30 June, 2015

The Black Swan

The Swashbuckler.

The name alone evokes great high-adventure;  pure fun in entertainment.  The hero?  A diamond in the rough.  The villain?  Just dastardly.  The damsel?  If in distress – even in the classics – strong-willed.  And the weapon of choice?  The sword.  There are often pistols, sure, but in the final fight, when hero and villain go mono-a-mono, sparring dialogue as wonderfully staged, it’s gotta be the sword.  From Cyrano de Bergerac to Jack Sparrow, if adventure has a name …

The word swashbuckler emerged in the sixteenth century;  the likeliest derivation from using a side-sword in one hand – swashing through the air – and buckler (shield) in the other.  The Spanish Rodeleros were well known for mastering the sword-and-buckle and made up the majority of Hernán Cortés troops in his swash of The New World.

The Renaissance saw the introduction of the sword as a civilian weapon and the rise of “the duel.”  Victorian-era authors – Scott, Dumas – found dueling romantic, heroic, and propelled a significant and widespread role of swordsmanship – soon fencing – as far as the theatre stage.  By the time Movies came 'round, dueling was immediately a heralded genre.  Because they started as Silents, flamboyant action spoke volumes.

Oft considered the poster boy of the genre is Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950).  Born in Italy but living mostly in England, he spoke six languages, choosing to write in the last he learned because, he said, “all the best stories are written in English.”  He wrote for twenty-five years before finding success with Scaramouche (1921), followed by Captain Blood (1922).  Riding this one-two-punch, his publisher reprinted earlier work, including The Sea Hawk (1915).  It should be no surprise that Hollywood embraced him – just look at those three titles – and it was in 1932 – his twenty-second novel – that he wrote our story today. 

The Daily Telegraph once captured Sabatini and his work the best:  One wonders if there is another storyteller so adroit at filling his pages with intrigue, with danger threaded with romance, a background of lavish colour, of silks and velvets, swords and jewels.”

The Black Swan (1942)
w Ben Hecht & Seton Miller from the novel by Rafael Sabatini
d Henry King

We’re passing the middle of our Ty Top 5 – following Jesse James and The Mark Of Zorro – as we come to his first Pirate Epic, a dash-and-bluster opera played for fun and romance as Cast & Crew are clearly having as much fun as we are.  If not as well known, this film stands strong next to Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood, Robin Hood and Sea Hawk as a great swashbuckler;  and, just as significantly, plays precursor to all modern fare.

Speaking of Flynn, I wrote in his Robin Hood post that it’s “the unequivocal swashbuckler.”  And while I don’t regret writing that – and doubt anyone would disagree – I’m just thinking now, “I wonder what we think of when we hear the word swashbuckler.”  Personally, I think Pirates.  There are a number of great non-Pirate swashbucklers – I’m just talking characters now (there are so many movies made about each) – like Robin Hood and Zorro and Prince Valiant and The Three Musketeers – but, gut reaction, I think Pirates.  And today’s movie is the first “Pirate film” in these Top 5s.  (The “Pirate film.”  That’s kind of its own genre, isn’t it?)  Well, rest assured lads and lasses, you’re in fine waters. 

The Black Swan – the titular ship and the movie – swaggers up and down the Caribbean under full sail, its pirates wearing enormous sashes and brandishing shining cutlasses;  sweeping merrily through the streets;  breaking heads, stealing maidens, and brawling over rich brocades.  And should one find himself on a dungeon’s rack?  Aye, perhaps the only code among them is to set the captive free! 

Amid this color is Sir Henry Morgan's return to grace as Governor of Jamaica and his attempt to sweep a former henchman, Billy Leech, from the seas.  Tasked is Morgan’s good friend Jamie Boy (Tyrone Power) who heartily dives in after making a midnight abduction of the beautiful Margaret (Maureen O’Hara), an aristocratic lady to, well, make the voyage more bearable.  How Jamie Boy brings the villainous Leech to bay while winning the lady’s heart culminates in the final – and doesn’t-disappoint – battle as ships rake each other with cannon fire, their pirates dueling across the decks!

(And you bet I ended both those paragraphs with exclamation marks!)

Look at the film’s open.  The sea.  A pirate ship that cannon-fires another.  And then credits -- a rare thing in those days to have a pre-title sequence -- as we blast into those names, red against the sky:  Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara, heralded by a traditional “pirate song” so visceral it doesn’t matter you’ve never heard it before.  Like crashing down that first wave in Disneyland’s Pirates Of The Caribbean ride, you feel what you're in for!  And then what?  A card to set the stage:  “This is a story of the Spanish Main – when Villainy wore a Sash, and the only political creed in the world was – Love, Gold, and Adventure.”  I don’t care how old you are, you’re six again, jumping up and down on your parents’ bed.  And all that’s in the first two minutes.   

Speaking of Pirates Of The Caribbean -- the Disneyland ride -- I say up front I have nothing to support our movie today being a direct inspiration though I can’t imagine it wasn’t.  While the ride didn’t open until 1967, the idea for a pirate-themed attraction at The Magic Kingdom was around since the 1950s.  One of the earliest plans was a Wax Museum-like walk-through, but the success of It’s A Small World (at the 1964 World’s Fair, opening at Disneyland in 1966) wonderfully changed that.  Pirates was the last attraction Walt personally oversaw;  he’d sadly pass away before its opening.  (And get a load of this, ‘cause we haven’t had a Bob Hope tie-in in a while:  who presided over the grand opening of the ride?  Miss Dorothy Lamour.)  Look, we know Walt loved movies.  So take a look at ours today and then ride Pirates.  Look at the sets, lighting, colors – Leon Shamroy won The Oscar for his Cinematography here – the costumes, makeup, the overall feel of the film and ride.  Walt must have loved this movie.  So was it an inspiration?  Welllll, I still have nothing to support it … directly.

Let’s begin today’s Behind The Scenes with our leading lady.  The incomparable -- go on, compare her to someone, I dare you -- Maureen O’Hara was born Maureen FitzSimons near Dublin, Ireland.  Her parents were clothiers which, while true, isn’t as much fun as saying Robert Evans started his career in women’s pants (also true).  Even as a young girl, Miss O’Hara always dreamt of being a stage actress.  She trained in drama, music and dance – did you know she sang, and well? – and, in the evenings after classes, worked in amateur theatre.  Her father was a practical man and insisted she learn a “proper” education so she enrolled in a business school and became a proficient bookkeeper;  a skill that, years later, proved useful when John Ford had her transcribe his notes for “a little love story he wanted to shoot in Ireland.”  Young Miss O’Hara shined enough in her stage classes that she landed a Screen Test in London.  It wasn’t noteworthy, per se, except for one man who saw it and thought it better than most:  Alfred Hitchcock.  He cast her in her first major motion picture, Jamaica Inn (1939), opposite another notable Englishman – Charles Laughton – who, so entranced with her, had her cast opposite him in The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939).  And it was Laughton who suggested she change her last name, reportedly quipping, “Bit shorter for the marquee, you know.”  Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that Gone With The Wind came out that year as well (and more on GWTW in a bit). 

Then World War II began and O’Hara’s contract was sold to RKO who cast her in low-budget films until she was rescued by John Ford – this is the first time they met – where she first shined in his 1941 Best Picture Winner, How Green Was My Valley.  They would go on to make many films together, including that “little Irish love story,” the classic The Quiet Man (1952).  O’Hara is often remembered for her undeniable chemistry with another Ford regular, John Wayne.  They made five films together, and if you haven’t seen Rio Grande (1950) please put it at the top of your list.  With over sixty films to her credit, it’s most likely a little holiday movie for which she’s most famous, starring as Natalie Wood’s mother in Miracle On 34th Street (1947).  Just last year [2014], The Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences presented Miss O’Hara The Academy's Honorary Oscar at The Governor’s Awards, making her the second actress to receive the award without having previously been nominated in any category.  The first?  Miss Myrna Loy. 

Of The Black Swan, Miss O’Hara herself said – and keep in mind she’s twenty-two in our film today (Ty ancient at twenty-eight) – “It had everything you could want in a lavish pirate picture: a magnificent ship with thundering cannons; a dashing hero battling menacing villains; sword fights; fabulous costumes ... [and] working with Ty was exciting.  In those days, he was the biggest romantic swashbuckler in the world.  But what I loved most about working with him was his wicked sense of humor.”

Jamie Boy … Jamie Boy …

We already touched on our Director, Mr. Henry King, in the Jesse James write-up – and remember he and Ty made eleven films together – so let’s talk our Writers (adapters here of the Rafael Sabatini novel):  Ben Hecht and Seton Miller.  Mr. Miller you might remember from our Robin Hood write-up – and he did The Sea Hawk;  savvy swordplay well in his wheelhouse – so let’s talk about the other gentleman, Mr. Ben Hecht.  Of these Top 5s, this is my eighteenth, and I’m actually surprised he hasn’t come up before.  It was once said of Ernest Lehman – look him up if you need to – that “even his flops are hits.”  Well, the same can be said of our guy today.  Look up Ben Hecht’s titles.  Realize (and I hope appreciate) their diversity and the impact they’ve had not just on Hollywood but how we tell stories.  He was a Journalist, a Playwright, a Novelist and a Screenwriter.  But there’s really no better way to say it:  Ben Hecht told Stories. 

You may know his name for writing the play The Front Page which he turned into its second filmed outing, the instant classic His Girl Friday;  not just the best of the play’s many adaptations but the blueprint for romantic screwball comedies (and never since done so well).  Hecht was the Script Doctor (certainly for Hitchcock but perhaps most famously for Gone With The Wind) and wrote many of his Screenplays anonymously to avoid British boycott of his support of Judaism.  (Jews the world over were so appreciative of this gentleman that the Israeli Naval Flagship is the S.S. Ben Hecht.)  It was written of his Autobiography, A Child Of The Century, that “his manners are not always nice, but then nice manners do not always make interesting autobiographies, and this one has the merit of being intensely interesting.  If he is occasionally slick, he is also independent, forthright, and original. Among the pussycats who write of social issues today he roars like an old-fashioned lion."  Throughout his nearly one hundred films, six were nominated for The Oscar, and he took home two. 

Now, getting back into the movie, it’s worth mentioning how “real” it was.  (What the hell is he talking about?  “Real.”)  Well, “By land or by sea you can always rely on me for wrongdoing of any nature!” Tommy Blue (Thomas Mitchell) yells with giddy evil.  (And speaking of GWTW, yep, that’s Scarlett’s dad.)  Henry Morgan gets to throw his elaborate curled wig and drink out of a barrel, with none other than Anthony Quinn lurking in the background.  And Leech?  A proud rapist.  The pirates, even the ones we’re supposed to like, aren’t terribly cleaned up.  (Everyone laughs when Jamie dumps the unconscious Margaret on the stone floor at seeing his old friend.  PC?  Hardly.  Funny?  Sure.)  For pirates, it’s a brave nod to realism.  But for 1942 it’s remarkable. 

Granted, most of this doesn’t mean anything to a modern audience.  Especially how risqué Jamie and Margaret pretending to be a newlywed couple was;  Leech coming into their cabin, forcing them to sleep in the same bed.  Well, in 1942, our Hays Office – remember them? – would normally have found this unshowable (it’s a word).  Jamie and Margaret were clearly not married, and Tyrone Power even had his shirt off again (you’re welcome, fans).  The censors should never have let that scene show, but they did.  Why?  Because in this movie, we the audience know they’re only pretending to be married and – here’s the clincher – Jamie’s being respectful of her.  It’s a plot point of his falling in love with her.  And apparently Hays was so entranced by Ty’s gallantry that they let it show.

… Jamie Boy.

I sometimes browse the internet specifically for these write-ups – vintage reviews, like from our old friend Bosley Crowther;  or modern takes from TCM, things like that – and I came across a charming blog called They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To where I found this fun bit:  As part of Maureen O'Hara's 93rd birthday bash last August [2014], The Black Swan was shown on the big screen of Boise, Idaho's historic Egyptian Theatre.  (Miss O'Hara currently lives in Boise.)  As a Boise resident, I attended the event and was able to catch The Black Swan in this incredible environment.  I'm tellin' you, until you've seen Tyrone Power ‘up close and personal’ on the big screen, you are missing out.  Truly, that is how he was meant to be seen!”  Adorable?  Sure.  But what always stands out when I come across things like this is how well classic movies still resonate today.  How passionate modern audiences still are.  See, it’s not just me!  There're a lot of us out there still carrying the torch.

In 1942, Crowther noted for The New York Times, “After seeing The Black Swan, a good many boys will be brandishing wooden swords in the parlor and slitting sofa pillows for some time to come.”  And if that isn’t how a swashbuckler should make us feel – still jumping up and down on our parents’ bed – well … that’s our fault.

Up next?  We go on location in Lone Pine in Ty’s Dramatic Western Rawhide.

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