Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Ship of Fools


Stanley Kramer directed this long, sometimes ponderous movie from Katherine Anne Porter’s book, which she took 22 years to write. I’ve never read it, but it seems obvious that the screenwriter had to pick and choose among many stories, omitting some entirely. It’s an allegory, they say, about Nazism, set in 1933 on a voyage from Mexico to Bremerhaven. There are the usual characters—all of them well-played by a stellar cast including Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal, Lee Marvin, Vivien Leigh (her last movie), and Oskar Werner, who is particularly good. Jose Ferrer is the Nazi in the group, a blowhard who no one believes anyone could ever take seriously with his genocidal ideas. He denies he’s an anti-Semite. He loves the Arab people! Ha, ha. It is fitting that he is forced to share a cabin with the only Jew aboard, who snores like a diesel truck. The Jew, sadly, simply won’t believe that his beloved Germany could ever fall under the sway of people like Ferrer. “There are a million Jews in Germany,” he says. “What are they going to do, kill us all?”

Down in steerage are 600 sugar cane cutters being shipped back to Cuba because there’s no work in Mexico. Being deported with them is Simone Signoret, a 40ish drug addict who stood up for the workers. She pleads for help from the ship’s doctor, Werner, and a romance develops between them.

Some of the stories are better than others. Ashley and Segal are fairly boring as feuding artists. Vivien Leigh is a cynical and depressed and over-the-hill socialite, and I didn’t care much for her, either.

But the star, to me, is the man who isn’t a part of any of these soap operas, a man who interacts with all of them, an observer (he even addresses us directly at the beginning) who tries to remain neutral. This is the great Michael Dunn. (He got an Oscar nomination for this, and lost to Martin Balsam in A Thousand Clowns. That would have been a close call for me.) He was a remarkable man, all three feet ten inches of him, his body twisted by a particularly nasty form of dwarfism and arthritis. He was a terrific singer—I’ve never heard him sing, but he did on “The Wild, Wild West” and other shows. He had an IQ of 178. He was a tireless worker with dwarf children and their parents. He played the piano until his condition made that impossible, held jobs as varied as college cheerleader and house detective in a hotel. He was in terrible pain most of his life, and died young. And he could act. He rejected Munchkin roles, and went for serious drama or good comedy. He paved the way for people like Peter Dinklage to be taken seriously.

In this movie he is sly and smart, and has scenes with most of the big stars, who universally accept him as an intellectual equal and, beyond an initial moment of startlement, just like anyone else, only smaller. He has a delicious scene with Lee Marvin, who is a crass, crude, washed-up baseball player who tries to explain how it was that he could never hit a curve ball on the outside corner. Dunn suggests to him that hitting a curve ball on the outside corner might not be all there was to life. Do you understand? Pause. No, says Marvin. Pause. “You know what I think you are?” No, what? “I think you are a sawed-off intellectual.” Long pause, then Dunn laughs loudly, and in a moment, so does Marvin. It’s a great movie moment.