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.