The Corsican Brothers

The Corsican Brothers
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1941
Director: Gregory Ratoff
Source: Hen’s Tooth Video DVD

The Corsican Brothers

Producer Edward Small returns with another swashbuckler based on a story by Alexandre Dumas, as he was on an annual basis at this point (though the run was about to be interrupted by World War II). Louis Hayward, Small’s usual star, was slated for the lead, but he took a part in a prestige drama instead, so the dual rôle of the Corsican twins instead went to Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who delivered one of his best performances.

In old Corsica, two aristocratic families have been feuding for generations, the noble Franchis and the cruel and coarse Colonnas. The Franchi family is gathered at their estate to await the birth of an heir to the count, an event the Colonnas take advantage of to attack and massacre the Franchis. Countess Franchi gives birth to conjoined, or Siamese, twins, but in the chaos of the Colonna attack they are spirited away by the family doctor (secret passage!). Doctor Paoli successfully separates the twins, and names them Lucien and Mario. Baron Colonna is aware that Countess Franchi gave birth to twins, so to put him off the trail, Mario is sent with noble family friends to be raised in Paris, while Lucien remains in Corsica, raised by a Franchi retainer among a gang of bandits. But the twins share a psychic connection, and what one feels, the other feels as well. When the brothers come of age, Dr. Paoli summons Mario back to Corsica, to meet Lucien and to tell them of their true parentage. The twins embrace and swear vengeance upon Count Colonna. “No one knows there are two of us,” says Lucien. “It’ll be our sharpest weapon!”

So much for the first half hour, which sets up the story. Now comes the fun: the conflict with the Colonnas, led by Akim Tamiroff as the baron, and the conflict between the brothers, who fall in love with the same woman, Lady Isabelle Gravini—who is also, of course, desired by Baron Colonna. Besides genre-convention bingo (Villain’s jealous mistress! Fop impersonation! Death-feigning potion!), the main pleasures here are in the performances of the two male leads. Fairbanks really puts it over in his double rôle as the noble Mario and the tormented and jealous Lucien. In both parts he gets in some fine active swashbuckling reminiscent of his father. And Tamiroff’s Baron Colonna is a delightful mix of wily cunning, brutal bullying, and vain preening. Menacing one moment, laughing the next, he’s a complete hoot. When the Franchi brothers raid his holdings, he’s outraged: “First my cousins, then my nephews,” he cries, “and then my sheep!”

But in the end it all works out, with Doctor Paoli’s help—because science! The final sword fight between Franchi and Colonna was Doug Fairbanks, Jr.’s favorite of his entire career.

Cardinal Richelieu

Cardinal Richelieu
Rating: **
Origin: USA
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Source: Fox Cinema Archives DVD

Cardinal Richelieu

This film’s story comes from an 1839 play by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame, the man renowned as a writer so bad that there’s an annual bad-writing award named after him. And this story is nothing if not a creaky old potboiler, a romance shoe-horned into a pastiche of various events from the reign of King Louis XIII, combining four different conspiracies against king and cardinal into one. The movie retains the play’s theatrical staginess, with just enough carriage chases and swordplay thrown into it to allow it to qualify for inclusion in this series.

Still, if you’re interested in the period, as Your Editor is, there are several things Cardinal Richelieu gets right, starting with its depiction of His Red Eminence, who is wily, bold, articulate, and as generous one minute as he is ruthless the next. Richelieu is played by George Arliss, an English actor of stage and screen who, though now largely forgotten, was very popular in his day. His characterization of the cardinal is easily the mildest and least menacing of any film portrayal of Richelieu, and it’s jarring at first to have such a milquetoast in the rôle, until gradually Arliss reveals the steel fist beneath the velvet glove.

Francis Lister, in the rôle of Prince Gaston, also deserves a mention, as his portrayal of King Louis’s ambitious but weaselly and craven younger brother is spot on. The costumes are all period-perfect, and Maureen O’Sullivan and Cesar Romero, as the star-crossed lovers caught up in the conspiracy, look good in them. But the script doesn’t give them anything interesting to say, and you won’t see anything in this film you haven’t seen many times before. However, it wouldn’t be fair not to acknowledge the capable direction of Rowland V. Lee, without which this old pot wouldn’t boil at all.

Captain Pirate

Captain Pirate
Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1952
Director: Ralph Murphy
Source: Columbia Pictures DVD

Captain Pirate

The black-and-white Fortunes of Captain Blood (1950) must have done well, because Columbia upped the production ante for this Technicolor sequel, which is quite good despite its reeeeally stupid title. (I blame Columbia’s marketing department.) Like Fortunes, it stars Louis Hayward and Patricia Medina in a story loosely based on a book by Rafael Sabatini, in this case Captain Blood Returns (1932). The writers borrowed some incidents, characters, and names from Returns, but this is an original story, and a good one; it hews closely to the historical feel and personality of Sabatini’s tales, which hinge on the balance between Peter Blood’s ruthless cunning and innate decency.

The plot here is a member of the “The only way to prove I’m not the murderer is to catch the real killer” club, piracy chapter. Blood, now a retired and respectable Jamaica planter, is on the verge of marrying Doña Isabella, whom he rescued in Fortunes, when he’s arrested and accused of returning to piracy to attack the port of Cartagena, on the evidence of Isabella’s Spanish cousin and that of Hilary Evans (John Sutton), Blood’s rival for her hand. With Blood in prison, Isabella takes over; at her behest Blood’s first mate reforms his old crew (there’s a fine rallying-the-crew montage delightfully scored to the tune of “Drunken Sailor”), Evans’s ship is boarded and captured in Port Royal harbor, and Blood is freed to sail off and try to determine who really raided Cartagena in his guise.

What follows is a high-seas detective story on the Spanish Main that takes Blood and his crew from Port Royal to Tortuga, Martinique, Santo Domingo, and Puerto Bello, bargaining with, bamboozling, and bullying a series of gratifyingly unsavory characters of every stripe, always just ahead of the pursuing English and Spanish navies. There are some tense action scenes, in which Hayward shows that he’s not only improved his already-capable fencing skills, but has added judo into the bargain, throwing scurvy dogs and Royal Marines around with equal abandon. The final duel with Sutton in a burning fortress is pretty thrilling. Does Blood finally track down the true culprit, clear his name, and marry Doña Isabella? What do you think?

Captain Kidd

Captain Kidd
Rating: ***
Origin: USA, 1945
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Source: American Home Treasures DVD

Captain Kidd

Charles Laughton had a strange career for a movie star. Enormously talented, with an outsized screen presence despite his modest stature, he made an early name for himself in the ‘30s playing big rôles like King Henry VIII, the Emperor Nero, and Captain Bligh. But no matter how talented he was, Laughton was far from conventionally handsome, and only grew more homely with time; this limited his options, and by the 1940s about the only lead parts he could get were in low-budget melodramas like Captain Kidd. Though theoretically based on the life of the historical pirate, other than a few names and some disconnected incidents, this movie has less to do with history than with touching on as many pirate-movie tropes as possible: rascally new crew members signing the Articles; the buccaneers burying their ill-gotten treasure in a hidden cave; a sword duel over possession of a captive lady; a candle burning down to set off a ship’s powder magazine; a medallion that reveals the wearer’s true parentage. All good fun, but this film’s principle pleasures come from watching Laughton’s portrayal of the supremely duplicitous William Kidd, who indulges in treachery, corruption, cruelty, and murder because he genuinely enjoys it, and revels in his utter lack of scruples. When he’s lying to someone he plans to betray (i.e., everyone), he can scarcely conceal his evil glee. At one point John Carradine calls him a cold-blooded shark, and he replies, “Ah, you flatterer!”

Speaking of the gaunt and ever-sinister John Carradine, he may be the best of the fine character actors supporting Laughton in this film, but he’s not the only one: there’s Gilbert Roland as another of Kidd’s lieutenants, the suave but avaricious Spaniard Lorenzo, the haughty Henry Daniell as King William III, and Reginald Owen as the snooty Shadwell, the butler employed by Kidd to teach him how to act like “a person of quality.” The one wrong note comes from the casting of Randolph Scott as Adam Mercy, the ex-pirate who joins Kidd’s crew as master gunner, but whose manners and attitude betray an aristocratic background. The problem is that Scott, a tall square-jawed American best known as a two-fisted cowboy in Western movies, is about as aristocratic as beer, and about as piratical as an Eagle Scout. As the king’s infiltrator in Kidd’s crew, it’s just unbelievable that Kidd and his cutthroats would be taken in by him for a moment. But this is Hollywood, so in the end cowboy virtue wins out over ruthless duplicity. At least Laughton gets in a mocking final speech.

Fun fact: according to Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs, this was one of Josef Stalin’s favorite films. He’s said to have been delighted by Laughton’s portrayal of the unrepentant and utterly unprincipled pirate captain. Is good!