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September 14, 2010

The Black Swan (1942)

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Henry King - 1942
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

(Darryl) Zanuck gave him the material to read over and a couple of days later (Ben) Hecht came in and said, "I have some radical changes I want to make. I want to create a new character, change around the plot." He talked about how we wanted to give it some flair and romance. He said, "It'll make a real fine story." We agreed that he had something. So he got the job. He said, "Ten days from today I'll come in with the first draft of the script." Ten days later he came in with a first draft and that draft was the first draft, the last draft and everything else. Once we were in production we did make one little change, something that just wasn't doing what I thought it should do, and Hecht came in and made a little modification. And that was The Black Swan, which I thought was one of the most entertaining pictures I was ever connected with.
- Henry King

The Black Swan is indeed entertaining. Leon Shamroy rightly won an Oscar for his Technicolor cinematography with a use of color that primarily recalls the artwork of Howard Pyle, especially in the use of red for Tyrone Power's costumes. Briskly running at less than ninety minutes, the film is another reminder that Henry King could make a film that was both fast and funny. While King gives credit to Ben Hecht for the screenplay, I have to assume that the other credited writer, Seton Miller, still had some contributions to the film. Keep in mind that the last time Miller and Hecht shared screen credits, it was almost ten years ago on Howard Hawks' sometimes savagely comic Scarface.

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Just like in Scarface, there are comparisons of men to apes here. The insults fly fast and furiously between Power and Maureen O'Hara. Coining an original expression, in the hopes that Power would be executed by hanging, O'Hara calls him a "gallows dancer". The more O'Hara tries to resist, the more Power tries to force his affection, stating, "I always sip a bottle of wine before I buy it". O'Hara bites Power. Power socks O'Hara in the jaw. Carrying her over his shoulder, Power unceremoniously dumps O'Hara to greet his old friend and pirate mentor, played by the larger than everyone Laird Cregar. The Black Swan might look like a children's adventure film, but the double entendres are definitely adult.

Cregar plays Sir Henry Morgan, recently rehabilitated from pirate to bureaucrat, making sure Jamaica is safe for British interests. Power is recruited to be Cregar's seafaring enforcer. Resisting the call to convert to more legal private enterprise are George Sanders and Anthony Quinn. Sanders is virtually unrecognizable with his mop of red hair, facial hair and false nose. Quinn hardly says anything in spite of his star billing, mostly grinning with promised menace, and seeming to enjoy just being part of the ride. Ten years later, Quinn would have a bigger role opposite O'Hara in another pirate movie, George Sherman's entertaining, Against All Flags. Reportedly, Power had hoped by look as much like a real pirate as possible, and he is a bit grubby looking in the opening scene, tortured by Fortunio Bonanova, the purple clad Don Miguel. Darryl Zanuck, always mindful of Power's female fans, allowed Power to have a thin, drooping mustache. Power's costume is a combination of Zorro and proto-Village People. It should be no surprise that the film ends with Power finally winning the heart of O'Hara, but its the exchange of insults and injury that constantly amuses.

While not as consistent a collaborator as editor Barbara McLean, Leon Shamroy did some of his best work with Henry King. The Black Swan is filled with the orange glow of sunrises and candle lit windows. if one can glance away from Power and O'Hara trading barbs, there are flowers of the deepest primary colors in the background. Not only was Leon Shamroy one of the first cinematographers to shoot in the then new three strip Technicolor process, he was one of the first to pounce on the artistic possibilities. There are some flaws - a process shot is of two ships at sea, neither of them moving, and a scene with black character actor Clarence Muse is cringeworthy. Otherwise, the real pirates of the Caribbean are here in all their joyful glory.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 14, 2010 09:39 AM