Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Tyrone Power, the screen's best Zorro, tries piracy on for size in Fox's Technicolor spectacle, The Black Swan. Although it's lavish enough in the production department -- perhaps filming commenced before WW2 broke out -- the real emphasis here is on the cutesy romantic games between Tyrone's dashing ruffian and Maureen O'Hara's icy but gorgeous governor's daughter. The picture might accurately be re-titled It Happened one Night on the Spanish Main.
Buccaneer Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power) escapes the rack with the return of ex-pirate Captain Sir Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar): Instead of hanging the pirate, the British crown has made him the new governor of Jamaica. The pirate community is split, with Waring and other captains (including Tom Blue (Thomas Mitchell) joining Morgan, and dissenters Wogan (Anthony Quinn) and Captain Billy Leech (George Sanders) choosing to stick with the sack-and-plunder lifestyle choice. Morgan's jealous predecessor Lord Denby (George Zucco) is determined to prove that the new governor is still a pirate. His daughter's fiancé Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley) colludes with pirate Billy Leech to get rich while blaming Morgan for the continuation of open piracy. Morgan assigns young Waring to capture Leech and Wogan ... but Waring is more interested in Lord Denby's beautiful daughter, Margaret.
Tyrone Power had played a number of daring adventurers but Jamie Waring is his first bona fide pirate. His personal style in the role actually resembles the Tom Cruise formula of screen heroism. Waring is a Pirate for All Seasons, dicing the tough talk with his peers while turning into an impish charmer to reverse-woo the porcelain princess O'Hara; he spends most of the film's 85 minutes being rebuffed, until Margaret sees the light and realizes that Waring is playing fair with both the crown and her own best interests.
By 1942 Warner Bros. had the corner in pirate movies by virtue of just a few extremely popular Errol Flynn pictures. The Black Swan can't help but be compared to them in superficial ways -- Seton I. Miller had just done the screenplay for The Sea Hawk. Alfred Newman's score occasionally takes on a Wolfgang Korngold riff or two, and spends altogether too much time clogging up early scenes with unnecessary wallpaper music before settling down. The ship models are almost as good, although The Black Swan lacks the giant boat sets of the kind used in The Sea Hawk.
On the other hand, Leon Shamroy's rich Technicolor photography is an impressive asset, with the models sailing on azure seas below sunset skies. Warners didn't want to foot the cost of Technicolor, especially when they could re-use existing pirate battle action, some of it from the silent era. Shamroy's interiors use many shadows and dark areas, as opposed to the high-key look of most other costume films; his work received the film's only Oscar. Although many rear-screen setups are used, some deck scenes appear to have been done at sea.
The Black Swan aims for but doesn't quite achieve a romantic lightness of spirit. Margaret doesn't seem particularly intrigued by his attentions, and most of Waring's early insults and rough treatment are lacking in charm. What Flynn could achieve with a wink and a smile, it takes Power half the film to build up. In their 'meeting cute' scene, Waring hefts Margaret over one shoulder and then unceremoniously dumps her (on a stone floor) when his boss Morgan arrives. We don't know whether to laugh or to think of Margaret's cracked skull ... she's not even afforded an outraged reaction.
Waring finally proves that this is a romantic pirate movie when Waring finds out that Margaret is getting married just as he's ordered to sea. He kidnaps Margaret, and when Billy Leech captures them both they must pretend they're married in a cutesy share-the-bed arrangement. The fantasy of being carried off by Tyrone Power was The Black Swan's main appeal for the 1942 female audience. And he wears an earring, too.
Besides Zucco's petulant governor, The Black Swan has Fortunio Bonanova (Citizen Kane) as a pompous Spaniard with a terrific accent and Clarence Muse doing a 17th-century houseboy with the mannerisms of a 20th century Hollywood black stereotype. Edward Ashley's dishonest Englishman is just dropped from the movie after his fiancée is kidnapped. Of the four main pirate characters, Anthony Quinn is allowed little more than a few stylish grins and Thomas Mitchell's bluster isn't given much freedom to develop. George Sanders acts with his voice, as his face is hidden behind a full beard. Laird Cregar is everything we'd want in Sir Henry Morgan and more; we can tell that even as Morgan enjoys his newfound respectability, he misses the old-time action on the high seas. The Black Swan makes killing, kidnapping, raping and looting seem like a respectable occupation.
Fox's DVD of The Black Swan presents the film in an acceptable color presentation from a restored and digitally enhanced composite CRI. Color is good but blacks still tend to block up, where once there was detail in the inky darkness. Yet the restoration gives us a show with bright colors and good skin tones. The Restoration Demonstration says that the existing Technicolor matrices were not used; someday it may be financially feasible to routinely rebuild Technicolor films from the bottom up, but not yet.
The commentary is a welcome treat. Historian Rudy Behlmer hosts actress Maureen O'Hara in a pleasant discussion of the making of the movie. Ms. O'Hara's co-star Power has been gone for 47 years. A trailer is included as well. Of all the pirate pictures released to accompany the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Black Swan is the most similar.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Black Swan rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Rudy Behlmer and Maureen O'Hara, Restoration comparison, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 10, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are more likely to be updated and annotated with reader input.
Return to Top of Page