We live in times when literally any aspect of Greek culture – Ancient, Hellenistic, Byzantine, Turkokratia or Modern – can be known. All it takes is time, and in some cases, money.
In Greek-American Studies, the idea that demography is destiny is the accepted norm. From that point of view, there is the assumption that since there comparatively few Greeks in the United States, we have little influence in the overall culture. But nothing could be further from the truth.
As the Greek War Relief efforts of World War II or the 1974 Greek-American response to the Invasion of Cyprus demonstrated Greeks in North America may be only a fraction of the general population but when aroused they are a political and social force to be reckoned with.
Over the last 20 to 30 years I have argued over and over that it is not demographic numbers but symbols associated with Greeks, of any time period, that should be our focus of study. There is an additional aspect when considering the symbolic power and influence of Greeks in North America. That is, how Americans see, understand, and make what they believe to be Greek culture all their own.
Four Hollywood films, a handful of documentaries, and as yet uncounted number of television programs have all showcased the Greek sponge divers of Tarpon Springs Florida. In the past once these films, documentaries and/or television programs were first released (or aired) that was it. Now with VHS/DVD/Blue Ray buy-to-own films and even the Internet any or all of these programs can be viewed once more. Without question four Hollywood films attempt to portray the daily lives of the Greeks of Tarpon Springs: Sixteen Fathoms Deep (1934); Down to the Sea (1936); 16-Fathoms Deep (1948) and then Beneath The 12-Mile Reef (1953).
There are two other Hollywood films which may offer their interpretation of life in Tarpon Springs. The first is The Sea Bat, which is set in the West Indies. I have not seen this film. In the only description I have found we hear: “The Sea Bat is a 1930 American thriller film directed by Lionel Barrymore and Wesley Ruggles, starring Raquel Torres and featuring Boris Karloff. Part of the film was filmed on location in Mazatlán, Mexico. The film was originally intended as a vehicle for Lon Chaney, but he was too ill of throat cancer to undertake the project, and died on August 26, 1930. The film concerns a community of sponge divers who are harassed by a large and hostile manta ray. In reality, manta rays are gentle creatures, and do not attack humans (IMDB.com).” I did make an attempt to purchase a DVD copy recently but only to find it was sold out!
The other is Harbor of Missing Men (1950) which features: “A fishing-boat owner, Jim “Brooklyn” Gannon, [who] cuts a deal with a gangster syndicate to deliver a load of contraband firearms. The money for the transaction is stolen, and Gannon is trying to elude the gang who stole it and the ones who lost it. Trying to clear his name, he finds refuge with a family of Greek fisherman and sponge divers on the Florida coast (IMDB.com).”
Two of the other Hollywood films Sixteen Fathoms Deep (1934) and Down to the Sea (1936) are readily available for the interested viewer (http://www.oldies.com/). Without going into detail all sources confuse the 1934 film, Sixteen Fathoms Deep with the later 1948 film, with nearly an identical title, 16-Fathoms Deep. Apparently, the fact that, Lon Chaney, Jr. appears in both films–first as the 1930 hero and then in 1948 as the villain is the source of this mix-up.
If you do in fact order and view the 1934 Sixteen Fathoms Deep you may wonder at the changes in cinematic expectations after reading the original New York Times review of this film. On January 19, 1934, the New York Times reviewer had this to say: “The action melodrama, although it rarely pops its shaggy head into the comparatively effete. Broadway area, has a place of its own among the cinema delights. Sixteen Fathoms Deep, which achieved that accolade at the Mayfair yesterday, is a good swaggering specimen, exciting, plausible and a lot of fun. Mr. Savanis, an oily rascal who makes the fishermen toil and sweat, rates a punch in the nose on half a dozen counts. Sixteen fathoms down in the sponge beds is a long way when Mr. Savanis has poured sand into the gears of the oxygen machine.
“Creighton Chaney, son of the late Lon Chaney, is the hero, and a fine broth of a lad, too. He gives a pleasing athletic performance without benefit of pomade or a profile, and he doesn’t need a double in the diving and swimming scenes, either.
It is his ambition in Sixteen Fathoms Down to wed the belle of the fishing village, Sally O’Neil, who is also coveted by Mr. Savanis. Most of the story describes his efforts to get a good haul of sponges for the auction, so that he can buy his own boat and marry the girl.
“To prevent all these commendable plans, the picturesque Mr. Savanis plants a pair of his own hirelings on the boat. They tamper with the diving apparatus, cut the anchor chain, fiddle around in the engine room and even work up a bit of insubordination among the crew. But one can’t stop a lad when virtue and the dialogue writer are on his side.
“George Regas makes the villain not only black-hearted, but almost human, and that is a feat.”
Even with the noted Greek immigrant stage and screen actor George Regas (1890-1940) appearing as the oily Mr. Savanis this film is a disappointment on any number of levels. Certainly, nothing about its depictions or characterizations of Greeks is more than the worst kind of stereotype.
Curiously the less well known film Down to the Sea while certainly not an ethnographic documentary makes a distinct effort to be as true to the Greek reality as their White Anglo-Saxon Protestant notions would allow them.
Long before the advertising promoters were to tout Beneath The 12-Mile Reef as the third motion picture made in CinemaScope, in full color and shot on location along the west coast of Florida Down to the Sea proudly announced that all its underwater scenes were filmed off the coast of Silver Springs, FL. For those with a quick eye the opening montage of the film uses clips of scenes that could only be the sponge docks of Tarpon Springs.
Tarpon Springs as the sponge capital of the world is freely acknowledged in opening text meant to set the stage for the action that follows. While this phrase “sponge capital of the world” is so often invoked when speaking of the Greeks of Tarpon Springs the fact that for at least 50 years Greek spongers produced the largest single product of the state of Florida seems nonetheless to slip through historical consciousness.
The principal cast members were Russell Hardie as John Kaminas; Ben Lyon as Steve Londos and Ann Rutherford as Helen Pappas. The three veteran actors; Hardie remembered today probably best for his appearance in the film Fail-Safe (1964); Lyon for first his work in silent films and Rutherford for her appearances in the Andy Hardy series of movies all offer credible performances throughout.
I will note quickly that the supporting role of Cimon was played by Greek immigrant actor Mike Tellegen, who was born on September 1, 1892 in Loutraki, Greece he died April 26, 1964 in Athens. Credited in 28 films between 1923 and 1958, curiously except for Down to the Sea and his first two films Tango Cavalier and Red Wine he never received printed credits. Tellegen was a stage name (clearly attempting to suggest a connection to the much more famous Hollywood actor, said during the early 1900s to be of Greek descent, Lou Tellegen (1881-1934). Mike Tellegen’s birth name was Michael Spero Economou.
I would say it is not the overall tale that will capture the attention of the Greek-American viewer. Really all we find in Down to the Sea is a love triangle between the Kaminas, Londos, and Pappas characters. The number of authentic Greek elements thrown in is what is surprising—if always misused. We hear authentic popular music from the 1930s, see Greek costumes, hear talk of diving for the Cross (“Epiphany” being too difficult a word for the average America to understand, apparently) and even see the attempted use of a vendouses (medicinal cupping) to relieve the bends!
One point I find especially galling is that the long term conflicts between the Anglo spongers (known locally as Conchs) and the Greeks over sponging grounds is presented in the film as Greeks fighting Greeks. Down to the Sea is not a great lost film by any standard. But it is a film which even as it stands shows how Hollywood could potentially portray Greeks in the United States.