The Black Pirate is far and away the most purely “fun” of all Douglas Fairbanks’ “mature” films. While lacking the scope and sweep of the more elaborate Thief of Baghdad, it also lacks that film’s lumbering, elephantine bloat.
Fairbanks started out as a kind of overly athletic, light leading-man in a remarkably engaging series of modern comedies (1915-20). Yet he’s best known today for his larger-budget swashbucklers (The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood) which made up for their occasional lack of verve through sheer size. Sadly, the amazing zest of Fairbanks’ earlier performances was all too often lost in the process.
The Black Pirate — now a template for nearly every pirate movie ever made — is the happy exception to this. It’s Fairbanks at his best, performing some of his most amazing stunts. As a bonus, it was shot in the primitive, two-strip Technicolor process (the effect is not unlike a hand-colored photograph).
The film moves fast, it’s never less than fun and it has a surprisingly sadistic tone on occasion — no two ways about it, these pirates are genuinely bad news.
Fairbanks — the sole and quite inexplicable survivor of one of their murderous forays — joins the crew of brigands as “The Black Pirate” in order to exact his revenge for the killing of his father. That he has a happy knack for larceny seems not to bother him much, especially when he meets up with Princess Isobel (Billie Dove), whom he saves from the proverbial “fate worse than death” when the pirates draw straws for her. In other words, this film has everything you could expect from a pirate flick.
Well, almost everything. Director Albert Parker is sorely lacking in style.
Parker takes to extremes the tendency of American silents to be shot in a fairly static manner. He has an equal aversion to close-ups, just letting the camera sit back quietly and record the action. Fortunately, the color, the spectacle and, above all, Fairbanks’ performance override the lackluster direction.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Cinema in the Park will screen The Black Pirate on Saturday, May 8, 2004 in Pritchard Park. Show time is at dark (about 8:45 p.m.); River Guerguerian and Aaron Price will provide live musical accompaniment.]