Of Movie Stars and Movie Makers
In 1948, only a year after Joseph Mitchell's "Dragger Captain" appeared in The New Yorker, the idea of a movie version originated somewhere, perhaps with Mitchell himself. His April 21 letter to Ellery with "news on the movie matter" follows:
Nothing came of the effort to film a version of Mitchell's profile, even though an agent, Mel Levy, wrote Ellery as late as 1961 (shown later in this section) proposing a one-hour television production of "Dragger Captain."
Below: Fast forward to 1950, when the success of Draggerman's Haul revived ideas for a film. An article in New London's Evening Day outlined the plan, probably worked out with lawyers at Viking. Ellery would be paid to provide technical support and it was reported that Gary Cooper would play Ellery using a different name.
Courtesy of The Day
Nor did this come to pass, but before long another agent, Mark Hanna, broached the idea. Correspondence ensued and the proposal attracted the attention of none other than Henry Fonda, another of the nation's most famous actors. Fonda's friendly letter to Ellery (below) says he has forwarded Draggerman's Haul to director John Ford.
After Alma Robertson wrote to Henry Fonda about her friend Ellery Thompson, Ellery relates that Fonda called him up and invited him to visit backstage after a performance of his current Broadway play, Mr. Roberts:
"He even set aside four "producer row" tickets for a performance of Mr. Roberts. Naturally I went and took along the Robertsons and my sister Eleanor; and, after a swell show, Henry Fonda and I talked about the making of a Draggerman movie. 'Someday I'll do it!' he said." (from an unpublished manuscript)
An "Ellery movie" was eventually made, but in Connecticut, not Hollywood.
Documentary filmmaker Wendy Wood wrote Ellery in 1973 when he was briefly living in Florida with his sister. She had received a grant to make a film about the Stonington fishing fleet, had been inspired by Draggerman's Haul, and wanted to drive to Fort Lauderdale to talk "for a few hours."
"I am working pretty closely with Mystic Seaport Museum and I would like to try to give a picture of what fishing was as well as what it is today -- I know you designed most of the boats in the Stonington fleet -- I have seen many of your pictures around Stonington and I know your reminiscences would provide a dimension to the film that it otherwise might not have."
Ellery agreed, and after moving back to Connecticut he developed a warm relationship with Wendy and her husband, Bill Chapple. The 18-minute documentary, released in 1975 with the title Draggerman's Haul, was judged first at the Connecticut Film Festival in the category "Connecticut Experience." With commentary by Ellery and Capt. Billy Roderick, it's a sobering account of the decline of the Stonington fleet, the decline of fish stocks due to overfishing by foreign vessels, and the effects of pollution on the fish population.
Draggerman's Haul was uploaded to YouTube by Sam Chapple, Wendy and Bill's son, a few months after his mother's death in 2016. Until a hyperlink is added here you may find the film by searching "Youtube Draggerman's Haul"
Excerpts from Ellery's unpublished typescripts describe his admiration for Wendy and her work:
"Recently, in the fall of 1974, I helped throw us all a lobster party at my Mystic river-side retreat, and Wendy and Bill brought along Sam their seafood loving son. I felt honored, especially when [Wendy] mentioned that her picture might be named Draggerman's Haul, with musical arrangement by husband Bill, and some narration by me.
"Never having had a wife of my own -- but blessed with a remarkable mother who lived to eighty-four -- I can appreciate class in a woman when I see it. Such a woman is Ms. Wendy Wood, the award-winning producer and writer of documentary motion pictures in color.
"But now there is new excitement in store for me and countless others, far more colorful than the books and paintings I have been slaving to finish. It is the viewing of Wendy Wood's Draggerman's Haul, of seeing living fishermen, with sound, color, and music, hauling trawl nets loaded over the listing rails of Stonington draggers..."