Archive for The Black Pirate

The Sunday Intertitle: From Bad to Norse

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 25, 2010 by dcairns

A MOVING intertitle for you today, courtesy of Roy William Neill’s THE VIKING, a soundie filmed in two-strip Technicolor and produced by the inventor of the process, Dr. Kalmus.

Vikings attack suddenly!

While two-strip worked brilliantly on horror movies like DR X and THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM, its limited palette and odd colour values are perhaps not wholly suited to a swashbuckling adventure like this: they attempt to add panache and glamour, but the effect is always slightly OFF. (I haven’t seen Doug Fairbanks’ THE BLACK PIRATE in colour so I don’t know if that succeeds more.) The cyan skies are hallucinatory picture-postcard backings, and the magenta vikings all look rather sunburned — which very possibly they were, running around bare-chested in what is clearly California.

We also get a tinny recorded score and sound effects — some manly singing, and the clash of cutlery when sword-fighting is introduced. I love soundies, because there’s no sense of the soundtrack being an anachronistic attempt at recreating the original effect. It is the original effect. I was a little upset to hear the composer of the new SUNRISE score badmouthing the original, which to me is exceedingly beautiful, flaws and all. I’m very glad both scores have been made available, so I can unhesitatingly choose the Movietone version every time.

Pauline Starke (WAMPAS Baby Star of 1922) is really good — but this movie preceded a precipitous decline into obscurity.

Have been thinking about, and looking at the works of, Roy William Neill since I posted about BLACK ANGEL. Every one of his films seems to contain moments of visual beauty far beyond what the genre content demands. The thrust-in on the screaming Saxon lady, with thrust-in on intertitle, is his most extravagant moment here, but his best visual poetry is usually b&w. Perhaps he’s best described as a Michael Curtiz who never made it into big pictures (THE VIKING may be as close as he got). Curtiz himself has a reduced reputation because he doesn’t quite fit the mold of auteur: he couldn’t give two craps about consistent personal themes, he’s purely occupied with a personal conception of cinematic beauty that’s expressed through light and shade and movement and design. But Curtiz obviously scores major points by having made movies like CASABLANCA. Not so Neill.

In early ’30s Curtiz movies like THE KENNEL MURDER CASE and THE CASE OF THE CURIOUS BRIDE, we see him working with modest material, imbuing it with sparkle and zip. These films are hugely enjoyable and none the worse for not being quite A-picture material. Such was Neill’s playground for most of his career, and he seems to have been very happy to be there. Anyone who’d make eleven Sherlock Holmes pictures, after all, does not seem to be hugely ambitious or restless. Maybe having had his shot at the big time back in 1928, he was relaxed and content enough just to enjoy the cinematic possibilities of whatever entertainments the studio passed his way, or maybe also he just genuinely loved light hokum and devoted his talents to it wholeheartedly.

The Sunday Intertitle: Rated “Arrr.”

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on November 29, 2009 by dcairns

So, I first saw Douglas Fairbanks sliding down a ship’s sail he’d skewered with his short sword in THE BLACK PIRATE when I was a teenager, and the clip was in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s monumental series Hollywood. Accompanied by information on how the filmmakers cheated so that Doug could do the impossible. It’s taken me, I guess, twenty-nine years to actually see the movie. I can’t think of anything else in my life that’s taken that long to achieve. Oh, except all the things I’ve yet to achieve.

Very good Fairbanks movie — the story is essentially two parts: (1) an introduction to piracy —  in which it swiftly becomes clear that these guys are utterly unredeemed villains, so how can Doug play The Black Pirate? — followed by (2) a single protracted suspense sequence: to avenge his slain dad, our Doug inveigles his way into the pirate mob, destroying them from within. It’s like YOJIMBO, but with only one gang. A very simple story, with some quite dark and grisly material. When one hapless pirate victim swallows a ring to keep it from being swiped, the evil captain makes some explanatory gestures to a henchman, who draws a dagger and walks offscreen. He returns a few seconds later and hands over the ring, which the captain wipes clean on his sleeve… One another occasion, a bad guy takes a sword from a captive, and runs the guy through just to test the blade…

Lots of good pirate slang: not just “scurvy” and “me bullies,” but “labnacker,” a term I had not previously encountered. Also, a comedy Scotsman who comes over to Doug’s side, played by Donald Crisp (born in London but he must have had Scottish roots: he’s in Disney’s GREYFRIARS BOBBY). His history of looting and murder is conveniently overlooked. Highlights include Doug capturing an entire merchantman vessel single-handed to impress the gang, and the invasion of Doug and his shark-finned soldiers, swimming underwater in  a vast special effects shot: they’re all suspended from wires, with superimposed bubbles drifting upwards in the foreground.

(Unfortunately, I was watching the UK DVD which is sepia-tinted. The movie was originally released, and still exists, in two-strip Technicolor.)

Donald Crisp, who achieved immortality by coshing Lillian Gish in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, has another shipboard role in Buster Keaton’s THE NAVIGATOR. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to pair Keaton with Crisp as co-director, so that there was somebody to look after the dramatic side of things. According to Keaton, Crisp immediately got obsessed with gags. In one scene, Buster is terrified by a scary portrait that swings past his porthole, like some horrifying nocturnal apparition. (This could conceivably have inspired the spooky portrait in THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR, which likewise appears to be a real figure at first.)

The man in the portrait is Donald Crisp.

UK: The Black Pirate [1926] [DVD]
US: The Black Pirate

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