The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936)

  • The premise of this movie was super interesting to me. Never heard of this film or its backstory – but the summary of it straight-up nabbed me.
  • So, speaking of which – here is the tale:

Once upon a time, John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, and immediately after doing this, he leaped from the theater balcony onto the stage (for dramatic effect), seriously injuring his ankle. After fleeing DC on horseback, JWB (played in this movie by Francis McDonald) stops to get some medical attention from an unwitting doctor called Samuel Mudd (played by Warner Baxter). When the JWB hunters find out Mudd treated the assassin & then sent him on his merry way, they accuse him of being a conspirator in the Lincoln murder plot, & put him on trial for it.

  • John Ford directed this.
  • Gloria Stuart is in it!

(Such an occurrence will be forever fascinating, thanks to TITANIC (1997). Also…she’s way more recognizable in this than she was in SWEEPINGS (1933).)

(Haha. SWEEPINGS. Oh, what a champion of a movie.)

  • The movie opens with a written endorsement of sorts from Maryland Senator George L. Radcliffe:

“The years have at last removed the shadow which rested upon the name of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd of Maryland, and the nation which once condemned him now acknowledges the unjustice it visited on one of the most unselfish and courageous men in American history.”

Aw. How cute.

(Also: no, “unjustice” is not a typo of mine – that is the word that’s used.)

  • Claude Gillingwater as Mudd’s cranky old father-in-law is a bizarre repeated bit. Clearly he’s there for some sort of comic relief amidst the dark subject matter – but it just feels somewhat…obnoxiously misguided. Every once in awhile he appears on the scene to (loudly) make some cranky-old-man comment about how great the South is & how crappy the North is, and then he’s brushed aside for some real plot occurrence. I’m not a fan.
  • “The court will ignore the remarks of the prisoner.”


  • There’s a great shot after the main courtroom scene (which, by the way, feels way too succinct) where a courtroom aide posts the paper bulletin regarding the status of Dr. Mudd’s trial next to the bulletins concerning other “conspirators'” turns in court. The aide posts it in this glass-doored box outside, then shuts the display box’s door, which immediately reflects the image of Mrs. Mudd (Stuart) in it, reacting to the bulletin. It’s excellently handled.
  • One ‘What the fuck?’ moment:

Buck (Ernest Whitman), Dr. Mudd’s former slave, is somehow an employee of the Shark Island (Dry Tortugas? I think “Shark Island” is a nickname) prison. ??? Ridiculous plot point. ‘Mrs. Mudd told him to go work at the jail.’ *Eye roll.*

  • Douglas Wood as the lawyer (General Ewing) is not great. He just recites the lines to recite lines. No emotion or inflection.
  • There are some visually interesting shots in this – it’s not all straight-on angles, which is fun.
  • Frank Darabont likes John Carradine’s performance as the prison runner (Sgt. Rankin) – I think it’s a bit over the top, though.
  • Barebones plot, barebones script. It got very boring halfway through.
  • I’ll tell you what this did not get Oscar nominated for – sound mixing. There are some oddly quiet scenes, with only one particular person or movement audible, when a lot more things should be heard. The ones that stuck out to me – the execution scene, with only Stuart audible in an entire crowd of people, & then the escape scene (when you can hear, very intimately, the sounds of Mudd climbing on a wall). Why, in a prison surrounded entirely by a moat – do we only hear the sound of water in like…2 scenes?

Food for thought.

  • Crazy to think, time-wise – when this movie was made (1936), in relation to the Lincoln assassination (1865) is closer than now to when this movie was made.


That’s crazy, right? But – this was made 71 years after Lincoln died, and 71 years ago from today (2017) is 1946.


Yeah, I know.

  • Of all the movies that have been remade – why the fuck hasn’t this one? This is fantastic material – there are tons of modern-day directing/screenwriting teams that’d kill it doing a movie like this. And with like…Tom Hardy or Daniel Day Lewis or maybe even George Clooney as Dr. Mudd? It’d be so badass!
  • Meanwhile…back in this version –


Dr. Mudd is taken out of solitary confinement (aka: prison-within-a-prison) and asked to help. He says yes, because, as Senator George L. Radcliffe mentioned – Dr. Mudd is a good dude.

  • Example of dumbly written exchange:

Commandant (Harry Carey): How’s everything this morning? Still alright?

Mudd: Looks like I’m going to live.


  • Carradine’s transition from evil to ‘Let me just pop in & sign that petition to free you, Dr. Mudd!’ (with a smile & a handshake) is really poorly handled. That is to say – there was no transition, and that’s just a thing that happened.

(Oh, what I’d give to see a reconciliation scene in a remake. It could be so good, you guys.)

  • Rosabelle (Buck’s oft-referenced wife) = Etta McDaniel. She’s only there for a split second, at the very end, from a very far distance – but she’s instantly recognizable as a Hattie relation.
  • Ben Mankiewicz says that in the audition process, Ford told Carradine to play Rankin as “a fanatical half-wit,” and Carradine didn’t want to do it that way, & auditioned doing his own interpretation of the character & playing it the way he wanted, much to Ford’s disappointment. But – Francis Ford (John’s brother) was like ‘Nope, I liked it – this is the guy’…and Carradine got the part.
  • I would also like to say that Warner Baxter was decent in this. Not powerfully, powerfully memorable – but thoroughly decent.
  • Probably will never watch this again…BUT Y’ALL – call me when the remake is greenlighted. I will be first in line for tickets.



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