Click for the video summary of this post on Youtube.
In my first post in this series about this often-overlooked film I discussed the premiere(s) of Moran of the Lady Letty, 100 years ago in February 1922. In this second post of this three-part series I will take a look at the actual story upon which the film is based. You can follow along via the following links:
The 1898 edition of the novel at Archive.org; Video of the film on Youtube–(This is the TCM version featuring the introduction to the Flicker Alley release delivered by the late Robert Osborne.)
Monte M. Katterjohn, who had adapted Edith M. Hull’s The Sheik for the screen, was called on to adapt a seafaring novel for Rudolph Valentino’s next film. He had “toned down” The Sheik and also made some minor story line changes/omissions when he adapted that book to the screen, but with Frank Norris’s Moran of the Lady Letty, he not only softened the tone of the story but also made major deletions and other changes to the story to create the film audiences saw then and which we can still enjoy today.
Benjamin Franklin “Frank” Norris, Jr.
March 5, 1870-October 25, 1902
The film was based on a serialized work by Frank Norris, an American journalist and fiction writer who became known for his “naturalistic” works. The site Literary Devices explains how this type of writing was based on the idea that “natural forces predetermine a character’s decisions, making him/her act in a particular way” with human character based on environment (the family, social and environmental experience.) With circumstances viewed as being out of the characters’ control, this type of work started off with a pessimistic view of life. The naturalistic writers such as Norris created very detailed descriptions about the characters and their actions, with the aim of passing no moral judgments on how they acted.
Norris was working for a San Francisco publication, The Wave, as an editorial assistant when he started writing and releasing the story week by week beginning late in 1897. The first of his major works would follow. McTeague, which had not found a publisher at the time Norris dashed off the serial Moran of the Lady Letty, was published in 1899. (McTeague, with the new title Greed, would be filmed in1924 by Erich von Stroheim.) Norris then planned a trilogy, “The Epic of the Wheat“, which dealt with the economic and social forces involved in the production, distribution, and consumption of wheat. The first part, The Octopus (1901), often considered his masterpiece, was followed by The Pit (1903). The third part called Wolf, which was planned to depict American how wheat sent to help famine in a European village, was never written due to Norris’s death at age 32 in 1902. Ironically, Norris died following an operation for appendicitis…much like Rudolph Valentino who would die at age 31 following his operation for a perforated ulcer and the removal of his inflamed appendix. (Source: The Britannica, online)
The story was popular when it was published in book form in 1898, but I have not found Moran of the Lady Letty listed as one of Norris’s major work in any of the basic research I have done, perhaps because the story line doesn’t have “the sweep” of the other novels–after all, it is simply a thrilling story of smuggling between California and a bay in Mexico, a story full of violent events with the addition of a story line about the interaction of a man and woman from very different worlds. But since the time of its publication critics have noted that the work suffered because it was written week by week under the pressure of deadlines and then published as a novel without any revisions or corrections.
In a journal article entitled The Erratic Design of Frank Norris’s “Moran of the Lady Letty,” Joseph R. McElrath, Jr. describes the story as the most “contorted” of any of Norris’s works and the characterization of the title character, Moran Letty Sternersen, as “erratic.” After watching the film then reading the book I would say that that description is almost an understatement because Moran as portrayed in the novel is so different from what I expected; and the change in her behavior is so drastic that it seems to just come out of the blue and is very hard to understand. The film, of course, was an adaptation meant for the entertainment of a mass audience, so the story was turned into a straightforward adventure with romance that results in a happy ending. I would add that while the film’s script is so different from the book in terms of plot line, the characterization of Moran and changes in her behavior don’t seem as extreme when compared to what was presented in the book. So, it seems to me that the film version would have been more in tune with what audiences in the 1920’s expected for a romantic ending on the screen…and even to many watching it today.
I found it fascinating to read the book to see how far the film departs from the original work. What follows are some of the key differences between the novel and the film. Again, all pages from the book cited here are derived from the 1898 edition available at Archive.org.
The Lead Characters Defined
In the journal article cited above, the author quotes a letter written by Norris on March 13, 1898 in which Norris seems to be clear about his characters. He describes Wilbur as being “a mere nit…my game was to make ’em all nits and bring Moran out in full value…Moran is the only excuse for the yarn.” (Page 115)
The novel opens up with a description of “Ross Wilbur” who becomes “Ramon Laredo” in the film, a name change that accommodated Rudolph Valentino’s “Latin” appearance and appeal. In the novel, when Ross Wilbur leaves the afternoon “pink tea” held for Josie Herrick, he is “settling his hat gingerly upon his hair so as not to disturb the parting” in contrast to the “dash and fire” which describes Ramon in the film’s introductory title card:
Dorothy Dalton was given the role of Moran. Dorothy Dalton was already well-established, having worked in stock theater and the vaudeville circuits from 1910 until Thomas Ince convinced her to make films starting in the summer of 1915 (Dalton was quoted in Bizarre Los Angeles saying 1915 rather than the usually cited 1914). She became a top-billed star starting early in her career and by 1921 she had already appeared in nearly 50 films.
Dalton was considered a vivacious beauty in Hollywood and was known for her dimples.
The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pennsylvania
Saturday, January 22, 1922
Dalton cut her hair into a “bobbed” style in an effort to create the image of a young woman molded by a life at sea. However, her appearance was a far cry from how Moran is described in the novel. First, she was much shorter than Valentino’s character, unlike the Moran in the novel. The details of Moran’s appearance are emphasized and repeated throughout the story; after all, Norris, as described earlier, considered her the “only excuse for the yarn.”
Pages 71-72 (Wilbur's first chance to look at her after the rescue)...She was not pretty she was too tall for that quite as tall as Wilbur himself, and her skeleton was too massive. Her face was red, and the glint of blue ice was in her eyes. Her eyelashes and eyebrows, as well as the almost imperceptible* down that edged her cheek when she turned against the light, were blonde almost to whiteness. Her hands were red and hard, and even beneath the coarse sleeve of the oilskin coat one could infer that the biceps and deltoids were large and powerful. She was coarse-fibred*, no doubt, mentally as well as physically, but her coarseness, so Wilbur guessed, would prove to be the coarseness of a primitive rather than of a degenerate character. (*as spelled in the book) (my underlined emphasis)
Page 93...her enormous mane of rye-colored hair was braided into long strands near to the thickness of a man's arm. The redness of her face gave a startling effect to her pale blue eyes and sandy, heavy eyebrows, that easily lowered to a frown.
Page 172...Wilbur looked at her with intent curiosity noted again, as if for the first time, the rough, blue overalls thrust into the shoes; the coarse flannel shirt open at the throat;the belt with its sheath-knife; her arms big and white and tattooed in sailor fashion; her thick, muscular neck; her red face, with its pale blue eyes and almost massive jaw; and her hair, her heavy, yellow, fragrant hair, that lay over her shoulder and breast, coiling and looping in her lap. (my underlined emphasis)
Dorothy Dalton portraying
Moran Letty Sternersen…
…Not exactly as Frank Norris imagined her…
CHANGES TO THE PLOT
(Sub-sections include: 1: First Scenes…and A Shanghaiing; 2: A Coal Fire and a Girl; 3: Magdalena Bay and the Major Plot Differences; 4: The Different Homecomings; and 5: The Drastically Different Endings)
1. First Scenes…and A Shanghaiing
The plot of the film actually starts with an addition to the story line compared to how the the book begins.
The novel begins in Chapter 1 (“Shanghaied”) with Ross Wilbur arriving early at Josie Herrick’s coming out party. He has accepted her bid before receiving an invitation to go out on the Ridgeways’ yacht, the Petrel. He is the only other man there, so over a quick cup of tea, he confirms that Josie will be at that night’s Assembly, they plan out their dance card and he leaves after a short time. He does not complain about being bored or needing to “get away.” He leaves the tea with time to fill before the Assembly at 9 p.m. So, he goes to his club where he finds a message from his “chum”) Jerry who is coming back from a shooting trip, and he decides to go down to the docks to greet Jerry at the boat when his boat arrives. Striking up a conversation with an old seaman needing a light for his pipe, Wilbur offers him a cigar and passes the time with him and then makes the mistake of accepting an invitation to have drinks — and soon he is drugged and shanghaied.
The film has a completely different beginning with additions to the story. First, there is the saccharine opening title card and the two protagonists introduced in their cradles! Then, the film moves on to a Norwegian port to introduce the Fru Letty (The Lady Letty). We see the captain, Moran’s father, on deck and then get our first glimpse of Moran, looking happy, attractive and dressed in a shawl and skirt, smiling and greeting women at the dock before going back on board and changing into her mannish “work clothes.”
Only after this addition to the story are we introduced to Ramon Laredo at the society tea honoring Josie Herrick. Surrounded by fawning women, he is bored and tells her that “At times I feel like chucking this crowd–running away somewhere, just to escape from it all.” (Title Card)
As he leaves the party he accepts Josie’s invitation for a boat excursion on the Herrick yacht a few days later. (In the film, the yacht belongs to the Herrick family, not the Ridgeways.) When the day arrives he’s late getting to the dock and is left behind. In a foreshadowing of Ramon’s being shanghaied, we catch a glimpse of an old seaman on the dock with a pipe (just as we see in the novel), whom Ramon encounters first and who tells him that yacht has already departed. Then the film’s story line adds a meeting on the dock between Moran and Ramon that is not in the book. The Fru Letty has arrived in San Francisco and Moran and her father are going into town when they run into Ramon who still wants to make sure he’s heading the right way to where his party should be waiting. Note that Moran is again wearing a skirt and nice jacket for the trip into town. She IS a girl, after all, and the film emphasizes this fact again. But, she makes a point of make a mocking comment about Ramon to her father…which reinforces the Moran’s confidence in her seafaring abilities and clearly contrasts the Moran and Ramon characters for audiences.
After this chance meeting on the dock plays out, the film returns to the story line in the novel in — a friendly visit to a dockside bar for a drink results in the shanghaiing of the film’s leading man…Ramon.
2. A Coal Fire and a Girl
Once shanghaied, Wilbur gets integrated into life on Kitchell’s smuggling ship (Chapter 2–“A Nautical Education”) as does Ramon in the film, and although both versions of the character are tagged as “Lilee of the Valee” by Kitchell, soon both Wilbur/Ramon characters begin to become useful members of the crew.
The film continues with the exciting sequence that starts with the discovery of a coal fire in the hold of the Fru Letty (henceforth referred to as the Lady Letty). As the crew abandons the ship in fear of an explosion, Moran watches them (“You cowardly dogs!” — Title Card) and then goes down into the hold to discover her father overcome by coal gas…and she is also overcome on the stairs. Then, at “the grim dawn for ships that have passed in the night” (Title Card), Kitchell’s schooner, (called The Heart of China in the film), sees the Lady Letty and his chance for loot. Boarding the ship, Kitchell (played by Walter Lord) and Ramon see the smoking coal in the hold and a crew member “loco” from the coal gas — and Ramon carries the victim up to the deck where he discovers “It’s a girl!” Worried about her fate at the hands of the crew he carries her to a dinghy and gets her back to Kitchell’s ship while Kitchell begins looting the Lady Letty‘s captain’s quarters. However, explosions begin and he hastily leaves the ship and heads back to his boat. In the meantime, Ramon gets Moran below deck and reveals Moran to the the ship’s cook (later called Chopstick Charlie) who warns Ramon that Kitchell better not find out about Moran. So, they hide her in a cabin just as Kitchell comes back on board.
Of course, Kitchell finally sees Moran:
Moran emerges, Kitchell sees her for the first time…and the leering begins…
Dinner follows and Ramon reminds Moran that they have met before and she realizes who he is and teases him about his “minstrel clothes” and wonders how he wound up on Kitchell’s boat. The truth is deflected by Kitchell with Ramon going along with the deception. Later that night, Kitchell sneaks into Moran’s cabin, is spotted by Charlie the cook, who alerts the rest of the crew; meanwhile, Ramon hears noise in Moran’s cabin, knocks and peers inside but doesn’t see Kitchell hiding behind the door. But Charlie has alerted the crew and they rush to see Kitchell outside the door and Charlie confirms to Ramon that Kitchell has gone inside. With a warning from the crew not to cause problems which could affect their financial stakes in the voyage, Kitchell makes an excuse about simply wanting to see that she is properly “tucked in” which is met with Ramon calling him out on the lie. In this scene Valentino acts with his hands, with his fists clenching and unclenching in close-ups as he instincts hone in on Kitchell’s actions and excuses. But, for now, Moran is safe from the advances of the lecherous Kitchell.
Kitchell confronted and warned…
But, while this sequence in the film is exciting, the novel unfolds in a very different way.
In Chapter 3 (“The Lady Letty”) of the novel, after a coal fire disables the Lady Letty, the boat (which is described as “a bark”), is spotted by Captain Kitchell who is running smuggling and pirating operations with a mostly Chinese crew from his schooner, named the Bertha Millner in the novel. He and his crew board the bark and discover her dead captain (Moran’s father). They also discover a young, dazed member of the crew who is still alive. As he helps what he thinks is a youth up to the top deck, Wilbur realizes that “It’s a girl!” (Page 69)
At the start of the Chapter IV (“Moran”), Kitchell orders Wilbur to take what he thinks is a young man back to his ship and tells him to return to him with axes so he can plunder the Lady Letty. Kitchell retrieves the Lady Letty‘s personal and ownership papers (Pages 79-81) and the reader finds out that Moran is 22 years old. Wilbur’s initial excitement over the money to be made from the plunder is just as great as Kitchell’s until he remembers the survivor he has taken off the bark. He realizes that the bark is not really derelict and tries to discuss the fact that there may be a survivor with ownership stakes. But he has to give in to Kitchell when he’s directed to hide the papers back on the Bertha Millner. Before Wilbur leaves the bark for good, they conduct the “dreadful business” of disposing of Captain Sternersen’s body. Wilbur is sickened to the point of vomiting as he witnesses the treatment of the dead Captain Sternersen’s corpse and its gruesome end in the water as it is devoured in a shark feeding frenzy. Wilbur then goes back to the schooner, leaving Kitchell behind on the Lady Letty to “gut this old pill-box from stem to stem-post before I leave.” (Page 87)
Back on the Bertha Millner, while Wilbur debates over what to do about Moran, a sudden squall descends and the schooner is in danger of going down. For the first time, Wilbur sees the power of Moran as she recovers from her stupor and leaps into action:
Page 91..."And you call ourselves sailor men! Are you going to drown like rats on a plank?" A voice that Wilbur did not know went ringing through that horrid shouting of wind and sea like the call of a bugle. He turned to see Moran, the girl of the Lady Letty, standing erect upon the quarterdeck, holding down the schooner's wheel. The confusion of that dreadful moment, that had paralyzed the crew's senses, had brought back hers. She was herself again, savage, splendid, dominant, superb in her wrath at their weakness, their cowardice.
Moran saves Kitchell’s ship, but the Lady Letty rolls over and capsizes in the squall.
"Of the Lady Letty and the drunken beach-combing Captain not a trace remained. Kitchell had gone down with his prize." (Pages 93-94)
So, the villainous Kitchell is dead by the end of Chapter 4...BUT he lives on in the film!
3. Magdalena Bay and the Major Plot Differences
At this point in the novel, Moran becomes the driving force of the story. After saving the ship Moran takes command of the Bertha Millner. It is Moran who steers the ship to Mexico (Magdalena Bay) to hunt sharks. Chapter 5 entitled “A Girl Captain“ (starting on Page 95) describes the hunt and how Wilbur sees Moran at this point in the story:
"The more he saw of her the more he knew himself to have been right in his first estimate. She drank whiskey after her meals, and when angry, which was often, swore like a buccaneer. As yet she was almost, as one might say, without sex savage, unconquered, untamed, glorying in her own independence, her sullen isolation."(Page 104)
The script of the film recounting the time in Mexico is drastically altered from events in the book.
In the film version, there is no evidence on any shark hunting. Captain Kitchell has not been drowned, and he is the captain who sails down to Mexico to deliver a load of guns to his “partner” Poncho and his band of Mexican brigands. Poncho offers Kitchell a “wench” but Kitchell rejects her. Charlie the cook overhears Kitchell plotting to pass along Moran to Poncho and when Poncho asks him how his crew will react, Kitchell reveals that he wants to get rid of the crew: The title card reads: “I want to lose that crew anyway–we’ll throw ’em to the sharks when we go out to unload the ship tonight.”
Kitchell’s ship’s cook, called “Chopstick Charlie” in the film, barters for the wench’s dress…he has plans…which are not in the novel!
Of course, in the book there is no Poncho or his gang, no wench or Kitchell’s cook thinking about romance between Moran and Wilbur.
But, meanwhile in the film, Ramon and Moran have decided to go to shore while Kitchell is meeting with Poncho and here we see Ramon’s tentative attempts to tell Moran how he feels about her, only to be rebuffed, in an sweetly awkward sequence, with the rather shy Moran telling the smitten Ramon that…
“…I could never care for a man–I’m not made for men” (Title card)
“I ought to have been born a boy.” (Title card)
What’s clear is that the time in Mexico in the film is setting the stage for romance and Moran is not really in a state of “sullen isolation” as she is in the novel. Rather than being the “Viking” of the novel, Moran in the film is full of spunk and tom boyishness, but with a rather sweet and shy side to her personality–she is not overly masculine unlike the Moran depicted in the book.Ramon has very little time to be disappointed because Charlie runs to the beach to warn him and Moran about Kitchell’s plans and all three hastily return to the ship to prepare for Kitchell and his gang’s assault. Ramon organizes the defense and as the attack unfolds, Kitchell is knocked down and falls down into the hold of the ship, where he remains hidden…
But this is not what happens in the novel…
From Pages 139-221, over four chapters comprising about one-third of the book, the story descends into violence; actions by Moran that mirror some of the worst aspects of Kitchell; and the author’s ugly racist descriptions of Chinese characters. The chapters are : Chapter 7 (“Beachcombers”), Chapter 8 (“A Run for Land”), Chapter 9 (“The Capture of Hoang“), and Chapter 10 (“A Battle“). This is how the action unfolds in each chapter…
Chapter 7–“Beachcombers”: In the previous chapter, the Bertha Millner‘s Chinese crew escapes from the ship taking the only dory to head for the shore to make camp. As they face the task of trying to sail the ship alone, Moran and Wilbur spot a Chinese junk at the entrance to Magdalena Bay. As Chapter 7 opens, Norris describes the crew of the junk as true “beachcombers,” otherwise known as “scavengers, ” which Wilbur remembers Kitchell calling “the wickedest breed of cats that ever cut teeth.” (Pages 140-141) The blatant racism of attitudes toward the Chinese at this time (late 19th-early 20th century) is shockingly clear in the way Wilbur describes them:
They were the lowest type of men Wilbur had ever seen. The faces were those of a higher order of anthropoid apes: the lower portion- jaws, lips, and teeth salient; the nostrils opening at almost right angles, the eyes tiny and bright, the forehead seamed and wrinkled unnaturally old. Their general expression was one of simian cunning and a ferocity that was utterly devoid of courage.
The beachcombers have come across a dead whale and ask for help handling the carcass and agree to give Moran and Wilbur one-third of their prize; Moran does the math — a barrel of oil worth $50, a barrel of spermaceti worth $100 — mean a lot of money. She positions the Bertha Millner along side the whale and the junk’s crew scramble over the deck as they work to strip the whale of its blubber, oil, spermaceti, and bone: “they swarmed the forward deck and rigging like a plague of unclean monkeys, climbing with an agility and nimbleness that made Wilbur sick to his stomach. They were unlike any Chinamen he had ever seen–hideous to a degree that he had imagined impossible in a human being.” (Pages 145-146)
As the work winds down on the third day, the captain of the junk, Hoang, comes on board the schooner and is true to his word–he has already set aside the agreed to share: 10 barrels of oil, 3 1/2 barrels of spermaceti, and 20 pounds of bone. Hoang goes back to the junk, only 40 feet away, and as Moran and Wilbur are working to cut the carcass free, Wilbur notices a sweet smelling lump — the rare find, ambergris — and, Moran orders him to get it on the ship before the “Chinamen” see it. But it’s too late and Hoang and his crew swim to the schooner demanding their share, which Wilbur does understand to be a logical request. However, Moran claims the find as her own, at that moment becoming as unscrupulous as Kitchell would have been and a fight ensues, with Hoang making off with the entire lump. Wilbur has been cut with a hatchet during the fighting and is bleeding heavily but Moran has other things on her mind…their boat is sinking.
Chapter 8–“A Run For Land”: While waiting for the end in shark-infested waters Moran and Wilbur begin musing about the time they’ve spent together. This is when Moran talks about their being “A strange pair to die together” and how they “could have lived together” (Pages 164-165) and Wilbur rhapsodizes about the weeks at sea and how “I may as well say it—I love you more that I imagined I could love a girl.” (Obviously, this dialogue occurs in a much different scene in the film — waiting for an attack from Kitchell’s gang near the end of that story line.) Moran, of course, rebuffs him and on Page 166 declares, “I could never love a man. I’m not made for men.”
All this goes on as the two are on a foundering ship, not during earlier described the beach scene depicted in the film.
But instead of drowning on a sinking ship, Moran manages to keep the ship afloat, helped by empty barrels used to store oil that have floated up to the roof of the hold which act as buoys until she safely grounds the boat. They sleep on the beach and Wilbur talks himself out of any thoughts of kissing her (Page 175). The next morning, they find a leak that they repair and as they prepare to sail on, Charlie and the ship’s crew return, wanting to go home and afraid of the Hoang’s gang of beachcombers still on shore. Just as Charlie and the crew return, they spot the junk as it heaves in the water and sinks.
Chapter 9–“The Capture of Hoang”: Moran, convinced that Hoang’s gang will want to take the Bertha Millner and their “loot,” decides it’s time to fight the beachcombers on land. Moran aims to take back the ambergris and all of Hoang’s share. Wilbur wonders if they have a right to take it all and Moran explodes in anger. She wants all of it and she dominates…and Wilbur feels “ashamed of himself and proud of her.” (Pages 190-192) Moran and the crew go onto the shore and face the beachcombers. Suddenly, there is a melee and Hoang is captured. (Page 195-196) And Wilbur notices the change coming over Moran:
“…lapsing back to the eighth century again…to the Vikings, the sea-wolves, the berserkers…”
Moran then tortures Hoang, by tying his jaw shut around a file that had been brought from the ship showing that she can be as harsh as Kitchell was earlier during the disposal of the body of Moran’s father:
“…The hideous rasp of the operation turned Wilbur’s blood cold within him. He looked away…”
But the battle isn’t over. Moran and her crew track the beachcombers and finally come upon them…
Chapter 10–“A Battle”: A vicious battle now ensues and Wilbur takes another hatchet wound this time to his leg and then kills his attacker, and “the primitive man, the half-brute of the stone age, leaped to life” within him… Never had he conceived of such savage exultation as that which mastered him at that instant. The knowledge that he could kill filled him with a sense of power that was veritably royal. He felt physically larger.” (Pages 214-215) At the same time, Moran “with a voice hoarse from shouting, she sang, rather chanted, in her long-forgotten Norse tongue, fragments of old sagas, words, and sentences meaningless even to herself.”
And then Moran “lapsed back to the Vikings…Brunhilde again,… a bersirker (sic),…deaf to all reason” (Page 216) and begins fighting Wilbur. And, he, in turn, already excited by the combat with the beachcombers, fights her “as against some impersonal force that it was incumbent upon him to conquer–that it was imperative he should conquer if he wished to live…it was her will, her splendid independence, that he set himself to conquer.” (Page 218) She fights him to his knees twice, he punches her between the eyes, but it makes no difference….Wilbur “knew that the combat was deadly serious and that more than life was at stake. Moran despised a weakling.” (Page 219)
And this is where the literary critics and this reader find that the story goes off the rails. Wilbur eventually pins Moran down, plants a knee on her chest and “suddenly Moran gave up, relaxing in his grasp all in a second, and, to his great surprise, suddenly smiled.” She has not shown any signs of affection toward Wilbur up until this point and then she declares “I’m as weak as a kitten” and admits that he has “conquered” her, “and shaking him by the shoulder, confesses — ‘and, mate, do you know, I love you for it.'” (Pages 220-221) You can read the how the whole transformation below in the slideshow.
In the film, after Ramon pulls Moran off one of the attackers and she continues her blind pummeling and after a few moments, she has a “swoon of recognition” before falling into Ramon’s arms, who never punches here between the eyes! She isn’t exactly a “berserker” as depicted in the novel–there are no title cards with “fragments of Norse sagas” being uttered by “Brunhilde.”
Chapter 11–“A Change of Leader”: This chapter opens with the emphasis of Wilbur’s new found strength and how he is now in command… “All that was strong and virile and brutal in him seemed to harden and stiffen” since he had killed. (Page 222) They come across Charlie and the rest of their crew…Charlie, trampled in the sand, has a bullet wound. As they get him back to the beachcomber’s dory for the trip back to their schooner, they find the almost-forgotten ambergris and Moran revels in that fact that they are now rich. (Pages 224-227) Moran then worries about Charlie having been drawn into the battle and Wilbur is amazed: “Where was the reckless, untamed girl of the previous night, who had sworn at him and denounced his niggling misgivings as to the right and wrong?” (Page 228)
The positions of the two were reversed. It was Wilbur who assumed control and direction of what went forward, Moran taking his advice and relying upon his judgment. (Page 229)
Wilbur and Moran decide not to leave the defeated Hoang behind because he most likely will be killed as he has “lost face” in defeat and Moran has had enough of “all the fighting and killing.” (Page 234) At this point, Moran returns to her expressions of love and submission on Page 238 that leave Wilbur “suddenly smitten with awe at the sacredness of the obligation thus imposed on him.” (Page 239)
Mate, be good to me, and always be kind to me. I'm not Moran any more. I'm not proud and strong and independent, and I don't want to be lonely. I want you I want you always with me. I'm just a woman now, dear--just a woman that loves you with a heart she's just found." Wilbur could find no words to answer. There was something so pathetic and at the same time so noble in Moran's complete surrender of herself, and her dependence upon him, her unquestioned trust in him and his goodness,...(Page 238)
So, what we see in the novel are three “overwrought features” (McElrath, Joseph R., “The Erratic Design of Frank Norris’s ‘Moran of the Lady Letty” (Page 117):
“Whimpering femininity” really does say it all…and yes, it is “bathetic”–full of overdone emotional self-pity and sentimentality, for sure! And, at least for a moment, Wilbur has exalted in the power of knowing that he can kill and “feels larger.”
After the battle Charlie dies quietly after requesting his desires for his funeral; but in the film the dramatic deathbed scene revolves around the dress he had acquired from the wench and which he now offers to Moran…and which she wears from then on until the film ends…transformation complete! (Of course, she’s worn a skirt at the start of the film, but no matter!)
…because “no mak-um love in pants”…and that deathbed gesture may be the truly most “bathetic” moment in the film!
…and it isn’t in the book…
And then the title cards tell us they are “Homeward bound” with no more troubles with Moran having learned about what really matters…and they finally see land. But Kitchell remains hidden and fortifying himself with food and drink from the ship’s stores…
4. THE DIFFERENT HOMECOMINGS
As Moran and Ramon are gazing at the land, the film cuts to the Herrick yacht sailing into San Diego harbor for the next night’s ball.
Just as in the novel, the Wilbur/Ramon character reunites with Josie who hopes he has come back to her and he tries to explain to his friends how he’s changed. This visit to land will be the only trip Ramon makes in the film versus the multiple trips made in the novel.
“Chapter 12– “New Conditions”: This chapter of the novel opens with a description of the Coronado Hotel’s season of festivities and the arrival of The Petrel, Nat Ridgeway’s yacht, a few days before and how he will be leading Josie Herrick at the cotillion planned in her honor. Wilbur goes ashore to “call his people” and Wilbur meets up with his friends again, including Jerry, at the hotel, and the party guests treat him like a hero…and film shows the return with the same excitement as it is presented in the book. However, there is quite a difference in how Wilbur/Ramon are presented…and I wonder if Valentino would have relished making up to look as disheveled as the character in the novel!
Pages 253-254…And the hero of the occasion, the centre of all this enthusiasm thus carried as if in triumph into this assembly in evening dress, in white tulle and whiter kid, odorous of delicate sachets and scarce-perceptible perfumes was a figure unhandsome and unkempt beyond description. His hair was long, and hanging over his eyes. A thick, uncared-for beard concealed the mouth and chin. He was dressed in a Chinaman’s blouse and jeans the latter thrust into slashed and tattered boots. The tan and weatherbeatings of nearly half a year of the tropics were spread over his face; a partly healed scar disfigured one temple and cheek-bone; the hands, to the very finger-nails, were gray with grime; the jeans and blouse and boots were fouled with grease, with oil, with pitch, and all manner of the dirt of an uncared-for ship…And as the dancers of the cotillion pressed about and a hundred kid-gloved hands stretched toward his own palms, there fell from Wilbur’s belt upon the waxed floor of the ballroom the knife he had so grimly used in the fight upon the beach, the ugly stains still blackening on the haft.
In the book Wilbur is more adamant about how he’s changed than Ramon is in the film. Wilbur even expresses contempt for his friends’ plans for another cotillion for him, which they say will be the “event of the season.” As much as Wilbur insists he wants a different life, Jerry tells that he doesn’t think his friend will abandon his old life for good and Wilbur decides not to discuss his relationship with Moran because he doesn’t think his friend can ever understand his feelings. Wilbur wants to get back to the schooner and doesn’t hear Jerry call out that he’ll visit him on what he thinks is Wilbur’s “yacht.” Back on the schooner he tells Moran that he’s anxious to get away and onto the next adventure. The next morning, just as they are preparing to start out to complete the business of bringing the body of Charlie home and cashing in their “loot,” they are surprised by Jerry and Josie, who arrive and want to see the “yacht.” (This visit also occurs in the film, but, again, the yacht is identified as belonging to Josie Herrick’s family, rather than it belonging to the Ridgeways.) Needless to say, they are shocked by the filthy, smelly ship and crew. Wilbur is also uncomfortable with their arrival as he “gasped” and muttered “desperately” as he helped them aboard. (Page 264) The chapter ends with a bewildered Josie being introduced by Wilbur to a “surprised” Moran:
"It was long before the picture left Wilbur's imagination. Josie Herrick, petite, gowned in white, crisp from her maid's grooming; and Moran, sea-rover and daughter of an hundred Vikings, towering above her, booted and belted, gravely clasping Josie's hand in her own huge fist. (Page 266-267)
5. The Drastically Different Endings
In the novel...Doubts and Death
Chapter 13–“Moran Sternersen”: In this chapter of the book Ross Wilbur starts to have doubts — and the film begins to take another big deviation from the novel. After Jerry and Josie depart, Wilbur and Moran finally head toward San Francisco, eventually mooring a few miles from the city — both wanting to keep their “loot” safe, Wilbur wanting to avoid the publicity of his return, and Moran “detesting any nearer approach to civilization.”
"...the distant sight of the city of San Francisco, Nob, Telegraph, Russian, and Kincon hills, all swarming with buildings and grooved with streets; even the land locked harbor fretted her. Wilbur could see she felt imprisoned, confined. When he had pointed out the Palace Hotel to her a vast gray cube in the distance, overtopping the surrounding roofs she had sworn under her breath. "And people can live there, good heavens! Why not rabbit-burrows, and be done with it? Mate, how soon can we be out to sea again? I hate this place." (Page 274)(my underlined emphasis)
When Wilbur goes ashore for the first time in the novel, his first stop is at the Lifeboat Station where he meets Captain Hodgson on duty. He’s already heard about the arrival of the Bertha Millner as the news has traveled from San Diego and, when asked, Wilbur gives Hodgson only a selective information regarding Kitchell. Hodgson has also picked up news about Moran…
When Wilbur's business was done, and he was making ready to return to the schooner, Hodgson remarked suddenly:"Hear you've got a strapping fine girl aboard with you. Where did you fall in with her?"; and he winked and grinned. Wilbur started as though struck, and took himself hurriedly away; but the man's words had touched off in his brain a veritable mine of conjecture. Moran in Magdalena Bay was consistent, congruous, and fitted into her environment. But how -- how was Wilbur to explain her to San Francisco, and how could his behavior seem else than ridiculous to the men of his club and to the women whose dinner invitations he was wont to receive? (Page 276) (my underlined emphasis)
Wilbur needs to walk: “Like most men, Wilbur had to walk when he was thinking hard. He sent the dory back to the schooner with word to Moran that he would take a walk around the beach and return in an hour or two.” (Page 277) All the memories of the experiences he has had come rushing back…
Then, suddenly, a cold wind comes up and a storm seems close and then — “Wilbur rose to his feet, and saw the Bertha Millner, close in, unbridled and free as a runaway horse, headed directly for the open sea, and rushing on with all the impetus of wind and tide!” (Page 280)
And then in Chapter 14 entitled “The Ocean is Calling You” the shocking ending occurs! Left behind on the Bertha Millner, Moran allows the crew, mostly coolies, to go ashore, not worried about them as she expects a new crew to come on in a few days. Hoang rows them to the shore, but then comes back to the ship. Moran is surprised to see him — but Hoang says he’ll stay and cook for her and stay on watch. He has been “very useful” and “in fact, obsequiousness itself, and seemed to be particularly desirous of gaining the good-will of the Bertha s officers.” (Page 282) Hoang busies himself on deck, eyes the shore, which is about four miles away, for signs of activity, then goes down below to his “ditty box” and moment later, goes into Moran’s cabin and shuts the door behind him (Pages 282-283):
Hoang grabs the gunny bags holding the ambergris, rigs the boat so it will wrench free in the wind, swings himself into the dory with his treasure and rows back to the wharf…and “Two hours later, Hoang was lost in San Francisco’s Chinatown.” (Page 286)
The novel jumps back to Wilbur who, seeing the schooner being pushed out to sea by the storm, is gripped by a “sense of calamity.” Just then Hodgson rides up and delivers the stunning news (See the slideshow below, Pages 287-289):
Wilbur runs to the top of the old harbor fort and as the schooner runs toward the sea,
"passing not one hundred yards from him, he saw Moran lying on the deck, saw Moran lying upon the deck with outstretched arms and calm, up turned face; lying upon the deck of that lonely fleeing schooner as upon a bed of honor, still and calm, her great braids smooth upon her breast, her arms wide; alone with the sea: alone in death as she had been in life. She passed out of his life as she had come into it alone, upon a derelict ship, abandoned to the sea." (Page 291)
As the schooner sweeps by Wilbur calls out…
…Fainter and fainter she grew, vanished, reappeared, was heaved up again a mere speck upon the western sky a speck that dwindled and dwindled, then slowly melted away into the gray of the horizon.
I have to admit that I gasped when I read the ending and I’m wagering that it would have made a great ending for a film! However, the setup in the film has been headed toward a romantic, happy ending from the start.
And in the film…
Although the Moran in the film shows no aversion to civilization on the docks of Norway or San Francisco, she does decide to stay behind as Ramon goes ashore and waits with some nervousness as she waits for Ramon to return — will he?
At this point, Kitchell emerges from his hiding place below deck and finds Moran, sitting with her head down with apprehension…and he begins to attack her. Luckily, Ramon has just returned to the ship and he hears Moran screaming for help, with the title card dialogue only slightly different from the words in the novel — but words said in a totally different context:
“Help, mate! — oh, mate, where are you?”
Ramon rushes down below deck and confronts Kitchell, the fight begins and, like a true damsel in distress, Moran hangs back to watch and then follows as the fight moves back up to the deck and then up into the ship’s rigging. As the fight reaches it’s final stages, Moran seems to think that it is Ramon who has ultimately fallen into the water.
Of course, Ramon has prevailed and Moran tells him “Oh mate – I thought I’d lost you!” (Title Card) and the two embrace–but no kiss yet! First, the film has to reinforce that Ramon has definitely decided to leave his old life which is accomplished by a cut to a quick scene of the cotillion that Ramon won’t be attending. Then, as Ramon and Moran gaze at each other, the crew returns and seem a bit embarrassed by it all — the “Lillee of the Vallee” monicker that was so derisive when uttered by Kitchell now seems to be delivered with more of good-natured acceptance without any hint of hostility…just a wink and a nod. Finally, the film has to make sure the audience knows that finally Moran is now really “a girl” — so Moran’s declaration that being a girl is a good thing is blunt and to the point.
And then comes the long-awaited kiss (with a quick cut to the crew gazing up with smiles)…and the audience knows Moran and Ramon will sail off together.
So…how does the film stack up against the novel? The novel is very exciting and grabs the reader. But, the shift in Moran’s character really is very sudden. At the same time the character of Wilbur, who will become Ramon in the film, is very interesting and fully delineated through his thoughts. Overall, I would recommend fans of the film read the book!
As for the film…well, it’s enjoyable, well-acted and the ship scenes are authentic and exciting. And, the script makes no bones about the fact that romance is in the air right from the beginning and so the changes in Moran seem to flow a bit better than in the novel. The villains are real villains, there is some comic relief, Dorothy Dalton as Moran is appealing and Valentino as Ramon — well, he is athletic and it’s nice to see him in a more natural look. I can only speak for myself, but I think many today — one hundred years later — might react to Valentino’s performance in his first film role after The Sheik the same way female audiences did in 1922…because Rudolph Valentino is as handsome and charismatic on the deck of a ship as he is on a horse wearing Arab robes!
Part 3 of this series about Moran of the Lady Letty will be looking at how the film was made, reviews and and delve into the question of who was actually on that ship’s rigging?
- Kitchell’s full name–Captain Alvinza Kitchell– is revealed by Kitchell himself as he describes himself a “beachcomber/scavenger” and a “hog right through” in Chapter 3 (The Lady Letty) of the novel on Pages 60- 61.
2. Ambergris –A rare, waxy substance found in the gut of of sperm whales, used in making perfumes for centures, as well as in medicine and even as an edible delicacy. For an excellent history of ambergris, see A Brief, Fascinating History of Ambergris in the September 2, 2021 edition of Smithsonian Magazine online.
3. When the serial was finally published in book form, the dedication was to Captain Joseph Hodgson of the United States Life Saving Service. In Chapter 13 the character of the Lifeboat Station captain, was based on the real Captain Joseph Hodgson.
Bizarre Los Angeles–Photography and Lost History (online)
The Britannica, Frank Norris biography (online)
Dorothy Dalton Filmography at Wikipedia (online)
Literary Devices–Definition and Examples of Literary Terms (online)
McElrath, Joseph R. “The Erratic Design of Frank Norris’s ‘Moran of the Lady Letty.’” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, vol. 10, no. 2, University of Illinois Press, 1977, pp. 114–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27745787
Norris, Frank. Moran of the Lady Letty; a story of adventure off the California coast. New York, Doubleday & McClure Co., 1898. Available at Archive.org.