The Docks of New York (1928)

Common complaints among those who don’t enjoy silent cinema are that the acting is over-the-top and the stories are too melodramatic. While it is true that many popular and historical silent films could be accused of such tendencies, there are plenty of silent films that break the preconception and show a dearth of diversity in style and form. The Docks of New York is such a film, a story so modern, a style so sleek that both fans and skeptics of silent cinema should check out The Docks of New York.

A day of shore leave for sailor Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) becomes quite the scandal when the suicidal Mae (Betty Compston) is recused by Bill after attempting to drown herself in the docks. As Bill attempts to make Mae his girl for the night, he runs into trouble with various people at the club: the envious Andy (Mitchell Lewis), the protective Loy (Olga Baclanova) and a number of other men and women who Bill sees as competition to his girl.

The Docks of New York is a film with little sentiment. The characters are not honorable; Almost all of them sleazy, corrupt and sexually voracious. Bill is not the honorable man with broad shoulders, nor is Mae the virginal youth threatened by some foreboding evil figure that Bill must subdue. They’re people who’ve been on the wild side of life, but both see the world differently.

Mae reaches a moment of existential crisis, having experienced more than enough of the pleasures and roughness of life. She’s lost her appetite for life. Bill, on the other hand, still lives to gorge deeply on life, to drink long and deep and find the arms of a sweet, loving woman. He’s also strong enough to make sure no one stops him from taking whatever he wants out of life. Mae is the warning sign, the alarm of where it might all end unless Bill can change.

The thematic question driving the conflicts in the relationships in the film is whether or not commitment, explicitly marriage, can be sustained or even has any value in a sensate society. If life is simply looking for the next best pleasure, what does marriage even mean? Later in the film, marriage becomes a flippant joke for the patrons of the bar, good for a laugh, but little more.

As the subtext emerges as explicitly text, Jules Furthman’s screenplay double weave strengthens the impending act, creating thematic closure that is necessitated through the actions and behaviors of the characters that have built up into the final turn of the film. Both the plot and thematic subtext undergo a radical shift which finally brings resolution and clarity to the relationships and the themes.

This is all captured in a modern style. Harold Rosson’s cinematography allows the actors to deliver more with presence and the way they carry themselves as opposed to projecting in the style of the melodramatic film. Likewise, the darky visual gives a strong noir film and the cutting realism to the story presents an integrity for the subject that evades both the melodramatic and the cynical.

The Docks of New York is a far cry from the sweeping melodramas and heavy-handed moral tales that pervade the common perception of silent cinema. It’s able to gain the same investment in characters and imbue the film with moral implications by using techniques and approaches that were ahead of its time.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing