The Black Swan (1942)

When it’s on: Thursday, 21 June (12.30 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Not a nutty ballerina to be found in The Black Swan, Henry King’s 1942 swashbuckler about pirates in seventeenth century Caribbean waters. The film was  made as war between America and the Axis powers was imminent. Producer Robert Bassler, acting under orders from his Fox paymasters, ordered a limited number of takes for each scene in order to cut down on chemical usage that could be better deployed in the war effort. If certain scenes seem a little stagy and heavy on dialogue, then it’s probably for this reason. In places, The Black Swan might not crackle with the force of any moment when the camera’s on Maureen O’Hara’s fiery redhead, but mostly it’s very good fun, a fine choice for matinee entertainment on a rainy day (after all, it’s only the middle of flipping June).

Tyrone Power features in many scenes bare-chested as Captain Jamie ‘Jamie Boy’ Waring, a former smuggler who, along with Tommy Blue (Thomas Mitchell), gains legitimacy as a fellow pirate is reformed and installed as the Governor of Jamaica. Peace terms have been agreed between England and Spain, a state of affairs not to the liking of all, including Captain Leech (George Sanders), who continues his career of buccaneering. Leech appears to know just where to strike and it emerges he’s being tipped off by a Jamaican official who’s keen to impeach the new Governor, as well as wooing the old broom’s daughter, Lady Margaret (O’Hara). Jamie Boy takes a shine to the explosive Maggie, and kidnaps her as he sails off to deal with Leech’s ship, the infamous Black Swan…

Clocking in at less than ninety minutes, The Black Swan packs a lot in and, that slow middle section aside, passes agreeably. Almost every moment has Alfred Newman’s score twinkling away in the background, with a lovely trumpet-driven signature tune. The sets and costumes are entirely agreeable, and there are some really fine special effects, including one great set piece involving a ship running aground. It’s a model, naturally, but not a bad one, and it comes as part of a cracking sea battle to close the film. The effects and music were both nominated for Academy Awards, but The Black Swan’s only Oscar went to Leon Shamroy’s colour cinematography. It was the first of Shamroy’s four wins (and a slew of nominations) within a masterly career that is in fine evidence here. Skies have rarely looked more ravishing, particularly the orange dawn rays flooding into the cabin occupied by Power and O’Hara.

The fabulous cast is another considerable plus. O’Hara seems never better to me than when she’s playing the hellcat, which she does here until the final reel. George Sanders is recognisable only from his familiar silky voice; otherwise he’s cloaked in the thick ginger hair and beard of the villainous Captain Leech. Mitchell offers excellent support, and there are small but eye-catching roles for George Zucco and Anthony Quinn. As for the oft-topless Power, he doesn’t quite have the presence of Errol Flynn, but he’s certainly better than many bland matinee leads and really comes to life in the action scenes, especially his fast-paced duel with Leech. As a tragic postscript, he died at just 43, suffering a heart attack whilst filming another sword fight with Sanders for Solomon and Sheba.

The Black Swan: ***

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