Hell Harbor (1930)

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An early role for the “Mexican Spitfire” in a tale of Caribbean derring-do!
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US / 83 minutes / bw / Inspiration, UA Dir & Pr: Henry King Scr: Fred DeGresac, Clark Silvernail, N. Brewster Morse Story: Out of the Night (1925) by Rida Johnson Young Cine: John Fulton, Robert M. Haas, Mack Stengler Cast: Lupe Velez, Jean Hersholt, John Holland, Gibson Gowland, Harry Allen, Al St. John, Paul Burns, George Bookasta, Ulysses Williams, Ruth Hall, Rondo Hatton, Sextetto Habanero.

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Velez’s second talkie—after Tiger Rose (1929) dir George Fitzmaurice—is a comedy- and music-laced melodrama that, despite suffering some problems of pacing, is really quite entertaining, primarily because of Velez’s effervescent presence.

Hell Harbor, a colony somewhere in the Caribbean, is largely populated by the descendants of pirates. One of these is Anita Morgan (Velez), daughter of Henry Morgan (Gowland), the several-times-great grandson of the famous pirate likewise called Henry Morgan. Anita’s dream is to escape from her often abusive father and the cesspit of Hell Harbor to live in Havana, Cuba, which she regards as a sort of heaven on earth:

Anita: “I want to see Havana now! Havana, with its music, its riding carriages . . . and wash all over every day!”

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Peg Leg (Harry Allen) strikes a bargain with Horngold for the pearls.

Her father is not just a brute but a murderer. In the movie’s opening scenes we see an English drifter called Peg Leg (Allen) sell a fistful of pearls to the primary local trader, Joseph Horngold (Hersholt), who gives the man £100 for them. Like a fool, Peg Leg goes with the money straight to the local dance hall, El Marino Café, to blow some of it on booze and dames. Of course, as soon as he flashes the dough he becomes a subject of interest to the bouncer (Hatton), a floozy (Hall) and Morgan. Morgan douses the lights and, minutes later when they come on, Peg Leg is dead on the floor, his £100 stolen.

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An uncredited Rondo Hatton as the dance-hall bouncer.

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Morgan (Gibson Gowland) spies the wad of bills that Peg Leg’s flashing.

Alas for Morgan, Horngold has observed events and knows who’s the guilty party.

Unknown to her, Morgan has come to a financial deal with Horngold for the hand in marriage of the lovely Anita, even though the trader’s old enough to be her father. Horngold has already paid the agreed fee; even so, Morgan has been procrastinating: “She’s young. Beautiful. And there ain’t a man on this island ’as ever as much as ’eld ’er ’and.” Now, though, armed with his knowledge of the man’s crime, Horngold insists the marriage be delayed no longer.

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Morgan (Gibson Gowland) threatens Anita (Lupe Velez) with all hell if she refuses to marry Horngold . . .

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. . . but she’s perfectly capable of threatening him back.

When Anita learns of the two men’s plans for her, she falls around laughing. The promise of a lace dress to get married in and a honeymoon in Cuba tempt her for a moment, but only a moment: “Why, Joseph, I couldn’t marry a man with a face like yours for all the lace dresses in Havana.”

Anita learns that the deal depends on Horngold getting a good price for the pearls from the US trader Bob Wade (Holland), whose schooner, the Elsie, is due to arrive tomorrow.

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Bob Wade’s mate Bunion (Al St. John) is here on the island hoping for a good time.

She and her two friends, an elderly one-eyed accordionist called Blinky (Burns) and the little boy who’s seemingly his adopted son, Spotty (Bookasta), hatch a scheme to murder Bob so that he can’t buy the diamonds. Spotty lures Bob to the Morgan household, where, in the absence of her father, Anita plans to set him up for a throat-slitting by Blinky. However, she falls in love with Bob at first sight, and the feeling’s reciprocal. There are lots of good things about the comedy in this sequence, as she essentially offers herself on a plate to Bob if he’ll take her to Havana while simultaneously trying to signal to an abnormally dense Blinky that she doesn’t want Bob’s throat slit after all, but the pacing is alas glacial.

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Anita’s pal Blinky (Paul Burns) is all ready to cut Bob’s throat.

Eventually Horngold and Morgan arrive to put a temporary end to the batting of Anita’s eyelashes. There’s more discussion among the men about the possible sale of the pearls, but Bob, having been told by Anita of Horngold’s general ghastliness and her father’s brutality, hedges, insisting Horngold bring the pearls out to the schooner on the morrow for a proper appraisal:

Horngold: “If you’ve got some nice lace dresses on the ship, I look ’em over.”
Morgan: “Yes! Wedding dresses!”
Bob: “I never trade in skirts.”

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Anita (Lupe Velez) tries to persuade Bob (John Holland) to take her to Havana.

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Anita (Lupe Velez) watches as the men argue.

There are plenty more shenanigans before a final showdown between Morgan and Horngold—who believes that Morgan has stolen the pearls from the trader’s lockbox—a showdown that ends in Horngold’s death. Anita stumbles upon the scene while attempting to return the pearls to the lockbox—for she was the actual thief—and her father subdues her, then stashes her away in a secret hiding-place. Bob, his first mate Bunion (St. John) and his giant seaman Nemo (Williams) go in search of her, but it’s Spotty who finds her and Blinky who puts Morgan out of the picture.

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Horngold (Jean Hersholt) awaits doom as Morgan readies to throw his lethal knife.

To no one’s surprise in the audience, the last we see of Anita and Bob is in a clinch on the deck of the Elsie, en route to Havana.

The big attraction here is of course Velez. She does some singing, she does some dancing, and she uses her expressive eyes to best advantage in her portrayal of Anita as a sort of sprite, a child of nature; she appears entirely unconscious of how alluring she is, even as the loose shoulder of her dress seems constantly in delicious danger of showing more than it oughter. Her performance shows some lingering traits of the silents, as does the movie as a whole. For example, when Anita climbs aboard the Elsie and settles herself down beside Bob’s half-dozing form, everything is done by Velez in the extravagant mime of a silent movie, the only sounds on the soundtrack being a song performed by the Sextetto Habanero, supposedly ensconced a few hundred yards away on the harbor wall.

Yet elsewhere director King makes good use of sound. We’re soon made aware that Horngold’s shoes always squeak loudly as he walks, and later on a plot point is made out of that fact.

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Spotty (George Bookasta) spies as Morgan overpowers Anita.

The diminutive—just 5ft tall—and very lovely Velez was one of the more colorful characters in the Hollywood of the 1920s and 1930s. Her love life was the talk of the town, as was her notoriously fiery temper; in due course she and her publicists and producers capitalized on the latter reputation, giving her the public nickname of The Mexican Spitfire. This led to a series of seven comedies for RKO beginning with Mexican Spitfire (1940) and ending with Mexican Spitfire’s Blessed Event (1943).

She had a tempestuous marriage to Johnny Weissmuller that lasted from 1933 until their divorce in 1939; they separated a couple of times before that due to their fights. Among her other lovers were (in no particular order) Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, Clark Gable, Erich Maria Remarque, Jack Johnson, Jack Dempsey, Arturo de Córdova, Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper, at whom she reportedly took a pot shot after he’d ended their affair. In December 1944 she committed suicide through taking a massive overdose of seconal and booze, having some while before discovered that she was pregnant either by her current fiancé, actor Harald Ramond, or through a “one for the road” one-nighter with Gary Cooper. (The account of her death by Kenneth Anger in his Hollywood Babylon [1959], in which he describes her staggering from her bed to the bathroom to vomit into the toilet, only to fall head-first into it and drown, appears to be a salacious fiction.)

Those tragedies were a long way ahead, though, when she was filming Hell Harbor. Here we can see her in the guise of ingenue, as a fiery, free-spirited young woman who’s still more adolescent than adult. The camera loved her in those days, as it always did.

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11 thoughts on “Hell Harbor (1930)

    • Yep. She’s so vital in this movie that it’s almost impossible — and very saddening — to reconcile her appearance here with what we know of her later life and her death.

    • She’s not really an actor I’d much registered before but, having seen her in this, I’m eager to catch more of her work. She’s almost a Puck figure here.

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