*. A star is born. Like being shot from a cannon, to make the obvious analogy. In the featurette on this film that’s included with the DVD, film historian Lincoln D. Hurst calls Errol Flynn’s performance “the most amazing debut of any new actor in the history of Hollywood.” That’s a dramatic pronouncement, but not unwarranted.
*. Flynn was heir to Douglas Fairbanks as an action star, but the two weren’t the same. Fairbanks was the more physical, both in terms of his stunts and the way he played a role (larger, for the silent screen). Flynn is prettier: he has the great physique and hair of a Harlequin cover model.
*. I don’t mean that in a negative way. The movies have always been about beautiful people. And it’s worth noting that Flynn was, apparently, suffering from malaria while shooting this film. But still, he is less solid than Fairbanks. In the ranks of action stars he put the emphasis on the star. He was a lover, not a fighter. For what it’s worth, Rathbone, who had a reputation as the best swordsman in Hollywood, thought him an inferior duellist to Tyrone Power.
*. You could say two stars were born, though Olivia de Havilland had just been in Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I believe she was only 19 here, and looks adorable. She could also act, and has terrific chemistry with Flynn, as they would go on to star together many times.
*. The pirate film wasn’t a new genre in the ’30s, like gangster films or monster movies mostly were. Indeed this was the second time around for filming Rafael Sabatini’s novel of the same name. I don’t suppose anyone reads Sabatini today. I haven’t. Later, Sabatini’s novel The Sea Hawk, which had also been made into a movie in the 1920s, would have its title borrowed for another Flynn vehicle. Some of the battle footage in this film (basically the shots of full-size ships in action) was taken from the first Sea Hawk, which gives you some indication of just how generic the action in pirate films was. Broadsides and swordfights.
*. In the 17th century, was there any effective treatment for gout? Nowadays I believe it’s mostly handled through drugs. So I’m not sure what Dr. Peter Blood is doing to the governor that works so well. Unless the governor is just a hypochondriac and there’s nothing wrong with him anyway.
*. Michael Curtiz is one of the more colorful figures in Hollywood history, probably best known (outside of his films) for several very funny malapropisms. He wasn’t an auteur, but he was a very capable professional with a knack for keeping the story moving. Even in what are fairly static scenes he engages our interest in subtle ways by dollying the camera, filling the frame in depth, or sharp editing.
*. A good example of the latter is the speech delivered by Flynn beginning with “It’s a truly royal clemency we’re granted my friends, one well worthy of King James. . . .” There are two cuts made in this speech, breaking it into three shots, when the whole thing could have easily been done in a single take. It’s very effective, and yet so smoothly done that you don’t notice unless you’re looking for it.
*. The boats were large-scale models and they look terrific. Yet another example of how CGI hasn’t improved a thing. Even the shots of the ships shelling Port Royal look good. It’s all a studio production and doesn’t suffer for it. Not just because the in-house effects people were so proficient, but also because film hadn’t really developed an aesthetics of location shooting yet. If you’d shown Curtiz what Herzog did in Aguirre, for example, I’m not sure he would have understood it at all, the sensibility would have been so alien.
*. The idea that the pirate chieftain is actually a good guy in disguise is a trope that goes back to classical times, and was already familiar to moviegoers. These movies really followed a pattern, down to the wooing of the high-born lady by the gallant knave. That this has been such a resilient archetype is something to wonder at.
*. The story structure is a bit off. We’re half-way through the picture before the slaves escape and take to a life of freedom on the high seas. And there is no clear focus on a villain. The hanging judge, Judge Jeffreys, puts in an appearance. There’s a harsh slave driver named Dixon who apparently runs a mine but nothing is done with him. Lionel Atwill goes AWOL, both from Port Royal and the movie. And finally Basil Rathbone is introduced late and dispatched early, a terrible waste of one of the screen’s great bad guys.
*. Audiences didn’t really care. It was a big hit for Warners because the stars were in alignment. Flynn and de Havilland were both unknowns and both clicked. Erich Korngold was new as well, and had little time to write a score, but still delivered. Curtiz did a great job with the material. The effects are first rate. For a while, pirates were going to be big.