Below the Surface (1920) A Silent Film Review

Con artists and deep sea divers collide in this Thomas Ince-produced adventure yarn. Hobart Bosworth is a diver trying to save his son from the clutches of a scheming city woman who wants to use his diving abilities to make a fortune in ill-gotten gains. This is one of the best silent dramas you have never heard of.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD by Grapevine.

The nautical potboiler

Hobart Bosworth is one of those actors that seems to show up everywhere. A fine actor blessed with great versatility, Bosworth played everything from kindly fathers to wicked German officers.

While quite a few of his supporting roles are available to modern viewers, many of his starring roles are now lost, making Below the Surface a rare treat.

Bosworth plays Martin Flint, a taciturn deep sea diver. His son, Luther (Lloyd Hughes, who specialized in weaklings), is seduced by a city woman and soon marries her.

Luther doesn’t know that Edna (Grace Darmon), is merely interested in persuading him to make a dangerous dive for a famous sunken treasure ship. Her crooked boyfriend, James Arnold (George Webb) has come up with a swindle but he needs some of the gold from the ship to bait it. Flint tries to persuade his son that Edna does not really love him but Luther refuses to believe it. He dives for the treasure and finds it but falls deathly ill from the bends.

Meanwhile, Edna grabs the cache and runs off to the city with Arnold. Convinced that only Edna can make Luther well, Flint travels to the city to bring her back. Flint finds Edna in a nightclub. He’s a proud man but he’s willing to beg Edna to return with him. When Edna refuses, Flint drags her out of the club and books passage for them both on a ship.

Arnold has followed and schemes to escape with Edna. Their plan is about to succeed when a terrible storm threatens to sink the boat. Flint rushes to save Edna as water rushes into the cabins…

I would not mess with this dad.
I would not mess with this dad.

Below the Surface is an above-average adventure yarn that is firmly anchored by Bosworth’s excellent performance. He embodies parental affection of the “tough love” variety. Bosworth has a commanding screen presence and, unlike other stage actors in motion pictures, he does most of his acting with his expressive eyes rather than with grand gestures.

While the plot is a bit of a cliché, the film rises above its scenario. It is well directed. The diving scenes look fantastic, especially for the time. Most striking, though, is the shipwreck scene and its aftermath. Shots of bodies floating in the wreckage are particularly chilling.

A handsome couple. It’s just a pity the marriage is a scam.
A handsome couple. It’s just a pity the marriage is a scam.

Below the Surface does a good job of keeping the viewer’s attention. While not a masterpiece, it is excellent entertainment and certainly worth seeking out. (Director Irvin Willat and Hobart Bosworth’s earlier collaboration Behind the Door is far more famous but this little gem deserves some attention too.)

Film buffs will want to keep their eyes out for a very young Gladys George as Alice, the innocent country girl who loves Luther. George went on to play tough dames in classic gangster and noir talkies.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★

Where can I see it?

Grapevine Video has released a DVD of Below the Surface.


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