More of a melodrama with elements of social realism than a shark-attack thriller, Howard Hawks' Tiger Shark nevertheless includes plenty of fascinating footage of real-life sharks. It's more effective as a document of commercial fishing off the San Diego coast in the early 1930s than it is as a romantic drama, and Edward G. Robinson's hammy lead performance, while amusing, prevents it from achieving any real pathos. Robinson plays Portuguese-born San Diego fishing-boat captain Mike Mascarenhas, an exuberant but awkward guy who's great at hauling in tuna but not so good with the ladies. The movie opens with Mike, stranded in a lifeboat with two of his crew members, losing one of his hands to a tiger shark, and the genuine danger of shark attacks is a recurring theme throughout the movie.
Despite having a hook for a hand thanks to a shark attack, Mike seems to have a pretty laid-back attitude about sharks. Even when they are surrounding his lifeboat, he remains calm, and he doesn't seem bothered when one of his fellow castaways gets eaten, after falling overboard while struggling with Mike and first mate Pipes (Richard Arlen) over the last of the water. Mike is far more concerned about his luck with women, constantly bragging about how much attention he gets even though he is actually lonely and rejected. When yet another shark attack takes the life of one of Mike's crew, he sort of takes advantage of the man's unwed daughter, offering to marry her so she doesn't have to live alone (and be vulnerable to men like the sleazy gangster Mike saves her from). Quita (Zita Johann) is grateful to Mike, who's far too open-hearted to be manipulative or coercive, but she doesn't love him or find him attractive. Still, she agrees to marry him out of a combination of pity and gratitude.
She then almost immediately falls in love with Pipes, a tall, handsome American who has the leading-man confidence that Mike lacks. There's some potential complexity to the love triangle, as both Quita and Pipes feel indebted to Mike (who lost his hand while saving Pipes from the sharks), but it plays out rather tamely, with mostly chaste interactions despite the freedoms of the pre-Code era. Quita and Pipes pine for each other but don't act on their attraction, while Mike obliviously revels in his apparent good fortune. Johann gives a remarkably soulful performance, conveying Quita's vulnerability and decency, but Arlen is rather bland, and their chemistry is minimal, which makes it tough to invest in their supposed instant attraction. Robinson overdoes his cartoonish accent and Mike's bumbling cluelessness, and then ends up with an unconvincing noble death at the end.
That death once again comes courtesy of tiger sharks and in service of saving Pipes' life. The shark attacks are filmed with the kind of dangerous energy that can only come from using real sharks, and the amount of location shooting and underwater camerawork is impressive for a movie from the early sound era. Hawks clearly has an eye for working-class life, from the procedural details of commercial fishing operations to the community of wives and families of fishermen waiting for their husbands and fathers to come home, and the movie works best when it focuses on those elements. For people (often immigrants) who are just scraping by via manual labor, being exposed to potential shark attacks is just one hazard of making a living. That stark reality, rather than an undercooked love triangle, is what makes Tiger Shark stand out.