Douglas Fairbanks plays a vengeful nobleman who disguises himself as a pirate in order to take down bad guys and save a princess. It’s Swashbuckling 101 stuff but Fairbanks has a secret weapon: Technicolor!
This is my contribution to the Swashathon, hosted by me! Be sure to read the other posts.
I simply can’t have pirates without color!
By 1926, Douglas Fairbanks was the undisputed king of the costume action picture. Starting with 1920’s The Mark of Zorro, he had steadily checked off the most famous characters and setting of the genre. However, there was one popular adventure topic he had not yet covered: pirates.
Jackie Coogan claimed that he gave Fairbanks the idea for The Black Pirate when he enthusiastically shared his favorite book, Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates. The enthralled Fairbanks gave Coogan a $10,000 check but his father made him return it. Whether or not this is true, Fairbanks used Pyle as a major inspiration as he knocked together a story (under the name Elton Thomas) with just about every pirate trope under the sun. Duels, walking of planks, wooden ships, iron men and a princess to rescue, it’s all there.
Fairbanks declared that he could not visualize a pirate movie in anything but full color. He had to wait for the technology to catch up with his ambitions but he felt confident enough to proceed when it came time to start planning his annual film release for 1926. Fairbanks was one of the founders of United Artists, along with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith. Creative control also meant financial risk and so Fairbanks had reason for caution. (Griffith had already been forced by his debt load to sign on with Paramount.) Everything had to be planned down to the last parry and stab as there was no margin for error.
The film opens with one of the typical text-heavy Fairbanks title cards. We are told that a band of pirates in the south seas has made a habit of attacking ships, stealing everything of value, tying up the survivors and blowing them up. The pirate captain (Danish actor Anders Randolf) spots a prisoner who has swallowed a valuable ring and signals one of his men to get it back. He does. A large knife is involved. Yes, things get pretty dark.
The pirates depart, the ship is blown to smithereens and the only survivors are Douglas Fairbanks and his father, two Spanish noblemen who manage to make for the shore of an island. The father soon dies and Doug vows revenge, though it’s difficult to see what one man can do against the pirate band. Wait a minute, this is Doug! You know he has a plan!
The pirate captain has gone ashore with his lieutenant (veteran Fairbanks baddie and ex-dentist Sam de Grasse) and comedy relief, MacTavish (Donald Crisp). Crisp, who had directed Don Q, Son of Zorro and played the main bad guy, later claimed that he had been the original director of The Black Pirate but had been pushed aside, allegedly because Fairbanks was annoyed that Crisp had directed his son in Man Bait. (Like Francis X. Bushman, Fairbanks was sensitive about a “junior” making him look old.)
However, this story does not hold water as Man Bait was released in 1927, well after The Black Pirate wrapped. According to historian Rudy Behlmer, there is one contemporary reference to Crisp as the director of The Black Pirate in a February issue of Moving Picture World but all other references from that period name Albert Parker, the man who finally directed the film, as helming the picture. In any case, if Fairbanks was so angry with Crisp it seems odd that he would have kept him on in a prominent supporting role, one with as much screen time as any of the other leads.
Anyway, the pirates are burying their treasure, as celluloid buccaneers always do, and Doug spots them. The captain and his lieutenant are preparing to massacre their crew in order to keep the treasure for themselves but they are stopped when Doug shows up and asks to join up. He ends up in a duel with the captain (sword and dagger!) and quickly dispatches him, MacTavish and the other pirates are impressed, while Sam de Grasse keeps his distance. Doug then declares that he will further prove his mettle by taking yonder Spanish ship single-handed.
In the most celebrated scene in the film, Fairbanks makes his way onto the ship, uses a sail to fly into the rigging, slices his way down the sails and holds the entire crew at cannon-point. He was assisted with wires, reversed shots and pre-sliced sails but that’s not to say that any of it was easy and it still looks great. The sail-slicing in particular has often been imitated but never matched.
Anyway, Doug’s plan is a terrible one because the pirates immediately start their usual routine of robbery and explosions and they are also annoying the ship’s main passenger, the princess (Billie Dove, cast because of her experience with Technicolor). Now styled the Black Pirate, Doug convinces the pirates to hold both ship and princess hostage but he doesn’t factor in Sam De Grasse, one of the more cunning villains.
No silent leading man could boast of more pep than Douglas Fairbanks and not many villains stood a chance against his energetic brand of heroism, but Sam De Grasse played antagonists who very nearly defeated the human tornado. The two actors had appeared together in Fairbanks’s early western/wilderness films but they were most famously paired in swashbucklers.
What was the secret to their success? Contrast. Fairbanks was all about stunts, speed, and enthusiasm. De Grasse took things slower, satisfied to observe his foe under heavily lidded eyes and wait for a chance to stab him in the back. As Prince John in Robin Hood, De Grasse doesn’t break a sweat; that’s what his lackeys are for. He very nearly uses Robin for his archers’ target practice but gets thwarted at the last minute. In The Black Pirate, De Grasse’s tactics are even more covert. He watches as Fairbanks’s mysterious interloper wins the hearts of the crew. Fairbanks improvises his way out of some tight scrapes but soon finds that De Grasse had been one step ahead of him all along and the Black Pirate is forced to walk the plank. (To say more would be telling.)
Ultimately, De Grasse’s villains knew that they couldn’t compete with Fairbanks physically so they relied on cunning schemes and superior numbers. De Grasse never won, of course, but it was touch and go on more than one occasion.
Fairbanks is the good guy of this picture but he plays rough as well. He shoots, stabs and strangles his way through a long list of opponents in a manner that surely would have raised eyebrows in the sound era.
By the way, Fairbanks also looks terrific in his swashbuckling togs and I should note that the selection of black for the character’s dress is a nice nod to historical accuracy. Black was the favored color of Spanish nobility during Spain’s Golden Age and so it is highly appropriate that Fairbanks’ character would select it. (The love of black was partly due to pious austerity and partly due to the Spanish monopoly on logwood, a black dyestuff.)
As mentioned before, this story is really more of a collection of tropes and poor Billie Dove is given the thankless damsel role. She does what she can with it but her part pretty much consists of looking either frightened or twitterpated. She was allegedly replaced by Mary Pickford for the film’s final clutch (Fairbanks was supposed to have done something similar in Pickford’s Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall).
I should note that while Billie Dove stated that she never kissed Fairbanks in the film (beyond a peck on the cheek) and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. stated that his step-mother did indeed stand in for her, the replacement has not been definitively proven. It’s likely but not absolutely confirmed.
The Black Pirate’s big “hook” is also one of the main reasons for its success. I am referring, of course, to it being shot 100% in expensive Technicolor.
There are people who are shocked that color film existed in the 1930s. Let’s be merciful and avoid telling them that, like talkies, color film was a goal in the motion picture industry from the very beginning. Hand-colored movies were part of Thomas Edison’s very first screening and the hand- and stencil-color industry is so interesting that we could spend the next 100,000 words or so discussing it. However, we’re here to talk about so-called “natural color” as opposed to “applied color” e.g. tinting, toning, hand-color, etc. Again, this will be extremely abbreviated and simplified as we are mostly concerned with The Black Pirate but a little bit of background is in order.
Natural color sought to capture the real colors of a scene and much of the early activity in the field was centered in Britain. William Friese-Green, Frederick Lee and Edmund Turner all worked on natural color processes in the 1890s and one of Turner’s color films from 1901 was recently recovered and screened. Kinemacolor, the brainchild of George Albert Smith and Charles Urban, was used between 1908 and 1915 and was the most commercially successful natural color process of its time.
There were more processes and we really could be here all day but this is a whirlwind tour and it’s time to move onto the United States. Kodachrome, which created images quite similar to what we see in The Black Pirate, was invented in 1913 and produced some of the best color results to date. Here’s a 1922 demo reel of Kodak’s top-of-the-line process of the time:
(Kodak claims that this is “some of the earliest” color motion picture footage you will ever see. Um, no, we’ve already discussed the earlier stuff. Nice try, Kodak.)
Two-color Technicolor is probably the most familiar natural color process for silent film fans. It was also a pain in the rear. When The Black Pirate was made, Technicolor called for two toned films to be cemented together for projection and these prints were plagued by curling, cupping and irregular shrinkage. The prints had to be sent off to Technocolor to be ironed out! Plus, the stuff was expensive and production was limited, which is why even big budget pictures like Ben-Hur would limit themselves to color sequences instead of full-color throughout. There were even rumors that color films would strain the eyes and distract from the acting. (This may seem rather silly if one considers the jaunty gaudiness of French hand-colored and stencil-colored films but there is an explanation.)
You may notice that the images seem to have a surreal, painterly color scheme. This is because two-color Technicolor lived up to its name and picked up red-oranges and blue-greens. (For comparison, you’re probably reading this on a screen that uses RGB color: red, green, blue. If this were a printed magazine, it would likely be CMYK: cyan, magenta, yellow, black.) With the magic of Photoshop, I roughly mimicked the effect on a standard color photo so that you can see what this particular Technicolor process does to images:
I love it! And I love the way Douglas Fairbanks and company used the Technicolor. Instead of splashing everything in red to show off the technology, they chose a more subdued palette with the goal of creating a film that looked as old as its subject, a film aged in wood. In addition to Howard Pyle, Fairbanks and his creative team studied Rembrandt and other works by famous artists and illustrators. Don’t the frames look like they are pages from Pyle’s pirate book come to life? (Please note that my screencaps are from the Kino DVD edition. The newer Bluray is much prettier!)
It wasn’t easy. Fairbanks waited for Technicolor’s production to expand before embarking on the experiment and he reportedly hired doctors to test whether color film strained the eyes. (The notion may seem silly in hindsight but it was based on fact as the fringing and flicker of early natural color methods did indeed cause discomfort with extended viewing.) Months of tests were required (there were only seven Technicolor cameras in the entire world at the time) and two sets of costumes were needed, one exteriors and one for interiors.
This is also the point where I believe Donald Crisp was given the heave-ho as director, if indeed he had been signed on for the job at all. The falling out over Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. just doesn’t have the ring of truth but Crisp either being unwilling or unable to handle the pressures of a Technicolor production makes sense and explains why he stayed on as an actor.
(Fairbanks was reportedly disappointed with some of the color sequences but he was a perfectionist. I think he’s too hard on himself and that the whole film is gorgeous.)
Everything had to be planned to the last detail, which meant that the elaborate sets of The Thief of Bagdad or Robin Hood were impractical and thank goodness! The Black Pirate was the leanest, meanest Fairbanks film to come along in years and it has a snap that had been missing since The Mark of Zorro.
At a mere hour and a half, The Black Pirate is miles shorter than any of the previous costume swashbucklers Fairbanks had made since The Mark of Zorro. This, of course, was due in part to the expense of the color film but it does wonders for the picture.
The film also benefits from the work of fencing choreographer Fred Cavens. His resume includes most of the big classic swashbucklers (Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, Tyrone Power’s Zorro, The Black Swan, Captain Blood) and for good reason: he knew what he was doing. Cavens had a natural grasp of what was required for the motion picture screen, a blend of flash and realism that felt deadly and exciting. The fights in The Black Pirate are rapid, ruthless and graceful, cinematic in every way. Cavens also doubled for Fairbanks’ opponents in solo closeups. Real movie fencing is an art, one that was sadly lost in the craze for uglier fights and computer-enhanced leaps.
We can talk about realism but that’s not to say that Fairbanks actually sliced his way down a sail or that his men swam around with shark fins. He took full advantage of the technology that was available to him at the time, from trampolines to wires to reversed footage to undercranked cameras, but there’s no denying the power of practical effects and discussing them in no way diminishes that power.
While The Black Pirate is a bit thin on plot, it makes up for it with pacing and technical polish. Fairbanks performs some of his most famous stunts and the whole thing is a wonderful adventure, even if it is a bit dark around the edges. A must-see.
Where can I see it?
The Black Pirate has been released on DVD and Bluray by Kino Lorber. Given the delicate nature of early Technicolor, I cannot recommend any bargain editions. The Kino release also includes an excellent commentary by Rudy Behlmer (a treasure trove of information for this review) and rare outtakes. The film is presented with its original score by Mortimer Wilson, conducted by Robert Israel as recorded in 1996.
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.