Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Black Pirate (1926)

WHO: Douglas Fairbanks starred in, produced, and even concocted the story (under the pseudonym Elton Thomas) for this film.

WHAT: After the heights scaled by Fairbanks in his increasingly lavish 1920s films The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood and The Thief of Bagdad, the latter a financial disappointment in relation to cost, the self-determined star dialed down his ambition for his 1925 sequel Don Q Son of Zorro. When he turned again to breaking new ground in the capabilities of Hollywood moviemaking, he did so not by attempting to outdo previous films in opulence of design, but by introducing an entirely new dimension to his work: color. The Black Pirate was not the first two-strip technicolor film made by the motion picture industry, but with Fairbanks at the center, it became the most iconic of the silent era. It had the happy side-result of highlighting the star's athleticism to a degree that had been missed by some of his fans. Jeffrey Vance puts it well in his excellent Fairbanks biography
Technicolor's inherent limitations and cost at the time had the effect of unfettering the Fairbanks production from pageantry and visual effects, thus producing what is in essence a straightforward action adventure film. The result was a refreshing return to form and a dazzling new showcase for the actor-producer;s favorite production value: himself. Fairbanks is resplendent as the bold buccaneer and buoyed by a production brimming with rip-roaring adventure and spiced with exceptional stunts and swordplay, including the celebrated "sliding down the sails" sequence, arguably the most famous set piece of the entire Fairbanks treasure chest.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens tonight only at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum on a program beginning at 7:30.

WHY: Blog round-ups of last week's San Francisco Silent Film Festival have been rolling in for the past several days. If you're so inclined, check out wrap-ups by Donna HillPhilip CastorLincoln SpectorJason Wiener, and Lara Fowler. I saw eleven programs, which is by far my lowest total since before the festival expanded to a four day affair. I skipped all but one of the digitally-projected presentations (The Weavers, whose restoration looked nice and cleanly-scrubbed if not filmic) and also found myself bailing on The Golden Clown and The Joyless Street. Missing all of the late-evening shows probably helped me better concentrate on the multiple daytime & early-evening shows I saw, but I do have some regret over missing what I heard from more than one friend was the best show of fest: The Joyless Street with the Matti Bye Ensemble. I don't always love this Swedish combo but I thought their inexorably-rhythmed score for the Outlaw and His Wife was the musical highlight of a weekend full of contenders; others included the Gamelan Sekar Jaya/Club Foot Orchestra's SFSFF debut Legong: Dance of the Virgins, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra's setting for Gribiche, and everything I heard coming out of Stephen Horne's piano. 

Though I approve of the festival bringing in a certain amount of new accompanist blood, I don't think I'd be that excited for them to bring Günter Buchwald back again. Of the three films I heard him score, only The Weavers seemed particularly suited to his style. He's clearly a phenomenally skilled musician, perhaps the most impressive technique-wise of all the weekend's guests, but I felt his score for Tokyo Chorus often misunderstood Ozu (admittedly a tricky director to play for, but Horne and Judith Rosenberg have both done it quite successfully at screenings I've attended), and his turn at the Wurlitzer for Fairbanks's Western The Half-Breed had only fleeting moments of real effectiveness, most of them involving his use of a fiddle instead of the keyboard console. I was particularly distracted by his use of jazzy rhythms for a film set in 1880s California. I'd love to see the return of pianists Rosenberg, Phil Carli or Donald Sosin (and if the organ can be utilized, Chris Elliot, Clark Wilson or Dennis James) to the festival for their next Winter event, rumored to be expected this December.

If last weekend whetted rather than sated your appetite for more silent film screenings with live musical accompaniment, there are a good deal of opportunities to continue cinematic explorations of this still-underrated era of filmmaking. Tonight the Pacific Film Archive shows a rare 35mm print of the World War I film What Price Glory as part of its half-completed Raoul Walsh series, which I've been thoroughly enjoying - the last appearance of house pianist Rosenberg as accompanist at the venue until she takes on 9 Alfred Hitchcock silents next month. Tomorrow there's a Davies Symphony Hall showing of Sergei Eisenstein's Potemkin with Cameron Carpenter at the organ, and a Berkeley Underground Film Society showing of the Harold Lloyd comedy Why Worry?, which he made just after SFSFF closing night feature Safety Last!

But there's only one Frisco Bay cinema that screens silent pictures every Saturday, week in and out, except for the one week off taken for the SFSFF. The Black Pirate reopens the Niles Essanay Silent Film Musuem in Fremont, CA after this annual screen darkening. It's a perfect choice to screen after least two of last Saturday's Castro programs. I enjoyed The Half-Breed but some I spoke to were disappointed that it didn't include enough of the free-wheeling, spirit-of-adventure "Doug" they were used to (the same reason Tracey Goessel gave for its commercial failure in its day during her introduction), so to see him as his "usual" self in The Black Pirate may be welcome. It's also a nice comparison piece to the two-strip Technicolor photography of the surprisingly good Legong: Dance of the Virgins, released 9 years later at the dawn of major feature film usage of the three-strip Technicolor process.

The Black Pirate is not the only upcoming Niles screening with connections to SFSFF programming, either. On the August slate, every Saturday program includes at least one comedy by Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd, who were all seen last Sunday on the Castro screen (I believe it's the first time the festival programmed films featuring each of these three clown princes of Hollywood in the same year). Additionally, those who enjoyed seeing Greta Garbo in The Joyless Street or Ralph Lewis in Emory Johnson's The Last Edition should mark their calendars on August 24th and 31st respectively, as Garbo reappears at Niles for Flesh and the Devil and Lewis stars in another Johnson film called The West-Bound Limited on those dates.

HOW: The Black Pirate screens in a technicolor 16mm print with live music by Jon Mirsalis, along with prints of Harold Lloyd in Never Touched Me and Harry Langdon in Plain Clothes


  1. Brian: I know you meant Ralph Lewis, not Lewis Stone, but since Ralph's most famous role is as Stoneman in "Birth Of A Nation," that's probably how you got it mixed. Ralph was married to the great character actress Vera Lewis, who also worked for Griffith (the society woman who turns to reform early in "Intolerance")

  2. Fixed it! Thanks for the correction, Larry.