These epic pictures like ITS A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (1965) also a Stanley Kramer film along with HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962) all make for interesting watching. Many things happen in these pictures or should happen that make them special . While SHIP OF FOOLS (1965) has been called the GRAND HOTEL (1932) on a ship however I found it different in style and content.
SHIP OF FOOLS is a stark story dealing with people figuratively trapped on ship bound for the unknown of what was to become Nazi Germany. The story was adapted by Katherine Anne Porter’s voluminous novel was adapted to the screen by none other than Abby Mann. Mann was more suited to gritty investigative dramas usually and cracking dialogue involving the police or lawyers in some shape as JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961) and being the creator of TV series KOJACK with Telly Savalas are in his past and future.
The film is book ended by the character of Karl Glocken played by small actor Michael Dunn for which he received a Academy award nomination for best supporting actor. Glocken breaks the “fourth wall” setting the audience up with the mood onboard ship. Later in the picture Glocken discusses the ways of German music with fellow staunch yet funny Heinz Ruhman who has a snoring problem that completely irritates his forced bunk mate.
SHIP OF FOOLS use “fade to black” technique in between moments which gives an almost “French New wave” feel or late twenties to early thirties Hollywood when they didn’t have any other transition techniques or camera movement. This is enhanced by SHIP OF FOOLS being photographed in Black and White by Ernest Laszlo. Mr Laszlo was the cinematographer for JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961): BABY THE RAIN MUST FALL (1965) and Kramer’s ITS A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (1965) among his large award winning credits.
What makes SHIP OF FOOLS so watchable is the cast as they all try to find Love in some form as they sail into the darkness of what was wartime Germany. You have Vivian Leigh her final on screen performance as Mary Treadwell.
Treadwell is older woman feeling that years and her torment of a life passing. She refused companionship offer Ltd Hubner played by Werner Klemperer
Klemperer would be sent his own “doom” playing Colonel Klink in TV series HOGAN’S HEROS.
Desperate to be loved again is some form as she paints her travesty of the makeup worn by the young Spanish women aboard ship only to have a surprise nocturnal visitor.
Simone Signoret as a drug addicted Cuban Countess Le Condesa being sent to prison in Spain.
Jose ferrer as a German Siegfred Rieber who spouts prejudicial remarks yet claims to pitifully ‘Need Love” while laying in a hammock with Lizzi (Christiana Schmidtmer).
Elizabeth Ashley as Jenny and George Segal as David; a couple also need a version of love that either of them seem capable of giving.
Many other performances stand out as each gets a moment such as Gila Golan as seventeen year old Elsa who is upset that no one wants to dancer with her because of how she looks much to the surprise of her parents.
Two performances for me steal the film and that is the interaction between Simone Signoret Countess La Condesa and Oskar Werner as Ship Doctor Schuman.
Werner’s Schuman is a married crusading medical person concerned with the oppression of people. He is the one who advocates turning hoses on the poor people in steerage to cool them during a heat wave.
He also falls in love with the Countess as is called to treat here which is doomed as both must part as they have duty and obligation to fulfill. Their relationship features some amazingly subtle moments of character and acting especially when they must part.
George Segal as David is an all consumed artist who demands from his girlfriend played by Elizabeth Ashley that his work be all important.
They reconcile on very treacherous grow but only after a moment of truth has both passed through them. Everyone wants love on this ship be it paid by money or by the heart.
Lee Marvin is a total slime ball American Bill Tenny who is out for anything he can get out of women yet as he said He can’t hit a baseball. Tenny is actually bested by Vivian Leigh as Mary Treadwell in a moment you will not soon forget.
SHIP OF FOOLS has compelling character if not slightly jaded outlook on Love as one floats voluntarily towards oblivion. Whether its Art, Music, carving of a figure, denied love because you cant pay or simply happiness it all has a price that is paid here. Each find a type of release, each loses something of themselves on the trip to a land that one would lose a lot more.