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Pirate Chic? Maureen O’Hara Shows Us How

Why do I like the 1952 pirate film Against All Flags? It’s very simple. It’s the scarf. That scarf had me at hello.

And the boots.

In fact, if I have to be a pirate, if I was forced into it, if someone pointed a gun at me and told me I had to be a pirate, I would want her wardrobe. I’d even take the hat with the purple feathers and the pistol. I’d probably take it if I wasn’t a pirate.

Anthony Quinn is mildly surprised

Another reason to like the film is that it stars Maureen O’Hara and Errol Flynn. She is a pirate named Spitfire and he is a British Officer pretending to be a deserter so that he can infiltrate the pirate island stronghold and scupper their cannons so the British navy can clean the pirates out.

This is a  latter-day swashbuckler for Flynn, though a somewhat more harassed Flynn than the derring-do Flynn of the 1930s. He still derring-does, but frequently wears an expression of….well, harassment. He’s trying to do this job, but has run into Spitfire and rather inconveniently fallen in love, which ignites distinct hostility and jealousy from Anthony Quinn’s pirate captain. Not to mention the slightly loopy Indian princess he rescues from a fate worse than death, who keeps flinging herself on his neck, which ignites the jealousy of Spitfire. It’s difficult to get a job done with people either trying to kiss you or kill you.

Spitfire, on the other hand, is the only woman of any influence on the island and inherited her pirate ships from her father. She was raised to be an excellent markswoman, the better to defend her honor. She will even fight her own duels if necessary. She’s also not bad at fencing, though we are, alas, deprived of the pleasure of seeing her fight against Flynn. He gets to fight Quinn while she takes on some nondescript pirates. Phooey!

Though having lived as a pirate her whole life, she doesn’t have any particular loyalty to them. She is a woman who has learned of necessity how to get along in an aggressively male world and by the time she meets Flynn has decided that she is tired of constantly warding off the unwanted attention of other pirates. It’s exhausting to be in a perpetual state of fending off rapacious men. She wants to try out a different life, one with maybe more room for wearing dresses and letting her hair down, so to speak.

She does actually wear some dresses in the film, but it’s her pirate costumes that catch one’s eye.

The pirate ships look more like sets and Flynn seems to have a double for his fight scenes, but the film is lighthearted and O’Hara in particular seems to be having fun striding about the scenes and fencing…and wearing those awesome boots. I’d make that movie for the sake of wearing those boots. And the scarf. And the hat with the purple feathers. And nearly everything else about her attire. If you have to be a pirate, you might as well be a stylish one.

This is my contribution to the “Swashathon,” hosted by Movies Silently. Make sure to read all the other piratical postings, here!

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Posted by on July 14, 2017 in Movies

 

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New Moon (1940) and Operettas

MV5BMTYzNjcwNDQ5M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjY5NTY3MzE@._V1_UY1200_CR87,0,630,1200_AL_If you crossed Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier’s Pride and Prejudice with Captain Blood, and then threw in a touch of Mutiny on the Bounty and cast the entire thing as an operetta, you would have something that looked very much like Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy’s New Moon. At least, that is what I thought as I watched it.

The first part of New Moon comes off a bit like a comedy of manners. New Moon was released in 1940, the same year as Pride and Prejudice, and features the same delightful exuberance of bows, lace, and hoop skirts as designed by Adrian. Mary Boland even appears in both films (she’s Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice).

The time period is sometime just before the French Revolution. Marianne de Beaumanoir (Jeanette MacDonald) is fresh from Paris and arrives in New Orleans with her aunt (Mary Boland) to live on her plantation, which she hasn’t seen since she was a girl. Also on the ship are a group of rebels who are to be sold as bond servants, including the incognito His Grace, Charles Henri, the Duc de Villiers (Nelson Eddy). He is a revolutionary being hunted by the King’s men, so he pretended to be a mere commoner so he could commit a crime and have himself shipped off to safety as a bond-servant, where he plans to lead an uprising.

You can probably tell where this is going. Charles is sold to Marianne’s estate as a footman and we spend the first thirty minutes or so in a riot of gowns by Adrian with comic misunderstandings, comically polite behavior, lavish parties, and the kind of light, comic romantic sparring found in Pride and Prejudice.

However, this phase of the story eventually gives way as we move into Captain Blood mode and the bond servants must escape, take a ship and become pirates (complete with stirring song), managing to capture the ship that Marianne is on. This slides effortlessly into Mutiny on the Bounty, when they get shipwrecked on a tropical island and everyone must build a home there.

Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald singing a romantic song

Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald singing a romantic song

The plot is admittedly absurd. For example, the ship that they capture just happens to have sixty would-be brides on their way to Martinique to marry planters, as well as a convenient priest. Also, as was pointed out in this article on TCM, New Orleans was at this time no longer controlled by France. It was a Spanish Colony. But it seems cranky to complain about such things.

I’ve been thinking about topic of the operetta for a while. I have not seen very many Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musicals yet (just this one and Naughty Marietta – which also bears a strong resemblance to New Moon), but I often hear them described as sincere and sentimental, which strikes me as odd, because the words I would use for this brand of movie is really light and frothy. The plots are really no more ridiculous than any Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical (to whom they are frequently contrasted negatively) and Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy approach their roles in the same spirit as Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier approached theirs. Which is to say, slightly tongue-in-cheek.

Though Eddy and MacDonald did make some melodrama’s, too, I think it’s sometimes forgotten that operas and operetta’s have just as much emotional range as anything else. Think of the satire of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” compared with Verde’s tragic “La Traviata,” or Richard Strauss’ more shocking “Salome.” An operetta is not necessarily a light or comic opera, but an opera with dialogue, whereas in opera there is no dialogue and everything is sung.

One of the biggest knocks against Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald that I hear frequently is that the operetta was a dying art form, compared to the vibrant and contemporary music of Astaire and Rogers. But even though it’s true, that shouldn’t be used to dismiss the operetta. After all, when Singin’ In the RainThe Band Wagon and An American in Paris were released in the 1950s, they featured songs that were at least twenty-five to thirty years old, were nostalgic and representative of a dying art form. Soon, that kind of music (and dancing and movie making) would be swept away by rock and roll.

Mary Boland and Jeanette MacDonald

Mary Boland and Jeanette MacDonald

I must confess that I really enjoyed New Moon and a large reason was the music. New Moon was written by Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein and debuted on stage in 1928, where many of the songs became hits. The songs are unabashedly romantic and sincere, but there is something startlingly moving about their songs and when they sing “Wanting You” they generate a fair amount of heat. I can see why they made so many movies together.

I’ve been becoming a fan of Jeanette MacDonald. Nelson Eddy is a bit stiff (but not terribly so and he has a lovely voice), but she could act, as well as sing, and had an expressive face. She began her movie career as, in the words of author Richard Barrios, “the lingerie queen” because she spent so much time in her underwear in Ernest Lubitsch’s early operettas. She later teamed with Nelson Eddy in musicals that were less sophisticated (less sex-comedy, more romance), but featured more memorable songs and utilized her singing more. She could hold her own against anyone – Clarke Gable, Maurice Chevalier – and I’ve really been enjoying her films.

“Loving You” was one of the hit songs from the musical. This video doesn’t entirely do justice to their voices. Bad sound can make an operatic style of singing sound more shrill and less rich than it really is and when I streamed the movie to my TV from Warner Archive Instant, the sounds was much better.

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2016 in Movies

 

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Treasure Island – by Robert Louis Stevenson

Cover illustrated by N.C. Wyeth for the 1911 edition

Cover illustrated by N.C. Wyeth for the 1911 edition

After reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and several other of his short stories, I found that I especially liked the prose of Robert Louis Stevenson. He is a beautifully descriptive writer, but not in a dull or prosy way so that the action suffers; he’s writing is exciting, evocative, with imaginative stories and images you don’t forget. And since I’d never read Treasure Island, I thought that it should be my next Stevenson book. I was curious, because Treasure Island is so often dismissed as children’s literature, if it would have a different tone or if the writing would be different.

It was different, though not in a bad way. Partly, this is because Treasure Island is written in first person from the perspective of a boy who is the son of a landlord whose parents run the Admiral Benbow Inn. His tone is more straightforward than, say, Mr. Utterson in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which is ironic, since Mr. Utterson is supposed to be a staid lawyer, but there is something so outlandish in Dr. Jekyll’s experiments that it unfailingly elicits the most extraordinary descriptions in response). But Jim Hawkins writes in a much more direct fashion. I don’t recall noticing his prose as much. The story is the most important thing.

Which is as it should be since Stevenson had children – boys – in mind when he wrote his first novel. In his book The Art of Writing, Stevenson says that he had the assistance of his step-son and father in writing the novel and they both gave him many ideas. He tried to write exactly the kind of book a boy would want to read or that he would have wanted to read. There were no women involved, he said.

But though Treasure Island is less gothic and more straighforward, there are still some wonderful moments, like when Long John Silver comes to parley with Captain Smollett and his small band, who have taken refuge in a stockade. He and the captain sit outside and smoke their pipes in silence, waiting for the other to begin while everyone within the stockade is so curious about the scene playing before them and the confrontation that occurs that they’ve left their posts – where they’re supposed to be watching for treachery – and are instead watching the two implacable men in fascination.

TI-treasureAnd I love this description, that recalls the haunting, vivid quality of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jim is thinking about how Captain Flint killed the six men who helped him bury the treasure all those years ago.

…I was haunted by the thought of the tragedy that had once acted on that plateau, when that ungodly buccaneer with the blue face – he who died at Savannah singing and shouting for drink – had there, with his own hand, cut down his six accomplices. This grove, that was now so peaceful, must then have rung with cries, I thought; and even with the thought I could believe I heard it ringing still.

Having seen the 1950 Disney live action version of Treasure Island multiple times (it was a childhood staple), it was interesting to read that Long John Silver is supposed to be blonde, with a face like a “ham.” Sometimes I can picture it and sometimes I can’t. I’ll often see Robert Newton, instead. Another thing I noticed is that in all the movie adaptions I’ve seen of the book, I don’t recall any of them including the scene where Silver tries first to talk a sailor into joining the mutineering pirates and after failing, hurling his crutch at the man so that it breaks his back and then hurling himself on his broken back and ferociously stabbing him to death. If they’d ever included that in a movie, I don’t think the audience would have ever recovered…at least not long enough to hope he gets away.

Long John Silver is less sympathetic in the book. He’s always scheming and playing both sides of the field, and if he can get away with it, perfectly willing to betray anyone. There is not much of that sneaking affection for Jim that redeems Silver in the movies. He is a treacherous buccaneer to his core…just a far more savvy and smart-talking one than your average, run-of-the-mill pirate. He has some education and plans on retiring as a gentlemen after he gets his share of the treasure.

TI-parrotJim Hawkins is an interesting character, too. He’s really not a very reliable boy. He’s always running off on some whim and abandoning his duty, though somehow it always turns out that his disobedience has saved them. At the end of the book, Captain Smollett acknowledges that Jim has saved their lives, though remarks that he would probably never go to sea with him again. Ironically enough, Treasure Island is a book that seems to reward moral ambivalence. Even Long John Silver gets away at the end, with a bag of gold. And Ben Gunn is also a murderous pirate too; who gets to return home and achieve a degree of celebrity and gold (though he spends his share in a matter of weeks).

In the introduction to my copy of Treasure Island, John Seelye argues that the description of Treasure Island matches that of California, which seemed a unique idea to me. Stevenson had traveled to California and never to the Caribbean, so I guess Stevenson just used his memory of California to describe his famous island? While reading the book, I had to confess that Seelye had a point. There are azalea bushes, nutmeg trees, oaks, pines, sea lions, rattle snakes and even very large trees with red bark that suggest Redwood trees. It’s not very Caribbean in flavor. If ever another movie is made of Treasure Island, they should shoot it in Northern California.

Here is Stevenson’s descriptions of Redwoods.

The third [tree] rose nearly two hundred feet into the air above a clump of underwood; a giant of a vegetable, with a red column as big as a cottage, and a wide shadow around in which a company could have maneuvered.

The treasure is buried beneath this tree.

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Fiction

 

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