Souls at Sea

Souls at Sea is a 1937 American adventure film directed by Henry Hathaway and starring Gary Cooper, George Raft, and Frances Dee. Based on a story by Ted Lesser, the film is about a first mate on a slave ship who frees the slaves on the ship after a mutiny overthrows the ship's captain. The title of this film was spoofed in the Laurel and Hardy comedy film Saps at Sea (1940).

Souls at Sea
Theatrical release poster
Directed byHenry Hathaway
Produced by
  • Henry Hathaway
  • Grover Jones
  • Adolph Zukor
Screenplay by
Story byTed Lesser
Music by
CinematographyCharles Lang
Edited byElsworth Hoagland
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • August 9, 1937 (1937-08-09)
(New York City)[1]
  • September 3, 1937 (1937-09-03) (US)
Running time
92 minutes
CountryUnited States


The story is based on two distinct early 19th-century themes: the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, and the often-tragic fate of people on ships lost at sea.

The first theme is examined through the efforts of abolitionists Michael "Nuggin" Taylor (Cooper) and Powdah (Raft) to end the slave trade. Although the United States prohibited the importation of slaves in 1808, slaves were still brought into the country illegally. Great Britain also prohibited the slave trade, putting the Royal Navy into action against slave traders, but even Britain had its supporters of the trade (here represented by Lieutenant Stanley Tarryton (Wilcoxon), as a British naval officer acting for the slave interests). The conflict between Taylor and Wilcoxon is complicated by Tarryton's sister Margaret (Dee) falling in love with Taylor.

The second theme appears when the Taylor-Wilcoxon conflict becomes entangled with the loss of the ship William Brown (named after an actual ship of the period with a similar fate; see below). The William Brown is accidentally set on fire by a little girl, and must be abandoned. The captain (Carey) is in injured, and although a passenger, Taylor takes over. Only one lifeboat is launched, which cannot carry all the survivors, many of whom are swimming in the ocean nearby. Taylor stops these desperate people from climbing into the lifeboat and swamping it, shooting some with a pistol. As a result, he is subsequently tried and convicted for murder; Barton Woodley (Zucco) explains his actions, thus resulting a new trial for Taylor. Margaret seeing Taylor in this new light, lets Michael know she still loves him.

The 1957 film Seven Waves Away (also known as Abandon Ship!) also dealt with the issue of the limits of lifeboat space and decisions of the first mate.

The real William Brown case

The William Brown hit an iceberg and sank on 19 April 1841, with loss of life. A seaman, one Alexander Holmes, acted similarly to Taylor in the film. He was convicted of manslaughter, but sentenced only to a $20 fine and six months imprisonment.



George Raft initially turned down his part and was suspended. Lloyd Nolan and Anthony Quinn stood by to replace him. Raft agreed to play the role when it was rewritten to be more sympathetic.[2]

Cummings was cast in October 1936.[3]

Filming began 9 November 1936.[4]

In November 1936, silent film star John Bowers heard that his old friend Henry Hathaway was directing Gary Cooper in Souls at Sea off the shore of Santa Catalina. On November 17, the 50-year-old actor rented a sixteen-foot sloop and sailed to the island, hoping to land a part in the picture, only to learn that it had been cast. Bowers never returned to shore, and his body was found on the beach at Santa Monica, California. Bowers' life and death is identified as inspiration for the character Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1937).[5]


Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times did not think the film was worthy of serious analysis but described it as "a proper tale of high adventure on the high seas."[1] Variety called it "a good picture" with "bold, brave and sweeping" direction.[6] Harrison's Reports praised the "outstanding" production but found the scenes of beatings and killings to be "sadistic" rather than entertaining.[7] John Mosher of The New Yorker called the film "a disappointment," finding a crowded lifeboat scene to be exciting but remarking that the story seemed to be "lost in a maze of plot fidgeting."[8]

Academy Award nominations

Hans Dreier and Roland Anderson were nominated for Best Art Direction; Hal Walker for Best Assistant Director (in the last year it was awarded); and Boris Morros, as head of the Paramount Studios Music Department, for Music (scoring) (score by W. Franke Harling and Milan Roder).[9]


  1. Holston, Kim R. (2013). Movie Roadshows: A History and Filmography of Reserved-Seat Limited Showings, 1911-1973. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. pp. 88, 333. ISBN 978-0-7864-6062-5.
  2. Everett Aaker, The Films of George Raft, McFarland & Company, 2013 p 74
  3. News From Hollywood Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES]22 Oct 1936: 31.
  4. News From Hollywood Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times 31 Oct 1936: 25.
  5. Brettell, Andrew; King, Noel; Kennedy, Damien; Imwold, Denise (2005). Cut!: Hollywood Murders, Accidents, and Other Tragedies. Leonard, Warren Hsu; von Rohr, Heather. Barrons Educational Series. p. 71. ISBN 0-7641-5858-9.
  6. "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. August 11, 1937. p. 19.
  7. "Souls at Sea". Harrison's Reports. New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.: 131 August 14, 1937.
  8. Mosher, John (August 21, 1937). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 60.
  9. "Souls at Sea". Academy Awards Database. Retrieved June 15, 2015.
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