The Docks of New York (1928)

Directed by Josef von Sternberg
Written by Jules Furthman

The love story is a timeless, tried and true, seen it before classic that will never get old. Guy meets gal, or vice versa, and the power of love changes their lives and they live happily ever after. It’s a beautiful thing. It is one of the oldest stories in the book, and as such many films have been made about love, including during the silent era, which brings me to the film I want to talk about: The Docks of New York. This is a film, and a director, I would have never come across had it not been for the prodding of the Filmspotting Forum. But like almost every suggestion from such an oasis for film enthusiasts amidst the dog eat dog world of internet conversation, The Docks of New York is a film I am glad to have seen, even if it does not shoot up my all time list.

Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) is a hard working coal stoker on a ship and as such he has seen much of the world when his boat comes into port, albeit mostly for one night at a time. When his steamer comes in to New York Harbor, he and his friend set out to have a good time for the night before having to return to sea the following morning. But Bill finds a woman (Betty Compson) in the harbor, trying to commit suicide. So he saves her, and makes sure she is okay. The two soon find much in common with their downtrodden lives and form a friendship, which leads to an off hand marriage proposal, which seems like a new beginning for the woman, but just another fun night for Bill Roberts. But when morning breaks, and ill’s actions from the night before take their toll, the supposed love of the couple weighs heavily on the mind and future of Mr. Roberts.

I love a nice love story, and this one is just that. It takes your typical hardworking, yet underappreciated, man with little vertical opportunity in life and brings him together with the suicidal dame with nothing to live for, until she meets Mr. Right. Damsel in distress is played upon and even the nice ending wraps it up in a nice bow. As a much earlier film in history, I can forgive it it’s obvious choices, but that also means that the little twists that occur along the way are that much more endearing. Bill Roberts may be the type of guy who seems like he might marry on a whim and walk out the next morning, but this also feels like the type of story that would not end like that. So the two parts come together nicely and create a fun cat and mouse game between Roberts and the girl, who clearly sees this marriage as the opportunity to turn her life around.

However, the film was rather bland for the most part. As I mentioned, the story is a bit on the nose, but beyond that, the acting and setting struggled to ever fully envelop me into the proceedings. Bancroft and Compson were fine, but did nothing to really pull me in and have me invested in the film more than on a surface basis. If anything, Compson was the one to watch because she seemed to have a more interesting inner struggle than a brute who happened to find love, yet still struggled to decide between it and his hard work and partying lifestyle. For a 20s era film the cinematography was nice, but the setting of the docks and the direction by von Sternberg never popped off the screen to me.

The Docks of New York is a film I enjoyed in the moment, but because it never really held much weight with me throughout, is also a film that is fairly forgettable once the film ends. I can’t say that it is a film that sticks out as one of the better silents I have seen. It does not have the visuals, or even the romantic flair of Sunrise, or the comedic genius of a Chaplin or Keaton. It does not have the suspense, thrill or grandeur of Metropolis or even Hitchcock’s The Lodger. However, The Docks of New York is a nice little romance which is worth checking out for fans of silent movies and love stories alike.


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