Thursday, August 11, 2011


This kills me. Santa Cruz's own Laurie R. King has written a pirate novel!

Or, at least, her new novel, "The Pirate King" (due out September 6), places King's brilliant detective series heroine, Mary Russell, and her husband, Sherlock Holmes (no slouch himself when it comes to solving mysteries), behind the scenes in the silent movie industry during the making of a pirate swashbuckler, ca. 1924. Bookshop Santa Cruz will be hosting a reading by King on Tuesday, September 20. In the meantime, check out King's website for details about the 10 weeks of piratical shenanigans and contests she's holding during the run-up to publication day.

One of the contest prizes is a copy of this fabulous faux movie poster being used to advertise Laurie's book. (It's not the book jacket cover, but a separate promo item.) This image is based on a classic Howard Pyle illustration, but the whole concept harks back to the glory days of silent movie posters.

Of course, pirates and silent movies are two of my favorite subjects. I especially love the idea that (according to the preview on Laurie's website) the maniacal filmmaker in her book gets involved with real pirates to lend his film authenticity. This makes perfect sense if you know anything about the early days of silent filmmaking. In particular, the superb 13-part video series by Kevin Brownlow, Hollywood, documents the outrageous DIY spirit of intrepid movie pioneers who were making up the rules as they went along. (If the script called for a fistfight on the wings of a biplane, for instance, they sent two actors up in a biplane with a camera strapped on the wing.)

The most famous pirate movie of the silent era is The Black Pirate, starring the inimitable Douglas Fairbanks. By 1926, Fairbanks was such a huge star, he got name-above-the-title billing on the poster art; his buoyant athletic brio was always the soap his movies were selling.

But according to the strict moral code of the era, a pirate couldn't be a hero, so when Fairbanks, the most popular actor in Hollywood, wanted to make a pirate picture, he had to play a disguised nobleman who joins the pirate crew for a "noble" reason—to avenge himself on the scurvy dogs who caused his father's death. Through this device, Fairbanks got to have all the fun of playacting the pirate life without tarnishing his heroic image.

This is an all-Fairbanks production: he wrote the script (under his alias, Elton Thomas) and sketched out every shot before a director even came on board. He revels in plundering every pirate cliche in the canon, from buried treasure to walking the plank. And in one of the most memorable of all silent movie stunts, he climbs out on a yard, plunges his knife into the top of the sail, and slides all the way down to the deck by grasping the handle as the blade slices the sail in two. Yowza! Don't try this at home, kids. (Read more)

Meanwhile, other silent filmmakers were pillaging all the same source material that later became vehicles for Errol Flynn and his swashbuckling brethren in the talkies. The most famous of Flynn's pirate movies is a gritty and rousing adaptation of Rafael Sabaini's Captain Blood, made in 1935. (Arguably, by me, the best pirate movie ever made.) But there was also a lavish silent version, starring one J. Warren Kerrigan, made in 1924.

Only about half an hour of footage from this film exists today. But this cool poster remains. It's unusual for a pirate movie in that it features no ship, no sea, no Bounding Main; it's all about mood and tension. I just love that looming shadow figure. This poster tells you: prepare to be thrilled!

Apparently, this early version of The Sea Hawk (also produced in 1924), stuck far more closely to the original Sabatini novel than the more famous Errol Flynn/MGM version made in 1940. Milton Sills stars as an Elizabethan sea captain framed for a crime and sold into slavery to the Spanish; when Muslim corsairs eventually board his ship and free him, he renounces Christianity and transforms himself into the Algerian pirate, Sakr-el-Bahr—The Hawk of the Sea.

This was obviously a plot point that wouldn't wash in 1940s Hollywood. But this terrific poster conveys all the lush Eastern exoticism of Sabatini's tale.

Robert Louis Stevenson's evergreen pirate classic, Treasure Island, got the silent treatment in 1920, from French-born filmmaker Maurice Tourneur. (Father of Jacques Tourneur, who became a Hollywood film director of note in the '40s.) True to its era, this film featured a female actress in the role of boy-hero Jim Hawkins. More intriguing, the great Lon Chaney was on board as eerie pirate, Blind Pew, who gets innkeeper's son Hawkins involved in the pirate plot. (A couple of stills exist of Chaney in costume for the role, but the film itself is lost.) But this poster doesn't care about the stars; it's selling a rip-roaring, boy's own pirate adventure!

Setting down Russell and Holmes in the midst of all this lively ferment as the movies struggle to invent themselves sounds like a brilliant idea to me. Me timbers are shiverin' already!

No comments:

Post a Comment