The Black Swan (1942)

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*. Another pirate movie based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini. Did Sabatini invent the modern pirate story? Not quite. Other names, like Robert Louis Stevenson, come to mind. And the fact is that some of the movies “based on” Sabatini’s works have little if anything at all to do with the books. The Sea Hawk is one example of a total disconnect. This movie is another. But I guess at the time he was a bankable name, as hard as that may be to believe today. The title even comes up as “Rafael Sabatini’s The Black Swan.”
*. Comparisons to The Sea Hawk, which came out just a couple of years earlier, are inescapable. We’ve gone from black and white to glorious three-strip Technicolor (this was the first pirate movie to get this treatment, The Black Pirate being shot using a two-colour system). We’ve replaced Errol Flynn with Tyrone Power, Michael Curtiz with Henry King, and Erich Korngold with Alfred Newman. But perhaps most of all we’ve lost a full forty minutes. Fox ran a tight pirate ship and cut a lot of chatter.

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*. I prefer The Sea Hawk, mainly because Flynn and Curtiz were both at the top of their game in that film. But the colour here is a big plus and Power is great too, even if he has a thing for taking his shirt off a bit too much.
*. Times change. When they first meet, Tyrone Power’s Jamie-Boy tries to kiss Maureen O’Hara and she bites him, leading him to knock her unconscious with a powerful backhand. I flinched when I saw this, but I suspect at the time it was meant as a comic moment. Immediately after he knocks her out he hoists her over his shoulder and then shrugs her to the ground when he sees his old buddy Henry Morgan.

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*. There’s no question it’s a rough wooing, and O’Hara was no shrinking violet. But her hellcat denials only pour more fuel on his fire: “Look at you, hating me — and your eyes saying ‘Don’t go away. I belong to you. Make me belong to you.'”
*. All of this was, however, a romantic convention, certainly then and to some extent still today. In the bodice-ripper men are expected, even counted on, to be quite direct and physical in their advances. The movie really foregrounds this, what with Power’s attempt to get his hands all the way up O’Hara’s dress while supposedly checking her out for injuries, abducting her from her garden (a classical rape), and even climbing into bed with her when trying to pass as a married couple (a bit of casuistry had to be employed to slip such a scene by the Hays Office).
*. The supporting cast are interesting. George Sanders is unrecognizable in a big red beard, reportedly because he wanted to make it easier to be doubled in the action scenes (which he wasn’t fond of). Anthony Quinn has an eye patch and not much to say. But most of all there’s Laird Cregar, a veritable galleon himself as captain-turned-governor Henry Morgan.

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*. It’s a pedestrian DVD commentary by Rudy Behlmer and Maureen O’Hara, but I was greatly impressed by O’Hara. She was 83 at the time and is clear as a bell with excellent recall of events from sixty years earlier.
*. I love the ship running aground when Power cuts the rope to the tiller, but the shot is undone a bit when we see the ground moving when it’s struck.
*. Whatever happens to the treacherous fop Ingram? There’s no mention made of him at the end, which is odd given how you expect to see villainy punished at the movies.
*. The Sea Hawk had an unmistakeable political message, with plucky England standing alone against Spanish/German imperialism in 1940. Two years later America was at war and there isn’t a frame of this film that makes reference to the fact. I certainly don’t fault it for this, but it is curious. Perhaps Zanuck thought what people needed was pure escapist entertainment. If so, he delivered with a real treat.

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