In 1967, when the late Roger Ebert was named film critic for The Chicago Tribune, he imagined rather large shoes to fill. After all—as he related the story in his 2011 autobiography, Life Itself: A Memoir—everyone at The Tribune and in Chicago, for that matter, knew reviews had been published under the byline Mae Tinee since 1915.
In 1915, when Hollywood released The Sea Hawk, the silent film directed by Frank Lloyd and based on an adventure novel by Raphael Sabatini, Mae Tinee had been on the beat for nearly a decade. By the time Ebert had been on the job that long, he had won a Pulitzer. Was it thumbs up for The Sea Hawk from his seasoned predecessor?
“The Sea Hawk is more than just a motion picture!,” Tinee declared in a review of July 1, 1924. “It is the dream of the tired business man; it is the fiery secret ambition of romantic youth. It carries the wistful passion that, carefully concealed, lives in most of us—to be gorgeous, spectacular, abused, talked about with baited breath—a creature dominating a world of winds and waters and clothes that never, never came from the shops of “what men wear.” (Or women, either.)” It’s a “love story” of “a noble brother; weakling half-brother; pirate ships, duels, intrigue” presented “in kaleidoscopic fashion to the sway of music that warms the blood….”
“You may work at a regular job for a living,” added Mae Tinee, “but once inside this little theater you get aboard a Spanish galleon or a Moorish vessel or an English ship. Your mission, for a brief time, becomes either pirating or revenge. Jagged cliffs, Moorish castles, and the fair countryside of old England furnish you with picturesque background.”
America loved this expensive extravaganza that included a cast of thousands led by Milton Sills, Enid Bennett and Wallace Beery. They loved The Sea Hawk’s four, full-sized ships created just for this production. And they especially loved that no expense, no sentiment—nothing whatsoever—was spared.
The Sea Hawk “Sailed right into the heart of Los Angeles! And anchored there!” bragged a July 3rd advertisement in The Los Angeles Daily Times after the Hollywood premier. “Thousands! Thousands! Thousands!” reveled “in the glamour of the settings!” and were “swept away by the immensity!”
That same issue featured a review by Edwin Schallert: “The grand old swashbuckling days are with us once again. The Sea Hawk visions them with rip roaring spirit of adventure. The picture is one of the ablest achievements in this history of the screen and in the current season it shines forth as a magnificent flare among a host of flickers. The premier … the first big gala…this season… took place at [Los Angeles’] Criterion Theater,” a classic movie palace on Grand Avenue which had opened in 1917 at the Kinema Theater. The “Criterion Audience Gives Enthusiastic Approval” for the cast of thousands declared yet another critic who called the lavish 12-reeler “brilliant.”
Frank Lloyd was well on his way to directing scores of films (IMDb lists 134) including Les Misérables (1917), Oliver Twist (1922), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and The Last Command (1955). In The Sea Hawk, Lloyd fully embraced Sabatini’s spirit in ships, scale, and sentiment.
The film had staying power.Five weeks after the premier, The Los Angeles Times headline reported “Action thrills and adventure on the high seas continue to please large audiences at the Criterion” under the headline: “Sea Hawk Packs ‘Em In.”
Philadelphians had been reading copies of the best-selling The Sea Hawk since the Washington Square publisher J.P. Lippincott introduced the first American edition in 1915. And Philadelphia movie-goers who had been looking forward to the film adaptation kept it in the theaters when it finally arrived in the summer of 1924. The following spring, The Sea Hawk was still up and running at the Great Northern Theater on north Broad Street.
The Sea Hawk was nothing less than a great Hollywood production. But Mae Tinee, it turned out, was something less than a great critic. In fact, she wasn’t a critic at all. Or even a reporter. Mae Tinee was a long-standing, all-purpose byline for reporters assigned, on slow news days, to spend their afternoons at matinees. And every once in a while, as in the case of The Sea Hawk, the diversion was worthwhile.