Rod La Rocque takes on Fairbanks in this incredibly strange pirate spoof. Mildred Harris is an heiress on the run when it turns out that the only copy of a valuable document is written on her back. Snitz Edwards is her evil uncle and spends the movie chasing her with a sponge. And then Rod and Mildred inadvertently declare war on the United States… Yeah, it’s a strange one.
First question: What were they smoking? Second question: Is it for sale?
Cecil B. DeMille’s studio folded after just a few years in business but while it was a going concern, it produced some of the most lavish and wacky program pictures of the silent era. Surely there were none wackier than The Cruise of the Jasper B.
DeMille was a great director but a poor businessman and the programmers (that is, cheaply-made pictures meant to pay the bills in between blockbusters that DeMille would direct personally) were considerably more expensive than their counterparts at other studios. DeMille also had a soft spot for old friends and gave jobs to pretty much anyone who had either worked for him in the past or who, like him, was in a feud with Paramount. Further, he let his creative teams run wild, which meant that the DeMille programmers featured topics and events that you will not see in the work of other studios.
Over-budget films, big salaries and the expense of the sound conversion did in DeMille’s mad little outfit but what a run it had!
Before we get going with the film review proper, I should mention that it’s not essential to see Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate before viewing this film but you will get more of the humor if you do.
The film opens in 1725 and a piratical young captain named Jeremiah Cleggett (Rod La Rocque) is battling for his life and the honor of his lady love against a dastardly villain aboard a ship called the Jasper B (no word on where Jaspers A and C may be found). Cleggett emerges victorious and so the Cleggett family is established. Tradition holds that the heir to the Cleggett fortune must marry by the age of twenty-five on the deck of the Jasper B or lose all.
We jump ahead three-hundred years and Jeremiah Cleggett VIII (La Rocque again) is sleeping in. This wouldn’t be a problem if it wasn’t his twenty-fifth birthday and he wasn’t still very much the bachelor.
His goofy manservant Wiggins (Jack Ackroyd) is in a tizzy because the house and all its contents are already being auctioned off. Cleggett doesn’t seem unduly concerned until he discovers that his bathtub, razor and trousers are part of the bargain. But where will he find a woman to marry on such short notice?
Silent movies are often littered with weird wills and crazy conditions. The Cruise of the Jasper B boasts of not one but two strange wills. This second of these is across town and leaves an enormous fortune to Agatha Fairhaven (Mildred Harris) and cuts out her evil uncle, Reginald Maltravers (Snitz Edwards). Pretty normal stuff? Just you wait. The dying man’s nurse is in cahoots with old Reginald and she throws him the will so that he can destroy it.
The will flutters away, into a bathroom window and onto the back of fair Agatha, who is in the middle of a nice soak in the tub. The will’s ink transfers and so she now has a copy of the document on her back. Reginald destroys the paper will but a perfect copy remains. Curses!
Armed with a wet sponge. Reginald pursues Agatha, intending the scrub her back clean and ruin her chances at the fortune. Agatha flees and, as fate would have it, dashes right into Cleggett. Our hero is now reduced to wearing a tiny towel but he doesn’t let his lack of pants stop him from pitching woo at the shocked Agatha. Wiggins advises him to find some trousers before pursuing the matter further but then Reginald shows up, sponge in hand.
I can assure you that these events are just as wacky as they play out on the screen. You may love The Cruise of the Jasper B or hate it but I guarantee that you will never, ever have seen anything like it.
Mildred Harris is as charming as ever as the leading lady with the priceless ink on her back. Whenever Harris’s roles are mentioned, she is often mentioned as “the former Mrs. Charlie Chaplin” and dismissed with a smirk. Hold your horses, buckaroos! Harris had a career before she ever met Chaplin and she was an excellent actress.
Even more irritating is the persistent belief that Harris was some kind of dumb blonde. Chaplin himself is responsible for spreading the gossip about his wife’s alleged lack of brain power. In order to address this, I will need to briefly delve into some personal life stuff. Many apologies.
In his autobiography, Chaplin describes Harris thus:
Charlie, honey, let me give you a tiny little tip: If you are in your late twenties and want an intellectual equal, maybe you could not date a 15-year-old and marry a 16-year-old. Just an idea. I love Chaplin’s films but his autobiography reveals his rather predatory, controlling and abusive attitude toward his child bride. I have trouble reading it.
(And, no, I will let him off the hook because he was a great filmmaker or because things were different back then. Both arguments are constantly used to excuse appalling behavior and I won’t have it. In any case, people seem to want to have it both ways. They want to use Chaplin’s words to attack Harris but don’t want those same words to be used against him. Doesn’t work like that, sugar cookie. I love Chaplin’s films but there’s a reason why I generally avoid discussions of his personal life. I made an exception this time because the nasty little barbs from Charlie make it impossible to talk about Mildred Harris’s career without a whole lot of nonsense.)
Okay, personal life section is now closed and locked. No, I do not wish to debate the end of their marriage or engage in victim-blaming. The subject is off the table. Moving on!
As I was saying, I am consistently impressed with Mildred Harris and her acting ability. In The Cruise of the Jasper B, the plot is so strange that there isn’t really that much room for character development but Harris is charming and a good sport as the story gets weirder and weirder. (And, trust me, it gets much, much weirder before the end.) She gamely dashes around the greater Los Angeles area, dodging wet sponges and Rod La Rocque’s flying tackles.
Harris had been a DeMille leading lady back at Paramount. She was the true love of Conrad Nagel’s dashing soldier in Fool’s Paradise but then throws him over for the prince of Siam (as one does) and Nagel in turn falls for a Mexican cantina dancer named (I am not making this up) Poll Patchouli, who blinds him with an exploding cigar in a fit of jealous rage. Again, as one does. You know you want to see it. (Alas, not on home media, which is a crying shame because it sounds like the most DeMille movie DeMille ever made.)
Continuing the reunion theme, director James W. Horne was married to Cleo Ridgley, who had been a DeMille leading lady back in 1915 as the heroine of The Golden Chance. (Horne’s cousin was director George Stevens. Small world in Hollywood.)
If The Cruise of the Jasper B seems a bit… familiar, there’s a good reason for it. You see, while watching it, I kept getting this weird feeling that I was watching something from Hal Roach’s crew. The surreal humor, the escalating madness, it all reminded me of Laurel and Hardy. Well, Horne directed The Cruise of the Jasper B in the midst of a stint at Hal Roach’s studio and he continued on in the sound era, directing Laurel and Hardy in one of their most beloved features, Way Out West.
So if you have a sense of Hal Roach-flavored déjà vu, you’re not crazy, you’re just observant.
Spoiler: The film even ends on a rather Stan and Ollie note when Cleggett and Agatha inadvertently get tangled in a tapestry theft and end up having the military of the United States declare war on the Jasper B. (Just go with it.) They end up nearly pulverized by bombs but get married just ahead of the deadline. Phew! Wiggins, meanwhile, gets blasted out of his shoes and ends up paddling for shore on a board. Well, here’s another nice mess Cleggett’s gotten him into.
Rod La Rocque had been in the DeMille crew for the original version of The Ten Commandments and his duty in the newly-formed company was to swash buckles as they had never been swashed before. His secondary duty in The Cruise of the Jasper B seems to have been parading around in a perpetual state of undress. Miss Harris, meanwhile, keeps a prim frock on (mostly) after the initial bath scene.
(Gotta ask, how does it feel to have the shoe on the other foot, boys?)
What’s even funnier is the reaction to Mr. La Rocque’s disappearing wardrobe. The women who are attending the auction pretend to be horrified at seeing our hero’s attempt to don trousers but are actually using their compact mirrors to enjoy the show. Later, the women conspire to buy the screen behind which the towel-clad La Rocque has taken refuge. This reversal of gender tropes was pretty common in the films DeMille produced (he had a lot of talented women working on his team and gave them considerable creative leeway) and it’s always a good deal of fun.
Snitz Edwards and Jack Ackroyd are clearly enjoying themselves with their broad comedic roles. Edwards in particular is gleeful. Everyone likes to play the villain and Edwards’ diminutive stature makes his attacks on his co-stars even more humorous. (Edwards was pretty much the ultimate Weird Little Man of silent film.)
And now let’s talk about the story. I refuse to believe that the writing team of this film was sober. It is utterly inconceivable. They were on something and it was good stuff whatever it was. The writers in question were Tay Garnett (who would go on to direct The Postman Always Rings Twice) and Zelda Sears (who helped pen the Norma Shearer vehicle The Divorcee and the positively nutty Marion Davies spy flick Operator 13). Bless them, I hope the hangover wasn’t too serious. (The film was officially based on a novel but the writers pretty much just kept the title.)
This movie is what happens when a few zany people get locked in a room with a typewriter and then get soused. Nothing makes sense but it’s so wonderfully unpredictable and more jokes land than not. Check out some of the droll title cards:
(Titling was considered a different task from screenwriting and these pithy cards were penned by John Krafft, who also created titles for the original version of Chicago and the gender-bender action-comedy Eve’s Leaves, both for the DeMille company.)
The Cruise of the Jasper B is quirky to the point of incoherence but the film is held together by charismatic performances from La Rocque and Harris, the goofy antics of Edwards and Ackroyd, and able direction by Horne. If anyone thinks that silent films are boring, just take a gander at this little gem. If you’re tired of the same old, same old, then this film is for you. It’s an amiable slice of wackiness from the quirkiest studio in the business and anyone looking for fun will not be disappointed.
Movies Silently’s Score:★★★
Where can I see it?
The Cruise of the Jasper B was released on DVD by Grapevine. I would stay away from the budget Alpha edition. They tend to cut out random title cards in silent films and, trust me, you don’t want to miss a single one in this film.