Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: THE BLACK SWAN (1942)



 Of course Tyrone Power had to play a pirate at some point in his career. Like Errol Flynn, he exuded the kind of masculine charisma that lent itself to the swashbuckler, and in director Henry King's The Black Swan (1942) we get to see that quality exhibited in spades, along with a pretty good portion of Power's attractive torso. Although there are some rather thorny issues to deal with when it comes to the picture's representation of romance, The Black Swan works very well as an old school adventure film, with exciting performances from Power and the rest of the cast.

Power takes the lead as English pirate Jamie Waring, who finds his activities at sea and on land complicated by the appointment of his old friend, Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar), to the governorship of Jamaica. Henry expects Jamie's assistance in hunting down former comrades, particularly the rebellious Captain Leech (George Sanders), but Jamie finds himself distracted by the previous governor's beautiful daughter, Lady Margaret (Maureen O'Hara). Sparks fly between the sparring couple even as Jamie comes to realize that Margaret's father (George Zucco) and suitor (Edward Ashley) have resorted to some seriously underhanded measures in order to oust Henry Morgan from his new office.

Laird Cregar as Henry Morgan
The presence of real pirate Henry Morgan makes for an interesting spin on the usual swashbuckler tale of the era, but the film's interest in politics is mainly focused on the idea that piracy and politics are really the same thing once you get past the semantics. Henry is pirate first and politician second, while his adversaries present the reverse order, but Henry and his comrades come off as appealing because their piratical nature is transparent, while the scheming Lord Denby and Roger Ingram are despicable because they hide their black colors under hypocritical righteousness. Like Morgan, Jamie Waring is, therefore, a lovable rogue, despite his boorish and even felonious behavior, because we know he's a pirate and so does he. The casting of the "good" pirates highlights their demand for our sympathy. Laird Cregar creates an immensely interesting character out of Morgan as an old sea dog trying to learn a new trick; you have to feel sorry for him squirming in his respectable clothes, clearly trying to bluff his way out of every situation and ready to eat his wig as the whole mess gets more and more out of control. Brilliant character actor Thomas Mitchell gets to cut loose as Jamie's first mate, Tommie Blue, and he looks like he's having a wonderful time. Contrast these charming scoundrels with the "bad" pirates played by George Sanders and Anthony Quinn, both of them looking quite wild, and it's clear which ones we're supposed to like.

The romantic plot of the film plays less well for a modern audience. It's hard for us today to defend or even grasp the idea of romance predicated on violence, even though it was a common trope for certain kinds of classic films. The first time we meet Margaret Denby, Jamie assaults her, hits her, tries to kidnap her, and then drops her on the floor once his attention is directed elsewhere. No wonder she doesn't seem to like him! The only justification for this love as war theme is the fact that Margaret gives as good as she gets; these two firebrands both like it rough, and that's why they're attracted to each other. The casting of Maureen O'Hara as Margaret makes this squaring off of the sexes more palatable; she makes a very credible hellcat, and of course that's why she appears in so many similar roles opposite John Wayne in movies like The Quiet Man (1952) and McLintock! (1963). Still, the idea of "saying no, saying yes" makes serious trouble for the astute modern viewer, and it might be wise to have a thoughtful conversation about this element of the film with any youngsters watching the picture. There's a certain forced quality to the end of the movie, akin to that of The Taming of the Shrew, that defends the idea that a battle of the sexes ends well when a woman chooses to "win" by losing.

Younger viewers who enjoyed the Pirates of the Caribbean movies should certainly find plenty to like in The Black Swan, while older fans of the swashbuckler will enjoy the lively performances from the first rate cast. Don't miss Tyrone Power in The Mark of Zorro (1940) for an even better example of Power's talent and charisma. You can see more of the beautiful Maureen O’Hara in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Catch the fantastic Laird Cregar in This Gun for Hire (1942), Heaven Can Wait (1943), and The Lodger (1944). Henry King also directed Jesse James (1939), The Song of Bernadette (1943), and The Gunfighter (1950). If the battle of sexes really revs your motor, go directly to the musicals Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Kiss Me Kate (1953), and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Given the similarities, I'm almost surprised in retrospect that Power and O'Hara don't burst into song! 

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.