Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here ) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review The Black Swan.
(1942) Directed by Henry King
Screenplay by Ben Hecht and Seton Miller, adapted from Rafael Sabatini
When villainy wore a sash and waved a cutlass!
What It’s About:
When notorious pirate Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) receives a full pardon from the king of England and assumes the governorship of Jamaica, he calls upon his former brother captains to set aside their piratical ways and take up the sword for king and country, to once and for all put an end to the rampant piracy of the Spanish Main. Dashing but rogueish Captain Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power) and his first mate Tom Blue (Thomas Mitchell) throw in with Morgan, but unrepentant Captain Leech (an absolutely unrecognizable George Sanders) and Wogan (Anthony Quinn) refuse and set sail for Tortuga to raise hell. Caught between the distrust of the snobbish Jamaican nobility and that of his own former comrades, Morgan’s troubles are compounded when mercenary English gentleman Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley) turns spy for the pirates and undermines Morgan and Waring at every turn. Jamie and Tom take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of things and crush the brutish Leech, but not without romancing Ingram’s hot tempered fiancée the Lady Margaret (Maureen O’Hara).
Why I Bought It:
There are a handful of positively indispensable classics of the pirate movie genre. Three are based on novels by the adventure writer Rafael Sabatini and The Black Swan is the only one that doesn’t have Errol Flynn in it. This is also probably one of Tyrone Power’s best performances, only slightly behind The Mark Of Zorro.
The first thing you notice about The Black Swan is how lush and beautiful the colors are. I’ve got to call attention to the work of four-time Academy Award Winning (nominated 14 times!) cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who shot the very first Cinemascope picture (The Robe) and was the first black and white cinematographer to win an Oscar for a color film – with this movie. Very well deserved.
Watching The Black Swan in HD (TV – it’s not on Blu-ray) the details and colors just pop out at you. The orange of George Sanders’ beard is like mad, rolling hellfire, and the black and scarlet sash costume of Power is suitably heroic, going nicely with the glow of the smoldering Maureen O’Hara’s skin. Don’t even get me started on those billowing sails and Caribbean sunsets glowing on the waves. This is just a beautiful looking picture.
The Black Swan teems with great, larger than life characters and big, swaggering performances. Pushing three hundred pounds, Laird Cregar’s Henry Morgan is literally the biggest of these. He’s like an immense bear rearing up on his hind legs. When I think of him, I think of his broad leather belt strapped across his ample belly, huge fists set squarely on either side. In one scene he strides into a tavern at and backhands some drunk across the room, roaring, “FETCH ME A DRINK BEFORE I BLOW AWAY TO DUST!”
Cregar plays him much as the real man might’ve been, a lusty, temperamental barbarian more at home drubbing a swab with a belaying pin than squeezing into ruffles and lace (and his chair of office!) and facing down a gaggle of petitioners in his role as governor. His interactions with the elite of Port Royale are hilarious, and he commands the attention whenever he’s on screen – so much so that I open talking about the movie with him rather than the lead!
That’s not to say Power’s Jamie Waring is a slouch. He’s dashing and deadly-quick, charming (to a point) and smart, but with a decidedly dark piratical edge that you never quite believe in Errol Flynn’s earnest Captain Blood (even though the real Flynn was probably more of a pirate than Power ever was). Jamie is a cruel sonofabitch, more than I remembered him being when I first saw this picture years ago. He punctuates his first meeting with Maureen O’Hara by trying to rape her and smacking her unconscious when she fights back. No doubt he’s a brute and a villain when we first meet him, and his growing, tender hearted affections for Lady Margaret obviously vex him. Even though he dresses up well, he’s no gentleman, and despises the very word. He’s impulsive and misanthropic as a Robert E. Howard character, flinging Tom Blue and his hefty girlfriend out on their ears when he catches them in bed, calling her a sow, and bullying Lady Margaret’s fiancée Ingram into a duel in which he easily disarms the man and then lays him out with one punch. Yet Jamie is ultimately not as much a slave to his baser passions as he first appears (it could be argued that since Lady Margaret’s father Don Miguel was torturing him on a rack in the opening scene, his initial assault on her was a kind of angry, albeit sexual and of course unconscionable, revenge), and really is trying to be civilized like Morgan (not the greatest role model to begin with). He does his best to fumblingly court Lady Margaret when he makes up his mind that he loves her, although he can’t seem to understand that his attentions are unwanted, even when she bashes him in the skull with a rock.
Luckily for him that, as in all mens’ adventure fiction, it turns out that Jamie’s gut instincts are true. Lady Margaret does love him back, and foppish Ingram is a bigger bastard than he is (selling out his country to the pirates for wealth). It’s mainly the exposure of Ingram’s cowardice and treachery that wins her over in the end, I suppose.
Now how does a guy like Jamie Waring make an effective good guy? By comparing him to George Sanders’ cunning, brutish Captain Billy Leech. I’ve been a fan of this movie for at least twenty years but I swear, until I prepared to write this review, I never once made the connection that this was the same George Sanders of Village Of The Damned and A Shot In The Dark, that urbane, reserved English gent with the heavy, cultured, velvet lined voice that menaced Mowgli as Shere Khan in Disney’s The Jungle Book.
Billy Leech is no gentleman, and makes no pretense of it. He rejects Morgan’s offer outright, preferring bloodshed, rape, and pillaging to respectability any day of the week. But he’s no swashbuckler, no dashing popinjay like say, Basil Rathbone’s Levasseur, trying to match Jamie for charm. He’s an ill-tempered Viking on a pirate ship, repulsive with his thick, unkempt hair and bushy orange eyebrows. You can barely see his lips move behind all that facial hair, and everything he says sounds like a mumbled threat. He’s not in the piracy game for the fun either. When he’s shown drinking it up with his crew in a tavern, he smashes a jug of ale against a subordinate’s head, sending him to the floor bleeding from his ear for the wench he wants, whom he then drags off without a word as she giggles shrilly.
This guy is a real cutthroat, and in a later scene when he pretends to be drunk and laughs to figure out Jamie’s plans, it’s the only time Sanders doesn’t come across as genuine. Because Leech doesn’t laugh at little things like being drunk. You get the sense that killing is his sole amusement, and the end duel between him and Jamie is harrowing and deadly without a trace of flash. Interestingly, it also ends with both men stabbed, Jamie sinking against a bulkhead and Leech staggering out the door to his own cabin with a sword entirely through his guts, off to go die out from under the eyes of all these goggle eyed lubbers.
Anthony Quinn makes an appearance as Leech’s growling, one-eyed, scarlet eyepatched right hand man, but he doesn’t have much to do other than look tough, whereas his opposite number, Thomas Mitchell (drunken, knot fingered Uncle Billy from It’s A Wonderful Life) outshines him as Tommy Blue, a mostly loveable Mr. Smee kind of fellow, confounded by Jamie’s infatuation with Lady Margaret (“If you kick her in the heart she’ll break your leg, Jamie.”), but always game for a fight.
Maureen O’Hara is sorely underutilized here. She’s supposed to be her usual spitfire self, but Lady Margaret, like Wogan, just doesn’t have a whole lot to do besides standing around looking good. Her romance with Jamie is the most implausible thing about The Black Swan, and I think as an actress she knows it. It’s a shame because the chemistry between the leads is definitely there, I just think the initial meeting and the subsequent coarseness of Jamie makes it highly improbably that she’d call him Jamie-boy in the end, even though he does save her from Leech.
One last gripe I have about this movie is Alfred Newman’s brassy trumpet score. I know the guy won the Academy Award nine times and did some fantastic scores, but the music for The Black Swan kinda grates on me, especially this transition tune he does that sounds like a trumpet player falling down a flight of stairs.
“I always sample a wine before I buy it, m’gal.”
One of Leech’s sailors sits on the cargo hold grating and Tommy Blue pulls out a dagger.
“You may lock me in a hole, you varmints, but you can’t sit on me. Here’s to you. Bottoms up!”
He jabs the pirate in the ass.
The guy jumps up and shakes his fist at them, cursing, and douses them with a bucket of deck water.
Tommy and the sailors, still grinning and looking up through the hold, don’t even blink.
Would I Buy It Again?
Yes. Despite its flawed, somewhat misogynistic love story, the action and cinematography are solid and the main roles are suitably swashbuckling. This is one of those pirate movies that forms the well from which all subsequent outings in the genre have to dip.
Next In The Queue: Blade