Souls at Sea

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Souls at Sea
Poster of the movie Souls at Sea.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Produced by
  • Henry Hathaway
  • Grover Jones
  • Adolph Zukor
Screenplay by
Story by Ted Lesser
Music by
Cinematography Charles Lang
Edited by Elsworth Hoagland
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date
  • August 9, 1937 (1937-08-09)
(New York City)[1]
  • September 3, 1937 (1937-09-03) (USA)
Running time
92 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Souls at Sea is a 1937 American adventure film directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper, George Raft, and Frances Dee. Based on a story by Ted Lesser, the film is about a first mate on a slave ship who frees the slaves on the ship after a mutiny overthrows the ship's captain. The title of this film was spoofed in the Laurel and Hardy comedy film Saps at Sea (1940).


The story is based on two distinct early 19th-century themes, including the attempts by abolitionists (Cooper and Raft) to end the slave trade. Although the U.S. Constitution ended the importation of slaves in 1808, slaves were still being brought into the country under foreign flags. The abolition of slavery by Great Britain helped reduce legal trade in slaves by putting the British navy into action against slave traders, but even Britain had its supporters of the trade (here represented by Wilcoxon, as a British naval officer acting for the slave interests). The collision between Cooper and Wilcoxon is complicated by Wilcoxon's sister (Dee) falling in love with Cooper.

The conflict reaches its peak on board the ship William Brown. An actual ship involved in a sea tragedy of this period (the Jacksonian Age of the 1820s to 1840s), the William Brown hit an iceberg on April 19, 1841, and sank with loss of life. Here it catches fire, due to a little girl, and the ship's captain (Carey) is injured. Cooper taking over has to limit the number of people in the only lifeboat, and as a result is put on trial for murder (and defended by Zucco). In real life a seaman, one Alexander Holmes, was tried and convicted of manslaughter, but given only a $20 fine and six months imprisonment. A later film with Tyrone Power called Seven Waves Away (also known as Abandon Ship!) (1957) dealt with the issue of the limits of lifeboat space and decisions of the first mate.



In November 1936, silent film star John Bowers heard that his old friend Henry Hathaway was directing Gary Cooper in Souls at Sea off the shore of Santa Catalina. On November 17, the 50-year-old actor rented a sixteen-foot sloop and sailed to the island, hoping to land a part in the picture, only to learn that it had been cast. Bowers never returned to shore, and his body was found on the beach at Santa Monica, California. Bowers' life and death is identified as inspiration for the character Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1937).[2]

George Raft initially turned down his part and was suspended. Lloyd Nolan and Anthony Quinn stood by to replace him. Raft agreed to play the role when it was rewritten to be more sympathetic.[3]


Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times did not think the film was worthy of serious analysis but described it as "a proper tale of high adventure on the high seas."[1] Variety called it "a good picture" with "bold, brave and sweeping" direction.[4] Harrison's Reports praised the "outstanding" production but found the scenes of beatings and killings to be "sadistic" rather than entertaining.[5] John Mosher of The New Yorker called the film "a disappointment," finding a crowded lifeboat scene to be exciting but remarking that the story seemed to be "lost in a maze of plot fidgeting."[6]

Academy Award nominations[edit]

Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson were nominated for Art Direction; Hal Walker for Assistant Director (in the last year it was awarded); and Boris Morros, as head of the Paramount Studios Music Department, for Music (scoring) (score by W. Franke Harling and Milan Roder).[7]


  1. ^ a b Holston, Kim R. (2013). Movie Roadshows: A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings, 1911-1973. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. pp. 88, 333. ISBN 978-0-7864-6062-5. 
  2. ^ Brettell, Andrew; King, Noel; Kennedy, Damien; Imwold, Denise (2005). Cut!: Hollywood Murders, Accidents, and Other Tragedies. Leonard, Warren Hsu; von Rohr, Heather. Barrons Educational Series. p. 71. ISBN 0-7641-5858-9. 
  3. ^ Everett Aaker, The Films of George Raft, McFarland & Company, 2013 p 74
  4. ^ "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. August 11, 1937. p. 19. 
  5. ^ "Souls at Sea". Harrison's Reports. New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.: 131 August 14, 1937. 
  6. ^ Mosher, John (August 21, 1937). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 60. 
  7. ^ "Souls at Sea". Academy Awards Database. Retrieved June 15, 2015. 

External links[edit]