The Sunday Intertitle: Rated “Arrr.”

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

32 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Rated “Arrr.””

  1. My favorite pirate movie is, as you might expect, Noroit. Others I’ve enjoyed include Moonfleet, Anne of the Indies and the Disney/ Byron Haskins Treasure Island with that greatest of surgar-cured hams, Robert Newton and the young doomed Bobby Driscoll.

    Haven’t managed to see the Ruiz version with Vic Tayback (!), Melville Poupaud (bien sur) Lou Castel, Jean-Pierre Leaud and Anna Karina.

  2. Oh and of course the Pirates of the Carribean series with the mighty Johhn Depp.

    Can’t say I care all that much for Minnelli’s The Pirate outside of the “Be a Clown” number with Gene Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers, reprised by Kelly and Judy at the close.

  3. I’m absurdly fond of The Crimson Pirate for its sense of cheek, though it’s not really Siodmak’s finest hour. He really came to believe Burt Lancaster was insane by the end of the shoot.

    The Sea Hawk is one of the greatest showcases for Flynn, Curtiz and Anton Grot, so I’d include that too.

    In the less entertainment-friendly sphere, there’s A High Wind in Jamaica, which freaked m out as a kid, and remains an unsettling movie.

    It seems to me it ought to be possible to make a pirate movie with the same spirit as a precode gangster movie: all bad guys. Yet this doesn’t seem to have ever been attempted.

    I reviewed the Ruiz here, but my copy was so bad I can’t really claim to have seen his film… I have a good copy of City of Pirates though, should run that soon.

  4. The ultimate pirate movie for me is The Pirate by Vincente Minnelli. Somehow this will always be a bone of contention in Mr. E’s and mine’s online acquaintance. But I like the Lang, the Tourneur and will get to seeing the Rivette soon. Terry Gilliam said in a lengthy Senses of Cinema interview that he would love to make a pirate movie : “You get to sail the high seas and rob the people who deserve to be robbed.”

    With these Somalian pirates making idiots out of the international navy, maybe it’s time for a Pirates of the Gulf of Aden, set in les temps modernes. In this case, the pirates are former fishermen whose seacost is destroyed by toxic dumping courtesy of Italian corporations and they become pirates to revenge against the First World. Unfortunately Hollywood won’t be telling that story. They’re going to be making a movie of that captain who was held hostage in that tanker and how the navy defeated the pirates.

    That reminded me of Buster Keaton’s dismissal of a later Disney remake of the base story that formed The General. Keaton said that in that kind of story, you had to take the side of the little guy who singlehandedly chased a stolen train and brought it back even if he’s from the South and the thieves from the North. The PC nimcompoops that Disney are, they took the side of the North. Hollywood is doing the same thing.All politics aside, it’s much more interesting to deal with untrained fisherman turned super-pirates tackling on a big oil tanker and ultimately losing then to make a movie about an oil tanker attacked and the navy doing their job.

  5. Well Burt WAS quite piece of work. He was famously driven off a south sea Island during the shoot of His Majesty O’Keefe for being a tad too friendly with the native youths. And I don’t think he had to dig all that deep into himself to play J.J. Hunsecker

  6. I become a tad irrational when trying to articulate my love for “The Pirate.” Sorry, David E, but any picture containing “dream vision” Kelly in his black shorts as well as Garland, about to launch into the funeral procession, telling the eager maiden that “He asked for *me* …” is *quite* good enough for me.

  7. Siodmak complained about Lancaster “urinating off the side of the ship while yelling instructions at the crew.”

  8. Christopher Says:

    as for pirate ever seen the 1980 Michael Caine bomb,The Island?..Interesting idea,if nothing else,with the pirate clan seemingly stuck in modern times.An elusive film,only seen it once and found it fascinating yet not very good..Donald Crisp made a good scottie in Svengali…seems like he does it again in a Lassie film thats pretty good..
    I’m also a fan of Minnelli’s The Pirate..

  9. Well Gene’s thighs are indeed fetching, Chris. But I still find The Pirate to be a case of Minnelli trying too hard. It weighs a ton.

  10. Crisp did multiple Lassie films, as different characters, including at least one “Jock”, as well as doign Dog of Flanders, Greyfriars Bobby and National Velvet. He seems to have been the go-to guy for animal movies.

    Unlike Gene Kelly, whom one would go to for entirely other purposes, I guess.

  11. Christopher Says:

    Not so much a fan of Gene Kelly as Vincent Minnelli…THe Story of Three Loves is one of my faves he worked on,was always enchanted by the Farley Granger-Leslie Caron sequence in that film..

  12. Don’t forget Ricky Nelson!

  13. Christopher Says:

    yeah thats right..Hes Granger as a kid :o)…I really like the Kirk Douglas-Pier Angeli segment too!..Sadly,as much as I love to just stare at Moira Shearer in all her magnificently radiant glory,her segment in the film is utterly retarded!…

  14. Donald Crisp was a bit of a romancer. Born in London, he liked to claim Aberfeldy as his birthplace, because he liked the sound of it.

    Keaton found him very irritating on The Navigator and, once he’d got rid of him, went back and reshot some of the dramatic scenes Crisp had been hired to direct, like the scene at the start where the spies cut the boat loose. “He let them do a little overacting. I was always a little fussy about that. I don’t like overacting.”

  15. Good old Buster! No overacting in his stuff. It would look doubly false next to his underplaying.

    Just acquired a Moira Shearer documentary directed by my boss at college. I think it might be the only source out there to dish the dirt on Powell, at least a bit (in a discrete way).

  16. Donald Crisp is an amazing presence in his films with Ford and a fantastic patriarch in The Man From Laramie. But yeah maybe not much of a director.

    What dirt is there to dish on Powell? I must say I never understood the grudge Shearer held against The Red Shows and Powell. She was excellent in her brief film career of course and a great dancer but her attitude to The Red Shoes feels profoundly ungrateful in my view.

  17. david wingrove Says:

    That’s an amazingly phallic shot of Doug Fairbanks…positioned strategically behind a cannon!

    I love most of the pirate movies cited above – plus also THE SPANISH MAIN (Binnie Barnes as a touch-as-nails lesbian pirate) and PIRATES OF CAPRI (Louis Hayward as a mincing fop who’s actually a fearless buccaneer). Queer subtexts, again!

    One that traumatised me as a child (because it was so brutal) was THE LIGHT AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD with Kirk Douglas, Yul Brynner and Samantha Eggar. I acquired the DVD about a year ago, but have never had the nerve to watch it.

    Oh, and best of all…LES DEMONIAQUES, a soft-porn pirate ghost story (I’m not making that up) directed by the mighty Jean Rollin.

  18. Mr. Powell was a very cheeky chappie, Arthur. He had a lot of subtle sarcasm in him. And leave us not forget he was the co-creator (with Pressburger and Walbrook) of Boris Lermontov.

    Still she agreed to appear in Peeping Tom so it couyldn’t have been all bad.

    Back to topic: Pirates is far and away Roman Polanski’s worst film.

  19. She later said that she was appalled by that film and agreed with the critics and felt rueful of the fact that Coppola and Scorsese were trying to get it acceptance.

  20. Powell affects puzzlement about Shearer’s reluctance to work with him again (although she yielded for Hoffman and Peeping Tom), like he was genuinely unaware of how difficult he was to work with. His sport was reducing actors to tears with lines like “Not very good at your job, are you?” Once he found somebody he could push around, he was relentless. If you stood up to him, you were fine. The old woman in Black Narcissus was reduced to shreds on a daily basis. The assistants (my friend Lawrie amongst them) kept trying to reassure her that when the reviews came out she’d be vindicated. The first review compared her to Widow Twanky (a comic oriental from children’s pantomime).

    Pirates is pretty bad. Some nice shots though, and I’d like to see it widescreen for once, the pan & scan TV version doesn’t give it a chance.

  21. Christopher Says:

    I’d like,for once,just to see a very good literate Pirate movie,without it being played up as a swashbuckler or an Adventure film.Sure with all that stuff in it,but an historicaly acurrate account….and with Moira Shearer! :o))..Englands answer to “Queen of Technicolor”

  22. I think Ludmilla Tcherina might make an even better pirate wench!

    A High Wind in Jamaica is certainly literate, but it’s latterday, Victorian pirates.

  23. Has anyone brought up the Tourneur-directed “Anne of the Indies” yet? Anything with JT’s name on it must be worth at least *one* look. A bit of skimming found somebody describing the film as “Johnny Guitar” avant la lettre, thanks to Jean Peters’ trousers role.

    I’m a huge fan of “Sea Hawk” too, btw. I tend to gravitate toward it rather than “Robin” among the Curtiz/Flynn/Korngold films.

  24. David E did mention Anne of the Indies, but we haven’t given it it’s due. And it’s one I need to re-see. It’ll probably be the next JT I watch.

    The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, which is more piratical and is probably the one I should have mentioned, are both outstanding.

  25. Christopher Says:

    The Black Swan is one of my favorite hollywood style pirate films…The George Sanders scenes always make me giggly,the way Anthony Quinn is in almost everyone of his shots at either side,like a colorful pirate garnish, on a picture frame around Saunders..MARICAIBO!THE MUSICAL!”

  26. Might be one of the gayest pirate movies, with Ty Power and Laird Cregar. That’s my vision: pirate movies as gay gangster movies.


    Gene Kelly?
    Sad to tell, he
    Loved his belly
    More than Minnelli.

  28. david wingrove Says:

    I’ve just thought of an even gayer pirate movie than THE BLACK SWAN – the sublime FRENCHMAN’S CREEK by the criminally underrated Mitchell Leisen.

    A film for which the term ‘camp extravaganza’ was surely invented, it has Joan Fontaine in mountains of ringlets and acres of chiffon (when she’s not cross-dressing as a boy), Basil Rathbone sneering and getting crushed to death under a suit of armour and Arturo de Cordoba leading his men in a transvestite pirate ballet on the deck of his ship (choreographed, incidentally, by Leisen’s boyfriend Billy Daniels).

    Why has it been so ignored? Well, it was a famously troubled shoot – largely because Mitch and Joan hated the sight of each other. (Among his other cimes, he was a close friend of her sister Olivia.) But it’s probably the campest film of the 40s NOT to star Maria Montez…and that’s saying something!

    In fact, it is my favourite pirate movie of all time. Can’t believe I forgot it on Monday morning. But then again, it was Monday morning!

  29. My problem with FC is the complete lack of dramatic tension until about an hour in. The same thing seems to apply to most versions of The Scarlet Pimpernel. Things only get exciting very late in the day. Am noticing more and more that when I don’t enjoy a film enough despite strong visuals and appealing stars, it’s the dramatic tension that’s missing. had the same experience last night with Funny Face, which is visually a joy but that wasn’t quite enough.

  30. Directors who were former dancers and know how to present dance: Stanley Donen (FUNNY FACE and PAJAMA GAME), Charles Walters, and — I believe — Herbert Ross (he said, having just watched material from PENNIES FROM HEAVEN).

  31. Loved Jean Peters in Anne of the Indies. Good actress and quite an appealing pirate. She could handle a sword , too.

  32. I just got a job making a video essay on Jacques Tourneur, oddly enough! I should revisit this one.

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