Betty and the Buccaneers (1917) A Silent Film Review

A daydreaming young lady who fantasizes about pirate adventure gets more than she bargained for when her father falls victim to a nautical scam. Fortunately, the Secret Service is on the case.

Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of the EYE Film Museum.

Avast, mateys, the G-Men approach!

It’s a universally acknowledged fact that pirate movies are lighthearted fun but real piracy is no laughing matter. This disconnect between fantasy and reality has surfaced in modern times (as this somewhat clueless opinion piece shows) but it was known during the silent era and was the subject of this adventure-romance released by Mutual.

The title character of Betty and the Buccaneers (Juliette Day) is a young lady obsessed with pirate tales to the point of delusion and she encourages her father, the Professor (Charles Marriott), to answer an ad requesting financing for a voyage to recover a trove of pirate gold. The ad was taken out by Captain Crook (Tote du Crow), who, true to his name, is a conman looking for a mark.

Since Betty and the Professor are utter dingbats, they quickly believe everything he says, including the location of the gold on a small island that is somehow not found on any charts. The Professor sails with Crook and his crew, while Betty stays behind, much to her displeasure.

A real pair of pigeons.

Meanwhile, Dick Winthrop, a government agent, is investigating Crook and quickly tracks down his latest marks. He is taken with Betty but alarmed when he hears that her father has sailed with Crook and company. Meanwhile, Crook has tricked the professor into signing his possessions and guardianship of Betty over to him.

Will Dick save the day? Will Betty finally find some sense? You’ll have to see Betty and the Buccaneers to find out!


They were passing out brains, she thought they said rain, so she hid under the table.

Betty and the Buccaneers looks good, thanks to Rollin S. Sturgeon and whoever the uncredited cinematographer was. However, that counts for little because the screenplay by J. Edward Hungerford leaves so much to be desired.

Let’s play a little game. Suppose you are writing a silent era movie scenario, it’s a light comedy and not heavy slapstick, and you want to make your main character eccentric. Not just a little odd, extremely weird and even delusional. This would have been perfectly acceptable for a mainstream release, and you would have two ways of dealing with your oddball protagonist.

Our hero on the case.

Your first option would be to take the Douglas Fairbanks approach: Sure, the hero is eccentric, but he just needs to go where his energy and delusions are actually an advantage. For example, his musketeer-obsessed hero goes west and saves the day in A Modern Musketeer.

Your second option would be the more common Reginald Denny approach: The hero is incredibly weird but is soon motivated to change his ways—likely spurred on by falling in love. For example, Denny’s hypochondriac in Oh Doctor quickly mended his ways to win the love of Mary Astor. Bebe Daniels flipped genders in Feel My Pulse and overcame her fear of illness to rescue Richard Arlen from bootleggers.

Betty daydreams about her friendly local Secret Service man.

By the way, there’s a third approach, the Bringing Up Baby, in which the normal character accepts the madness of the other romantic lead, but that works best in screwball comedies and the male lead of Betty and the Buccaneers simply is not present enough for the trope to fly. If you’re interested in this variation, you can also see it in Sysmäläinen (1938) and Housesitter (1992).

Both these approaches have a few things in common: the rest of the cast openly acknowledges that they find the main character to be at least a bit odd and maybe downright annoying. And there must be a catalyst in which the protagonist either realizes that their eccentricities are finally useful or they are shocked into realizing that they must change.

And here’s where we come to the two main problems with Betty and the Buccaneers. First, Betty and her father are utterly nuts and are described as dingbats in the title cards (well, they put it more nicely than that) but the rest of the sympathetic characters behave as though they are perfectly normal. I can see the old servants indulging them (beyond being annoyed at Betty for reading books in trees) but why would a Secret Service man not bat an eyelash at Betty’s enormous hairbow and childish pirate fixation?

Second, Betty experiences no catalyst. The film seems to be limping between the two options of Betty either realizing she has been silly or using her pirate skills to fight the villains. She takes up a cutlass near the end but then just kind of waves it around and faints. And, while the title cards do the heavy lifting again and inform us that real piracy isn’t much fun, Betty never seems to really process this fact onscreen. The film ends with another fantasy sequence and she doesn’t seem to have grown as a character at all.

You’ve heard of Chekhov’s Gun? This is Betty’s Cutlass. We’re shown it but it’s never used.

Character growth is not essential to every genre but it is in this case. Does the eccentric lead learn that fantasies do not translate into reality or do they learn that they just needed to find their people to be happy? Because happily remaining an oblivious dingbat is not a satisfying ending outside of slapstick comedy and certain surreal genres. (Unless we’re dealing with the Bringing Up Baby variation mentioned above. In that case, the normal person is the one who changes and accepts the madness.)

The other problem with Betty and the Buccaneers is that the Captain Crook’s plot just makes no sense at all. A ship captain trying to scam landlubbers with claims of pirate gold is good as movie scams go but, if I am understanding this correctly, the idea of a fake expedition is to gather cash from subscribers and then abscond. Captain Crook actually sails with a crew—which is the primary expense of an expedition.

They’ll scam their victim by… taking them to sea as promised.

I know Betty is the main character of the film but the actual heavy lifting, as far as moving the plot goes, is done by Dick Winthrop, G-man and heroic type. He’s not introduced until nearly two reels (18 minutes) in and then he’s only in a few scenes. Yet he’s the one who realizes that Captain Crook is up to his tricks again and he’s the one who sets out to rescue the Professor. Betty and her father spend the whole picture dithering and little else.

Explanatory title cards do so much work in the story that I am led to believe that either the scenario was changed considerably after filming was complete or that the producers realized that the action made little sense and decided to paper over with intertitles. Either way, not an ideal situation.

Dead men tell no tales.

And about those title cards, fair warning, they contain stereotype-ridden dialect and an unredacted slur during the climax of the picture when the crew turns on one another.

So, as you can clearly see, Betty and the Buccaneers has some major issues. These issues were noted when it was first released. In her review for the picture published in Moving Picture World, Margaret I. MacDonald complimented the picture’s cinematography and overall beauty but felt that “it falls short in dramatic fitness.” MacDonald specifically cited the poor screenplay and underdeveloped love story.

Nebraska wasn’t having it.

A Chicago theater owner reported that the picture did badly. “Audience displeased and business very poor.” A theater in Nebraska reported, “Very poor business in good weather.” (The weather statement is telling because both the picture and the report were published in March, so the audiences weren’t kept home by Nebraska snow.) A Wisconsin theater stated, “A poor story.”

Mutual’s advertising campaign revolved around Juliette Day’s draw as a stage star. The plan was clearly to create their own Mary Pickford, complete with tomboyish antics and long curls. Now, it’s very difficult to judge a performer’s ability when they were clearly being told to imitate someone else but Day is no Pickford. She was twenty-three and she looked twenty-three, which was and is a fine age to be but not an age when one should still be prancing about in giant hairbows and knee socks. Pickford’s ability to defy age and project a child onscreen well into her twenties and thirties was unique and could not be imitated by merely donning a lace dress.

Old enough for a bachelor’s degree.

So, while the idea was clearly to portray Day as girlish and vivacious, the result was slightly deranged. And then we have the uncomfortable question of age, as Betty seems to be dressed like a tween or early teen but that makes the romance with the very grownup Dick (Joe King was 34 at the time of filming) rather squicky. But if Betty was meant to be older, why dress so childishly? Day didn’t have the experience or charisma to rise above these issues. Her film career ended soon after it began, so I am guessing this was not an isolated issue.

If we want an apples-to-apples silent film comparison of childish fancies taking over a young woman’s life, A Girl’s Folly, released the same year as Betty and the Buccaneers, is a well-acted dramedy about a would-be actress who discovers that movies are not nearly as romantic behind the scenes and Prince Charming is a bit of a cad. Once again, the basic concept of Betty and the Buccaneers is sound, it just fails in the execution.

It’s so pretty, I wish I liked it.

It’s really a shame because I must echo the critics and theater owners of 1917: this picture is gorgeous. The tinting is exquisite, the lighting is delicate and moody, the scenery was clearly chosen with care and a good eye for drama. If you want to be inspired by nautical beauty in silent films, this picture is ideal.

But holy cats, Betty and the Buccaneers is obscure for a reason.

Where can I see it?

Stream for free courtesy of the Eye Film Museum. They have a gorgeous tinted print with the original art title cards in English.


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