Thursday, September 15, 2011

Blackbeard, the Pirate (RKO, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Eventually Charles and I watched a movie: Blackbeard, the Pirate, a 1952 production from RKO that was one of those bad movies that was hatched from the shell of what could have been a very good one. The story begins in 1946, when RKO producer Val Lewton — the receipts from whose low-budget but artistically made horror movies had saved RKO from renewed bankruptcy after the fiscal bath they’d taken on Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons (as well as the unfinished It’s All True and Pare Lorentz’s un-started Name, Age and Occupation) — wanted to take the step up to “A” productions and budgets. His idea for making the switch was to do a movie based on the life of Edward Teach, the notorious pirate Blackbeard, with Boris Karloff playing him. Then Lewton, doing his usual meticulous historical research, learned that the pirates of Blackbeard’s time had not sailed in large ships, as they’d been shown doing in films like the 1934 MGM Treasure Island, Warners’ 1935 Captain Blood (a star-making vehicle for then-unknown Errol Flynn) and the silent pirate movies these had been remakes of. Instead they had sailed in fleets of small, maneuverable cutters, which they used much the way the modern-day pirates of Somalia use speedboats: to surround the ship they were going to rob, blockade it and remove its valuable cargo (though the Somali pirates are often less interested in stealing from the ship than in extracting a ransom payment from its owners to let it go).

Lewton submitted this to the RKO executives, who angrily told him they weren’t giving him an “A” production budget to make a movie about Boris Karloff commanding a fleet of fishing boats — and they scrapped the project, Lewton left RKO (and made only three more movies in the five years he had left to live) and Karloff filled out his last commitment to RKO by playing the villain in their last Dick Tracy “B,” Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, in 1947. Flash-forward five years: RKO has just distributed yet another version of Treasure Island, this one produced by Walt Disney in England (his first live-action film, made to use his studio’s frozen funds), with British actor Robert Newton as Long John Silver, and it’s been an enormous hit. (Shortly thereafter Disney cut his distribution ties with RKO and founded his own distribution company, Buena Vista.) With the idea of a follow-up in mind, RKO’s executives dusted off the idea of a Blackbeard movie as a vehicle for the same star, Robert Newton, and the script they commissioned (by Alan LeMay from an “original” story by DeVallon Scott) of course had Blackbeard sailing in a big ship much like the ones he and his crew were trying to rob — indeed, Blackbeard sails in two different ships at different points in the film, and he obtained both the same way: by having his crew invade them while they were at port and overpower and murder their rightful captains.

RKO got Raoul Walsh to direct, and under normal circumstances that would have been an excellent idea, but not this time: Walsh seemed uninspired by the by-the-numbers pirate script he got and by Newton’s relentlessly one-dimensional overacting (this is the sort of pirate film in which the pirate captain punctuates virtually every sentence out of his mouth with “Aaargh,” and that gets as monotonous as the one-note villainy of Newton’s character: he’s presented as a total psychopath with no ironically human characteristics whatsoever, and though it’s tempting to imagine the film with Karloff in the lead, frankly the limited range of the character would have given Karloff absolutely nothing to work with of the sort that had made his performances as the Frankenstein Monster, Imhotep in The Mummy, John Ellman of The Walking Dead and the mad scientists he played for Columbia, Universal and Gaumont-British so rich and moving). The real star of the film is Keith Andes, generally written off as just another pretty boy but actually a quite good, authoritative actor who should have had a better career than he did — especially since he had the sort of launching pad up-and-comers dream of: Clash by Night, a prestigious 1952 RKO drama with an all-star cast (Barbara Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, Robert Ryan and Marilyn Monroe!) and a first-rate director, Fritz Lang, adapting a play by prestigious author Clifford Odets.

Andes plays Robert Maynard, a young surgeon who lives in Jamaica during the time of the pirates (around about the 17th century, one guesses; the real Blackbeard’s dates were 1680 to 1718, but that’s not made especially clear in the film itself). The famous pirate Sir Henry Morgan (Torin Thatcher) has supposedly reformed and worked his way into the British colonial government of Jamaica — indeed, he’s in line to be the next governor — but a rival force within the colonial establishment has put up a reward for anyone who can prove that Morgan is still engaging in piracy, and Maynard is out to get that reward. He ends up shanghaied aboard Blackbeard’s ship after Blackbeard overpowers the captain (a known associate of Morgan) Maynard thought he was sailing under and hangs the poor guy from the yardarm. Also on board Blackbeard’s ship, being held prisoner, is Edwina Mansfield (Linda Darnell, playing essentially the sort of role Olivia de Havilland played in Captain Blood), whose charms have sufficiently attracted Morgan that he orders his men not to fire on Blackbeard’s ship for fear of hurting her — and the rest of the movie features Blackbeard and the other characters chasing each other around the Caribbean. We learn quickly that Blackbeard is such a hard taskmaster even some of his own crew members — including his first mate, Ben Worley (William Bendix in one of his few movies in color) — want him dead, and also he’s hidden the treasure chest from his last attempts at piracy on an island and has carefully secreted it so no one else, not even Worley and Maynard (who were supposedly on the island when he buried it — he actually sent them away to secure the boat they’d used to travel from their ship at anchor to the island itself), knows where it is.

Blackbeard, the Pirate has its virtues — mostly the neon-bright three-strip Technicolor cinematography by William E. Snyder, with James Gooch as the ubiquitous Technicolor consultant; it’s one of the last gasps of the glories of Technicolor before the cheaper, more practical but less spectacular Eastmancolor process took over (and how nice in our day and age to see a movie set in the past in which everything isn’t brown!) — but they’re sunk (pardon the pun) by Newton’s annoying performance in the title role and a script that really doesn’t make much sense and is also awfully gory for a 1952 movie (its TV rating is PG-V and one can easily see why, especially when Morgan orders the supposedly dead Blackbeard’s head cut off — it’s really a lunatic whom Blackbeard disguised as himself, so we’re not surprised, even though the characters are, when Blackbeard turns up alive later in the film — and at the ending, when Blackbeard finally does meet his demise when his crew, angry that he lost the treasure at sea, bury him on the beach and leave only his head sticking up so he can keep consciousness until the tide rises and drowns him). Still, Keith Andes is not only a physically exciting hero, he’s also well equipped to handle the limited dimensions of his role — and Linda Darnell, though a bit more zaftig than she was in her 20th Century-Fox days (when Darryl F. Zanuck tired of her, he seems to have passed her on to Howard Hughes!), is still comely (and looks good enough in the period dresses) to be a perfectly fine damsel in distress for the hero and villains to fight over. But one can’t help but wish that the Lewton/Karloff Blackbeard had been the one that got made instead!