Friday, September 19, 2014

A pirate’s dozen: Best pirate films and film pirates for Talk Like a Pirate Day!


ARRRRRR!!! Avast, ye swabs! Heave to! Stow that bilge, lubber, or I’ll keelhaul ye!

Beg pardon. It’s contagious, isn’t it? International Talk Like a Pirate Day is Sept. 19. It’s practically a religious holiday on our poop deck – a day when we’re up to our scuppers in flintlocks, cutlasses, eye patches and parrots.

The best way to prepare is to go to the founders’ website: In 1995, John Baur (aka Ol’ Chumbucket) and Mark Summers (Cap’n Slappy) inaugurated the event, helpfully choosing the date as that of Summers’ ex-wife’s birthday, and the rest is historrrrry.

Like other man-centric film genres, buccaneering flicks are good, violent, escapist fun, full of explosions, sea battles, sword fights, rum, women with lots of cleavage, incomprehensible jargon and treasure.

Even a cursory search unearths more movies about these oceanic outlaws than you can shake a marlinspike at, if that’s your idea of a good time. The most staggeringly comprehensive guide to the subgenre is Rob Ossian’s humbly titled “Complete list of every Pirate Movie ever made” at his website, There are over 300 entries -- Rob, you are amazing.

The Internet Movie Database ( lists no fewer than 33 film versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic “Treasure Island” – and four of “Return to Treasure Island”! An analysis of just those efforts would be as stultifying as life aboard a becalmed sloop in the Sargasso Sea. So let’s just skim the cream, shall we? A very personal Top 12 – starting with the quartet of flicks that really defined the conventions of the type. Focus your spyglass on these beauties, me hearties! Haul away:

The Black Pirate (1926) Dir: Alan Parker. With Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Billie Dove, Donald Crisp. Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. was the movies’ first big action/adventure star. He had already played Zorro, Robin Hood and the Thief of Baghdad by the time he filmed this silent costume epic in cumbersome, expensive two-strip Technicolor. It’s got the revenge-your-father plot, a damsel in distress, rip-roaring duels, derring-do and what-have-you. Find the restored version – the color is remarkably lifelike.

Captain Blood (1935) Dir: Michael Curtiz. With Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill. This one made the careers of Flynn, de Havilland, Curtiz, and the score’s composer, Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Virtuous doctor becomes unjustly convicted slave becomes pirate. In gorgeous black and white, with stunning cinematography, a punchy script, great performances – and look sharp for former Olympian Jim Thorpe as a bilge rat. Look for the 119-minute version.

The Sea Hawk (1940) Dir: Michael Curtiz. With Errol Flynn, Brenda Marshall, Flora Robson, Claude Rains, Henry Daniell, Alan Hale, Donald Crisp. Take the “Captain Blood” formula, double the budget, throw in Queen Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada – bingo! An all-round classic, and close to the high-water mark for Warner Brothers Studio.

The Black Swan (1942) Dir: Henry King. With Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara, Laird Cregar, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, Anthony Quinn, George Zucco. This one really doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s a freebootin’, colorful free-for-all, with hero Power, Errol Flynn’s only real swashbuckling rival, and heroine O’Hara battle romantically whilst being captured, escaping, switching sides, grabbing booty, and so on. Cregar is stupendous as the nominally historical pirate kind Edward Morgan. Already the genre is beginning to get wise to its clich├ęs. Deliciously over-the-top.

Next, let’s take a closer look at the humor inherent in the subgenre. Pirate movies can be very good, and pirate movies can be very bad -- sometimes both at once.

The whole crazy universe of scallywags and rovers is ripe for parody. Little comic gems include Bob Hope’s chicken-livered Sylvester the Great in “The Princess and the Pirate,” Cheech and Chong’s audio sketch “Buggery on the High Seas” starring “Derek John and Chuck U. Farley,” the film preview within “Pedro and the Man at the Drive-In” on 1973’s “Los Cochinos” LP; Martin Mull’s “Men” sketch/song from his 1977 “I’m Everyone I’ve Ever Loved” album, and Patchy the Pirate and the Flying Dutchman on “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

Michael Palin’s guest-hosting gigs on “Saturday Night Live” in 1978/79 yielded the matchless “Miles Cowperthwaite,” a faux-Dickens piece that, in its second chapter, “I Am Nailed to the Hull,” took our hero to the pirate ship Raging Queen, where he was repeatedly “comforted” by Captain Ned. (Transcript here.)

Not counting some earnest misfires such as “Yellowbeard” and “Cabin Boy,” here are some full-bore funfests that fly the skull and bones:

The Pirates of Penzance (1983) Dir: Wilfred Leach. With Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, George Rose, Angela Lansbury, Rex Smith. Oh how jolly, Roger! The thing about Gilbert & Sullivan is, you love ‘em or you hate ‘em. This is a film version of the hit 1981 Broadway staging of the venerable old British comic opera. There are pirates, orphans, maidens, and such. Lots of good songs and silliness – Kevin Kline is a riot. (P.S. If you get a chance to catch the Yiddish version, “Di Yam Gazlonim” -- ich gans gut!)

The Crimson Pirate (1952) Dir: Robert Siodmak. With Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat. Siodmak was a genius film noir director (“Criss Cross,” “The Killers”), but when he got hold of the sober script for this swashbuckler, he rewrote it into a pretty good comedy. My mom loved this one – gee, is it because Burt runs around with his shirt off a lot? Look hard for a young Christopher Lee in a bit part.

The Ice Pirates (1984) Dir: Stewart Raffill. With Robert Urich, Mary Crosby, Anjelica Huston, John Carradine, Ron Perlman. It’s an acquired taste – a glance at the cast list will show you how uneven it is. What’s more, it’s a sci-fi pirate film, directed by the guy who did the “Wilderness Family” movies and scripted by the guy who wrote “Krull.” But Urich, until his untimely death from cancer at age 55, and despite his tours of duty on “Vega$,” “Spenser: For Hire” and countless mediocre TV movies, was a very good comic actor. This is one of the few chances he got to prove it.

The Crimson Permanent Assurance: (1983) Dir: Terry Gilliam. This little epic that opens Monty Python’s “Meaning of Life” is every downsized office worker’s dream come true – when a little firm is taken over by the Very Big Corporation of America, its employees go brigand and sail the streets in their office building, attacking their new masters’ skyscraper with file-cabinet cannons and ceiling-fan swords.

Now let’s look at why actors love to play pirates – and who’s the best at the job.

The explanation boils down to one word: OVERACTING. So many times, actors, especially film actors, are told to tone it down, rein it in, and keep it natural. Well, not when you’re playin’ a pirate, laddie! You can scowl and squint and saw at the air, drink so furiously that most of it spills down your shirtfront, leap and stagger and scheme and thrust and cackle . . . well, you get the picture.

Still, it takes a special kind of ham to hit ALL the glorious notes on the pirate scale. Here are my four classic, if not classy, candidates for a prize worthy of the Spanish Main – Best Performance by a Pirate!

Number Four: YOSEMITE SAM in Buccaneer Bunny (1948) Dir: Fritz Freleng. Poor Sam. Maybe it’s because he’s so short. He would be a happy little sociopath, you know, if it wasn’t for that long-eared galoot Bugs Bunny. “I’m a pirate, Sea-Goin’ Sam, the blood-thirstiest, shoot-‘em-first-iest, doggone worst-iest buccaneer that ever sailed the Spanish Main!” He persists, Sisyphus-like, in pursuing Bugs – getting blown up, catching anvils, getting crushed and boinging back into shape, ad infinitum. I salute his imperturbable suchness, his irascible idiocy.

Number Three: CHARLES LAUGHTON in Captain Kidd (1945) Dir: Rowland V. Lee. With Randolph Scott, John Carradine, Gilbert Roland, John Qualen, Henry Daniell. That one of the greatest actors of the 20th century should play Captain Kidd is a sign that either the money was right or that Oscar-winner Laughton saw possibilities in the role and exploited them. He digs into the role with gusto, and we get a portrait of a prince of scoundrels. (Plus, he got to reprise the role with Abbott and Costello. OK, that was for the money.)

Number Two: JOHNNY DEPP in Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) Dir: Gore Verbinski. With Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightley, Geoffrey Rush, Jonathan Pryce. Hey, Orlando, I know you were ‘sposed to be the hero of this film, but Depp’s Jack Sparrow is simply one of film’s most memorable characters. Disney head Michael Eisner saw the rushes of Depp’s work. Proving William Goldman’s entertainment-business dictum “Nobody knows anything,” he cried out, “He’s ruining the film!” Instead, Depp created a billion-dollar franchise (yes, a fifth “Pirates” film is in the works.) Depp’s eccentric, witty turn sets the tone – one of Hollywood’s most conscientious actors improvises brilliantly.

Number One: ROBERT NEWTON in Treasure Island (1950) Dir: Byron Haskin. With Bobby Driscoll, Finlay Currie. The Golden Galleon goes to Newton, who single-handedly created the enduring pirate stereotype. He was born to play Long John Silver. Newton was an intense actor who would overact at the drop of a hat, and he just cuts loose here, growling “arrrs” and “ayyees” willy-nilly as he goes. He went on to play Silver in two more films and a TV series, and took the role of Blackbeard to boot.

An’ if you’re not fancyin’ me choices, then I’ll stuff ye with powder and blow ye to Davy Jones! Put that in your foc’sle and smoke it, bucko!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Adventure of the Three Sherlocks


Who's the best Sherlock Holmes?

The list of Sherlock Holmes interpreters is impressive. On screen, the character of the world’s first consulting detective, one of literature’s great creations, has been essayed more than 300 times. Mysteries featuring the master of deduction are always popular -- and money-making -- enterprises. Sherlockian aficionados are eager to consume any new iteration of the character – sometimes to the point of consuming some very badly done drama, or even wandering into quite original post-Conan Doyle plots. It’s a tribute, in fact, to the strength of the character that he seems to have escaped from the confines imposed by his creator and now inhabits all manner of newly written stories.

Approximately 100 different actors have donned the deerstalker’s cap since 1905, when Gilbert A. Anderson, better known as the original movie cowboy hero “Broncho Billy,” played him. Since then, almost any actor tall, lanky, and/or hawk-nosed (and many who were not) has essayed the role. Among them are John Barrymore, Raymond Massey, Christopher Lee, Ian Richardson, and Robert Downey Jr. – the last a rather diminutive incarnation. George C. Scott, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Michael Caine, and Nicol Williamson have brought off Holmes in canon variants and parodies.

Those who have been popularly identified with the role, though, are few. These are Elle Norwood (two features, 42 shorts); Arthur Wontner (five films); Ronald Howard (one TV series); and Peter Cushing (one feature, one TV series, one TV movie). However, I can single three gentlemen in particular who have succeeded in making this difficult personality work on screen.

Why difficult? Because Holmes inhabits a unique and contradictory psychological space. On the one hand, he is a master of emotionless logic – a thinking machine who through sheer force of will and discipline has rendered himself heroically unsusceptible to the vagaries of normal, muddy human behaviors. On the other, he is passionate – about his areas of expertise, and as a defender of victims, the wrongly indicted, and the social fabric itself.

And he is a drama queen, an arrogant, big, fat, show-off. As Cushing astutely observed, “Very difficult part to play, of course, because he goes up and down like a yo-yo, and you’ve got to be awfully careful when you’re playing a part like that, that it doesn’t become annoying to the audience and a bit clever-clever, you know?”

The three present three distinctly different takes on the character, each of which possesses its own hypnotic charm and internal logic. If you know little about Holmes, watch these three at work and you will result in a fine multidimensional grasp of Sherlock’s nature. If you are an insufferable Baker Street loiterer, you can watch these over and over with some sense of satisfaction.

Basil Rathbone

Rathbone must have been glad for the change of pace. After extensive training in classical theater, he made the move to films in the late silent period, and was soon typecast as a villain. Roles such as Pontius Pilate (“The Last Days of Pompeii”), Mr. Murdstone in “David Copperfield,” the wily pirate Levasseur in “Captain Blood,” Tybalt, and most notably Sir Guy of Gisbourne in “The Adventures of Robin Hood” made his reputation as an assured, articulate, and self-possessed nemesis.

When 20th Century Fox decided to take the plunge and mount “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” Rathbone’s physique and poise made him a natural for the role. Paired with plump, amiable character actor Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, the film was such a hit that it initiated a partnership on screen and radio in these roles for seven years. The series moved to Universal after two outings, and were released as sub-90-minute outings paired in a double feature, usually with an Abbott and Costello movie. The second-to-last entry, “Terror by Night” (1946) clocks in at an astonishing 60 minutes.

In 14 feature films of gradually declining quality, sustained primarily by Rathbone’s charisma and long-time director and producer Roy William Neill’s proto-noir style, the Holmes persona was transported to contemporary times and fought Nazis as well as more typical antagonists such as Professor Moriarty, Col. Sebastian Moran, and the like.

Rathbone’s Godlike imperturbability and sangfroid served him perfectly in the role. For a bit of contrast, he would curse himself occasionally for missing a clue, or express his disappointment with the unsatisfactory nature of the skills of those around him. He is abetted in this by his cretinous Dr. Watson, Nigel Bruce. This skilled British character actor had to play the role as written – that of a comic foil. Unfortunately, these antics don’t hold up over time. One wonders whether this Watson is Holmes’ Ugly Chick – (an antiquated notion that a Machiavellian attractive woman chooses a less attractive one as a friend to emphasize her charms. Of course, this isn’t so. And there are no Chicks anymore. Ugly, however, still gets around.)

In the last outing, “Dressed to Kill” (also 1946), his quacking like a duck to relieve but who only further terrifies a frightened little girl, makes him look like a deranged child molester. For insurance, Dennis Hoey, actually a good actor when given a chance, plays Inspector Lestrade with all the Cockney “Gor blimey, now see ‘ere, Mister ‘olmes” brio he can muster. Between these two the Three Stooges would shine like savants.

Rathbone’s profile, posture, precision of speech, and quite literal down-the-nose look at others pushes him into a heroic, intimidating mode of infallibility. In a telling joke inserted into the bizarre 1943 Olsen and Johnson film “Crazy House,” Rathbone states badly, “I am Sherlock Holmes. I know everything.” This is the basis of his appeal.

Rathbone tired of the role after nearly a decade. He felt that he had done all he could, and was bored. He went to other roles, winning a Tony as Dr. Sloper in “The Heiress” in 1947, the year after his Holmes career ended. Later, his classical training and declamation was used a series of horror films – good, bad, and indifferent.

Jeremy Brett

A clinically bipolar actor might seem to be a good deliberate choice for Holmes. However, Brett’s medical condition was irrelevant. His talent was undeniable; he could play Macbeth and Freddy Eynsford Hill in “My Fair Lady,” and everything in between. He fit the bill physically – coming as close as anyone has yet to matching Sidney Paget’s original illustrations of the sleuth.

Yet it’s his intense and theatrical demeanor that distinguishes this Holmes from all the phlegmatic previous performances. Brett’s Holmes is erratic, unstable – barely in control of his impulses. He plays up Holmes’ insufferable qualities – the insulting, obnoxious, cantankerous aspects. It’s as if his acute awareness makes everyday life unbearable to him. He is sallow, gaunt, twitchy.

At the same time, this TV series would attempt to adhere with diligence to the Conan Doyle canon, resulting in the most faithful set of Holmes adaptations to date. (The series would slip as it progressed through four iterations over a 10-year span.) Supported initially by David Burke as Dr. Watson, and Edward Hardwicke in seasons following, this Holmes was given a companion of the level of intelligence that befitted the original narrator of the tales.

So Brett balanced his desire to embody Holmes with a precise fidelity with an ability to make the character fresh and spontaneous again. Brett was unafraid of the extremities of his characterization, and it makes him compulsively watchable. That there were elements of Brett’s personal struggle with mental illness in his work is more a tribute to his professionalism than an endorsement of Method technique.

Heart trouble aggravated by chain-smoking, as well as the side effects of the lithium he took to combat his depression, weakened him considerably and led to his collapse during filming the final series. He was “shot around” for many of these last episodes, with Charles Gray filling the gap as older brother Mycroft.

Brett ends up as both the definite and the most unorthodox Holmes yet, as the same time – not a small feat.
Benedict Cumberbatch

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ re-conception of Holmes in the present day is intended to be an antidote to what Gatiss called the “too reverential and too slow” traditional approach to adapting Holmes for the screen. The success of this still-developing series is due to the co-creators’ wit and boldness.

Enough aspects of the original are retained to anchor the knowledgeable, but the opportunities provided by using modern technology, geopolitical cynicism, and a post-911 sensibility are exploited. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a self-avowed “high-functioning sociopath,” quite young for the role and possessed of autistic traits, such as lack of empathy and intense focus on a limited number of topics (although his verbal facility is untouched and he is quite capable physically). Cumberbatch brings a refreshing sense of fun to the proceedings, cheerfully self-absorbed and delighted to expose the lies of the system as well as those around him.

He is fortunate in his companion. Martin Freeman, in danger in the past of being cast as a nebbishy loser (he broke out in the original British production of “The Office”; Arthur Dent in the film version of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), has advanced to more heroic material in this and in the new “Hobbit” films as Bilbo. His Watson is lucid, hard-bitten,  and complex, although given to much more deadpan humor and weary takes than Watson has been through before.

Above all, this series is much more emotionally complex than any previous Holmes presentations. Serious issues of friendship, family (Mycroft is here, given much more time onscreen; Holmes is actually given parents, and normal ones at that), ethics, fidelity, and responsibility take the foreground, even if set against satisfyingly intricate plots and maddening cliffhangers. This “Holmes” is grounded in relationships.

Then there is the sexiness factor. Cumberbatch's Holmes is a rule-disregarding bad boy, always exciting for the ladies, and his remoteness and single-mindedness gives him a strong touch of what I like to refer to as "Father Ralph syndrome." (Richard Chamberlain's priest character in the 1983 TV miniseries "The Thorn Birds" was a huge heartthrob a) because priests aren't supposed to have sex and b) he did.)

The skyrocketing popularity of the series have pushed Cumberbatch and Freeman into job opportunities and pay grades that may make further series difficult, although one is confidently chalked down for 2015. Will its innovations begin to turn stale, especially for its charismatic lead player As with Rathbone and Brett, only time will tell.