In 1947 MGM released High Barbaree, a film based on the 1945 novel High Barbaree by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. The book is long out of print, mostly forgotten, and memorable because its authors wrote Mutiny on the Bounty. For decades the movie rarely showed up on TV. TCM eventually started showing it now and then. And finally, after 67 years I can own a copy on DVD. It’s also playing on Warner Archive, the great streaming alternative to TCM. One reviewer at Amazon.com said they had been looking for this movie for thirty years – well, I’ve been searching for it for over fifty years, ever since I saw it as a very young kid, the first movie I ever remember seeing.
Most movie buffs will not know about this film, and would probably only consider it a slight piece of nostalgic fluff. For me, it’s burned into my deepest memories, one of the few important remembrances I have of my father, but it also has heavy psychological history for me, and I would eventually learn for James Normal Hall as well, who did all the writing for the novel. High Barbaree is important to me because when and how I saw it, and not because of the film itself, although there were events in the film that resonate with my own life. The film featured Van Johnson and June Allyson, and was one of six pictures they acted in together the 1940s and 1950s, all of them slight and mostly forgotten, except for folks like me, where the film got stuck in our memories of growing up. High Barbaree the book is about dying and aging memories of youth, especially last memories.
High Barbaree is a recursive art form for me, because it’s a story about memories that I use to think about remembering.
Can you remember the very first movie you ever seen? I think I can, but I’m not sure. Memory is a funny thing, especially when you remember something on the edge of that time between when you were too young to remember anything, and the time when you first start becoming a person. I have some vague memories when I think I was three, and quite a few more memories when I was four and five. When I first saw High Barbaree I must have been around four, but I can’t pinpoint my age for sure. We were living in South Carolina for the first time, out in the country. One night I got up in the middle of the night and walked out into the living room. My dad was up watching the all-night movies. He let me stay up with him, and I caught High Barbaree for the first time. That’s the earliest movie I remember ever seeing. I’m pretty sure as an even younger kid I must have sat with my parents watching movies on TV, but I don’t remember any of them.
I don’t remember much from when I saw High Barbaree the first time. I believe I remember four vivid scenes or images, but I can’t be sure because I confuse my first memories of seeing the movie with my second time seeing it, about 7-8 years later, when I was around 12. The four scenes that stuck in my mind were two small kids climbing an old wooden water tower, of the boy saying good-bye to the girl who is in the back of a truck driving away, a PBY amphibian plane floating on the water, and the old South Sea islander welcoming the grown up boy to the island. From seeing it the first time in 1955, I certainly didn’t learn the actors names, or even that it was about WWII. The story was about life-long friends, Alec and Nancy, who grew up as kids in Iowa, but were separated when Nancy’s parents moved the family to Montana. I’m sure I didn’t understand that at age four. Even at that young age I had moved enough to know the loss of friends, so that movie touched me emotionally even though my mind was extremely immature.
Around the summer of 1963 I caught the film again, also in the middle of the night. My sister and I loved old movies and in the summer time my mother would let us stay up all night watching them. It meant we slept during the day and didn’t drive her crazy. This is where I first memorized the actors and plot of the show. I probably don’t have any real film memories from 1955 other than the deep psychological impressions. In fact, I didn’t know I had seen the film before until we got to the scenes of the kids climbing the water tower. I also remember the scenes of the kids departing, the PB-Y floating on the ocean and the sequence with the island.
At my second viewing of High Barbaree I knew I had seen this film before and that it was from a powerful memory. It stuck with me and over the years as I grew up I ached to see the film again. My father died when I was 18, and I have very few memories of him, especially ones of us doing something together. He usually worked two or three jobs and was seldom home. Often he was stationed away from home. This memory of him letting me sit up with him and watch High Barbaree in the middle of the night is a special memory.
I didn’t catch High Barbaree again until I was in my late twenties or early thirties, after I had gotten married, and Susan and I caught it on cable TV, sometime before TCM. I was working at library then, and it was then that it first occurred to me that the movie might be based on a book. Indeed it was. This was back in the early 1980s, before we had a VCR. I would have loved to have owned a copy of the film, but couldn’t. So I went searching for the book. No luck. Years later, in the 1990s, I caught High Barbaree again on TV, on TCM this time, and I thought about finding the book again. This time I had the internet, and I was able to buy a copy through ABE Books.
Reading the book gave me a completely different spin on the story. James Norman Hall was nearing the end of his life – he would die in 1951, the year I was born. Even though High Barbaree was about a young Navy flier, it was autobiographical, about Hall’s own life growing up in Iowa at the beginning of the 20th century, remembering his mother and father, and his home town. I learned that after I discovered In Search of Paradise by Paul L. Briand, Jr., a biography of Nordhoff and Hall.
You might not want to read the next sentence because it contains a spoiler for both the movie and the book. In the movie Alec is rescued and lives, and his story is only a dream, but in the book, Alec dies, and his story is his dying thoughts. Hall had lived through two world worlds and was old enough to be thinking about death himself. He had a daughter named Nancy he knew he’d loose when he passed on, and I assumed that fear was the basis for his novel. High Barbaree is his fantasy of a mystical island where he might meet her again. The movie makers took his somber little tale with thoughts of dying and made it into a romantic war adventure with a happy ending.
As a four-year-old kid I picked up on the story of separation and dying, and the mysticism and hope of fantasies. I don’t know if High Barbaree caused this, but for my whole life I’ve been fascinated by stories of people stranded on islands or lost at sea. Years later when I caught Mutiny on the Bounty with Clark Gable on the all-night movies I loved it. I also loved the Marlon Brando and Mel Gibson versions too.
In 1971 I started studying computer programming and I’ve often thought about how our brains are programmed by pop culture influences. I’ve seen High Barbaree six times over almost six decades. Each time I saw it, I saw something else because I was a different age and person, but the impact of seeing it at age four made some kind of life-long impression, some kind of deep programming sub-routine in my brain. I’ve seen thousands of movies, most of which I’ve completely forgotten. If anyone reading this finds a copy of High Barbaree to watch they will probably not find much in it. When I saw it again the other night it seemed very slight. However, it did trigger emotional waves deep within my own memories, and from my knowledge of James Norman Hall and why he wrote in the book, that I can see that the filmmakers meant it to be much more than what it became. I think the filmmakers also had an emotional response to the book and hoped to convey that in the movie.
I’m not sure the emotions are there unless you can bring your own deep experiences to the film. I wish I could see High Barbaree without all my psychological baggage that comes with me to know if there’s a deserved reason why the film has been forgotten. I wonder how many young kids happens to catch High Barbaree back in the 1950s and now feel nostalgic for it after all these years.
This makes me wonder if any film can truly stand alone, or requires the fertile minds of the audience to make them succeed?
JWH – 7/15/14