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Scarecrow on Seattle: TUGBOAT ANNIE

In appreciation and recognition of Seattle's long and illustrious film history, we are proud to partner with the Seattle Office of Film + Music to bring you reviews of movies made in the Pacific Northwest with an emphasis on how these films showcase the region's many filmable locations.

Tugboat Annie (1933)

The first thing you see in Mervyn LeRoy's film, behind the superimposed credits, is a sweeping shot of Lake Union and its surroundings, taken from the southeast corner of the lake. Queen Anne Hill and the then year-old Aurora Bridge (then and still technically known as the George Washington Memorial Bridge) are immediately recognizable. That those initial images do not come from stock footage is significant, because Tugboat Annie was the first major Hollywood production to be filmed in Seattle, where LeRoy and company made extensive use of the locale. In addition to the lovely opening shot, numerous scenes were filmed on the waterfront and there's a very brief view of Pike Place Market. The climax of the film, a do-or-die sea rescue set on the Puget Sound, may well have been filmed on a Hollywood soundstage (or sound "pool") but perfectly captures the raging storms and naval hardships that early settlers had to content with. The film's ties to Seattle go deeper, too. Based on a series of short stories written for The Saturday Evening Post, the film and its titular character were said to have been based on Thea Foss, one of the pioneers of the Puget Sound tugboat industry. In fact, the main set of the film is a Foss tugboat; the Arthur Foss, which was renamed the Narcissus for the film and still exists today, shining and well preserved at the south end of Lake Union, probably not too far from where the first shot was filmed.

As a film, Tugboat Annie is mainly an episodic vehicle for two huge stars of the time, Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery. If there is an antagonist at all, it's Wallace Beery's alcoholism, which is played alternately for comedic and dramatic effect, and that wears thin after about 50 minutes. Which is fine because the last half hour is where the film really shines. I noticed Gregg Toland, one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, in the credits, and, for the first hour or so I kept asking, so where's Gregg Toland and all of his dreamy, shiny blacks and whites and grays? My questions were answered when the aforementioned magnificent set piece really got going. In the midst of a raging storm, Wallace Beery has to heroically crawl into a ship's furnace in order to save the Narcissus, his wife, his son, and a massive ocean liner. Both the direction and the cinematography in this sequence had me on the edge of my seat, squirming and panting and marveling at what a glorious thing cinema can be.

-Mark Steiner

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