The Black Pirate (1926)

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*. Genre filmmaking, and proud of it. The opening titles promise a shopping list of “golden galleons, bleached skulls, buried treasure, the plank, dirks and cutlasses, scuttled ships, marooning, desperate deeds, desperate men, and — even on this dark soil — romance.” Not all of this is delivered, but they come pretty close. It’s Return to Treasure Island!
*. Pauline Kael called it the Fairbanks movie best loved of children, and apparently an eight-year-old Jackie Coogan may have put the bug in Fairbanks’s ear to make it. But it’s gruesome for the kids, isn’t it? In the opening scenario one of the prisoners swallows a ring and the head pirate (Anders Randolph) has one of his men cut it out of his stomach with his knife (we see him hand the ring over to Randolph, his knife dripping with blood). Later we’ll see the same head pirate fall backward on to a dagger planted in the sand, and Sam De Grasse test a stolen sword by stabbing a bound prisoner in the guts.

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*. Acting in silent films, and being a silent “star,” was something different from being a film star in the sound era. It involved other techniques and demanded other qualities. But the main ingredient for an action star hasn’t changed much. Douglas Fairbanks was very fit, looked it, and flaunted the look. He even shaved his chest with a straight razor, saying it was “common practice in the Orient.” Just in case you thought all the buff physiques of today’s manscaped bodybuilders and action stars was a new development.
*. An ability to handle acrobatics was another part of it, but a not insignificant one. I couldn’t help thinking of Lon Chaney swinging his way up the façade of Notre Dame when watching Fairbanks climb all over the pirate ship here. They both knew how to play the monkey well.
*. It was shot in the then new two-colour Technicolor process, which I love, though here it seems somewhat bleached as they were still working out the bugs in the process, which at this early stage involved sticking two layers of film together. I can’t imagine how difficult the restoration was.
*. Fairbanks also consciously wanted to make the colour easy on the eyes, as it was a concern at the time that too much colour would tire people out. Technology is always scary.

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*. Though the colour effects are a bit underwhelming (especially in the night scenes, which even disappointed Fairbanks), the stunts and effects are terrific. Who can forget Fairbanks sliding down a sail that he’s cutting open with this dagger? Or his swinging on ropes through the rigging (a “stunt” that was achieved by simply reversing the film)?
*. The most impressive shots, however, are of the aquanauts swimming in formation underwater to attack the pirate ship. I couldn’t figure out how they did this, given the requirement of awesome amounts of light to film in the Technicolor cameras. On the DVD commentary Rudy Behlmer explains that they aren’t really swimming underwater but are being suspended by a crane and pretending to do the breaststroke against a backdrop, with a foreground of water with bubbles rising from it. Which sounds very complicated, but looks terrific.
*. Tell me with a straight face that you watched the scene where Donald Crisp cuts Fairbanks’s bonds and didn’t laugh. He’s standing behind Fairbanks, with the tip of the dagger sticking out over the top of his belt buckle, rubbing up and down against Fairbanks’ backside. It’s indecent!
*. Fairbanks is really a duke! Hooray! That means he can marry the princess! Because otherwise the classes don’t mix. In Imperial Spain or 1920s America.
*. It’s almost sad the way MacTavish tries to give the pirates’ buried treasure to the royals as a wedding present. Keep it for yourself, matey. They don’t need it.

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*. At the end, after Fairbanks kills De Grasse (in what seems a really awkward manner), he uses the dead body as a shield to block the shot from a pistol that one of the other pirates fires at him. I wonder if this was the first movie to show someone doing this. In more recent years we’ve seen the body-as-shield used to almost comic overkill effect in movies like Total Recall and Payback. James Cagney also did it to Abner Biberman in The Roaring Twenties (1939). But this may have been the first time ever, albeit with a corpse.
*. As a genre, the pirate film has shown itself to be curiously impervious to change: through later films like The Sea Hawk and The Black Swan right up to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Though there are twenty-first century pirates, mostly hailing out of Somalia, you can’t really have a modern or neo-pirate story. Pirate movies are strictly circumscribed in terms of time and place, which means they all look the same: with the same costumes, props, and other genre elements (like those listed in the argument before this film). And so while among the first, The Black Pirate is also unsurpassed.

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