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The Buccaneer

The Buccaneer(1938)

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Dating back to 1924, the consummate showman Cecil B. DeMille had harbored a desire to bring to the screen the story of Jean Lafitte, the legendary 19th- century privateer whose forces famously aided with Andrew Jackson's defeat of the British in the Battle of New Orleans. Between other studios mounting Lafitte biopic projects and legal wrangling over source materials, however, DeMille would have to wait over a decade for the stars to align and to proceed with his own take on the pirate's saga. For all the delays encountered in its voyage to theaters, the entertaining end-product The Buccaneer (1938) would prove to be worth the long gestation and considerable production costs.

The scenario opens at the War of 1812's height, as the British have set the White House ablaze. The corrupt Louisiana Senator Crawford (Ian Keith) is prepared to sell out New Orleans to the forces of the Crown, and seeks the complicity of Lafitte (Fredric March) and the pirate hordes he maintains in his bayou stronghold of Barataria. Lafitte's motives are also a source of doubt for Louisiana's Governor Claiborne (Douglass Dumbrille), who has exacted the privateer's pledge not to harm any American ships.

However, the privateer's fiancee, Annette De Remy (Margot Grahame) has just seen her sister off on the Europe-bound ship Corinthian. Defying Lafitte's edict, the treacherous pirate captain Brown (Robert Barrat) loots and torches the Corinthian; the disaster's sole survivor, the pretty Dutch girl Gretchen (Franciska Gaal), is rescued at sea by Lafitte. Appalled by Brown's act of betrayal, and angered by the presumptuous British officers seeking to bribe him, Lafitte determines that the only redemptive course is to offer his gunnery in the service of Claiborne and Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern).

Much of the promotional buildup going into The Buccaneer's release was directed at the diminutive Hungarian import Gaal, a cabaret singer promoted in her homeland by Joe Pasternak, and whom DeMille ascribed star quality akin to Mary Pickford, Helen Hayes, Clara Bow and Elisabeth Bergner. His glowing assessment wasn't universally shared, as she would make only two more films in Hollywood. While the script passed in and out of the hands of Preston Sturges during pre-production, the great comic scenarist did have one recommendation to DeMille which would have lasting impact, as he recommended Akim Tamiroff for the comic supporting role of the Napoleonic gunner Dominique You. While comic relief players are few and far between in DeMille's canon, many theatergoers of the day felt that the Russian performer walked away with the movie, and his efforts are among the film's enduring delights. The Buccaneer was largely overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, however, with only Victor Milner's cinematography receiving a nomination.

In the small role of the pirate Beluche was a young Anthony Quinn, who had made an impression on DeMille when he was cast as a Cheyenne in The Plainsman in 1936. The actor obviously made an impression on DeMille's daughter Katherine as well, as they married not long after The Buccaneer wrapped production. Their 28-year union would be stormy, due in no small part to Quinn's often strained relationship with his father-in-law. DeMille's final screen credit came as executive producer on the 1958 remake of The Buccaneer, which starred Yul Brynner as Lafitte and Charlton Heston as Jackson, and was Quinn's only effort as a director. In Anne Edwards' The DeMilles: An American Family, Quinn recounted DeMille's fury after reading the screenplay he drafted with Abby Mann and Jesse Lasky, Jr. "'What is wrong with the script I shot in 1938?' he yelled. Quinn told him it was old fashioned. 'It was a hit!' Cecil countered, adding: 'Are you afraid you can't do as well as I did?'" DeMille, reportedly, had the film recut to his specifications.

Producer: Cecil B. DeMille
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Screenplay: Harold Lamb, Edwin Justus Mayer, and C. Gardner Sullivan; Grover Jones (uncredited), Jeanie Macpherson (adaptation), Lyle Saxon (novel "Lafitte the Pirate").
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Art Direction: Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier
Music: George Antheil, Gerard Carbonara (uncredited), and Milan Roder (uncredited)
Film Editing: Anne Bouchens
Cast: Jean Lafitte (Fredric March), Gretchen (Franciska Gaal), Dominique You (Akim Tamiroff), Annette de Remy (Margot Grahame), Ezra Peavey (Walter Brennan), Beluche (Anthony Quinn).

by Jay S. Steinberg

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