The Sea Lion (1921) A Silent Film Review

Hobart Bosworth stars as a bitter whaling captain who is still angry at his wife for leaving him sixteen years before. Then chance throws the daughter of his unfaithful wife in his path. How far will be go for revenge? Bessie Love adds her usual charm as the innocent daughter and there is much nautical action.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

This is why paternity tests were invented…

I always have a soft spot for Hobart Bosworth. He had a powerful screen presence and a subtlety of acting that many stage veterans lacked. Often cast in nautical fare (see Below the Surface), Bosworth could carry whole films by himself and he often had to do just that. The Sea Lion is sort of a Sea Wolf variation. Bosworth plays John Nelson, a whaling ship captain nicknamed The Sea Lion for his brutal leadership style. It’s a bit of a misnomer. Sea lions are adorable! But back to the topic at hand.

Nelson’s pregnant wife left him with a literal Dear John letter sixteen years before and he never got over it. He hates everyone in the world. Meanwhile, Tom Walton (Emory Johnson), a rich boy from San Francisco, has been disowned by his father after one too many indiscretions. Young men in such straits have three silent movies options: the foreign legion, the circus, or the sea. Tom chooses the sea and signs on with Nelson’s crew.

After a disastrous cruise, the loss of drinking water and a near mutiny, the ship sights land. It is a small desert island. There are two occupants. An elderly man and a sixteen year old girl named Blossom (Bessie Love). Blossom’s mother gave birth to her on the island and died later.

Tom and Blossom are mutually charmed and he takes the castaways back to the ship. Nelson is not thrilled about having passengers but he too seems charmed by Blossom’s innocent ways. It looks like a paternal bond is forming when Blossom blurts out her mother’s name. It was Dolly Nelson, the captain’s unfaithful wife.

Hobart Bosworth is a Sea Lion who rules his ship with an iron flipper!
Hobart Bosworth is a Sea Lion who rules his ship with an iron flipper!

Nelson becomes obsessed with taking revenge on the girl for her mother’s sins. Anyone who has seen West of Zanzibar knows that this cannot end well. Will Tom save Blossom? Will Nelson discover that Blossom may in fact be his own child? You know the answer already if you have seen enough silent drama.

The Sea Lion is a virtual checklist of nautical film clichés.

Brutal Captain? Check!
Lovely Castaway? Check!
Rich boy who is in over his head? Check!
Storm? Check!
Mutiny? Check!
Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink scene? Check!

What is this thing called… door?
What is this thing called… door?

All that’s missing is a flogging or two and a tomboy first mate. I am convinced those would have shown up too if the picture had been longer.

The plot relies heavily on coincidence as well as cliché. Really it is the work of Bosworth and the under-appreciated Bessie Love that save the picture. Miss Love is the cutest castaway that ever was.

Captain Nelson is trying on parenting skills for size.
Captain Nelson is trying on parenting skills for size.

Further, Love cleverly does not overdo the “castaway who can’t use a fork” bit. It could have easily descended into a lot of slapstick and cornball humor. Her scenes with Bosworth are particularly charming. The actors have a natural chemistry and they are quite convincing in the fatherly scenes. It makes me wish that the filmmakers had opted for a domestic drama rather than a saltwater melodrama. Sigh.

A missed opportunity.
A missed opportunity.

While not without merit, The Sea Lion is a rather bland affair. However, it is never boring and the work of Bosworth and Love make is an enjoyable picture. At just over one hour, it is short enough to keep your interest the whole time.

Bessie Love is always a pleasure to watch.
Bessie Love is always a pleasure to watch.

It is also a chance to enjoy Hobart Bosworth in a leading role. Many of his starring films are considered lost and what remain are his excellent supporting roles of the later silent period. Bosworth fans (and I hope you become one too) will not want to miss a chance to see him in action.

sea lion image (6)

Where can I see it?

The Sea Lion is widely available on DVD. I was unimpressed with the overpriced TeleVista edition. Grapevine just released their DVD-R version but I have not viewed it and cannot say it if is an improvement. If you are budget-conscious, Alpha has released a version at their usual rock-bottom price. (I have not seen this edition either.)