Early & Silent Film

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The Black Pirate

Posted by keith1942 on March 7, 2013

Pirate poster

Elton Corp. / United Artists 1926.

Directed Albert Parker. Scenario Lotta Wood, adapted by Jack Cunningham, story by Elton Thomas (Douglas Fairbanks). Cinematography Henry Sharp, Technicolor cameras Arthur Ball and George Cave. Art direction Carl Oscar Borg. Editor William Nolan.

Starring Douglas Fairbanks – The Black Pirate. Billie Dove – The Princess. Anders Randolf – pirate leader, Donald Crisp – – McTavish. Tempe Pigott – duenna. Sam De Grasse – lieutenant. .

Filmed in Two-strip Technicolor, with Intertitles.

This was a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks, probably the most popular dramatic Hollywood star of the silent era. He had made a name on Broadway and was then lured to Hollywood in 1915. He quickly became a popular leading man. In 1920 he married Mary Pickford, herself the leading popular female star in Hollywood. Both were also extremely shrewd filmmakers and excised a high level of control over their films. Fairbanks had formed his own production company early in his career whilst Pickford exercised a veto over the scripts, directors and co-stars of her films. The couple became a sort of royalty in the movie colony. Together with Charlie Chaplin and the director D. W. Griffith they founded United Artists in order to control and distribute their productions.

Fairbanks persona is described as ‘cheerful exuberance, moral courage, a devil-may-care attitude, and physical agility, a prototype of the idealised image of the American male.’ On-screen Fairbanks is extremely graceful even balletic. He was especially effective in swashbuckling action-adventure films. In the 1920s he had already enjoyed great success in a series of such films – The Mask of Zorro (1920): The Three Musketeers (1921): and Robin Hood (1922).

The other star of this film is the new two-strip Technicolor process [also known as two-toned Technicolor). There were a range of colour film processes for silent film, most of these were additive processes, where the colour was added in some way. The National Media Museum Insight collection has an example of the Kinemacolor process, where a rotating filter was used before both camera and projector. The Technicolor and Motion Picture Corporation, founded in 1915, developed a subtractive process. This technique used a beam splitter to record separately the red and green content of the spectrum, which was then incorporated on to film bases, which were processed and cemented together. Because of the two-tone process the finished film did not pick up the whole spectrum, in particular the yellow. In 1928 Technicolor further developed their process and in the 1930s three-strip Technicolor became available.

The Black Pirate was the third feature to be filmed in the new colour process, though the 1925 Ben-Hur only used it for certain sequences. As was usual on his productions Fairbanks exercised very careful control and preparation. Sets, locations and even the leading lady were carefully tested for their suitability for the colour range of the new process.

The plot of the film is also typical of Fairbanks movies and is set out in an opening title.

“Being an account of BUCCANEERS & the SPANISH MAIN, the Jolly Roger, GOLDEN GALLEONS, bleached skulls, BURIEDTREASURE, the Plank,dirks & cutlasses, SCUTTLED SHIPS, Marooning, DESPERATE DEEDS, DESPERATE MEN, and – even on this dark soil – ROMANCE” 

The film was recently screened at the National Media Museum. The print was a more recent copy, which had been printed on modern colour film stock, [probably Eastmancolor]. This affected the reproduction of the original Technicolor two-tones: unfortunately, given Eastmancolor’s tendency to fade there was a pinkish tone throughput the film. The Museum projectionists countered this to a degree by using a Cyan filter on the projector. . However, the relatively primitive process of early Technicolor was itself rather problematic when first used. The film stock, due to the two strips, was thicker than normal, which required greater light intensity and could create problems in projection. This produced a slightly washed out effect and the colour could sometimes appear patchy. There is a version on DVD, which uses a restoration, and produces better reproduction of the two-tone colour: however, even here the colour is patchy. The 35mm print screened at the Museum had sections which had scratches and wear and tear, but [apart from the colour] it was in fairly good condition and provided a clearly defined image.

The projection team also faced questions about projection speeds. There did not seem to be a recorded length for the print or an accepted projection speed. Colleagues in the USA thought that the film had actually been shot at between 20 and 22 fps. A helpful projectionist in Falkirk who had already screened the film proposed 21 fps. After trailing a reel the Bradford projectionist settled on 20 fps. The screening took 103 minutes, so the print was just on 8,000 foot. This is about 400 foot shorter than the original release.

The underwater sequence

The underwater sequence

Early Technicolor has its own distinctive palette and the production team on the film were extremely capable craftspeople. There is an impressive underwater sequence. There are also a bravura sequence of shots as Fairbanks is pulled up and up by the hands of his men – onto the deck of the galleon for the finale. Fairbanks, at the height of his popularity, is as graceful and loveable as ever. Moreover, a cast of Hollywood stalwarts and character actors surrounds him.

On its initial release the film had an especially composed score for accompanying musicians. Fairbanks also produced a sound version with a commentary replacing the original title cards: not a very successful venture. The Museum screening enjoyed a piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla, much appreciated by the audience.

Falkirk’s Hippodrome Cinema has an annual Silent Film Festival from March 13th to 17th.

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One Response to “The Black Pirate

  1. Reblogged this on croftandrew.

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