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From the Vaults: 'The Black Swan' (1942)

December 20, 2010 |  2:44 am

Swan The current Natalie Portman film is not, perhaps, technically a remake of this movie. Instead of dueling ballerinas, the 1942 film features dueling pirates. Instead of the "Dying Swan" dance, there is a big battle at sea with cannons. And instead of Portman and Mila Kunis, the 1942 film stars Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara. But everything else is totally the same.

Actually, 1942's "Black Swan" is based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini (I haven't read it, but I loved "Scaramouche") and concerns the uneasy relationships between the English, the Spanish and the non-law-abiding pirates in the glory days of the Spanish Main. Power plays Jamie, a very enthusiastic pirate whose hero Captain Morgan (Laird Cregar) lures him into a respectable non-pirating life as governor of Jamaica. This sits none too well with the feisty Margaret (O'Hara), whose dad was the previous governor, but Jamie finds her an irresistible wench all the same. Sparks fly!

Meanwhile, Jamie and Morgan's former pirating colleague Leech (George Sanders) is continuing to ply his trade off Jamaica in violation of Morgan's wishes. Jamie must use all his old pirating skills to track down his rival and win Margaret's affections! But will the siren song of the high seas lure him back again?

This movie's got a fab cast. In addition to the top stars it's got a sinister Anthony Quinn in an eye patch as Leech's sidekick, and a very lively Thomas Mitchell (yup, Uncle Billy) in a headscarf as Jamie's best friend, Tommie Blue. All the wigs and pirate beards do make it hard to recognize some people -- I would never have identified Sanders (whom we last saw thinking about a brick wall in "Village of the Damned").

I'd never seen a Tyrone Power movie before and gosh, is he a cutie. He's certainly the happiest pirate imaginable: definitely not the tormented, brooding variety of pirate. Whether he's swordfighting, abducting Margaret or being tortured on a rack, he seems to be having a great time. He brings the bound to the bounding main! And his spirit is fairly infectious. There's nothing dark about this movie; it's as frivolous as a summery rum cocktail, perhaps a daiquiri.

Unfortunately, its very weightlessness threatens to blow it away. The action's confined mostly to ships and a couple government buildings in the Caribbean -- you're told that all these key decisions are being made back in England but you never get a sense of global urgency. And the characters, impervious though they may be to sword wounds, don't withstand close inspection. I mean, what drives Jamie anyway? He's mostly just a pirate because it's fun, and then he decides to reform because Margaret is pretty. Charming, but not particularly interesting.

As for Margaret, O'Hara plays the icy-aristocrat thing to the hilt, and she's clearly enjoying herself. But her character hasn't got anything else to it -- in her one unguarded moment, all she's got to say is that Jamaica has no good shopping. Still, she's great at doing all the required things, like pulling a gun on the hero and galloping off in a huff and sticking her nose in the air.

I shouldn't complain, though. It's a pirate movie, and you're going to get pirate paper-doll figures and watch them go "bang! bang!" with their cannons. I just wish it didn't feel quite so perfunctory. (It was released on the heels of Errol Flynn's "The Sea-Hawk," also based on a Sabatini novel.) Maybe the book is better. We can't all be Natalie Portman, I guess.

-- Anne Elisabeth Dillon

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