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The Black Swan

The Black Swan(1942)

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Tyrone Power was one of the top stars of 20th Century Fox, thanks to his turns as the glib, arrogant golden boy in the studio's colorful musicals and melodramas and the earnest, driven young visionary or angry rebel of Lloyds of London (1936), Jesse James (1939), and Johnny Apollo (1940), where his dark good looks and brooding presence gave his handsome romantic lead a bit of smoldering intensity. In the 1940s, Fox decided to mold him into an Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling hero and found success in The Mark of Zorro (1940), as the Robin Hood of old California, and Blood and Sand (1941), as a bullfighting hero led astray by the temptations of fame and fortune. The Black Swan (1942) was the next logical step: a swashbuckling pirate rogue turned hero. It shouldn't have been a good fit for Power, who was better at brooding and flashing his temper than flexing his physicality, but he brings a bit of both the flashy arrogant and the brooding hero to the role.

Captain Jamie Waring is clearly unfulfilled as a pirate captain pillaging Spanish colonies and ships, but he's not so sure he's any happier when he teams up with Captain Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar), the former pirate king appointed by Britain to take over as Governor of Jamaica. It sets him against his former, more savage partners in pillage, especially Billy Leech (George Sanders), and his outlaw instincts don't fit into polite society. Complicating matters is his nearly fatal attraction to Lady Margaret Denby, daughter of the former Governor, played with flashing eyes and furious temper by Maureen O'Hara. The film gets Power's shirt off with great frequency, from a turn on the rack to a swim in the sea to a brawl on the deck of the titular Black Swan, and tries to generate some sort of smoldering love-hate passion between Power and O'Hara as they cross paths and trade barbed exchanges. They get the hate part right-- Lady Margaret all but boils over in righteous indignation whenever the outlaw dares insert himself in proper society and Jamie seems exasperated at himself for his obsession with the fiery beauty--but there's no electricity when they collide and no passion in their furious denial, just umbrage and acerbic bickering.

It's based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini, who also wrote The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, and it's kind of a poor cousin to those in terms of both story and action. The story and screenplay lack the grand conflicts and epic sweep of the great Errol Flynn pirate classics and the action scenes are largely set-bound and lack the momentum and daredevil spectacle that Michael Curtiz brought to The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk, to name just two. Henry King is one of the sturdiest of Fox's directors and has a strong hand when it came to shaping movie stars to character parts--his long partnership with Gregory Peck is one of the best director-actor collaborations of the classic era--but was consistently better with brawny action within a dramatic scenes than with the flamboyant set pieces that define a swashbuckler like this. These pirate brawls are at their best when they rivals collide on deck and King choreographs the chaos so that you keep track of all the major players in the melee.

But what Technicolor glory! They set sail against Maxfield Parish skylines and battle in a riot of indigos and royal blues and crimson reds with flourishes of gold. The finery of the haughty aristocrats and the flamboyance of the gypsy pirate fashions vie for attention in the daylight and glow in the shadows of candlelight and studio moonlight in the purple evenings. The marvelously intricate model ships of the sea battles staged in studio tanks are a reminder of the glorious craft of practical studio effects in the classic age and the sets create a delicious fantasy of the wild Caribbean frontier of European imprints in the tropical setting and outlaw towns of rough taverns. A lively cast of Hollywood's most memorable supporting players, from George Sanders in a wild red beard and a hearty embrace of pirate decadence to Thomas Mitchell as a buoyant Irish sidekick loyal to the end to Laird Cregar in majestic form as the one-time pirate king resisting his outlaw impulses as he battles a belligerent cabinet of arrogant aristocrats, keeps the energy up between romantic tussles.

The original elements of the film are no longer available and this edition was mastered from a high quality vault print. Anyone familiar with the glow of early 1940s Technicolor at its best will notice that there is some fading to image and that the colors are not quite as lustrous as the stunning Drums Along the Mohawk Blu-ray, for example. But the color is still handsome and rich and the average film fan will only see the glorious explosion of overripe colors and deep hues of the painterly colors unique to the early Technicolor era. According to veteran film preservation and restoration professional Robert Harris, the Fox restoration team has done wonders with the materials at hand and the image is rich, clean, and strong.

The disc carries over the commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer and actress Maureen O'Hara recorded for the DVD released a decade ago.

By Sean Axmaker