Thursday, September 14, 2023

The NFR Project: 'The Black Pirate'


The Black Pirate

Dir: Albert Parker

Scr: Jack Cunningham

Pho: Henry Sharp, Arthur Bell, George Cave

Ed: Bret Hampton, William Nolan

Premiere: March 8, 1926

94 min.

Douglas Fairbanks (Sr.) was the first king of Hollywood. Starting out as a light comedian, he made a name for himself with his short but peppy, fast-moving dramedies, spiked with daring stunts. Eventually, he hit upon the perfect formula for him to celebrate his values of energy and optimism. Swashbuckling epics, starting with The Mark of Zorro in 1920 (see my review here) and including The Thief of Bagdad (see my review here), were his claim to fame.

The Black Pirate originated, supposedly, from a conversation Fairbanks had with a young Jackie Coogan, who expressed his affection for Howard Pyle’s 1921 Book of Pirates. Leafing through the book, Fairbanks was captivated by the illustrations and insisted on creating a pirate project himself. He supplied the film’s story, using the pseudonym of “Elton Thomas” (his middle names).

The film is shaped around the persona of its star, and is composed of all the standards elements of a Fairbanks action/adventure – stirring fight sequences, lavish detail and miniature work, a bit of (chaste) romance, a soupcon of comedy, and just the documentation of the kinetic energy generated by the whirlwind Fairbanks.

Additionally, the film had the distinction of being the first successful color feature film. It seems that Technicolor had been developed to the extent of being cost-effective. It was still crude, recording only reds and greens in a “two-strip” format. Lacking the blues and yellows of the spectrum, the result is a vaguely colored-in, dusky, burnished, Old Masterish kind of look that was surely impressive 100 years ago.

The story is a classic one. A young man (Fairbanks) and his dying father are stranded by pirates. The son swears revenge. Neatly, he comes upon the pirates and fights their chief, killing him and winning the crew’s allegiance. He cows his naysayers by next capturing a ship single-handled, with he does with grace and aplomb.

When a woman is discovered on the attacked ship, our hero adroitly keeps the others from molesting her as he fights for time and a chance to free her. Unfortunately, his plan is discovered and he is forced to walk the plank! Beyond this I will not go, but gentle viewer, feel sure that by film’s fade-out, justice and virtue triumph.

Actor/director Donald Crisp was slated to direct this film, but is supposed to have been in conflict early on with Fairbanks and taken off the directing job. If there was a conflict, it must have resolved itself, as here Crisp plays the prominent role of the hero’s one-armed sidekick MacTavish. Visible here too, in the last frames of the film, are Fairbanks’ real-life wife, Mary Pickford, dressed up like actress Billie Dove to take the closing smooch from her husband. Such were the mores of Hollywood at the time.

The Black Pirate is really the last of Fairbanks’s great swashbucklers. He would take a much more adult tone in his 1927 The Gaucho, and after that the talkies came along. Fairbanks was no longer young, and his brand of brash, go-go, idealistic Americanism was going out of style. He would die in 1939, at the young age of 56.

The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: Ella Cinders.

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