Alfred Hitchcock’s original 1935 version of The 39 Steps is one of those films that’s so seminal that when watched today it can seem like little more than a parade of hoary old clichés; that is, until you consider that The 39 Steps is where many of those clichés originated. The film lays a foundation that countless espionage thrillers have built upon and continue to build upon to the present day. It’s all here: The innocent everyman abroad who’s drawn into a web of intrigue by an encounter with a mysterious and exotic woman; the shadowy international criminal organization whose reach is so extensive that it’s impossible to know who can be trusted; the ardently sought-after “MacGuffin” that sets the plot in motion despite ultimately being inconsequential to the outcome; the criminal mastermind with an identifying disfigurement who hides behind a genteel facade of upper-class respectability; the urbane, witty hero who has a way with the ladies, etc. And while it’s hero takes the train rather than hopping the globe on a luxury airliner, The 39 Steps is worth considering as a necessary precursor to the jet setting spy capers that would follow in its wake some thirty years later.
“It’s bad enough to have a ship that looks like this and a captain who looks like me without having a chief officer who looks like you.” — Captain Alan Gaskell
When the winds roar and the rain whips at the streaked windows of my abode on tumultuous Saturday nights, plunging the world into an inhospitable maelstrom of rumbling thunder and fury that sinks all aspirations of going out for a gay night on the town, there are few things that make me feel warmer and more comfortable than pouring myself a tumbler of bourbon and curling up with an old black and white movie full or romance, adventure, dashing leads, and bombshell femme fatales. And on nights such as those, the 1935 high seas adventure romance China Seas delivers an abundance of everything I hope for in such a film, along with more uses of the words “Toots” per minute than any film previously or since made.
Inhabiting the skin of hard-drinking steamer captain Alan Gaskell, Clarke Gable is picture perfect as he struggles to pilot his ship from Hong Kong Harbor to Singapore, doing his best to avoid rip roaring typhoons and marauding Malay pirates. This being an adventure movie, of course, he will successfully avoid neither. But he will look damn good while failing. As the tough talking, hard drinking ship captain who trades sneers and insults and kisses with Jean Harlow’s chain smoking, street tough “China Doll” Portland, Gable crackles with energy and charisma. And Harlow’s somewhat obnoxious Portland matches him sneer for sneer, insult for insult as they ply the waters of the South China Seas with a superb cast of characters, including the drunk writer, the sailor with a dark past, the wide-eyed rookie deckhand, the elegant lady, the wise old mentor with a handlebar mustache and pith helmet permanently grafted to his head, and of course the jovial businessman who ends up being a dastardly traitor.
Much of the film is taken up with banter and witty exchanges between the principals, all of whom perform remarkably well. The setting is exotic. Who wouldn’t want to be aboard an old steamer ship — one possibly laden with a secret shipment of gold — sailing across the China Seas while one dons a tux, drinks champagne, and worry about pirates? It’s a picture perfect old-school adventure setting, and that and the chemistry between the actors as they rattle off the whip-smart dialog is all this film needs to propel between its two main action setpieces. Using just the old sets and practical effects, China Seas manages to successfully convey both a ship-rattling typhoon and a pirate attack. Both sequences deliver the thrills with ease, though ultimately this is a movie carried entirely on the shoulders of Gable, and he’s more than up to the task.
If there’s any weakness in the film, it’d be Harlow’s China Doll. Most sassy femme fatales have some characteristic that makes them worthy of redemption, or at the very least, we can understand why the hero would destroy himself over this woman. But China Doll is less fatale and more just irritating. While Harlow delivers clever dialog and obviously works incredibly well alongside Gable, I found I had a hard time understanding why Gable was so haunted by their relationship with one another. And this coming from a man who willingly and actively seeks out dangerous women I know will destroy me and plunge my life into a state of decadent destruction. It’s real easy to believe the scenes where Gable looks like he just wants to haul off and dump her overboard, but less so the scenes where he supposed to be struggling with the smoldering flame of their love. But whatever — that’s love, right? And when I point this out as a potential weakness in the film, I also need to point out that it’s an extremely small weakness, and the sheer force of personality and the interplay between Gable and Harlow is more than enough to carry the film over any tiny rough patch it may hit.
Mystery, pirates, exotica, typhoons, romance, rum drinking, and Clark Gable’s pencil thin mustache and perfect old-school tough, dashing guy hair all get drawn into a script that is lean and streamlined but never crude or lacking in elegance, making China Seas cracking good adventure romance cinema from the golden age of the silver screen.
Release Date: 1935 | Country: United States | Starring: Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone, Rosalind Russell, Dudley Digges, C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Benchley, William Henry, Liev De Maigret, Lilian Bond, Edward Brophy, Soo Yong, Carol Ann Beery, Akim Tamiroff, Ivan Lebedeff | Screenplay: Jules Furthman, James Kevin McGuinness | Director: Tay Garnett | Cinematography: Ray June | Music: Herbert Stothart | Producer: Albert Lewin | Availability: DVD (Amazon)
“Mr. Moto is a very difficult fellow to kill.” — Mr. Moto
1937’s Think Fast, Mr. Moto, starring Hungarian actor Peter Lorre as a witty, karate-chopping Japanese man of mystery, introduces us to the budget films version of Charlie Chan. It seems that the specific nature of Mr. Moto changes as the series progresses, and while he is an adventuring spymaster later in the series, at least for this first film he is identified as an import-export businessman who, like Bulldog Drummond and Nick and Nora Charles, dabbles in detective work and sleuthing as a hobby. But while it’s fair to compare Chan and Moto, other than the detective work and the fact that a white actor is playing an Asian, Moto and Chan are pretty different, both in terms of character and the movies they inhabit.
If exploitation cinema can be traced to a single wellspring from which all its filth and fury flows, an argument can be made that said wellspring is Dwain Esper. Writer, producer, director, and all around impresario, Esper may not have made the first exploitation film. The silent era was rife with exploitation and sleaze, usually masquerading under a flimsy veneer of “cautionary tale,” like 1913’s The Inside of the White Slave Traffic. I’d be willing to go to the mat, however, in defense of Esper’s position as the godfather of the exploitation industry as we know it today. His impact goes far beyond being a mere director. Working with fellow exploitation godfather Louis Sonney (father of exploitation cinema legend Dan Sonney), Esper helped establish the network of theaters and concept of regional circuits that served as the foundation for the exploitation film. From burlesque to motion picture to roadshow, Esper had a hand in all of it, and for that, his name should be forever enshrined as one of the true pioneers in the history of the motion picture (it’s not). But even if he’d never done any of that, even if all he’d ever done is direct Maniac — known also by the slightly less sensation title of Sex Maniac — he would still deserve to go on the Mount Rushmore of strange film. Incidentally, the Mount Rushmore of strange film is located in an abandoned central Florida amusement park, and it’s made of fiberglass.
The Moonstone marks our first real foray into a universe in which we will be spending a lot of time: the Poverty Row thriller. An understanding of what Poverty Row was — if not an actual appreciation for its product — is an important part of any cult film education (and given the way you kids are allowed to make up any damn thing and call it a college major these days, you can probably go PhD in Cult Film Studies or some such nonsense, when you should be spending your time in college learning about Hammurabi, thermodynamics, and beer funnels), because Poverty Row is where the b-movie was born. So let’s set the stage.
The more popular movies became, the more demand there was for something — sometimes, anything — to fill the marquee. There was only so much the big studios could produce, and the hunger for cinematic entertainment was fast starting to outpace production schedules. When the studio system — by which certain production studios were allowed to own and operate their own theaters, showing only their own movies — was broken up, it opened the door for a number of prospective upstart studios to step in and both fill the void with their own product as well as find a screen on which to play it. Newly independent theater owners often paired these films of lesser prestige with a film from one of the big studios — the b-picture to the a-picture main event.
The b-movies were often produced very quickly and on the cheap, usually with a cast of unknowns, though sometimes they’d score a star whose name had some marquee value during the silent era. Most of the major studios eventually started their own b-movie production machines, and these films benefited from access to recognizable contract players from the studio as well as all the sets, props, and costumes that had been used in other, bigger budget productions. This is why b-movies like the Mister Moto series look far more lavish and expensive than they actually were. They had access to all the stuff that was lying around for the bigger budget Charlie Chan films.
But the bulk of the b-movies and programming filler was produced by smaller studios. Among these studios, few were as prolific and respectable (relatively speaking) as Monogram. So successful was Monogram, in fact, that it soon took on the appearance of a “little major,” with it’s own stable of contract players, directors, writers, and sets. Monograms and the studios like them were dubbed “Poverty Row,” as much a reference to the budgets they had to work with as it was a reference to less cultured hoi polloi who flocked to see the cheapies. This was truly the cinema of the people, giving the unwashed masses like you and me exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted, at least at the time, was westerns and thrillers. It’s the thrillers that concern us today, and The Moonstone is a perfect place to begin.
In 1868, an author by the name of Wilkie Collins had published a story called The Moonstone which is generally considered the first English-language mystery novel. Of course, as soon as something is proclaimed to be the first of anything, someone else is going to show up with ample evidence why some other work deserves the honor being considered the first. Look at attempts to pin down the first slasher film. For a while, everyone agreed that it was Halloween, but then some smartie pants started maintaining that it was actually Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, and then it was Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace, and now I think it’s gotten to the point where the world’s first slasher film is actually attributed to Sophocles.
So whether or not The Moonstone is the world’s first English language detective and mystery novel, instead of the C. Auguste Dupin stories of Edgar Allen Poe, the fact remains that T.S. Eliot called it the first English detective novel, and who’s going to argue with T.S. Eliot? W.B. Yeats? Please. Whatever the case, Collins’ story sets the template for the many, many detective thrillers that would follow. There’s the isolated British manor house, the large group of suspects brought together in a common location, copious red herrings, amateur sleuthing by one or two people who are also among the gathered cast of characters, and of course, the gruff inspector from Scotland Yard. In particular, The Moonstone deals with the theft of a precious stone from a young British heiress.
The movie sticks to the original novel in some basic respects, but for the most part it varies quite remarkably. One of the the elements that made the novel such a success was its references to drug use. That aspect of the novel’s script is excised entirely from the plot of the film, seeing as such open depiction of drug use and abuse was strictly taboo in 1934 — the very same year that the Hayes Code enacted in 1930 was put into heavy enforcement. Monogram certainly wasn’t in a financial position to take on the United States government and defend their picture, so the easier route was simply to write around the opium. Additionally, the novel takes place over the course of many, many months. In the movie, everything takes place in the course of twenty-four hours. Where as three mysterious jugglers from India play a major role in the novel — the moonstone was originally stolen by a British officer in India, and disciples of the god from whose forehead it was stolen have sworn to get it back, no matter how many generations it takes — in the movie, there is only a single Indian, a servant, who has very little to do other than show up for some questioning. In fact,the movie, while entertaining, the whole movie plays like an adaptation of the novel done by someone who sort of read the novel a long time ago and is now doing their best to remember what they can.
On the night of her birthday, young Ann Verinder (Phyllis Barry) receives the gift of the Moonstone, though how good a gift it is remains dubious. Although obviously precious, the stone has a bloody past and carries a curse. Originally stolen by a shifty British officer in India (as in the novel), the Moonstone has since been the object of spookiness, with various Indians swearing revenge on the family of the man who stole it and to return it to its rightful home, whatever the cost. On top of the oogy boogy factor, Ann seems to only know people who would have some sinister reason for wanting to steal the jewel. Her own father is in dire financial straights, and the Moonstone could save him from ruin. A moneylender to whom her father owes most of the money is keen on the stone as well. The family’s young maid is a former thief. A cousin’s servant happens to be Indian. The assistant doctor that works with Ann’s father has a terrible secret about his past.
Not surprisingly, amid all these potential thieves, the Moonstone ends up being stolen — from right under Ann’s pillow, no less. I’ve always wondered about people who put precious items under their pillow for safekeeping — that includes guns. Now I guess if you are one of those people who lies perfectly still, on your back, with your hands folded across your chest in angelic repose, then putting valuable sunder your pillow would be fine. But seriously, how many of you sleep like that? And how many of you sleep in two dozen different positions over the course of a night, including ones where you wake up and find your knee against your chin and your pillow shoved between your knees, with a second pillow somehow ending up on the floor clear on the other side of the room? If I went to sleep with a Moonstone under my pillow, there’s a good chance that I would wake up and find the thing under the dresser, stuck between my butt cheeks, or possibly in the fridge, since I tend to get up in the middle of the night and sleepily make myself bowls of cereal.
And especially if I knew my house was full of people who might want to steal the jewel, I’d find somewhere safer than under my pillow. First, why would you be friends with nothing but people who want to steal your cursed birthday present? Second, if you are a well-to-do heiress, even one who doesn’t know her father has secretly blown the family fortune, you still have your big British manor house, and I’m pretty sure there must be a secure place for such things as cursed moonstones. I mean, even if the attempt to steal the stone woke you up, what’s to stop the thief from wearing a mask and punching you in the face? So really, I guess what I’m saying is, if your security system is to put your valuables under a pillow then lie a wispy British heiress on top of it, you deserve to have your moonstone stolen.
Complicating the case is the fact that a number of odd things happened at conveniently inconvenient times: the arrival of the moneylender, the departure of Ann’s father int he middle of the night to deliver a baby, and the arrival of a storm so violent that no one could possibly leave the house. Also on hand is Inspector Cuff of Scotland Yard (Charles Irwin), dispatched upon hearing about Ann’s inheritance because Scotland Yard expected such a young and naive owner would be the victim of treachery. One by one, Cuff grills the inhabitants of the house, airing their dirty laundry and conveniently explaining for the audience what the motivation for theft would be. As Cuff goes about his business, Ann’s father falls ill with pneumonia contracted whilst mucking about in the storm, delivering babies, and a number of people decide to solve the mystery themselves. The only real clue is a smudge left on the door by a careless thief — a very careless thief, because the smudge is gigantic.
And then, just as the mystery is getting good and mysterious, everything is wrapped up in like three minutes with a minimum of fuss, and the movie ends.
According to some sources, this movie’s original running time was a little over an hour, as was customary for cheap films of this period. But all the existing copies that have been released on DVD run just under fifty minutes. So somewhere there are ten to fifteen minutes of this film lying around that are not included in the version I watched. While that still makes for a brisk movie, it would explain a number of plot threads that are introduced and never really picked up again. It would also make for a little more suspense than we get with the movie in its current state, which although it is wrapped up in more or less the same way as the novel, comes very abruptly and without any sense of a big reveal.
But first, let’s talk about the good. For an early thriller based on an early thriller, and with a minimal budget, The Moonstone is pretty entertaining. It confines itself to two locations — or only one, if you discount the opening scene in a Scotland Yard office — and a small cast, with the whole thing feeling a bit like a stage production, but the movie never looks or feels as cheap as it is, even if the exterior of the mansion is just a model. Monogram obviously put some time and effort into the production, and that extra care translates into a more impressive end product that Poverty Row often gave us. On top of that, there’s no real weak link in the cast. Most of them were experienced hands, if not well-known actors. Phyllis Barry was a bit player in all sorts of films, including the Errol Flynn epic The Prince and the Pauper and one of the Bulldog Drummond films. She was usually relegated to roles like “Barmaid” and “Housekeeper,” but given something a little more substantial, she acquits herself nicely.
John Davidson gets to parade around in a turban, making menacing intense eyes as Yandoo, the Indian servant who may or may not be part of a cult dedicated to retrieving the Moonstone. Davidson had been in movies for almost twenty years by the time he appeared in The Moonstone, starting his career way back in 1915 — not quite the dawn of the feature film, but awful close. His experience with silent film is most likely the reason Davidson is able to do so much with only a few lines of dialog. It’s too bad that his role is relegated to something relatively unimportant in the movie, because the Indians in the novel apparently had more to do.
The most recognizable face for cult film fans is probably David Manners, best known for inhabiting the role of Jonathan Harker in Todd Browning’s 1931 production of Dracula. Manning went on to appear in Universal’s The Mummy, as well. In fact, very few members of the cast of The Moonstone could be considered inexperienced, and their adeptness at the craft is evident. Poverty Row features sometimes saddled the audiences with remarkably wooden actors, but that’s not the case here.
Similarly, director Reginald Barker was an old hand, having begun his directing career in 1912. The Moonstone actually comes to us at the end of his career — just as the novel came at the end of Wilkie Collins’ career — and it’s obvious that, even if this is a B production, it’s being helmed by a man who knows what he’s doing. As with director Michael Curtiz, who made Captain Blood just one year later, and as with many of the directors working at the time, Barker’s experience with silent films translates into an effective use of things like light and shadow and the facial expressions of the actors — the tools you had to use in a film when dialog couldn’t do the talking for you. Barker’s direction and little flourishes keep the film from feeling static, even though this is a movie comprised almost entirely of people sitting around.
In fact, if there’s a weak component to this film besides the rushed ending, it’s the dialog, which is bland but relatively harmless. However, in a movie in which there is almost no action at all, it needs to make up for that with cracking good dialog, and The Moonstone falters in this regard. Scriptwriter Adele Buffington wrote about seventy-five billion Poverty Row westerns, and the screenplay for The Moonstone smacks of what I would call “rushed competence.” It’s a perfectly serviceable script, but it takes the easiest route and avoids dealing with any of the complicated affairs that made the novel more engrossing. The drug references are dropped almost entirely, with the final solution coming in the guise of a medicine considerably less controversial that laudanum.
Wilkie Collins was, himself, an addict, and drew on his own experiences with laudanum for the story. However, drug references would hardly fly under the new Hayes Code, so Buffington more or less drops it. He also does considerably less with the thief-turned-maid character than does the original novel, and she, like Yandoo and a number of the suspects, more or less disappears after she has her interview with Inspector Cuff. But like I said, this is “rushed competence.” Buffington has an hour to tell the story, instead of a novel. Subplots and extraneous digressions, interesting though they may have been, had to be cut. Buffington’s final product is perfectly serviceable, but one can’t help but notice that inside this good movie is a great movie that was never quite made.
The Moonstone lacks the spark of the better films of the time, and even of the better Poverty Row productions. The Mister Moto films didn’t just enjoy access to the props from the Charlie Chan movies; they also benefited from snappier dialog and pacing. And when compared to other low budget thrillers, like the Bulldog Drummond films, the short-comings of The Moonstone become more obvious. Luckily, since it clocks in at about three-quarters of an hour, the movie never affords itself the chance to get dull. Still, acceptable but uninspired dialog is what prevents The Moonstone from being a must-see on entertainment terms instead of just historical importance terms.
Still, The Moonstone makes for a fun, if brief, way to spend some time. Well shot, well acted, and at least adequately written. In terms of Poverty Row productions from an independent like Monogram, it represents the top of the heap, though I wouldn’t say it’s the best. But films like this are where it all began. In the conventions a movie like The Moonstone establishes, we see the bits and pieces that will become everything from horror films to giallo. Even Hitchcock did much of his best work in the same confines defined by the Moonstone novel. If you’re interested in where modern cult films come from, The Moonstone should be on your list of things to watch. Heck, even if you don’t like it as much as I did (and I liked it enough, though it’s not a film I’d run through the streets singing the merits of — I save that honor for Howling II), it took you less than an hour to watch it.
Release Year: 1934 | Country: United States | Starring: David Manners, Phyllis Barry, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Jameson Thomas, Herbert Bunston, Charles Irwin, Elspeth Dudgeon, John Davidson, Claude King, Olaf Hytten, Evalyn Bostock, Fred Walton | Screenplay: Adele Buffington | Director: Reginald Barker | Cinematographer: Robert Planck | Music: Abe Meyer | Producer: Paul Malvern
Teleport City is, by and large, a cult film site. It would seem, upon first impression, that a film like Captain Blood, or many of the old films that I regularly watch, would be ill at home here. After all, they are classics. Does anyone need one more person telling you Captain Blood is great? Or that any of these old films are great? I mean, everyone already knows that, right? It’s common knowledge, and everyone has seen these films a thousand times. Well, while that may have been true at some point, it hardly holds up well today. In fact, even many of the best-known films of the 50s and earlier have, in today’s pop cinema landscape, been so completely forgotten that they have achieved a level of obscurity that rivals that of any of the other cult films we might be prone to discussing. This they accomplish despite being widely available, widely discussed in the past, and cherished by the handful of people who still bother with old black and white films.
But for many people, and through no real fault of their own (it’s hard to seek out and watch something if no one tells you it exists), these films might as well be as mysterious and esoteric as a Filipino superhero film in which a woman in a silver space bikini fights a vampire. The sources to which these people (and by “these people,” I mean those who are roughly my age or younger) — often do not mention old films, and so they become forgotten relics despite their merits and the best efforts of Turner Classic Movies (also known as the cable channel most in need of going HD). Additionally, older films have the reputation of being crude and overly talky, full of antiquated melodrama, weird acting styles, crummy special effects, and endless scenes of well-dressed people sitting around in living rooms doing nothing at all. Where this impression of older films come from, I am not entirely certain, because anyone who takes the time to dig a little deeper into cinema’s past has discovered that action, adventure, and intrigue were staples of the film industry of the 30s and 40s just as much as they are today, and in many cases, the action, adventure, and stuntwork on display in black and whites from bygone eras surpasses anything that is done today, hamstrung as we are by an over-reliance on CGI and insurance-related litigation.
I am confident that the type of people who seek out the movies regularly discussed on Teleport City are the same people who are open to (if not already actively engaged in) exploring older films and understanding that most of the conceptions people have about them are wrong. And so, a film like Captain Blood, or Gunga Din, or any of the old noir and Poverty Row thrillers we’ll be getting to in due time, actually fit in at Teleport City every bit as well as the films of Jess Franco or Antonio Margheriti. Turning up amazing and forgotten films doesn’t always require you to travel to Manila and spend a month digging through the crates out back of a grimy video rental store. Sometimes, all you have to do is skip the “Midnight Movies” section of wherever you go to rent or purchase films, and walk (or click) over to the “Classics” section.
Which brings us, with a shorter digression than usual, to Captain Blood. I watched a lot of black and white adventure films when I was a kid. There was no cable television where I lived, and there were no VCRs, so you were left with whatever they played on regular television (which, back then, went off the air around one in the morning and wasn’t filled with nothing but Everybody Loves Raymond reruns), and that often meant watching black and white films, most likely because the rights to them could be had for cheap, and they were likely to be acceptable for television broadcast without the need for much editing. So I developed a taste for them, because really, that’s all we had save for the Godzilla films on the weekend. However, through some cruel twist of fate, I never saw any old pirate movies. I saw plenty of other types of adventure films, and I’m pretty sure I saw Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby Dick at least once a week, but if I saw any of the old swashbuckling pirate films, I don’t remember them — and given my bizarre propensity for remembering weird things like that, it seems unlikely that I would have sat through an Errol Flynn pirate movie and not remembered it.
Ahhh, Errol Flynn. Allow me, if you will, to indulge for a moment one of my gentlemanly crushes — or admiration, if flirtations with homosexuality make you uncomfortable for some reason (and if they do, you need to grow a little more backbone). I have never shied away from such things and see no reason to do so. My taste in men falls primarily along the traditional lines of masculinity as defined in the 30s and 40s my matinee idols like Errol Flynn and Clarke Gable. Bogart and Mitchum. Cary Grant, of course. And wiry little Fred Astaire for his amazing power to look amazing in clothes no man should be able to pull off. Even with today’s leading men — a talent pool largely devoid of any real charisma or air of rugged masculinity — I gravitate toward the few men who radiate that old-school air (which smells of mentholated shaving cream and woody musk): Clooney, Denzel, drunken Russell Crowe, and lately Josh Brolin. And this guy at the climbing wall at my gym.
But few and far between are the lads who cut such a shape as the men of the 30s and 40s. They knew how to dress, they knew how to throw a punch, they knew how to drink, and they knew how to handle the ladies except for Bette Davis, who no one could handle nor should much want to. Of these men, I was early on familiar with the films of Bogart and Gable, Grant and of course Mitchum — who was and remains still my Grandpa Harley’s favorite actor and role model in life (photos of my grandfather as a young man are striking in their likeness). But while I knew Flynn by name, I knew practically nothing about his films and had never seen one until much later in my life. Ah well, so much the better. It’s always nice to know something is waiting just over the horizon, yet to be discovered. Since then, I’ve worked hard to improve my familiarity with Flynn, his tumultuous life, and his films. And now you, dear reader, get to be the recipient of my hard-earned knowledge, so long as “hard-earned” means “I read a book.”
Flynn’s career as a leading man began with Captain Blood. Before this movie, he had a couple small roles but had done very little that would make people sit up and take notice. 1935 was a big year for filmmaking, and a number of my favorite big-budget (for the time) adventure films come from that year — Mutiny on the Bounty starring Clarke Gable, Howard Hawks’ Barbary Coast, and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades, among other films. Additionally, 1935 saw the release of The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which I have not seen but am keen to do so, as it stars Gary Cooper and deals with one of my sundry pet obsessions — that being the portrayal in Western cinema of Raj-era India (and from a time when India was still a British colony). Somewhere amid that parade of bright lights and star power, Warner Brothers decided to release a pirate film by a director no one knew and starring two leads no one had ever heard of. Pirate movies were difficult enough as it was. During the silent era, Douglas Fairbanks was able to buckle his swashes all over the place, but with the introduction of sound, production of seafaring fare became problematic, as the technology and technique was not yet sufficiently advanced to deal with all the creaking, cracking, and crashing that comes with filming on a ship and on the ocean.
This resulted in swashbucklers that were less about the swashing of buckles (or is the buckling of swashes) and more about guys sitting around inside their cabin — which could be conveniently created on a studio sound stage. Captain Blood, as Warner’s film was to be called, was to be an attempt to return to the more action-oriented style of Fairbanks, troubles with sound recording on the high seas be damned. But there were other problems facing the production. The first actor to whom Warner offered the role of Captain Blood turned it down, as did the second. That left them flailing, somewhat, until finally they settled on taking a chance on one of their bit players, a Tasmanian by the name of Errol Flynn. Playing opposite him as the lead female was another newcomer, Olivia de Havilland. Unknown starlets were one thing and hardly uncommon. They could easily be made into overnight sensations by pairing them with an established leading man. But now, Captain Blood was saddled with two newcomers, and on top of that, it was being directed by Michael Curtiz, a man whose experience lay almost entirely in the early, silent days of filmmaking and who was hardly a name to contend with spectacle-makers like Howard Hawks and Cecil B. DeMille. I’m not sure what Warner Brothers’ expectations for the film’s performance were at the time, but it’d be hard to argue that it was anything but an underdog and that Warner was taking a gamble when they bet their million dollars on this unproven cast.
Captain Blood tells the story of righteous Dr. Peter Blood (Flynn), who finds himself on the wrong end of King James’ temper during the 1685 rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth. Monmouth was previously known as James Scott and more previously still as James Croft, the illegitimate son of King Charles II. The Duke of Monmouth was a title created specifically for him, presumably to keep him out of the hair of other contenders for the throne. It didn’t work. When Charles died and James II, Monmouth’s uncle, was crowned King of England, Monmouth — who had a long and distinguished military career — felt severely slighted. He had himself crowned king in exile (he was, at the time, living in the Dutch provinces), and in 1685 launched a revolt meant to bring down James II and the Catholic-influenced reign. The rebellion, like many rebellions, started off strong, but when people started dying, the rebellion went the way of so many others. People deserted Monmouth en masse, and before too long, his rebellion was crushed at the battle of Sedgemoore.
Monmouth himself was captured, tried, and executed. It is during this battle that our hero Peter Blood — himself no fan of James II but also of the opinion that the Duke of Monmouth was going to be just as rotten — is asked to save the life of a wounded man. Blood, having no committed political leaning, relies instead on his sacred oath as a doctor, which compels him to help those he can. When King James’ men bust in and find him, they aren’t as keen on the Hippocratic Oath as Blood, and he soon finds himself in prison and on trial for treason. Brought before a judge whose only interest is in sending men to the gallows, the future looks bleak for the well-meaning and eloquent doctor, until King James is convinced that, aside from being hugely unpopular with the people, his gory orgy of retribution and hanging is a waste of manpower that would be better used as slaves in the colonies of the New World. So it is that Blood finds himself spared from the noose but shipped off toward a fate often considered far worse. Incidentally, my own ancestors from Scotland followed pretty close behind him, getting themselves in a spot of trouble in 1689 and finding themselves shipped off to some place called America — or so the family legend goes. Family legend also includes my grandfather beheading Adolf Hitler, so read into that what you will.
In Jamaica, Blood continues to be uppity and proud and smart, a trait that immediately rubs local plantation Colonel Bishop (Lionel Atwill) the wrong way. However, Bishop’s niece Arabella (de Havilland) takes a liking to Blood and purchases him for ten pounds, only to discover that he is hardly thankful to her, as slavery is still slavery. Blood finds himself in considerably better standing than his fellow slaves when his skills as a doctor are put to use healing the governor, who suffers from a painful bout o’ gout. Still as he is a man of honor and a natural-born leader, he does everything he can to protect his boys and irritate Bishop, who is infuriated that Blood’s role as doctor to the governor allows hims to get away with so much. Blood eventually hatches an escape plan, though he runs into a snag when a Spanish warship attacks the city. In the ensuing chaos, Blood leads the slaves first to freedom, then across the bay, where they board the Spanish warship while its proper owners are busy looting the town. Possessed now of their freedom and a fine ship, but not a home, Blood drafts a series of Buccaneers’ Articles, and so begins their lives as pirates.
Watching Flynn in this role, it’s hard to believe this is his first time as a leading man. He handles the role with astounding proficiency. It is impossibly not to cheer for Captain Blood, and the script provides Flynn ample opportunity to deliver stirring speeches about freedom and tyranny, punctuated by scenes of guys firing muskets and cannons and swinging from the rigging of giant sailing ships. Flynn handles his stirring speeches with the same aplomb as he does the action scenes. He is the very definition of roguish charm, and he is assisted by a series of perfect foils, which include the thoroughly loathsome Colonel Bishop and the shifty French pirate Levasseur (played brilliantly by Basil Rathbone). Although it happened somewhat by chance, it seems that, in the end, Captain Blood was constructed purely to turn Errol Flynn into the dashing, swashbuckling heartthrob he became. Recognizing the chance that has fallen into his lap, Flynn does not disappoint.
Although Flynn is the center of attention, Olivia de Havilland fares well to, The script by Casey Robinson grants her a stronger character than was usual for the time, while still keeping her as a believable member of the female sex during the late 1600s — as opposed to modern tendencies to create strong women by flying in the face of history and filling themselves with scantily-clad, often skinny warrior-women who are, for some reason, all proficient at Chinese style swordplay and martial arts. Arabelle may not take part in the swashbuckling, but when it comes to nerve and intelligence, she is nearly the match of Blood and very much the superior of Colonel Bishop. She had Flynn strike up an easy chemistry that makes the romantic portion of the film believable. There’s no question why a woman would fall in love with Blood, and there’s very little mystery behind Blood’s attraction to Arabella. The two young stars were paired in subsequent films, and rumors persisted that the two of them were romantically involved off-screen as well, though de Havilland has always denied this, citing Flynn’s status as a married man — which is sort of a novel defense, knowing what we know about Flynn and his voracious appetite for drinking and womanizing.
These appetites would plague him throughout his life, culminating in a statutory rape charge he was eventually found not guilty of — though even a Flynn fan like me has to question the accuracy of the outcome given that, later in his life, Flynn was courting a fifteen-year-old. But for the most part, Flynn’s off-screen dalliances and poor judgment did little to tarnish his popularity or his image as a noble hero. More damaging to his career was his failure to enlist in World War II (can you imagine a current leading man’s career being damaged on account of his failure to enlist?) while still playing war heroes on-screen. In fact, Flynn had enlisted — several times, and to every branch of the armed forces. Each time he was rejected on account of a series of health issues that included a weak heart (he suffered several heart attacks throughout his life), a bout with tuberculosis and malaria, and a permanently injured back. The film studio was unwilling to publicize Flynn’s reason for not serving, as they felt that it was better to keep a tight lid on the star’s growing health concerns. Thus, Flynn was left behind to make films like Objective Burma while the war was won by guys like Jimmy Stewart.
As I siad, the two newcomers are anchored by a solid supporting cast headed up by Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill. Both make for memorable villains, though Atwill’s merely rotten Bishop is left in the wake of Rathbone’s lamboyant French pirate. Although he’s only on-screen briefly, there’s no forgetting him. At the time, Rathbone was on the cusp of super-stardom. Having already eked out a comfortable career for himself as a supporting player, Rathbone would rocket to fame when he took on the role of Sherlock Holmes. Both Rathbone and Atwill are fondly remembered by horror fans for their work in that genre as well. Both of them play wonderfully off the fresh-faced and enthusiastic Flynn, and the duel between Rathbone and Flynn is one of the all-time greats.
Whatever his personal demons may have been, Captain Blood turned Flynn into a superstar, and the role defined the type of role he would play for most of his career just as it defined the swashbuckling hero. Flynn went on to star in more pirate films, including the wonderful Sea Hawk, as well as series of adventure films that includes The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Objective Burma, They Died With Their Boots On, and The Dawn Patrol, alongside his real-life friend David Niven. Other actors were quick to work within the persona created by Flynn, including Tyrone Power, who sometimes did it almost as well as Flynn. But almost means that, to this day, Flynn remains the very last word in swashbuckling heroes.
Director Micahel Curtiz fared much worse after this film. Although he went on to direct a number of the above-mentioned Errol Flynn swashbucklers, his career was all but killed when he took yet another huge gamble — this time casting an actor known almost entirely for playing b-grade heavies in crime films as a romantic lead. That actor was Humphrey Bogart, and the movie, which was released under the title Casablanca, is all but forgotten these days. In reality, of course, Curtiz did all right. He even made a habit of giving unproven actors a big break. Flynn, and then Bogart as a romantic lead. Later in his career, Curtiz was one of the few directors who was willing to give Elvis Presley a real role, that being King Creole, which is generally regarded by many as Elvis’ one truly great film and performance. Curtiz, having cut his teeth in silent era market of Europe, brings many of the sensibilities of those films into Captain Blood (and many subsequent films). Chief among these is his use of shadows and lighting, which is used to great effect many times throughout the film. Curtiz also solves the problem of shooting on location and around the ocean with a clever use of sets, location shooting, and convincing use of miniatures. Ship decks and cabins are sets, put into context with shots of actual ships on the ocean. The battles are staged in a similar fashion, and the sword fight between Blood and Levasseur is yet another combination of set and location.
Curtiz solution for the sound while shooting on a beach or aboard a ship is simple: he doesn’t use sound. Blood and Levasseur’s duel is shot without sound and on an actual beach, relying instead on the music by Erich Korngold to do the talking. When there is dialog, Curtiz switches to a series of convincing sets. He handles ship settings in the same way, restricting dialog to scenes that can be created on a set while scenes of actual ships are accompanied by Korngold’s orchestration and the foley artist’s ample cannon shots. The battles — and there are several good ones — also rely on miniature work mixed with actual ships, and are achieved with a remarkable degree of effectiveness. The final battle, in particular, in which Blood and his men take on a duo of French warships, is particularly exciting and well executed. There are several shots where I have no idea whether or not they’re using miniatures or actual ships.
I doubt anyone guessed Captain Blood would become the perfect storm of stars, director, music, and spirit that it did, but that’s usually how it happens. As far as swashbucklers and pirate movies go, you’d be hard pressed to find one better, and if you did, it would probably also star Errol Flynn. As far as my opinion goes, I hardly have much more to add. Although I was late in coming to this ad other Flynn films, I consider it one of the absolute best adventure films ever made, crammed to bursting with strong characters, great ship-to-ship battles, sword fights, and romance. The film proved to be a tremendous hit, nabbing an Oscar nominations for best picture (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was also nominated, but all fell before the might of The Mutiny on the Bounty) as well as sound direction. In addition, in 1935 you were still allowed to cast write-in votes, and as a result, Michael Curtiz found himself nominated for best directing honors, Casey Robinson for best screenplay, and Erich Korngold for his score. In a field that was very thick, this film full of and by unknowns didn’t do too bad.