Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tonight's Movie: The Buccaneer (1938) at UCLA

Tonight was my first evening attending the current Cecil B. DeMille series at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater. It was a seafaring double bill consisting of 35mm screenings of THE BUCCANEER (1938) and REAP THE WILD WIND (1942).

With the films running 126 and 124 minutes, respectively, plus a short, I might admit to zoning out a bit by the time we finally got to the battle with the giant squid at the end of REAP THE WILD WIND, but it was a fun evening!

Starting with the last film first, I reviewed REAP THE WILD WIND back in 2009. The unrestored print in UCLA's library was a bit rough at reel changes but for the most part looked very nice. It was a treat to see four favorite actors -- Ray Milland, John Wayne, Paulette Goddard, and Susan Hayward -- in Technicolor on a big screen. As described in my original review, it's not a perfect film, but it's entertaining enough to revisit every few years.

Backing up to the start of the evening, first off was a screening of GRETCHEN COMES ACROSS (1938), an interesting promotional short in which Cecil B. DeMille introduced Hungarian actress Franciska Gaal to audiences. The print was in great shape and was hokey fun, with DeMille barking orders right and left; I enjoyed seeing how the studio marketed a new actress. One does wonder why DeMille saw a Hungarian-accented actress as perfect casting for a "little Dutch girl" but such was Hollywood!

THE BUCCANEER was a wonderful print. Fredric March stars as pirate Jean Lafitte, who forms an alliance with Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern) during the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812.

Lafitte and the patrician Annette (Margot Grahame) are in love, and she will marry him if he can find a way to become "respectable." A pardon for helping the Americans might be the answer. Meanwhile a young Dutch girl, Gretchen (Gaal), who was rescued by Lafitte at sea, pines for her pirate "boss."

The film starts with a beautiful title sequence followed by a brief prelude in which a delightful Spring Byington plays Dolly Madison escaping from the White House with Washington's portrait. It's Byington's only sequence but she makes the most of it. This sequence also introduces Senator Crawford (Ian Keith), a traitor. The action then shifts to New Orleans for the remainder of the film.

The movie falls in the "entertaining but not great" category; it was pleasant viewing even though I had quibbles with things here and there. My main complaint was the resolution of the film itself, in which Lafitte does not explain that he had nothing to do with an atrocity which resulted in the death of Annette's sister (Louise Campbell); indeed, he killed the rogue from his crew who was responsible and also saved Gretchen's life. I didn't really understand the motivation behind his taking responsibility.

I have a soft spot for March, although he was not always an actor of subtlety, and he gives a very theatrical performance as Lafitte, complete with French accent. I never bought for a moment that he was Lafitte, but I rather enjoyed him in a "This is Fredric March having fun pretending to be Jean Lafitte" kind of way.

I wasn't particularly impressed with Gaal, who as Gretchen is more comic relief than leading lady; it might be described as a Sonja Henie kind of role, sort of a young imp, but it's a forced performance, without Henie's charm. Gaal only made two more films in the U.S.

Incidentally, when I got home and researched it I learned that I had guessed correctly that Gretchen's dog "Landlubber" was "Toto" from THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939); Toto went by Terry off the silver screen.

The film's real leading lady was Margot Grahame, previously seen by me in the "B" films NIGHT WAITRESS (1936) and TWO IN THE DARK (1936). She was exquisitely lovely and moving, and I really enjoyed the chance to see her in a leading role in an "A" costume picture.

Hugh Sothern does a nice job as peppery Andrew Jackson, and Walter Brennan turns up late in the film as Jackson's righthand man. Evelyn Keyes can be spotted at a dance in the latter part of the film, which was a nice surprise; it was Keyes' very first screen role. Other actresses I didn't recognize onscreen who are said to have bit roles in the film are Ellen Drew, Virginia Vale, and Lorna Gray (also known as Adrian Booth).

An interesting postscript is that DeMille's son-in-law, Anthony Quinn, who plays one of Lafitte's pirate crew here, would direct a remake two decades later, starring Yul Brynner, Charles Boyer, and Charlton Heston.

The cast also includes Akim Tamiroff, Douglass Dumbrille, Beulah Bondi, Robert Barrat, Fred Kohler, Montagu Love, and Jack Pennick.

As a side note, the reel where the pirates go into battle against the British seemed to have a green tint; I wasn't sure if the reel was tinted, the better to see the night action, or that particular reel had a flaw. I found a comment at IMDb which mentions the reel turning sepia so apparently the colored look was deliberate, although I thought it more green than brown.

The film was shot by Victor Milner and nicely scored by George Antheil.

Previous DeMille films seen on a big screen: CLEOPATRA (1934), THE CRUSADES (1935), and THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956).


Blogger Kristina Dijan said...

The Buccaneer sounds like an interesting enough spectacle and cast to see big, that it makes up for not being the greatest thing ever. Fun experience!

4:41 PM  

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