Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Black Swan, The (1942)

Director: Henry King


Even as World War II raged on Hollywood and its audiences were still in wanting of a big screen spectacle. Here Tyrone Power takes us on a high seas adventure to the time of pirates as they pillaged the Spanish Main providing views of swashbuckling action in bright and beautiful Technicolor. This motion picture would contain many of the classic pirate themes and locales to fill one’s adventurous needs. The film captures the danger and romance of the seas with the exhibition of a few of industry’s most eye catching tactics exhilarating audiences of the 1940s.

The Black Swan is an adventurous swashbuckling tale of a pirate captain torn between the idea of reforming from his life’s work of plundering when a beautiful woman enters his life. In the legendary days when pirates roamed the waters of the Caribbean one legendary pirate, Captain Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) is appointed to govern the island colony of Jamaica for the British crown and bring an end to the plundering within the surrounding waters. Captain Jaime Waring (Tyrone Power), also a devilish pirate, is appointed to reform and become Morgan’s lieutenant sent to seek out and stop one of his fellow buccaneers Captain Billy Leech (George Sanders) of the “Black Swan”, one who refused to turn on his brotherhood of pirates. Along the way Waring takes a liking to Lady Margaret (Maureen O’Hara), the daughter of Jamaica’s former governor, going as far as to kidnap her to keep her from marrying one of English nobilty.

Warning attempts to infiltrate Leech’s ranks stating he is not a turncoat to the pirate brethren, all with the unwilling Margaret in tow. Morgan is excommunicated from his governorship due to his immediate failure to stop Leech, but the rift has already been created between the pirates. In true swashbuckling style a spectacular battle ensues where Waring defeats Leech and gets the girl in when Margaret proves to be much strong than she sems.

From a contemporary point of view this feature has all the clichés that may make one dislike this picture greatly. It consists fo the usual British pirates fighting against Spanish colonies. There are plenty of “arh’s” and “matey’s” to go around. Swashbuckling sword fighting adorns the action sequences, but is nothing more than flailing around blades in front of untrained actors with the addition of plenty clanging sounds. The love story never really makes sense as as the picture rolls on. Waring basically takes Margaret and threatens to rape her, laughs in her face while she attempts to fight him off. Along with kidnapping her, there is no sense in understanding how this swoons a beautiful, young lady into one day falling in love with this supposed brut.

There is so much one can look back on in this picture and just despise, but here we will attempt to look at it through the glasses of an audience from 1942/3 who were just beholding for a motion picture spectacle to take them on a trip away from the world by way of the movie theater.

The Black Swan
Originally the feature was a planned adaptation of the novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini, but quickly that idea turned into a completely original story. Only the historical figure Captain Henry Morgan remained as the last remnant of the source material. The first thing that would have grabbed the attention of the movie going audience of the time was that it was produced in glorious Technicolor. This very costly process was a rare sight due to war fractioning off most of the international markets, cutting into possible box office profits. Along with Technicolor comes the usual bright, elaborate costuming and equally extravagant sets, all adding to a budget motion pictures at the time would attempt to keep manageable.

To aid in cutting cost of the production director Henry King was able to keep shots done to a minimum, usually getting what he wanted from the actors in the first or second takes. This limited the need of extra film stock and allowed for production to move as quickly as possible. After all, time is money in the movies. King’s experience on various period piece films in the past allowed him to feel comfortable to get what he wanted on camera in an efficient manner, which was what 20th Century-Fox was looking for from this veteran filmmaker.

Despite the film’s spectacle scope the main cast was small in size, occupied with actors with notable careers. Tyrone Power headlines the picture, performing in a manner only the likes of Errol Flynn, or perhaps Douglas Fairbanks of an earlier generation, could have given. Appearing numerous moments bare-chested, he provides enough physicality to be believable as a pirate of the high seas. His co-star and love interest is played by Maureen O’Hara, an Irish born actress who had moved to America at the unset of war in Europe. Her recent work had seen her land in adventure pictures which increased her notoriety within the industry at this time, but here gives a performance that is a bit stiff and lacking of complexity.

Laird Cregar (left) as Captain Morgan.
The supporting cast each brought a notable flare to the feature. Laird Cregar as Henry Morgan brings with his a presence of a man with a booming voice commanding the attention of his fellow buccaneers. The former Academy Award winner Thomas Mitchell portrays primarily the film’s comic relief as Tyrone Power’s right hand man, always the one looking for a drink and spouting off the cliché pirate one-liners. George Sanders is near unrecognizable as Captain Leech, the villain of the picture, behind that big red beard of his. Usually one to play an English gentleman, Sanders portrays an interesting new range in his acting skill despite being an overly stereotyped, B-movie style pirate character. At his side is Anthony Quinn as Wogan. Quinn’s performance is neither memorable, nor significant, but it does manifest his growing number of screen credits recently in his career for a man that would one day be a major screen star.

What the picture set out to do is what it would achieve, a major Hollywood spectacle. It had everything a Hollywood swashbuckling movie ever wanted at that time, big sets, action, adventure, booming cannons, sword fights, and a dash of a love story.  The film would please most audiences, but a handful of critics would be able to look past the lavishness and bright colors to note the lacking plot and the poor acting, deficient of dimensionality.

George Sanders as Leech
The Black Swan remains a perfect example of the pirate based movies of the time and would inspire other such films even decades later. The feature was nominated for three Academy Awards, coming away with the prize for Best Cinematography for a color feature, proving sometimes all stduios needed was to produce a large color feature to win a prize from the Academy in this case. The film delighted audiences of the time and in effort to extract more money from audiences would later be re-released with black and white as a cheap reissuing year later.

Not much can be stated about a legacy of the feature as it would generally fade into the background of an industry whose future contained better achievements in special effects in the coming years. The Black Swan continues to delight Tyrone Power admirers and fans of classic Hollywood swashbuckling pictures, but much like the stories of real pirates this feature just pass along as quickly in the night.

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