Director Stanley Kramer made a name for himself with movies just like this, big pictures with big casts and some big ideas. 'Fools' has the feel of a 1970s disaster movie except without the disaster. Throw a group of people into a confined setting and let the fireworks begin. Here though, there's no fireworks. It is a movie that at 149-minutes is one of the most dialogue-heavy movies I've ever seen, some good and some bad. With a huge cast, lots of tumultuous relationships, and some bigger takes on love, prejudice, and common decency, 'Fools' has a lot going on, too much if you ask me. A streamlined version couldn't have hurt.
In 1933 in the port of Vera Cruz, Mexico, a German cruise ship leaves port bound for a quick stop in Cuba and then on home to mother Germany. On board is a good sample section of Germans, Jews, Austrians, a few Americans from a variety of backgrounds, and over 500 field workers being sent back to Cuba because the work has dried up. The Nazi Party has taken power in Germany, and the election is still at the forefront of discussion. The trip to Germany is expected to take almost a month, and on this trip, nothing is going to go smoothly.
Don't take any of that to mean this is an action movie, far from it. Here is just some of the characters involved. The ship's doctor (Oskar Werner) is coming off heart troubles and is generally depressed at the plight of the world, but he bonds with an upper-class woman (Simone Signoret) who helped arm a workers rebellion. A boorish German Austrian (Jose Ferrer) spouts the power of the Nazis and their plans to build a super race. A young American couple (George Segal and Elizabeth Ashley) try to figure out if they're meant to be together. A hard-edged, washed up American baseball player (Lee Marvin) tries to figure out what to do with his life, all the while talking often with a recent divorcee (Vivien Leigh). A German Jew salesman (Heinz Ruhmann) tries to shrug of the increasingly anti-Semitic feelings on board. The problem isn't with the strength of the casting -- all those mentioned turn in fine performances -- but with the fact that all those mentioned are about half of the storylines.
There is many more storylines with many more characters as Kramer attempts to show a wide variety of people, families, and individuals on board this second rate ship. It's just too much as the camera bounces from story to story -- some much better than others -- instead of focusing on the key, interesting ones. There's an odd inclusion of a Spanish flamenco group who are really nothing more than a pimp who sells his dancers and also feature two satanic little kids who at one point throw a dog overboard. Many of these characters could have been more interesting with some more development, but it felt like Kramer was more interested in quantity over quality, and he throws a lot at the viewer before quickly moving on to another subplot.
'Fools' is based off a novel, but to me it had the distinct feel of a stage play with almost nothing to distract from the always ongoing dialogue. Besides a tangent here and there, the 149-minutes is almost all dialogue, sometimes between two people and others among a group. With all these presentations of what love is and its power/effect, the story does tread that line between intellectual and pretentious, usually ending up on the right side. Michael Dunn (Dr. Loveless in Wild, Wild West) plays Glocken, the character who opens and closes the movie by addressing the viewer, telling us what we are to see and then summing it up. It was a performance that earned him an Oscar nomination, and for good reason. Dunn was a dwarf, and in any other movie he may have seemed out of place, but here he's probably the most normal of them all.
With such a dialogue-heavy movie, it's the actors/actresses who shine. Leigh in her last-ever movie is remarkable in a very strong performance. Werner isn't easy to like because he seems so down on himself and the world, but the character comes around in the end -- which is a downer. Signoret and Werner have a chemistry together that is unlike a typical budding movie romance. Ruhmann and Dunn have a similar chemistry -- hold the romance -- as two Jews forced to eat separately from the rest of the German passengers, both men able to laugh off the prejudice. A scene late in the movie as they discuss this growing prejudice is eerie because as viewers we of course know what is to come during the Holocaust.
If this was from any other director, the rating might have gone up, but Kramer has Mad, Mad World and Nuremberg to his name among others, and 'Fools' just doesn't live up to those expectations. It could have though, and that's what is disappointing. The potential is there for a great movie. Cut about 30 minutes and some of those extra, wasted characters, and you've got a gem of a movie. Still, it's not a bad movie, just one with some fairly major flaws. Check it out for the depth of a great cast and a window into 1933 and what was coming down the road. Don't be thrown off by the DVD either, this is not some light-hearted romance.
Ship of Fools <----trailer (1965): ** 1/2 /****