Friday, March 8, 2013

The Sea Bat (1930) and The Art of Summary

During Turner Classic Movie’s (TCM) 30 Days of Oscar programming, I scanned the movies available and recorded some old favorites as well as a few I’ve never seen. I’m still in the habit of checking to see what TCM will show each day. Today, one short summary caught my attention. It reads:

The Sea Bat (1930) The sister of a sponge driver killed by a stringray loves an escaped convict posing as a priest.

What writer among us would conceive such a plot? How would anyone put all those pieces together? Did the screenwriter, Bess Meredyth, reply to a classified ad placed by the story’s author, Dorothy Yost? If so, the ad must have looked something like the one below.

Wanted: One screenwriter with working knowledge of exotic locales, sponge diving, manta rays, law-abiders, criminals, and the vagaries of the human heart. Experience preferred. Send screen credit and publications list to P. O. Box 010110, Los Angeles, CA

A daunting list of job requirements, wouldn’t you agree? Yet somehow two women invented a tale using standard story ingredients: well-defined setting, characters experiencing love and loss, and conflict.

Two other plot summaries for this film can be found at Ron Kerrigan of saw the film’s essentials this way:

The West Indies island of Portuga exists mainly for sponge diving. But the best area of collection is frequented by a very large manta ray. Nina loses her lover to the creature and is comforted by a newly arrived minister, who seems very interested in an old poster offering a reward for a convict recently escaped from nearby Devil's Island. More deaths attributed to the sea bat follow before Nina resolves her feelings for her comforter.

Did you catch the difference between TCM’s Direct TV blurb and Ron Kerrigan’s? In the first, the central character dealing with loss and love is the sister of a sponge diver. In the second, she is the diver’s lover.

Les Adams of adds more detail and attends to the microcosmic quality of sponge diving:

Diving for sponges is risky at best and even more so when the best sponge-water is the home of a very large and hostile-to-divers manta ray. On the near-by island, men fight like beasts for the heart of Nina, the flower of the Pacific. The ruler of the island is a drunk who has lost control of the people, so this isn't exactly paradise. Juan and Carl are both in love with Nina, but Juan is meaner and disposes of Carl by cutting his life line while Carl is out sponge-diving and dodging the manta ray. Then, Sims, an escaped convict, who must have swam [sic] all the way around South America if he came from Devil's Island, shows up posing as a minister. Nina takes a great liking to this man-of-the-cloth. Juan has a great dislike for him.

Mr. Adams focuses upon conflicts and juxtapositions. Sponge diver versus manta ray, civilization versus anarchy, good versus evil, and man versus man for the hand and heart of Nina all play out against the backdrop of sea and land, Nature maleficent as seen in the manta ray, and Nature benign as seen in the “flower of the Pacific.”

Each writer reveals much about his own analytic priorities by the summary produced. One writer for DirectTV and/or TCM, like Twitter followers the world over, seems confined to a low number of words. By holding to his limit, the description piques viewer interest, if for no other reason than to satisfy our curiosity about how those seemingly far-fetched, disparate elements could coalesce into an enjoyable tale.

Mr. Kerrigan recounts what happens while Mr. Adams provides a literary analysis. It is this last one by Mr. Adams that challenges us as writers to produce work that has complexity. The elements of plot are factual. The elements of story are emotional and universal; they make use of figurative levels of meaning to discover and consider the human experience.  (A recent post from February 22, 2013 shares E. M Forester’s example for the difference between a report and a story.)

Reading Challenge:

“Read” a snippet from the film, available for viewing at watch?v=vx3w6b_AnV0. What more recent film pitting men in a boat against an oversized sea monster? What parallels do you notice? Song, a reluctant sailor, men in the water who need a bigger boat? I don’t know if the young Spielberg saw The Sea Bat, but the older and newer film seem to have common elements, including those listed and, in Peter Bench’s original book, men vying for the heart and hand of a woman as well as an island floating upon dangerous waters.

Also read a review posted to for The Sea Bat and provided by Ron Oliver of; his review emphasizes the elements of film rather than those applicable to both film and fiction:

The lives of sponge divers are disrupted by the arrival of a tough cleric and the deprivations of THE SEA BAT.

It is unfortunate that this splendid little film from MGM has become so obscure as it has much to offer in the way of ambiance and good acting from an interesting cast. The production values are high and the location shooting (on Mexico's Mazatlán coast) with its glimpses of pseudo West Indies island culture add to the film's atmosphere. Director Lionel Barrymore keeps the action moving right along, with just enough requisite romance, suspenseful encounters with the hideous sea bat and a dandy fist fight near the end to keep the viewers happy.

Mexican actress Raquel Torres plays the fiery island miss who wants to escape the tragedy which has attacked her family. Silent screen star Nils Asther is her gentle, loving brother, a sponge diver. His departure from the story early on is poignant & regrettable. Disheveled George F. Marion steals most of his scenes as their disreputable father. Sturdy Charles Bickford is the no-nonsense pastor with a secret who arrives on the Island of Portuga and is quickly confronted by danger. All four give excellent performances.

Other crew members of the sponge boat are played by lecherous John Miljan, who acted the villain in many early MGM talkies; blustering Gibson Gowland, who only five years earlier had starred in von Stroheim's masterpiece GREED; and, in a tiny role, pre-celeb Boris Karloff. Silent movie comic Mack Swain portrays the owner of the island grog shop.

Mr. Oliver’s version clarifies that the man lost was the brother to the female protagonist. It is a sister who grieves.

Writing Challenge:

From MGM’s pre-release publicity poster for The Sea Bat: THE MOST STIRRING ROMANCE ADVENTURE YOU'VE EVER GASPED AT! (all capital letters from the original)

Use nine words--no more and no less--to create a compelling tagline for the poster of your mind created to intrigue others and encourage them to read your favorite novel.

Send those taglines for all of us to enjoy.