Bleached Skulls and Buried Treasure: The Black Pirate

Douglas Fairbanks (May 23, 1883 – December 12, 1939) was the first “King of Hollywood”. He began acting at an early age and was a teenage sensation in summer stock. He had his Broadway debut in 1902. Doug moved to Hollywood in 1915. He met film superstar Mary Pickford in 1916 and they almost immediately began an affair even though they were both married to others. Mary Pickford and Doug’s friend, legendary comic star Charlie Chaplin, were the two highest paid stars in Hollywood at the time. By 1918, Doug was the third highest paid. The Hollywood studios were unhappy at the prices these celebrities commanded and tried to lessen their pay by controlling the film distributors and exhibitors. To fight back, Doug, Mary and Charlie Chaplin, along with director D.W. Griffith, formed United Artists in 1919.

Doug got a divorce from his fist wife in 1918. Mary Pickford divorced her husband in 1920. Doug and Mary were married 28 days after her divorce. “The public went wild over the idea of “Everybody’s Hero” marrying “America’s Sweetheart”.” As the new “King of Hollywood” Doug decided to use his fame and “his ebullient screen persona and athletic ability” to bring to the screen a new type of adventure filled costume picture. The result was The Mark of Zorro. Fairbanks himself adapted the screenplay, it was produced by Doug for his own production company, and it was the first film released by United Artists. The Mark of Zorro was a huge success and “The King of Hollywood” officially became a superstar.

Doug Fairbanks followed The Mark of Zorro with The Three Musketeers in 1921 (I reviewed this film earlier), Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926). But Doug’s booming silent film career stuttered to a screeching halt with the advent of talking pictures. His last silent film was The Iron Mask (1929), a sequel to The Three Musketeers. His first talkie came later the same year when Doug and his wife Mary combined forces to make The Taming of the Shrew. His fans just did not thrill to his sound films and after only three more talkies, Doug retired from acting in 1934. He also retired from his marriage to Mary. They divorced in 1936 and Doug almost immediately married his third wife, an English socialite and actress. Just three years later, Doug retired from life. He suffered a mild heart attack in 1939 and died later that day at his home. “I’ve never felt better” were his last words. He was only 56 years old.

Two-strip Technicolor    vs    Black & White

The Black Pirate was made while Douglas Fairbanks was still at the height of his career. He came up with the idea around 1920, supposedly after a friend mentioned enjoying Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates. Doug wrote the original story under his middle names of “Elton Thomas”. Doug also decided to film his new adventure movie in color. There was a two-tone Technicolor process that “required two strips of 35mm film to be fused together back-to-back to create the two-tone palette”. This process had lots of problems associated with it including problems keeping the movie in focus during viewing since the heat of the projectors combined with the thickness of the film often resulted in warping of the film. The two-tone Technicolor process also required extra effort during the actual filming of the movie. Doug spent “considerable money” on tests before actually filming. This Technicolor process also needed special cameras and those “cumbersome cameras limited the types of shots available”. “Larger than usual amounts of lighting” were also required. These challenges meant that Douglas Fairbanks and his film crew had to reduce some of the pageantry of his other costume adventures. But they still managed to produce a rip-roaring action adventure and some exceptional stunts. The Black Pirate showcases one of Doug’s best stunts: the famous “sliding down the sails” sequence. Three times in The Black Pirate, Doug’s character works to capture a merchant ship by crippling its sails. He stabs his dagger into a sail then jumps and slides down the sail, slicing all the way. A classic scene. While The Black Pirate was filmed in the two-tone Technicolor process the actual cost of printing in Technicolor was so prohibitive that they were forced to also issue a black-and-white version of the film. The Internet Archive has two versions of The Black Pirate and they are both, unfortunately, the black-and-white versions. I would have loved to see this film in Technicolor.

The Black Pirate is a wild and thrilling adventure movie. Doug is in fine athletic form and seems to be enjoying himself immensely as he climbs around the ship and fights off hordes of pirates. And there are literally hordes of pirates. This film does not stint with the extras. The scenes where a ship full of pirates cheer as Doug single-handedly captures a merchant ship are wonderful. Doug plays a young nobleman who vows revenge when those same pirates blow up his ship and kill his father (who, by the way, was played by Doug’s real-life father). Doug pretends to be a pirate eager to join the bloodthirsty band all the while plotting ways to save their victims and undermine their murderous actions. He fights and kills the pirate band’s original Pirate Captain (believably played by actor Anders Randolf as a cruel and brutal cutthroat). After Doug takes the merchant ship he discovers an unexpected jewel in the person of a lovely Princess (played by Billie Dove this damsel does little more then cry and faint throughout the film). Doug has to out maneuver the quietly scheming Pirate Lieutenant (nicely played by Sam De Grasse) to safeguard his damsel in distress.

The Black Pirate has a tight story, some impressive stunts, nice swordplay, and hordes of pillaging pirates. There are some clever ideas especially in the elaborate method the first Pirate Captain uses to hide his buried treasure and the actual manner in which Douglas Fairbanks manages to kill the Captain. There are some funny scenes, too, mostly revolving around Doug’s pirate helper MacTavish. He is such an over the top stereotypical “Scotsman” complete with look and accent (yes, this is a silent film but the title cards do the talking and when Doug claims to want to join the pirates, MacTavish responds, “Wud ye, now? An’ what are your qualeedeecations?”). MacTavish’s attempt to keep himself awake so he can guard the Princess are hilarious.

The two versions of The Black Pirate available at the Internet Archive are in simple black-and-white but the video is in good shape. There is some blurriness but the film does not suffer from the overly dark images of many early films. There is one glitch early in the movie when the pirates land on a deserted island followed by a title card declaring “marooned” and then Doug sitting alone in the sand. Then the pirates land on the island again. There is a musical score accompanying the film but while it starts out thrilling enough I thought it sort of fizzled out by the end. The always wilting damsel in distress Princess does have one moment of backbone when she sneaks a knife away from a pirate and slips it to a captured Douglas Fairbanks. But Doug is far and away the star of this film. His laughing energy fills it from beginning to end. He makes taking a merchant ship captive all by himself look effortless. When he clambers up the back of a tall ship, Doug makes it look like he is going for a nice easy stroll. And not to mention his artistically sliced costume that nicely shows off his athletic body. Douglas Fairbanks makes a perfect romantic pirate and The Black Pirate is a fun rip-roaring adventure.

The Black Pirate runs just short of one hour and 23 minutes. IA has two versions that can be watched online or downloaded. Version #1 has the most downloads but Version #2 looks just a slight bit clearer.

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