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The Crimson Pirate

The Crimson Pirate(1952)

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teaser The Crimson Pirate (1952)

Burt Lancaster half-deprecatingly would refer to his killer smile as "the grin." In The Crimson Pirate (1952) he's got a lot to grin about. As simply as I can put it, I had forgotten what sheer fun it is. It's a bit of a backhanded compliment to call it the best pirate movie, because the genre is frankly a bit waterlogged. But Lancaster's sunny athleticism surpasses the previous genre classic it affectionately salutes, and the only one that can bear comparison to it is Douglas Fairbanks's exuberantly dashing The Black Pirate (1926). The Crimson Pirate makes the over-produced Pirates of the Caribbean franchise seem a cement mixer, made watchable only by Johnny Depp's witty rococo embellishments.

But Depp's Jack Sparrow can't hold a yardarm to Lancaster's Captain Vallo. It wasn't just that Lancaster was the hunk di tutti hunks of the 1950s. It was the genial way in which he dispensed his hunkiness. Blond, blue-eyed, muscular, smiling warmly, he immediately marches off in the direction of the film's shrewd decision not to take itself at all seriously. Thus this most winning of pirate movies also lampoons the pirate movie genre when Lancaster, in a brief spoken introduction to the film's labyrinthine 1770s Caribbean intrigue, tells us to believe only what we see, than adds with a wink, to believe only half of what we see. It's a liberating wink. For us, and certainly for him. And British composer William Alwyn launches it with an overture that puts plenty of wind in its sails.

Unlike other A-list stars, Lancaster, one of five children of an East Harlem postal worker, came to film by way of the circus. He was an acrobat, and a good enough one to make it look easy as he smilingly swings, somersaults and tumbles through ship's riggings and the cramped streets of coastal towns. He brought with him his real-life circus partner, pint-sized Nick Cravat, and they operate with the smooth give and take of men who have spent years relying on each others' hands to be there to catch them at the end of their daring mid-air leaps. Cravat's mute sidekick, Ojo, is an homage to Fairbanks's inclusion of a similar character. Naturally, Vallo's and Ojo's earthbound (and deckbound) enemies haven't a chance against them as the film at many points turns into a reprise of their circus act.

Lancaster and his old partner made nine films together, the most popular being The Crimson Pirate and The Flame and the Arrow (1950), which spoofed medieval adventures. He kept Cravat on his payroll for life, as trainer as well as co-star. Given that nothing works better than motion in motion pictures, they supplied it in abundance, dazzling us with their gymnastics while somehow keeping it all mostly comical. Because Cravat's character in both films is mute, the belief persisted that he really was. Actually, Cravat was given no lines because his thick Brooklyn accent wouldn't have accommodated them. He deserves his second billing here. Every time the film threatens to sag, on he barrels to support the agile Lancaster in his determination that from stem to stern, from yardarm to quarterdeck, no pirate film would deliver more bounce to the ounce.

The supporting players are plusses, too, starting when the larcenous Captain Vallo is diverted from his usual looting and pillaging to help liberate the islanders from the royal government bleeding it dry. To clinch the deal, he manfully falls for red-headed Eva Bartok, the would-be liberator's daughter. Torin Thatcher is a standout as the imposing gravel-voiced rebel on board the pirate ship, and while the likes of Dana Wynter and Christopher Lee are relegated to tiny roles, Noel Purcell and Frederick Leicester throw themselves into the roles of freedom fighters. It all spirals into inspired absurdity when the pirates join forces with a plump visionary scientist (James Hayter) who invents modern warfare in a few days, blasting the island free of the royal clutches with the aid of an air ship, a submarine, a tank, a Gatling gun, and dynamite. That so many of the cast and crew, like composer Alwyn, were British, was driven by economics. To release blocked sterling earned in England, studios had to spend 80% on any film made there. Apart from the Mediterranean locations, the rest was shot in English studios, which made it enough of an English film to insure the release of studio money.

The operetta plot plays like airborne escapist fluff -- until you contextualize it in terms of the political minefield Hollywood, like the rest of America, had become. Although Lancaster was what we today would call progressive in his politics, he never was a Communist. Still, he and especially his producing partner, Harold Hecht, were among those targeted by the black-listing, Red-baiting House Un-American Activities Committee. Counting on the fact that censors are usually literal-minded and dim-witted, The Crimson Pirate sent a certain message - starting with its provocative title. In case the film's sympathies eluded viewers, Lancaster includes a pirate's line entirely in keeping with the real-life leftist, pro-underclass leanings he made no secret: "All my life I've watched injustice and dishonesty fly the flag of decency. I don't trust it."

There were other things Lancaster didn't trust. Rightly, he anticipated the worsening Red scare and the crackdown soon to paralyze Hollywood at the hands of HUAC and other Red-baiters. Although the script's first draft was by blacklisted writer Waldo Salt, his name was omitted from the screen credits even though Roland Kibbee, who rewrote it and got sole screen credit for changing its course from routine swashbuckler to airborne travesty, was a leftist sympathizer, too. Although the story unfolds in the Caribbean, Lancaster went to the Bay of Naples to film it mostly for financial reasons. Hollywood soon was to discover that filming was cheaper in postwar Europe. Partly, though, it was a way of removing himself from studio scrutiny and pressure. Transportation and even communication were primitive on the island of Ischia, near Capri. Lancaster and Robert Siodmak, the director and studio ambassador, often clashed. Both men were among the many who literally got dunked during the shoot, Lancaster more than once. Seasickness was not unknown on unruly days.

Lancaster tested Siodmak by demanding retakes. When filming was over and Siodmak was preparing to leave, Lancaster told him he wanted to reshoot a few scenes. Actually, Lancaster had already rechoreographed major action scenes, and then directed them himself, including the final 18-minute sea battle. Not that any hint of disharmony was to be seen in the finished product. Right after The Crimson Pirate, Lancaster turned to more dramatic roles, earning newer, deeper respect as an actor in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952), From Here to Eternity (1953), Trapeze (1956), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), his Oscar®-winning Elmer Gantry (1960), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), The Leopard (1963) right through to Atlantic City (1980).

As the 19th century Italian Prince di Lampedusa in The Leopard, Lancaster needs no muscles, nor even The Grin. He lets us know he's royalty by the silken assurance with which he glides into a formal dress ball and simply occupies his space. Astonishingly, there's a moment that presages this in the silliness of The Crimson Pirate. Posing as an aristocrat, his pirate enters a governor's ball with a grace and a confidence that stops just this side of insolence. It's not just a matter of him passing himself off as royalty. In his tight-fitting velvet suit with gilded trim, he's the only one in the room who seems regal. Panther-like in his springiness, rippling grace and cushioned movement, he always came up smiling, and the smile was blinding. Although he was to gain stature in his later, more feelingful roles, and finally no longer was referred to as a mere gymnast, it takes nothing away from his early clat. In The Crimson Pirate, joining his old life of the circus to his new one as a film star, he was a lithe, dazzling Sun King - at high noon.

Producer: Harold Hecht, Burt Lancaster (both uncredited)
Director: Robert Siodmak
Screenplay: Roland Kibbee
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Art Direction: Paul Sheriff
Music: William Alwyn
Film Editing: Jack Harris
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Capt. Vallo, The Crimson Pirate), Nick Cravat (Ojo), Eva Bartok (Consuelo), Torin Thatcher (Humble Bellows), James Hayter (Prof. Elihu Prudence), Leslie Bradley (Baron Jos Gruda), Margot Grahame (Bianca), Noel Purcell (Pablo Murphy), Frederick Leister (Sebastian), Eliot Makeham (Governor).

by Jay Carr

Burt Lancaster: An American Life, by Kate Buford, Knopf, 2000

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