In some of Errol Flynn’s films, the word “swashbuckling” parts itself into separate words. “Swash” stands for those periods where the swords clank, the scuffles grow, and the stunts rise in excitement. “Buckling” is all the sequences in between, where the story develops, the characters get deeper into their situations, and alliances and devious doings grow. The character development and story are usually strong, but at times we ourselves are buckling, waiting patiently but barely wanting to wait for the action to begin, because with Flynn, there’s not only a mess of humanity growling and clanking this way and that, but also real fun about it all.
Consider his role in “Captain Blood” as Dr. Peter Blood. In 1685 England, where rebels are fighting to overthrow King James II, he is rousted from his home one night towards the residence of a wounded man. As he explains among a group of court-martialed rebels and miscellaneous others accused of helping or harboring them (there are a good lot of them in the grand courtroom, so we can’t be quite sure who’s in for what, though it’s likely a mixture of them), he cared more about the man’s wounds than of his politics. Not good enough for the high court James, and Blood is sent along with the rest of the pack for hanging until an idea is struck which forces them all to Port Royal and the bonds of slavery. In this role, Flynn gets away with a bunch of high-browed lines of dialogue that would sound silly from the mouths of other actors and he assumes dignity as graciously as any other great actor would. When news comes that the Spaniards have seized Port Royal, Blood puts a long-gestating plan into action and with his men (including the rotund and wonderful Guy Kibbee, along with Ross Alexander and Robert Barrat) that sends them off on the high seas as pirates, since they have nowhere else to go.
The always-lovely Olivia DeHavilland co-starred with Flynn in this, one of their eight films together and Blood’s resentment toward Arabella (DeHavilland) purchasing him, makes a unique partnership between these two. There’s no “jump to Point A, B, then C” kind of romance with these two. They take their time together, as the script commands, and they play it very well to the point where this, their first appearance together, makes one look forward to their later pairings even more (including the beloved classic, “The Adventures of Robin Hood”). Basil Rathbone appears more than halfway through the picture as the captain of a French pirate crew, enjoying his French accent and the sword-clacking company of Flynn. Both of them together provide a timing that make their scenes irresistible and showcased Rathbone as a fine talent with a sword and as a villain too.
And the stunts. Oh those stunts! Director Michael Curtiz provides a rip-roaring adventure during those sequences, giving us booming battles that don’t require crazy editing. Seeing those ships split apart and all those hands on deck, comprised of numerous stuntmen, it’s a genuine excitement that’s boosted by the thundering, sweeping music score of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the greatest name in adventure music. Literally, these battles keep rising and rising in action until the sinking of the French enemy ship and by then, we’re still breathless. Back then, Warner Brothers sure knew how to make these adventures a great time at the movies and today, “Captain Blood” is immensely captivating. “Pirates of the Carribean” had to be somewhat influenced by this.
For the DVD of “Captain Blood”, many great treats are in store not only for Hollywood history, but also to experience what was the norm at the movies. Warner Night at the Movies recreates 1935, where not only a feature was shown to audiences, but a number of shorts and cartoons. Leonard Maltin introduces all that’s here, and puts them in their proper historical context. You can watch these any way you like, and on the menu, it begins with a trailer for A Midsummer Night’s Dream which featured James Cagney and Mickey Rooney. A Hearst Metrotrone newsreel profiles the guilty verdict of Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who kidnapped and killed the Lindbergh baby. All-American Drawback is a semi-drawback with some clunkers in this comedy short, set at Flunkwell College (har, har, har) and featuring ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his famous wooden co-star, Charlie McCarthy, who is faced with the threat of being taken off the football team unless he passes a few exams. McCarthy zips off a few zingers, especially toward a blonde co-star and fortunately, unlike later years, Bergen’s mouth doesn’t noticeably move. Johnny Green & His Orchestra features Green, known for the song “Body & Soul”, sprucing up a sleepy resort with his piano-playing and a few guest stars, most notably The Hillbilly Trio who speak in rhyme and possess a real melodious harmony. Billboard Frolics is a Merrie Melodies cartoon which uses billboards for laughs. Thusly, loaves of Russian rye perform a jig, while a cat chases after a canary, and the Arm & Hammer muscled arm gets into the amusing act too.
The front-and-center attraction on this disc, however, is Captain Blood: A Swashbuckler is Born. This is a full-on Hollywood history lesson in under a half hour, featuring such historian greats as Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, Rudy Behlmer (a dear favorite), composer John Mauceri, and Lincoln D. Hurst, professor of film at UC Davis. Did you know that Errol Flynn had done only one previous film in Britain for Warner Bros. England before being carted here to the States at the behest of the studio? Or how about those seafaring miniatures? Not toys, mind you, but 18-foot vessels. And Erich Wolfgang Korngold was recording the score for a Paramount production called “Give Us the Night” by day, and writing the music for “Captain Blood” at night. It’s history without the hesitating or monotonous voices bestowed upon numerous college professors, and what you learn comes from some of the very best in the field of film history.
From February 22, 1937 comes a Lux Radio Theater broadcast of “Captain Blood” starring Errol Flynn, Olivia DeHavilland, Basil Rathbone, Henry Stephenson, and Donald Crisp. Herbert Marshall takes over from Cecil B. DeMille in this program, who at the time was off filming “The Buccaneer”. Here, “Blood” has been severely truncated for the radio audience for an hour-long program which is beneficial because the dialogue is given much more prominence, dialogue which is of a most entertaining sort. Words of grandeur and power. It makes you wonder what in the hell, outside of David Mamet and select others, happened to dialogue in Hollywood today. Just like his on-screen role, Flynn gives it his all. Even more striking is the commercials for Lux toilet soap during the show. Before the end of the program, Herbert Marshall introduces a master safecracker who recounts his risks and adventures very briefly until Marshall pushes the talk to Lux soap. Commercials on radio didn’t happen as they do on television today, but rather during the program where the story was interrupted to give time to the sponsor. And of course, there is also a theatrical trailer for “Captain Blood”.
What a package, what a time, and what marvelous effort toward a classic adventure that contained everything any kind of adventure demands! This is where “Pirates of the Carribean” began long before that film was even thought of. This is where its influences lie. Look at Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in his moments of action frenzy and then look at Basil Rathbone, hair wildly astray and fiery excitement in his eyes. You’ve got 1930s Hollywood to thank for that. This is so much fun!