Monday, April 4, 2011

Double Crossbones (1951)

There are two things I may never tire of: pirate movies, and Donald O'Connor. To find them both in the same film is a rare pleasure, even if the film, and O'Connor's performance in it, are far from legendary.

Had O'Connor been born a decade or two earlier, he would have been one of the great icons of musical comedy, a rival even to the likes of Astaire and Kelly. He had it all--he was charming, good-looking, funny, hopelessly likable, and boy, could he dance. He often reminds me of a young Ray Bolger, arms and legs all over the place, always blurring the line between gauche and graceful. The result--as anyone who has seen his "Make 'Em Laugh" routine in Singin' in the Rain can testify--is absolutely unforgettable. Unfortunately for young Donald, musicals were on the way out by the time he came into his own in the 1950's, and apart from a few gems like Singin' in the Rain and Call Me Madam, Donald was mostly relegated to B-movie spoofs, most notably the six film series, Francis the Talking Mule, as well as 1951's Double Crossbones. Double Crossbones is not a bad film, but I can't help but think, when watching movies like this, what sort of films O'Connor could have made had fate treated him differently. I'd love to see him opposite Ginger Rogers or Judy Garland, someone with the sparkle and comedic timing to really do him justice. 

One of the reasons I enjoy pirate movies so much is because they draw their power from a dark and troubled place in the human psyche, a world where the bestial id is entirely unconstrained, in which wholesale rape and murder are cause for bragging rights. We may all long, like Judy Garland admitted while in a hypnotic state in The Pirate, for a daring warrior to "swoop down like a chicken hawk" and carry us off, but we seldom admit it, at least not by the light of day, and certainly not by the light of the Hayes code. What this means in practical terms is that the majority of films about pirates go to great lengths to disguise the true root of their appeal. Some of the greatest screen pirates are not really pirates at all, like Gene Kelly in The Pirate or Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate. Others are genuinely pirates, but their actions are rooted in a sense of patriotism or honor, like in Errol Flynn's The Sea Hawk or Tyrone Power in The Black Swan. Still others become pirates through a bizarre series of unexpected plot twists that leaves them no other viable options; that's what happened to Errol Flynn in Captain Blood, and the same basic premise, although with a much more light-hearted back story, drives the action in Double Crossbones.

Donald O'Connor plays Davey Crandall, a young assistant shopkeeper who dreams of one day marrying the glamorous Lady Sylvia Copeland (Helena Carter), ward to the governor of the Carolinas. He's in a fair way towards making those dreams come true--he's already won her heart, now if he could just get the money to make himself into a respectable match for so eminent a lady. Unfortunately, the shop where he works is discovered to be a front for pirate booty, and all the staff are arrested. Faced with certain hanging, he and his buddy Tom Botts (Will Geer) escape from jail, only to make fact of fiction by unwittingly booking passage on an honest to goodness pirate ship. As these are not the most fair-minded of pirates, they have no intention of treating their passengers honorably, and plan to throw them overboard once they reach the open sea. Crandall and Botts turn the tables on them, and take the ship for themselves. Before you know it, they are forced to capture another ship single (well, double)-handedly. While not as impressive a feat as when Fairbanks makes a similar move in The Black Pirate, it's still an impressive display of comic stunt choreography. Unfortunately for Crandall's romantic ambitions, this ship belongs to the governor, and his lovely ward is on board. Unlike Judy Garland and Keira Knightly (in those movies we don't need mention), Lady Sylvia does not harbor a secret pirate fantasy, and wants nothing more to do with Crandall, who can't break character to tell her the truth or he'll be hanged (ironically, for not being a pirate).

Not a terrible plot, if it were well-written and well-shot, but unfortunately Double Crossbones is neither. The film is visually unappealing. Director Charles Barton fails to create the striking visual presence needed to capture the audience's imagination and invite them into the world of adventure the film's subject promises, and O'Connor, charismatic though he may be, is never for one moment believable even as a pretend pirate. It's not all bad news, though--there is a steady trickle of solid humor throughout the film, and O'Connor does get one truly delightful (if third rate, by his usual high standards) song and dance number, "Percy had a Heart." While not a waste of time to watch, it was certainly a waste of talent to make.

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