Devil’s Island (1939)

1939 was a year of many of Hollywood’s best films. Unfortunately, Devil’s Island isn’t among the year’s best. However that is only because of the fierce competition that year provides. It’s a typical stout film of the era, which of course means it is much better than all but today’s most exceptional of films.

Devil’s Island is the tale of Charles Gaudet – played by Boris Karloff, in yet another of his rare non-horror roles. (Funny how we’ve looked at Night Key and now Devil’s Island without looking at any of his horror classics.) Dr. Gaudet is a famed brain surgeon who simply out of his professional obligations, helps give medical care to a traitor. For this he is sentenced and sent to a term of hard labor on Devil’s Island, the notorious French prison island.

From here the tale becomes somewhat formulaic with the dictatorial overseer (Colonel Armand Lucien, played by James Stephenson) and the downtrodden prisoners. Gaudet organizes an escape and the hiring of a small boat. All goes well until the boat runs out of gas and Gaudet’s band of would be escapees is rescued by a fine ship. Unfortunately this ship is carrying the next lot of prisoners to the very prison from which they escaped.

A film’s end, the governor and new Minister of Colonies appear to displace the despicable Colonel Lucien and promise better treatment for the prisoners. And, of course, Dr. Gaudet is pardoned as a result of the miscarriage of justice.

Does this plot sound a bit familiar? Well, true it isn’t that original and one might compare it to 1936’s The Prisoner of Shark Island. There are some similarities, namely a doctor doing simply his duty then going on the run to escape the authorities.

However, perhaps a better comparison is 1935’s Captain Blood (and yes it all ties back to Errol Flynn). Here too we have a doctor tending a traitor, tried and sentenced to hard labor in a tropical climate. (Even the carriage the Lucien family uses harks to those of colonial Jamaica in Captain Blood.) Dr. Blood befriends Arabella – the governor’s niece (the Devil’s Island equivalent would be Mrs. Colonel Lucien) while lending his medical expertise to the local authorities (in Captain Blood this is the governor’s gout, in Devil’s Island it is the Colonel’s daughters head injury).

Perhaps this dwells a bit too much on minutia, but even the escape in a small boat harks back to it’s 1935 predecessor. Granted Dr. Gaudet doesn’t become a pirate so there is a limit to everything.

To the best of my knowledge, Devil’s Island isn’t available commercially and you will need to catch on TCM. My own copy (from TCM) is from a pretty bad print and – although still very watchable – this may account for it.

Not classic, but by no means tragic.  Don’t expect the world but this is really sold picture which is a pleasant way to spend a quick hour and a half.

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