Wednesday, April 7, 2021

The Buccaneer (1938)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille                                  Writers: Edwin Mayer & Harold Lamb
Music: George Antheil                                       Cinematography: Victor Milner
Starring: Fredric March, Franciska Gaal, Akim Tamiroff and Beulah Bondi

There were lots of actors like Tyrone Power or Louis Hayward--and even Fredric March in this film--who played pirates on the big screen. But the exercise was never really very convincing. Just as when they played bewigged Enlightenment characters, or nineteenth century farmers, it is clear they were actors putting on costumes and pretending. The notable exception is Errol Flynn, who always gave the distinct impression that he could actually be a pirate had he wanted to, and the effect was to render swashbucklers by every other studio tame in comparison. The Buccaneer stars Fredric March doing his best pirate, but still coming off like . . . well, Fredric March, as he does in all his films, only this time with a painful French accent. The film was based on the novel by Lyle Saxon titled Lafitte the Pirate, published in 1930, and adapted for the screen by a handful of writers including the uncredited Preston Sturgis, who recommended Akim Tamiroff for the role of Lafitte’s first mate, Dominique You. Director Cecil B. DeMille also attempted to make a star of newcomer Franciska Gaal, but the Hungarian actress never caught on in Hollywood and made only two more films in the U.S. before returning to Europe after the war. The film itself never really caught on with audiences either, despite the director shooting an enormous amount of footage and sparing no expense in the production.

The opening of the film shows a group of pirates unearthing buried treasure beneath the initial credits. One of them unrolls a scroll to reveal the rest of the credits over a rousing score by composer George Antheil, and some nifty special effects as sea water washes away one page of text to reveal another as it introduces the War of 1812 and the pirate Jean Lafitte. The story begins in Washington D.C. in 1814 as the town is being overrun by British Soldiers, and a party given by first lady Spring Byington comes to an early conclusion as she and her guests are forced to flee the White House. Traitorous Louisiana senator Ian Keith stays behind to meet with British officers over the abandoned dinner. His mission is to convince pirate Fredric March, as Lefitte, to help the British occupy New Orleans. Meanwhile, Beulah Bondi’s two nieces are living secret lives, the youngest, Louise Campbell, has eloped onboard a ship leaving New Orleans, while the oldest, Margot Grahame, is in love with Lafitte himself. Though March has assured the governor, Douglass Dumbrille, that he has never sunk an American ship, his fellow pirates are not so conscientious. Pirate captain Robert Barrat has already raided Campbell’s ship, killing all aboard. Only Dutch passenger Franciska Gaal manages to escape, and is hidden on the pirate ship by Fred Kohler. After hanging Barrat, March puts his first mate, Akim Tamiroff, in charge of Gaal, and sends Anthony Quinn to hide the booty so the American goods can’t be connected to them.

Eventually the British show up at March’s pirate island and offer him money, a captaincy in the Royal Navy, and pardon’s for him and all his men if he helps them. But while his men at first want to take the offer, March talks them out of it. Dumbrille initially welcomes March’s help, but the duplicitous Keith convinces the rest of the militia officers that it is a trick and they should consider March the enemy. Later in the film it takes Hugh Sothern, as Andrew Jackson, about thirty seconds to realize where Keith’s loyalties lie, and history tells the rest of the story. But because of Jean Lafitte’s extensive career as a pirate—which continued well after the War of 1812—he tends to be given short shrift in the history books, though his role in the battle was important to Jackson’s victory in New Orleans. The film sports DeMille’s regular cast of thousands, with the likes of Evelyn Keyes, Richard Denning, and the unmistakable Walter Brennan in bit parts. Inexplicably, just before the big battle scene, the screen is tinted green, a throwback to the silent era, except that the viewer is left wondering why DeMille chose only to use the tinted screen in that one place when it would have been far more interesting had he used the technique throughout. It’s clear, though, that this was simply an attempt to turn these daylight shots into a crude form of day-for-night shooting. Whether he intended this all along or used it to rectify a major continuity error will probably never be known.

Cecil B. DeMille was always a plodding, heavy-handed director, and this film is no exception. The Motion Picture Academy felt similarly and the picture only earned a single Oscar nomination for Victor Milner’s cinematography—which was particularly good on that green-tinted swamp scene. The biggest issue with the film is the screenplay, which is undramatic when it tries to be dramatic, and corny when it tries to be funny, and the rest of the time just plain uninteresting. While it’s true that Warners big successes in this genre were based on the novels of Raphael Sabatini, even this was no guarantee of success as Fox's version of his story The Black Swan was even worse than DeMille’s picture. One can see the director’s heavy hand in the production. For example, George Antheil’s music is rarely heard in the film, mostly in the odd transitional scene and to underscore the action sequences. Again, a very different effect from Korngold and Steiner at Warners who filled the screen with their music no matter what was going on. DeMille was probably trying for some misguided sense of realism, but forgot it was a film. It’s supposed to be entertaining, and the lack of a full music score really hampers the overall effectiveness. The film was remade exactly twenty years later, with Yul Brynner in the role of Lafitte, and pirate Anthony Quinn from the original film in the director’s chair, but was unable to improve on a flawed original. The Buccaneer isn’t really a bad film, but expectations need to be lowered dramatically going in. Fans of March and Tamiroff may find some interest in it, but those who love the Warners swashbucklers are advised to steer clear.

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