are wearing more
conventionally all-phallic numbers, such as 41.
Another comic book connection: the hero's name Brice Wayne might be
ancestral to Batman's secret identity, playboy
Murder in the Fleet
Whodunits - and Death on the Diamond
Murder in the Fleet (1935) is clearly an attempt to repeat
the "success" of Sedgwick's Death on the Diamond (1934)
the year before. Both are mystery stories, in which a mysterious
killer is picking off members of the cast. Both take place in
an all-male, highly macho institution: the baseball team of Death
on the Diamond, a US Navy cruiser here. The members of both
institutions wear uniforms. In both cases, we are treated to detailed
inside looks at these organizations, which somehow fail to convince.
The emotional point of view is that of a small boy who hero worships
these characters in a Boy's Own Paper fashion. I put the
word "success" in quotes: both are pretty cornball films.
They are somewhat unusual as non-series whodunits, with fairly
big name performers.
Both films have young, pretty boy leads: Robert Young in Diamond,
Robert Taylor here. Both have given much better performances for
other directors. Sedgwick emphasizes their juvenile quality. Both
are neophytes in their respective organizations, with Young a
rookie pitcher, and Taylor a Lieutenant just out of Annapolis.
Second lead Donald Cook is much more convincing as a naval
officer. He has the dignity, maturity and confidence that Taylor
seems to lack. Taylor always looks doubtful, confused and apologetic.
Oddly enough, Taylor often is partly out of his Naval uniform,
whereas Cook is always in his. Usually the leading man of
a movie gets to wear the sharpest clothes.
Both films also have "comedy" relief in the form of
an ongoing battle between Nat Pendelton and Ted Healy. Their relentless
comic duels are sometimes annoying and sometimes funny. Pendelton
is a convincing tough guy, who adds to the atmosphere of Depression
era, low brow, ordinary guy, working stiff machismo.
Both films recall Sedgwick's West Point: Death on the
Diamond in its focus on sports teams, Murder in the Fleet
in its emphasis on military uniforms, and membership in a Corps.
Staging the Murder Scene
Both films have a dramatically staged murder scene, in which a
character's body keels over in a spectacular way. In Diamond,
a baseball player's murdered body falls out when a locker door
is opened. (My folks remembered this scene from their childhood.
It caused a sensation then among all the neighborhood kids.) In Murder in the Fleet,
we see the actual murder. A gun shoots, then Sedgwick cuts to
a group of naval personnel. One of them collapses while all the
others stand stiffly at attention. The scene is both absurd, and
visually memorable. It is hard not to imagine it drawing snickers
in a collection of Hollywood's Campiest Moments. Still, it shows
Both scenes show some basic anxieties. They suggest
a team is vulnerable. In both cases, the body emerges from a team's
infrastructure: the locker room in Diamond, a group of
Navy men stiffly doing their job on ship here. There is an attack
on team through its members. As the murdered members proceed from the vertical
to the horizontal, we feel the sense of lost comradeship on the
Scriptwriter Spig Wead - and the Navy background
Frank "Spig" Wead contributed to this script, one of
many Navy pictures he worked on in Hollywood. Perhaps he helped
with the tale's finale, which is a genuinely well done sequence
that takes full advantage of the film's Navy cruiser setting.
I learned things about ships that I didn't know. This finale
could give pointers to today's Naval thrillers, such as U-571 (2000).
Earlier in the picture, Wead develops another one of his persistent
themes, a Naval officer whose girl friend is pressuring him to
leave the service. We'll see this in more developed form later
in Wead's life story in John Ford's The
Wings of Eagles (1957). At the end, here, the heroine relents,
and encourages the officer to stay in the Navy. She tells him,
"You taught me about men and their feelings. I didn't know
how all you guys felt about each other." This is a pretty
direct look at men's emotions, and it would be unusual in the 2000's,
let alone 1935.