Sunday, 29 May 2016

1926: The Black Pirate

A merchant ship is attacked by pirates. They pillage the ship then blow it up, crew and all. Two survivors are washed up on a beach - the man we come to know as The Black Pirate, and his father who soon dies from his ordeal. The younger man swears revenge. When the pirates come ashore to bury their loot, Black Pirate reveals himself and asks to join their crew. To prove himself, he kills their captain in a fair fight. They're all cheerfully impressed by this except the deceased captain's right-hand man, who is understandably restrained, but MacTavish the Scottish Pirate - two caricatures for the price of one - jollies him along and Bad Pirate accepts the situation for now. 
Black P further proves himself by capturing the next ship singlehanded, and MacTavish moves that he be made their leader, but then a beautiful young woman (Billie Dove) is discovered hiding, and Bad Pirate 'wins' her by drawing lots with some of the other pirates.
Black P takes her under his wing before any harm can come to her, though, and announces that she is wearing a jewel that identifies her as a princess and therefore a valuable hostage. Shifting operations to the captured ship, he sends the pirate ship demand a ransom to but now he has to keep the 'princess' safe from the clutches of Bad Pirate and avoid bloodshed as far as possible, while maintaining the pretence that he's as much a bloodthirsty cutthroat as his crew...

Fairbanks's follow-up to "The Thief of Bagdad" is shorter and less spectacular, but a lot more fun. The opening scenes of the merchant ship being pillaged by the pirates are startlingly, even hilariously brutal, compared with the relatively genteel swashbuckling of Errol Flynn just a few years later, though with minimal on-screen blood and gore. For instance, the pirate captain spies one of the captive crew, tied to the mast, taking off a jewelled ring and swallowing it. He instructs another pirate to retrieve it and then calmly chews his fingernails until the other man returns with the ring and a bloody knife. Later on, Bad Pirate calmly weighs up which of two stolen swords to keep for himself by casually stabbing another captive with one of them to test the blade.

The pirates have clearly all been carefully picked by the casting department to looks as villainous as possible, while Donald Crisp provides endearing light relief as McTavish the Scottish Pirate and Sam de Grasse makes a good slimy villain in the Basil Rathbone mould. Billie Dove is very majestic as the love interest and is good at making wistful faces, but she does get to be brave and resourceful at one point too.  
Although Hollywood still has a little to learn about getting the most out of a dramatic climax - Bad Pirate gets his deserts a little too briskly - the film keeps up the excitement all the way through, and the hero has to rely on genuine wit and resourcefulness as well as his charm and athleticism to bring it to a happy conclusion, so the film is still a thoroughly entertaining watch to a modern audience.
A few shots belong in a 'best of' montage of silent action films - Fairbanks splitting the sail as he slides down it with a dagger; his crew swimming underwater en masse (though in fact on strings) to attack the pirates, then manually hoisting their victorious leader up several decks by passing him man to man.
This was one of the first feature films to be shot entirely in Technicolor, though it's still only the red-and-green, two-strip variety. The more recent Park Circus DVD is a sharper transfer than the older Kino disc, though the Kino DVD has 18 minutes of out-takes with an interesting commentary by Rudy Behlmer.

 Also from 1926:

THE GENERAL: Keaton's greatest film, I think. Buster plays an engine driver in the American South. When the Civil War breaks out, he tries to enlist but is refused. He is not told that this is because he is more valuable as an engineer and feels rejected, while his girlfriend now rejects him because she is under the impression he never tried to enlist. When Union spies steal his locomotive, he commandeers another one to give chase, and ends up rescuing the girl and foiling a Union plot to catch the Southern army unawares. 
This film has some of the most daring and painstakingly staged screen comedy ever filmed. It's gripping to watch as you know it's all done for real. In the scene where he has to manually move some huge wooden beams out of the path of his engine, the slightest mis-step could have been disastrous.  
This is available on a Region 2 Blu-ray from Amazon Spain, complete with the terrific score by Carl Davis.
BATTLING BUTLER: As in 'The Navigator', Keaton plays a rather helpless and clueless rich youth, who is sent on a camping trip by his father in the desperate hope it'll make a man of him. He falls for a mountain girl, and wins her approval because he is mistaken for a famous boxer of the same name, and has to spend most of the film keeping up the fiction in the run-up to a big fight. For the most part, it's a standard plot and there's not much new here, but it does have one of the most satisfying finales of any film ever.    

ADVENTURES OF PRINCE AHMED: As the oldest surviving animated feature, this deserves a long entry in some future animation blog, but I can't ignore it here. It's basically an animated Chinese shadow-play - the story is told in silhouette throughout, with remarkable sensitivity and some clever special effects. The story is also a little more layered that your average fairy-tale as we have two pairs of lovers, whose tales are intertwined, instead of just one.          

THE PLEASURE GARDEN: Worth a look as it's Alfred Hitchcock's first film as director, and his comic touch is already visible in the opening scenes as a bunch of lecherous old men watch a line of chorus girls at the music hall. The rest of the film is a pretty standard melodrama without much to distinguish it, though. Having said that I was only able to view an old print, not the recent BFI restoration, so there may be more to it that I've missed.

FAUST: F. W. Murnau's poignant adaptation of the German folk tale is distinguished by some stunning cinematography and special effects work, and by Emil Jannings as the demon Mephistopholes, comic and chilling by turns.  

FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE: Harold Lloyd, by now almost going through the motions, this time as a spoilt socialite who can simply buy a new luxury car each time one breaks down. He accidentally makes a donation to fund a mission in a poor part of town and stays on as its patron when he falls for the girl who runs it, of course. The whole film might have been constructed around the climactic chase scene where Harold once again has to get all the way across town to get to a wedding in time, only this time he has half a dozen drunk vagrants in his charge and he has to get them there too.

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