Director Henry King and stars Tyrone Power and Maureen O’Hara put the ‘swash’ in ‘swashbuckler’ with The Black Swan (1942); an ebullient adventure yarn shot with cinematographer, Leon Shamroy’s painterly precision. It all looks so luscious in three-strip Technicolor; the flowing auburn tresses of O’Hara set against Power’s midnight black ensemble and blood red cape; her imperious virgin-esque glamor goddess frothing over in white and robin-egg blue gowns pitted against Ty’s earthy, five o’clock shadowed, bare-chested masculinity. Each star has brought out the best in the other; their on-screen chemistry partly derived from the fact that Power and O’Hara were already good friends by the time each was cast in this film.
It might have never happened, if not for Charles Laughton who, seeing O’Hara on the London stage quickly signed her to an ironclad movie contract for his independent production company and put her to work in the movies – a medium O’Hara marginally considered ‘less than’ live theater. O’Hara made the leap across the Atlantic into instant stardom as the gypsy girl in Laughton’s masterful remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); her contract thereafter rented out – in parts – by every major studio, including Fox. The Black Swan immeasurably benefits from O’Hara’s feisty Irish import; her air of haughty exclusivity translating into hot-blooded passion despite her on-screen romantic protestations.
On the other end is Tyrone Power – descended from an American acting aristocracy and arguably worthy of its mantel of quality. It doesn’t always stand to reason that just because a man is handsome he cannot act his way out of a paper bag. And Power, for all his undeniably gorgeousness, was never into himself as much as the ladies were undeniably very much into him. Power is arguably just right in The Black Swan. The role of a swarthy sea pirate with a certain dispensation for the social graces fits Ty like the proverbial eye patch and parrot – although neither is on display in the movie; a very sexy rogue indeed.
But Power also harbored a bit of petty larceny toward O’Hara behind the scenes: nothing dastardly. He just encouraged his rather innocent costar to repeat the most lurid stories to their director, she misunderstanding their double entendre until it was too late. Eventually, O’Hara caught on to Ty’s trickery but held no grudge for being teased. In point of fact, she was just as smitten with Power’s charm as everyone else; an enviable commodity essential to any rake’s progress.
Having seen their future in Power’s star presence for at least a decade, 2oth Century-Fox spent lavishly on The Black Swan: Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller’s screenplay taking great liberties with Sabatini’s rollicking tale of piracy on the high seas. In point of fact, the story is the least fascinating aspect about the movie. But this oversight doesn’t really damage the appeal of the movie; not when there’s Alfred Newman’s rousing score and James Basevi and Richard Day’s production values to consider, capped off by a spectacular production with all the zest for expertly illustrating a tall tale.
The studio has rounded out their A-list action picture with some very fine performers; Anthony Quinn, Thomas Mitchell and George Sanders as pirates Wogan, Tommy Blue and Billy Leech respectively; Fortunio Bonanova as Spanish governor Don Miguel, George Zucco - the enterprising Lord Denby, Edward Ashley - unscrupulous plotter, Roger Ingram and, in the pivotal ‘historical’ role as Capt. Henry Morgan (yes, the one presently remembered more for lending his name to a bottle of Caribbean rum) Laird Creger – the robust ham whose legendary presence might have continued at Fox for many years if not for a fatefully botched intestinal surgery that claimed his life prematurely shortly after The Black Swan’s release.
The Black Swan is the beneficiary of these iconic star turns; each striking an indelible note within the movie’s scant 85 minutes. If a criticism can be made, it’s that The Black Swan seems to end much too soon with elements central to the plot remaining unresolved after the final fade out. As example; we never learn of Captain Morgan’s fate – having been ousted as Jamaica’s governor by the nefarious backstabbing Roger Ingram who, in cahoots with Lord Denby is determined to illustrate to its island populace that Morgan is unfit to rule and, in fact, is responsible for the latest series of English tall ships being plundered just off the coast by pirates still loyal to Morgan’s former life as their leader.
Our story does open in the moneyed Spanish stronghold of Tortuga raided by Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power), Capt. Leech and Wogan. The storming of the town, raided for its jewels, liquor and eligible wenches, turns rancid on the beach when a stronghold of Spanish soldiers retaliates, dragging Jamie back into town. He is put on the rack and observed in all of his writhing pain with great pleasure by Don Miguel who threatens to separate Jamie limb from limb.
Jamie’s fate is disturbed by the arrival of Tommy Blue and his entourage of pirates who take Don Miguel hostage and imprison Lord Denby, much to the feisty chagrin of his daughter, Lady Margaret (Maureen O’Hara). After attempting to kiss her, and being bitten on the lips, Jamie knocks Margaret unconscious, slinging her over his shoulder as his trophy to be carried off in triumph. Soon Jamie learns that Captain Morgan (earlier convicted to hang for treason against the crown) instead has been set free by the king and appointed the new governor of Jamaica. For his good fortune, Morgan has promised his fellow pirates extensive land grants, but only if they lay down their swords and reform. Jamie is willing to give this a try. But Capt. Leech informs Morgan that he intends to continue pillaging these island satellites for his own pleasure and profit; a move that immediately pits Morgan against Leech for the rest of the story.
In the meantime, Jamie makes valiant attempts to woo Lady Margaret as a gentleman. He is, regrettably, unsuccessful. She accosts him with a stone and repeatedly defies his romantic overtures with venomous spite. After all, Margaret is engaged to the rather foppish Roger Ingram. Unknowingly, Margaret witnesses Ingram’s deceptions with Mr. Fenner (Charles McNaughton), a pirate spy feeding insider information back to Ingram as per the whereabouts of various English vessels loaded down with their handsome cargoes. Ingram then passes along this information to Leech. Leech uses his ship, The Black Swan, to locate loot and then destroy several prominent and seemingly untouchable vessels on the open waters, including the Prince Consort. News of its lost booty and casualties reaches Government House in Port Royal where Ingram uses the incident to lay blame at Morgan’s feet. Incensed by such treason Port Royal’s Board of Governors calls for Morgan’s removal from office. Ingram vows to sail to London immediately for a reprieve of the king’s appointment of Morgan.
To stem this tide of dissention Morgan dispatches Jamie and his crew in search of Leech. But the wily pirate has been prematurely tipped off by Fenner. Thus, Jamie, Billy and the rest of his men return to Port Royal empty-handed, even as another ship is looted and sunk in the ocean by Leech’s stealthy Black Swan. As fate would have it, Jamie sets off in search of Leech, but not before he and Billy kidnap Lady Margaret from her home to ensure that she does not marry Ingram. Aboard his ship, the Revenge, Jamie spots Leech and his entourage. He is too late to outrun the Black Swan. Realizing he is outnumbered, Jamie elects to pretend to Leech that he has left Morgan to rejoin his mates in their criminal activities. Leech is unconvinced of Jamie’s loyalties, especially with the skeptical Wogan at his side. So, Jamie implicates Lady Margaret in his plan, telling Leech that she is his wife. Leech agrees to take Jamie and Margaret onto his ship, everyone sailing for a rendezvous in Port Royal.
Margaret feigns being married to Jamie but continues to question his motives until she pieces together Ingram’s involvement with Fenner and deduces for herself that her fiancée is the real traitor to the crown. But by then it is too late. Leech has recognized Jamie is merely going through the motions to placate him until such time as an ambush can be arranged. Calling Jamie out as the deceiver, Leech binds and gags him below deck, taking the Revenge’s crew hostage and sailing into Port Royal guns blazing. Morgan is outraged by this assault and blames Jamie for the attack. Forced from office by his irate constituents, Morgan sets sail to confront Jamie, Leech and the rest on the high seas. After learning of Leech’s treachery, Morgan exonerates Jamie of any wrong-doing and Lady Margaret, having at last come to her senses, joins Jamie at his side – presumably destined to fall in love and marry him.
The Black Swan is a mostly engaging and generally rousing action/adventure yarn. Based on the 1932 novel by Raphael Sabatini, The Black Swan takes its artistic liberties where it can, indulging the audience in its fabled land of make-believe direct from the Fox back lot, with a nod to L.A.’s famed Griffith Park – the scene of so many classic movies presumably shot in lush tropical locations on the far side of the world. It’s really rather amazing to consider The Black Swan as a studio-bound vehicle. But director Henry King and Leon Shamroy have definitely done their homework; the iconic images of a trio of tall ships charging across vast sun-drenched waters only occasionally giving evidence to being impressively scaled down models floating inside a four foot tank with a painted backdrop of simulated clouds at sunset behind them. What The Black Swan arguably lacks is a marauding spirit - the likes of an Errol Flynn to make Sabatini’s story catch fire and truly set sail for the seven seas. Everything looks absolutely marvelous. But does it ever come to life? Hmmm.
Tyrone Power is at his heartthrob best as Jamie Waring, the self-professed scourge of the sea. Both he and Maureen O’Hara look ravishing in Technicolor. The movie’s carefully crafted hues and set pieces take on the flavoring of a portrait painted by Rembrandt. Yet despite its megawatt star power and some momentous action sequences the real star of this film is Technicolor. Power’s sexy pirate is very much a throwback to the silent era, a la the likes of a Rudolph Valentino meets Douglas Fairbanks Sr.
Make no mistake: Tyrone Power was a Hollywood pin-up en par with Betty Grable – rakishly handsome yet strangely prepubescent; his shaven chest rather anemic when compared to the physicality of Errol Flynn; Warner Bros. answer to flounced pirate shirts and the cod piece. Power has trouble making Earl Luick’s more flamboyant costumes look lived in. They’re costumes rather than clothes. At one point Luick’s designs seem to be taking their cue from The Mark of Zorro (1940); Power attired in a black cape with red insert and wide-brimmed gaucho-styled hat. Whereas Errol Flynn in pirate’s garb captures the essence of a butch buccaneer, Tyrone Power in similar duds looks like an actor trying too hard to pretend.
This shame is compounded by some rather shoddy fencing sequences. A duel between Leech and Jamie aboard the Black Swan, as example, appears to have been sped up in postproduction to add more urgency to its pacing. In point of fact, it comes off rather cartoony. Disheartening too is the Seaton I. Miller/Ben Hecht screenplay, wrapping up the story without ever resolving many of its central threads. After spending the first and middle acts as vehement enemies, and with barely ten lines of dialogue between them, in the last act sandwiched in between other sea-faring intrigues, we are suddenly expected to buy into a burgeoning romance between Jamie and Lady Margaret. And for all of our expectations to see Power’s uncouth vagabond of the sea mated with this smarmy daughter of English aristocracy, The Black Swan really doesn’t allow its romance to play out – at least not to any satisfactory conclusion. Yet, none of the aforementioned shortcomings is enough to sink the enterprise as a whole. The Black Swan is entertaining. It just isn’t particularly cohesive.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray marginally improves on the DVD from 2002. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because the DVD exhibited a reference quality transfer. As expected, everything tightens up in 1080p. Fine details in fabric, hair and background information are enhanced and colors seem marginally more refined. It’s important to recall that like other Fox Technicolor product from this period, no original three-strip elements remain from which to do a proper restoration. Fox herein is cribbing from a meticulous effort derived from a single strip reprint done back in the late sixties on preservation stock that, regrettably, proved not to have the same longevity as its predecessor. That said, the 2002 DVD restoration has done wonders with these second generation elements. We’re seeing some impressive work marginally improved by the added luxury of having it transferred to a home viewing format – Blu-ray – capable of registering all of the information available on film-based stock. Hands down, The Black Swan looks wonderful in hi-def.
There is no edge enhancement, mis-registration, age-related or digital artifacts. But the image is smoother than one would like, and a bit thick at times, and seemingly absent of grain of any kind. This isn’t how The Black Swan must have looked in 1942. But, given the shortcomings Fox is working with, it is likely the closest approximation we’re likely to see. The DTS mono audio remains faithful to its source, Alfred Newman’s score sounding quite marvelous. Regrettably Fox has been stingy on extras again; only the DVD’s audio commentary survives: historian Rudy Behlmer and Maureen O’Hara offering conflicted insight on the making of the movie. Behlmer seems to be more interested in getting O’Hara to wax about her career in generalized terms rather than this movie in particular, so we don’t really get the level of ‘behind-the-scenes’ stories that we should. That’s a shame. We also get the original trailer. Fox has jettisoned the ‘restoration comparison’ and trailers for upcoming Fox Flix. Forgivable exclusions, I suppose. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)