Tuesday, June 23, 2015
Film Review: The Black Swan
Shiver me timbers! It's the pirate's life for me in "The Black Swan" (1942).
What was the last really good pirate movie you saw? Some younger movie fans might say "The Pirates of the Caribbean" (2003) with Johnny Depp or one of its countless sequels but us old timers know better. We grew up with Douglas Fairbanks in "The Black Pirate" (1926), Errol Flynn in "Captain Blood" (1935) and "The Black Swan" starring Tyrone Power, 20th Century Fox's answer to Flynn.
Once upon a time swashbucklers like "The Black Swan" delighted movie audiences today however the market seems a little different. I have no doubt audiences still like action stories but the movies of yesterday contain a certain charm that is missing from today's movies and may very well be considered laughable by today's standards. What once thrilled audiences long ago today might bore them. That's too bad.
Although "The Black Swan" is a movie dealing with pirates it treats its characters no different than it would gangsters. It could have been the story of a gangster that wants to "better" himself and falls in love with a respectable lady, who will have nothing to do with him because of his background. Deep down however we know she loves him.
If we think about it long enough there is also an "ugliness" to this story in the message it sends concerning how woman want to be treated by men. At one point in the movie a female character is kidnapped by a man that claims to love her. At another point in the movie he slaps her after he pushes himself on her, wanting a kiss, and she bites him. He talks down to her and pushes her around. And what happens at the end of the picture? Naturally she professes her love for him. The prim and proper lady just needed a rugged man to shove her around a little bit and tell her what was best for her.
This, unfortunately, is nothing new. We've seen various movies, even comedies, promote this idea. It also doesn't help when we hear women, even today, say they like the "bad boy". Women say they don't like the "good boys" they are boring. Women want a little fun in their lives, right? Keep on talking like that and this is the kind of movies with messages like this we are going to get. You (women) are doing yourselves no favors with this kind of talk. You are only perpetuating Hollywood to continue the cycle.
Still, if we are able to put all of that behind us and not think about it, and some younger, more liberal female viewers may not be able to, what we are left with is a movie that contains moments of action, charismatic acting with performances that walk that fine line and border on "over acting" and a great screenplay which effortless blends comedy into this story of adventure on the high seas, thanks in part to co-writer Ben Hecht, who wrote the Howard Hawks comedy "Twentieth Century" (1934) and the play "The Front Page" which served as the basis for "His Girl Friday" (1940) though "The Black Swan" is based on a Rafael Sabatini novel.
Tyrone Power plays Captain Jamie Waring, though called Jamie-Boy by his friends. Among this band of pirates Jamie-Boy is well liked and admired. However, one day he is captured by the Spanish government, which is at war with the British, and tortured until he reveals the whereabouts of Captain Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar), who was set to be executed but managed to escape. A surprise attack ensues lead by Tommy Blue (Thomas Mitchell) and Jamie-Boy is freed. Also present is Captain Morgan who reveals he is no longer a wanted man. Instead he is the new Governor of Jamaica and wants Jamie-Boy to be his right hand man and give up his dishonest ways.
The out going governor, Lord Denby (George Zucco), looks down upon Captain Morgan and considers it disgraceful that he should be the new governor as does his daughter, Lady Margaret Denby (Maureen O' Hara) but Jamie-Boy has taken an instant liking to her and wants to win her over despite knowing she is engaged to Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley).
Jamie-Boy knows Lady Denby's prim and proper ways is all an act. A woman would have no interest in a man like Ingram, who is also prim and proper. Ingram wouldn't even have the nerve to slap a woman around a little bit thus he is presented as a "fancy boy" and when he and Jamie-Boy meet face to face all it takes is one punch from Jamie-Boy to knock out Ingram.
Initially Lady Denby is not impressed by Jamie-Boy's strength and tough demeanor but in an effort to win her over Jamie-Boy vows to go "straight" and put his pirate days behind him.
The people of Jamaica don't trust Captain Morgan and believe he is out to protect his friends like Captain Billy Leech (George Sanders) who refused to give up his ways and always seems to know which ships will be carry expensive cargo and attacks them. Is someone from the "inside" telling him? Maybe a governor?
Watching "The Black Swan" again after all these years what impressed me most was the screenplay. You might expect a movie like this to play it a bit more serious. Heighten the drama, the sword fights, the battle ship scenes, create more suspense but the movie is playful and comical. The pirates aren't really a threat. They are "fun pirates" that chase after women and drink wine. The may act tough now and then but that is all for show. Deep down they are a couple of swell guys!
The movie has a great cast. A cast that could only have been assembled during the old studio days. How else do you get George Sanders, Thomas Mitchell, Laird Cregar, Maureen O' Hara and Tyrone Power together? Not all of them are leading men but these people almost routinely turned in good performances. They were entertaining character actors. We don't have many of those today. Almost all of these performances are larger-than-life. And that is okay. These people had charisma. That is missing from so many actors of today. These people had star power. Put them in a run of the mill formula picture and their presence could carry it through and make the whole thing worthwhile. They were entertaining to watch. It didn't matter the role they played. Sometimes they didn't even change character from picture to picture. Audiences just wanted to see them in a movie doing their shtick.
For directing duties 20th Century Fox chose Henry King. King is not considered one of the great filmmakers of his era but 20th Century Fox sure put him to work often. King directed pictures such as "In Old Chicago" (1937) with Alice Faye and Tyrone Power, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938) also with Faye and Power and "A Yank in the R.A.F." (1941) again with Power. Twice he was nominated for a best director Academy Award. The first time was for "The Song of Bernadette" (1943), the true story of a young girl who was visited by the Virgin Mary. The second time was for "Wilson" (1944), the story of President Woodrow Wilson. It won five Academy Awards and was nominated for best picture. Despite all of this, I really can't say King has a distinct style. But, he keeps things moving along very nicely here.
What is going to keep people watching "The Black Swan" is the two lead performers. Maureen O' Hara, who always had trouble with men in the movies, in "The Quiet Man" (1952) it takes another man to tell her want she needs, was a beautiful woman and the camera does love her in this movie. One of her main functions is to look beautiful. The other function is to make us believe she loves Jamie-Boy. She does the former very well. Very well.
Tyrone Power was considered a heartthrob in his day and was being groomed by 20th Century Fox to be their new sex symbol often appearing in epic adventure stories. Many times these were remakes of movies starring former screen idols. Power starred in "Blood and Sand" (1941) a remake of a Rudolph Valentino silent picture. Power was also Zorro in "The Mark of Zorro" (1940), a remake of a Douglas Fairbanks movie with the same title which was a box-office smash and prompted 20th Century Fox to cast him in more swashbucklers.
"The Black Swan" is a lot of fun to watch. The actors make it fun. We really don't believe in the romance between Power and O'Hara but that's okay. The dialogue is too good not to enjoy. The cinematography, which won an Academy Award, is beautiful to look at. This is good old-fashion entertainment.