Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Black Swan (1942)

Director: Henry King                                    Writers: Ben Hecht & Seton I. Miller
Film Score: Alfred Newman                         Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Starring: Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara, Laird Creger and Thomas Mitchell

The Black Swan is definitely lesser Sabatini--otherwise Warner Brothers would have purchased it long before Darryl Zanuck got his hands on it. The film was a Technicolor spectacular, however, a hit at the box office that went on to win an Academy Award for Leon Shamroy’s color photography. But seen today, the film pales in comparison to Errol Flynn’s best Sabatini films, Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk, and can’t even approach the magnificence of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Even in black and white Errol Flynn was more vibrant onscreen than Tyrone Power is in color. The direction by Henry King is uninspired, the color rear projection by Shamroy painfully obvious compared to the same thing done in black and white, and Alfred Newman’s tepid film score doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the artistic triumphs achieved by Erich Wolfgang Korngold in all three of the Warner Brothers films. After Flynn’s colossal success in swashbucklers in the thirties, he had already moved on to other types of leading roles by the time World War Two began, and so in many ways this film feels as if it’s five years too late. It had all been done before, much better, and every member of the cast seems like a poor man’s version of the ones in the Flynn films. Finally, as great as Ben Hecht was at writing certain other kinds of films, he definitely failed in this attempt.

The story begins with an attack on one the many Spanish possessions in the Caribbean by English pirates Tyrone Power and George Sanders. It’s an easy conquest and the two captains proceed to get drunk afterward. When Spanish soldiers stage a counter attack Power is captured and put on the rack by Fortunio Bonanova. The tables quickly turn when Thomas Mitchell arrives and frees Power, but when George Zucco arrives as the Governor of Jamaica and claims that the English have signed a treaty with Spain, Power ignores the news and captures Zucco as well. That’s when the pirate leader, Laird Creger, shows up, claiming to have been knighted by the king and sent to replace Zucco in Jamaica. Creger wants to clean up the Caribbean for the English, but Sanders is having none of it and wants only to continue plundering Spanish towns and ships. He is able to get a sizable number of the other captains to go along with him, while Creger only manages to enlist Power and Mitchell to his cause. Maureen O’Hara is Zucco’s daughter, betrothed to Edward Ashley, and so she is naturally antagonistic to Power and his friends. But it turns out Ashley is a traitor, selling information on the whereabouts of English ships so that he can split the treasure with Sanders. All is not as it seems, however, as he is working for Zucco who is actually using the attacks to discredit Creger and get his position back.

First of all, Tyrone Power is just too little to be playing a pirate of any consequence--while at the same time Cregar is far too fat to be believable as a pirate at all. Only Thomas Mitchell and Maureen O’Hara from the principal cast were shorter than Power, and even then not by much. But the worst problem is with the screenplay. Unlike the Warner Brothers films, which were written by Casey Robinson, Howard Koch and Norman Raine and contain clever and compelling dialogue and action, the screenplay by Hecht and Seton Miller is so bogged down by cliché and a lack of ingenuity that it goes nowhere. What’s so ironic is that Miller had worked on both The Sea Hawk and Robin Hood at Warners. What happened here is hard to fathom. Alfred Newman had already tried to copy Korngold when he scored another Power film earlier that year, Son of Fury, with dismal results. Incomprehensibly, this score is even worse. There’s no subtlety to the characterizations at all, and Sanders, Creger, and Zucco chew the scenery all the way through, and even manage to make the great Thomas Mitchell look bad by association. O’Hara’s acting is just as blunt, and she’s like a bad B-film actress compared to Olivia de Havilland. Everything, from Power’s blustering to the cartoon-like speeded up duel at the end, is just bad. In the end The Black Swan is just that, the very opposite of what it should be.

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