#504) The Black Pirate (1926)

#504) The Black Pirate (1926)

OR “Who Do You Think You Arrrr?”

Directed by Albert Parker

Written by Jack Cunningham and Elton Thomas (aka Douglas Fairbanks)

Class of 1993 

The Plot: In the Golden Age of Piracy, a band of pirates capture, loot, and blow up a ship. One of the survivors (Douglas Fairbanks) vows vengeance for his father, who dies as a result of the raid. Posing as The Black Pirate, the man challenges the Pirate Captain (Anders Randolf) to a swordfight, and after an easy win, becomes the pirates’ new leader. While looting another ship, The Black Pirate decides to hold the ship hostage, including the Princess Isobel (Billie Dove), for a ransom. There’s plenty of adventure and romance to be found in this movie, all of it in revolutionary two-strip Technicolor!

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “swashbuckling tour-de-force” and praises the two-strip Technicolor process. There’s also an essay by Douglas Fairbanks expert/SF Silent Film Festival board member Tracey Goessel.

But Does It Really?: I…guess. “The Black Pirate” is a brisk, enjoyable old-fashioned pirate movie, though this is one of four Douglas Fairbanks movies on the list, which seems a bit much. If nothing else, “The Black Pirate” is a showcase for early two-strip technicolor, and a chance to see what early filmmakers could do with that new technology. My question: If you’re going to include a classic swashbuckler on the NFR, where’s “Captain Blood”?

Everybody Gets One: At first glance, leading lady Billie Dove is your standard silent film ingénue who left the business to raise a family, but there’s a lot more to Dove’s story, including a stint in the Ziegfeld Follies and a broken engagement to Howard Hughes! Billie Dove’s lasting legacy, however, comes from a fan. At some point in the early ’30s, aspiring singer Eleanora Fagan took Billie’s first name as a tribute to the actor, and combined it with her biological father’s last name to become Billie Holiday. And now you know the rest of the story!

Wow, That’s Dated: More a question than a statement: Does this movie take place somewhere in the Spanish Main? If that’s the case, is everyone in this movie guilty of cultural appropriation? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Other notes 

  • As previously mentioned, “The Black Pirate” is notable for its early use of two-strip Technicolor (Take that, Kodachrome!). Despite their excitement towards filming in color, Fairbanks et al did not want to use color simply as a gimmick. The production was inspired by the paintings of Howard Pyle and Carl Oscar Borg, and created a muted palette of colors throughout the film.
  • Apparently Douglas Fairbanks was a good guy to work for; many of the cast appear in his other three NFR entries. Sam De Grasse even plays a similar bad guy to the one he played in “Wild and Woolly” nine years earlier!
  • The Pirate Captain is giving me a real Yul Brynner vibe. Must be the shaved head.
  • Douglas Fairbanks stunts are never not impressive. The man had an agility that bordered on superhuman. Fun Fact: Fairbanks’ swimming coach for this movie was Johnny Weissmuller, Olympic swimmer and future movie Tarzan.
  • I was ready to write a whole critique questioning why the pirates would blow up a perfectly good ship instead of keeping it, but then the Pirate King brings up the same point. Doug gets it.
  • That is future Oscar winner Donald Crisp as the Scottish pirate MacTavish, complete with stereotypical kilt and tam o’shanter. Apparently, Crisp also directed the first few days of this film before having a falling out with Fairbanks and being replaced with Albert Parker. And yet he’s still in the movie?
  • What I enjoyed the most about “The Black Pirate” was that it contains so many pirate movie tropes that you never see anymore. There’s buried treasure and sword fights, and even a scene where the Black Pirate walks the plank! You always hear about these tropes, but it’s fun to actually see them in a movie!
  • Whoa, enough with the under-cranking on that horse riding scene! If that horse goes any faster it will travel back in time a la Superman.
  • Also impressive for a silent film: tracking shots! The camera actually moves with the characters in a few instances, including an impressive (by 1926 standards) shot of the camera backing up as the Pirate Lieutenant walks towards it.
  • Another impressive shot: Fairbanks seemingly being lifted up through the various decks by his crew, with the camera following with Fairbanks the entire time. Cinematographer Henry Sharp was having some fun that day.
  • I also enjoy the fact that the Pirate King avoids stairs and ladders by simply leaping to his destination. He’s the Super Mario of the ’20s!
  • When The Pirate King passionately kisses Princess Isobel at the end, that’s not Billie Dove in the shot, but rather Douglas Fairbanks’ real-life wife Mary Pickford! Some say this was done as an in-joke, others say it’s because Pickford wouldn’t let her husband kiss another woman on camera. Either way, it’s a rare chance to see America’s Sweetheart in color. There are also publicity photos that still exist showing Pickford in Dove’s costume and wig.
  • Okay, we settled all the plot lines; shouldn’t this be over by now? Do we need the extended comic relief bit from MacTavish? And is the rocking of the boat supposed to be a metaphor?

Legacy 

  • “The Black Pirate” was a success with audiences, and marked the apex of Douglas Fairbanks’ career. Fairbanks never quite made the transition from silent to sound, and his health began to deteriorate after a lifetime of smoking. After years of decline, Douglas Fairbanks died in 1939 of a heart attack at age 56. Two months later, Fairbanks posthumously received a lifetime achievement Academy Award for his “unique and outstanding contribution…to the international development of the motion picture”.
  • Although the film’s use of two-strip Technicolor was a well-received breakthrough, the fact that the film was literally two strips cemented together proved a challenge to most projectionists. A black-and-white version of the film was also available, but the color version would reappear in the ’70s following a restoration. Technicolor would perfect the single strip two-color process in 1928, with the more common three-color single strip arriving a year later.
  • I’d love to talk about this movie’s legacy of great pirate movies, but when you think about it, how many great pirate movies are there really? The first “Pirates of the Caribbean”? “Treasure Island”? ….”Muppet Treasure Island”?

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