The 1965 best picture nominee Ship of Fools follows a group of passengers as they take a cruise. The year is 1933 and the luxury liner, which has just left Mexico, is heading for Nazi Germany. Both the passengers and the crew represent a microcosm of a world that doesn’t realize it’s on the verge of war.
There’s Carl Glocken (played by Michael Dunn), a dwarf who has the ability to break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience about all of the fools that have found themselves on this ship. He alone seems to understand what the future holds.
There’s Mary Treadwell (Vivien Leigh), an aging Southern belle who spends almost the entire cruise flirting with the crew and other passengers, desperate to recapture her fading youth. That also seems to be the main goal of Bill Tenney (Lee Marvin), an unsophisticated former baseball player who spends most of the cruise brooding about his failed career.
There’s the Countess (Simone Signoret), a political prisoner who is being transported to an island prison. She falls in love with the ship’s doctor (Oskar Werner). The doctor’s dueling scar suggests that he is a member of the old aristocracy and he is literally the film’s only good German. Perhaps not surprisingly, he is also in the process of dying from a heart condition.
And then there’s David (George Segal) and his girlfriend Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley). David is a frustrated and depressed painter while Jenny is far more determined to enjoy life, which should be pretty easy because the boat is also full of performers and dancers.
Finally, there’s the buffoonish Rieber (Jose Ferrer), a German industrialist whose dinner table talk hints at the horrors that are soon to come.
Ship of Fools is a big, long film in which a large cast of stars deal with big issues in the safest way possible. In short, it’s a Stanley Kramer film. As one can tell from watching some of the other films that he directed (Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, and R.P.M.), Stanley Kramer made films that were often easier to admire than to actually enjoy. As the critic Mark Harris points out in his book Pictures At A Revolution, Kramer started out as a producer and he retained the sensibility of a producer even after he stared directing. As such, his films would address issues that were certain to generate a lot of free publicity but, at the same time, he would never run the risk of alienating his audience by digging too deeply into those issues. His films would have the type of all-star casts that would, again, bring in an audience but Kramer rarely seemed to give thought as to whether or not an all-star cast would distract from the film’s message. Finally, unlike the truly great directors, Kramer never really figured out how to tell a story with images. As a result, his movies were often full of characters whose sole purpose was to explain the film’s themes.
Does that mean that Stanley Kramer never made a good film? No, not at all. Judgment at Nuremberg remains powerful and R.P.M. is a guilty pleasure of mine. Kramer was usually smart enough to work with talented professionals and, as a result, his films were rarely truly bad. Some of them even have isolated moments of greatness. It’s just that his films were rarely memorable and truly innovative and, therefore, they are easy for us to dismiss, especially when compared to some of the other films that were being made at the same time.
With all that in mind and for reasons both good and bad, Ship of Fools is perhaps the most Stanley-Kramerish of all the Stanley Kramer films that I’ve seen. The film was apparently quite acclaimed and popular when it was originally released in 1965 but watched today, it’s an occasionally watchable relic of a bygone age. How you react to Ship of Fools today will probably depend on whether or not you’re an admirer of any of the actors in large cast. For the most part, all of them do a good job though you can tell that, as a director, Kramer struggled with how to make their multiple storylines flow naturally into an overall theme. Not surprisingly, Vivien Leigh and Lee Marvin give the two most entertaining performances and Jose Ferrer makes for a wonderfully hissable villain. Oddly enough, I find myself most responding to the characters played by George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley. I’m not sure why — their storyline is rather predictable. Maybe it was just because Elizabeth Ashley’s character goes wild and starts dancing at one point. That’s what I would do if I found myself stuck on a boat with a tortured painted.
(What is especially interesting is that neither Oskar Werner or Simone Signoret are particularly memorable and yet they both received Oscar nominations. Perhaps 1965 was a weak year for acting.)
In the end, Ship of Fools is a movie that will be best appreciated by those of us who enjoy watching old movies on TCM and take a special delight in spotting all of the wonderful actors that, though they may no longer be with us, have at least had their talent preserved on film. Ship of Fools may not be a great film but it does feature Vivien Leigh doing an impromptu and joyful solo dance in a hallway and how can you not appreciate that?