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CAPTAIN BLOOD, 1935.


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His sword carved his name across the continents – and his glory across the seas!

Pirate films are a niche genre of film. 
The "love them or leave them" kind. Some find the swashbucklers childish or lacking an artistic hand, while some find them charming and fun, in the simplest of definitions, CAPTAIN BLOOD is no exception to the last sentence. The film has its artistic and sophisticated moments, something that comes with a properly-done costume drama and a director like Michael Curtiz, who would also go on to direct ROBIN HOOD, CASABLANCA, and a handful of other classics.
An all-around wonder, full of poetic delight and undeniable action.

I.

THE STORY OF CAPTAIN BLOOD started with the novel by Rafael Sabatini, published in nineteen-twenty two. The book had been turned into a silent film in nineteen-twenty four, which starred J. Warren Kerrigan and Jean Paige. Then sound became popular and talkies of all genres started to be made in mass quantities. In nineteen-thirty five, Warner Bros. owned the rights to all of Vitagraph Company's properties, the company that made the first Captain Blood, and studio chief Jack Warner, who never wasted a cent, dusted off the script and decided to add sound.

IN THE 17TH-CENTURY Dr. Peter Blood, a surgeon in England, is sold into slavery in the West Indies after treating the leader of the rebellion against King James II. He is then in bought by the beautiful niece of Colonel Bishop, a local military commander, who seems the potential in her new purchase and tries to improve his situation by recommending him as the personal doctor of the colony's governor. During this time, Blood develops a plan to escape with his fellow slaves. The plan is almost uncovered by the suspicious Colonel Bishop, who has one of Blood's men flogged and interrogated. Blood is spared a similar fate, as the Spanish attacks Port Royal, creating a perfect setting for an escape. The slaves seize the Spanish ship and sail off into a life of piracy, creating a crew with himself as the leader, Captain Blood. (I won't shed another detail. As this is film best watched without much context than that.) 


WARNER BROS. ORIGINALLY WANTED ROBERT DONAT to play the lead, but the actor turned it down. Warmer then went back to the screen tests, testing several actors for the lead role, until landing upon twenty-five-year-old Errol Flynn, an unknown actor from Australia, who had only done brief appearances in B-pictures. This was a risk in its self as the production of the film was going to be quite large and a newcomer without an audience to follow might hinder the profits made in return. Another risk was the casting of Olivia de Havilland, another relative newcomer, as the aristocratic Arabella. The role was offered to Jean Muir, but when she turned it down, the studio shifted their focus to the talented Havilland, who was nineteen at the time and had three films under her acting belt. 

II.

THOUGH THE CASTING FOR WARNER would be a risk, the biggest risk was the film itself. Swashbuckler films during the silent era packed movie houses, with films like Douglas Fairbanks in the nineteen-twenty two ROBIN HOOD and THE BLACK PIRATE in nineteen-twenty six. In the early thirties, costume dramas moved aside in popularity as the fast-paced gangster films took ahold of the public attention, that and the risque comedies and musicals. Come to the censorship code that was changing audiences tastes once more, films like THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and TREASURE ISLAND were all hits in nineteen-thirty four, which was, I suppose, the big push for Warner to create another CAPTAIN BLOOD. Though the studio felt that it would take in a profit, no one could have predicted the blockbuster it would become. More and one-million was made in profits. And of course, the making of two stars must have not hurt either. Film Historian Lincoln D. Hurst would even go on to call Errol Flynn's performance "the most amazing debut of any new actor in the history of Hollywood." That is a statement I also stand by. 

ERROL FLYNN AND OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND'S performances in this film have been studied since we started to inspect films. Without question, their undeniable chemistry made even the most action over romance fan interested in their outcome through the run time. Both Havilland and Flynn both said they were crazy about one another during a lot of their films together, the outcome? The longevity of these classics. Olivia had already gained some acting techniques, but Errol, on the other hand, was nervous during the first few takes, shaking a considerable amount that Michael Curtiz had to patiently coach him for a few weeks. The outcome was a subtle acting style that has been praised and studied for generations, it was a complete turn around from the sometimes over the top acting of the silent era that some of the men on set thought it might come across to boring. But, nevertheless, his performance, along with Olivia's received high reviews from critics and the general public.

I MUST ALSO PRAISE THAT of Basil Rathbone, in the part of Captain Levasseur, a French pirate, who will end up holding Arabella as ransom. Rathbone is also known for playing the part in another Errol Flynn and Michael Curtiz film, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, as Sir Guy of Gisborne. In Robin Hood and in Captain Blood, we witness two great sword fighting scenes. Rathbone not only has the face and acting ability to give intensity and attitude to his characters but to create counterparts for Flynn's heroic roles. CAPTAIN BLOOD would also be his breakout performance. 

OLIVIA DE HAVILLAND & ERROL FLYNN CROSSING SWORDS
ON THE SET OF 'CAPTAIN BLOOD', 1935.
THE FILM WAS RELEASED IN DECEMBER of nineteen-thirty five at the Mark Strand Theatre in New York for its premiere. The film instantly received positive reviews and wide public approval, with an entire generation of children wanting to be a pirate like that of Errol Flynn. Not only the generation of children growing up in the thirties but also future generations, like this scene from THE GOONIES in nineteen-eighty five.

FROM 'THE GOONIES' 1985.
III.

THE MUSIC IS BY AUSTRIAN COMPOSER Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who was famous for his concerts in Europe in the teens and the nineteen-twenties, who created a new kind of sound for film, a modern stand-point, loud and thrilling and theatrical. When asked if he would be interested in writing the stirring score, he first declined, thinking that a pirate film was out of his range and interests. This changes, for the better, when he saw the footage of the two new leads. This change of mind resulted in an Oscar nomination and would be the first of six films he would compose starring Flynn. In addition to these, it would open the doors for other costumed films, which hadn't been seen since the silent era. 

THE SCREENPLAY WAS WRITTEN BY Casey Robinson, who was credited with the love scenes between the Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca. The language between our two leads is poetic and light, painted with detail of a time once forgotten. Robinson was like most screenwriters of this era - he started out writing title cards for silent films, then turned it into a successful career in screenwriting and even became known for his romantic writings between lead actors.

AND I CANNOT GO WITHOUT MENTIONING THE DIRECTOR,  Michael Curtiz. If you've seen his other work - CASABLANCA, MILDRED PIERCE, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, or even YANKEE DOODLE DANDY and WHITE CHRISTMAS. You are no stranger to the director of classics golden age films. His work is timeless. And CAPTAIN BLOOD is no stranger to his talents. For a film that is simply put, an action film, a simple pirate film, a swashbuckler, if you will, he wastes none of the beauty that had come out of this decade of cinema history. The sword-fighting scenes are full of movements and camera shifts, with a handful of closeups on the pirates sheen faces, and long shots that move through the sand kicking fight. There is an intensity that sometimes lacks in other action films from this era. One of my favorite shots is that of Olivia de Havilland, of which her character Arabella sitting in a rowboat, and the camera creeps up on her longing expression. That simple moment was a masterpiece of a scene. 


I HAVE SEEN A NUMBER OF PIRATE films, as the first favorite film I ever had was PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN and I was blown away by that film, so much so that it remained a favorite for another decade. So as you image, seeing the praise I have for his film...write this down...this is without question, the best pirate film I have ever seen, so much so that I can't think of another that even comes to close. The film has stood the test of time and always evolving film technology, yet this film produced what few CGI films ever could, a memorable, entertaining experience.  


R.

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