March 27, 2011

Captain Blood (1935)

Well, what is there to say about this one?  There is a thin but persistent political undercurrent - a recurring theme of bondage, of masters and slaves in various (and fluctuating) relationships, leading unequivocally to the conclusion that servants owe nothing to an unjust leader.  Sortof the lighthearted, blockbuster version of The Battleship Potemkin.  Potentially heady stuff in another time and place, but here it's pure, escapist entertainment, painted with broad, bold strokes and absolutely unapologetic about it.  That's what makes it great.  These days it's hard to make a film like this, largely because there are only so many variations possible without diluting the purity of the essential story.  Usually they either come out as a ripoff or a convoluted mess.  The key is all in the performance.  You have to set aside doubt and go straight at it with the strength and certainty of Errol Flynn's chin.

Flynn plays Dr. Peter Blood (probably not my first choice out of the Yellow Pages), an English doctor who is taken for a traitor to the crown and sent to the Caribbean as a slave.  Slavery treats him pretty good, thanks to his skill as a physician and protection from the "sheriff's" niece, Arabella (Olivia De Havilland).  But compassion for his fellow slaves and his distaste for bondage even at such lovely hands leads him to organize an escape that leads to a notorious life of piracy.  This all sounds like setup for the plot, but actually most of the action takes place on the island (Port Royal - where else?), while the actual pirate part is really just the last act.  The importance of his pirate exploits is to reveal the meaning and importance of the previously established relationships by inverting them.  This is a carefully structured plot (pretty closely following the novel by Raphael Sabatini).  A little too carefully structured, perhaps - I felt it dragged a bit early in the second half as it got all its pieces repositioned, but mostly it flows pretty well.  Of course, it also ignores the whole thing about how pirates kill people for money, but so has every other pirate movie ever made, so I'll give it a pass.  Blood does at least clearly forbid rape (without actually using the word), but when Arabella calls him on murder, he slides by with, "No more than was necessary."  You mean necessary to take all their stuff against their will?  And how necessary was that?  To its credit, the script does make mention of Blood's anger and desire for revenge, but none of that shows up in Flynn's straight-laced performance.

This is the role that made Errol Flynn a star, and its easy to see why.  Apart from his looks, he has a way of speaking with incredible conviction.  There's a sort of "uncanny valley" of earnestness, at the bottom of which one just comes across as totally naive and pathetic.  Flynn is one of the few who can cross safely over the valley and shame us from the other side.  In fact, there are two occasions in the film where he knowingly manipulates characters to his will using the sheer force of his "naive" Boy Scoutiness.  It also enables him to sell the obscenely flowery dialogue he is given, stuff that would demolish a lesser actor, and with enough charisma left over to add a smile on top of it.

It was also the biggest role yet for De Havilland, who would go on to make quite a few pictures with Flynn, and then on to a more dramatic career that won her two Oscars.  Like so many actresses of classic cinema, she has a poise and presence and maturity that obscures her young age.  She allows herself to be vulnerable and sexy to just the right degree, but with a steady gaze and sharp-witted delivery that is more than a match for her costars.  She was only nineteen upon the release of Captain Blood.  They don't make nineteen-year-olds like that anymore.  It's also notable that De Havilland is easily the most beautiful and glamorously-photographed actress we've seen in all our movies so far.  The "Golden Age" of Hollywood and its obsession with glamorized leading ladies is now beginning to hit its full stride.

Which reminds me, part of the point of this project was to analyze these movies as they compare to their predecessors, not so much from a modern perspective.  Which I've rather let slide a bit.  But Captain Blood is a good opportunity to mention a trend I've noticed in the 30s.  By this point, movies have already gotten old enough that they are beginning to reflect on their history.  The earliest examples of every major genre can be found in the silent era, along with the earliest adaptations of major literary works.  Now the 30s seem to bring with them a significant wave of movies attempting to recapture and update those early classics with all the new technologies and artistic techniques they've learned since (especially sound).  So we get King Kong in the footsteps of The Lost WorldRobin Hood with Errol Flynn in place of Douglas Fairbanks.  The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn in place of... whoever it was.  The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Charles Laughton in place of Lon Chaney.  And so on.  Even The Wizard of Oz - while the 1939 version was the first major full-length production, numerous silent attempts already existed.

And generally I'm one of the first to complain about remakes, but I'm actually quite jealous of audiences of the time.  For one thing, the state of the art really had changed significantly since the last decade, and grown more sophisticated besides.  And I can imagine the excitement of going in to the theater to see a story you loved when you were ten, reimagined bigger and better (and maybe in color) in ways your 20-year-old mind will appreciate even on top of the nostalgia.  That must have been really cool.  Like seeing a beloved comic book or video game finally visualized "for real" on the big screen.  Only, you know... good.

NEXT WEEK: And yet, for all the nostalgia, there's room for something completely, utterly new.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, Errol Flynn is a boyscout - the definitive clean-cut pirate. I laughed as his crew was about to hang the governor, and he saved the governor's life by saying "Hangin's too good for him (me hearties)! Just throw him overboard." What crew would actually buy that? It reminded me of Robert De Niro's Captain Shakespeare, trying to act tough while secretly dreaming of being a gay hairdresser, and his crew plays along because they just kind of like him.