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The Boy and the Pirates

Friday June, 27 2014 at 10:00 PM

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The Boy and the Pirates

One major lesson in growing up is contained in the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for; you may get it." That's certainly the lesson to be learned from this 1960 fantasy adventure from low-budget maven Bert I. Gordon.

Young Jimmy Warren (Charles Herbert) would rather play pirates than study. When he accidentally releases a genie (Joe Turkel) from a bottle, he wishes to go back to the days of pirates only to find himself swabbing decks for the diabolical Blackbeard (Murvyn Vye). There's just one catch. He has to return the genie's bottle to the Malibu beach where he found it in three days, or he'll have to take the genie's place, all of which makes going to school seem less of a curse. Using the modern devices he brought with him -- including bubble gum, a book of matches and a water pistol -- and enlisting the aid of a Dutch girl (Susan Gordon) he rescues who bears a striking resemblance to the girl next door in his own time, he sets out to alter the pirates' course in order to get back home.

The Boy and the Pirates was Gordon's bid to get into higher quality productions. It was his first film in color (using Eastmancolor) and his first entry in the family market. After years of making television commercials, editing and working in a variety of other behind-the-camera positions, mostly on television, Gordon broke into feature films as producer, director and writer of King Dinosaur (1955). The low-budget tale of four astronauts who discover a planet populated by giant prehistoric creatures set the course for most of Gordon's career, as he came to specialize in science-fiction stories featuring oversized monsters, many of whom he helped create in the special effects room using rear projection. Among the most famous were The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Earth vs. the Spider (1958) and, for a small-scale change of pace, Attack of the Puppet People (1958), in which the "monsters" are normal creatures menacing five humans shrunk to doll size.

After those low-budget wonders, The Boy and the Pirates marked his definitive attempt to move into the big time. After crafting the original story, he turned it over for scripting to Lillie Hayward, a Hollywood veteran who had started in silent films writing for such stars as Marion Davies, Tom Mix and Richard Barthelmess. After decades of writing B movies for studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount, she had found a berth at Walt Disney Studios, where she worked on The Shaggy Dog (1959) and Toby Tyler, or Ten Weeks with a Circus (1960).

Herbert, Gordon's choice for the leading role of Jimmy Warren, was one of the top child actors of the day, appearing in more than 20 films, 50 television episodes and numerous commercials. He had played one of Cary Grant's children in Houseboat (1958) and Tony Randall's son in No Down Payment (1957). But his special genre was science fiction/horror, where he appeared in such cult favorites as The Colossus of New York (1958), The Fly (1958) and 13 Ghosts (1960). Herbert's own coming of age was riddled with problems. 13 Ghosts and The Boy and the Pirates marked his final feature appearances as he entered the awkward adolescent years that end most juvenile careers. Because he never had a long-term studio contract, few of his earnings as a child had been put in trust, and his education in studio schools left him ill-prepared for adult life. With few prospects, he became addicted to drugs, not completely cleaning up until 2005.

Gordon surrounded Herbert with seasoned character actors like Vye as Blackbeard (a role originally offered to stage star Cyril Ritchard), Paul Guilfoyle as the one pirate sympathetic to the children, Joe Turkel as the Genie and Timothy Carey as the sadistic Morgan. In later years Herbert would say that Carey was so intense he even scared him off-screen. The actor carried that quality a little too far when he spontaneously threw the child across the ship's deck during one scene. Gordon fired him and shot around him for the rest of the production.

To play the dual role of Herbert's next-door neighbor and the girl he rescues, Gordon cast his daughter, Susan Gordon, but that was far from nepotism. Although the girl had made her screen debut in his Attack of the Puppet People, she had already established herself as a major young talent, particularly with her performance as Danny Kaye's daughter in The Five Pennies (1959). She had also worked with Herbert before in that film and The Man in the Net (1959). The two would remain friends the rest of her life.

Gordon produced the film through his own Bert I. Gordon Productions and arranged a distribution deal with United Artists. He worked on the special effects with his usual collaborator, his wife, Flora, and trumpeted the development of a new process, "Perceptovision -- The Newest Marvel of the Motion Pictures." The combination of travelling mattes with split screen effects helped create some of the strongest effects in any of his films, particularly the depiction of the miniature genie and a volcano erupting at sea. The score was provided by a frequent collaborator, Albert Glasser, with whom he would make six films. For The Boy and the Pirates, Glasser drew on the classic film scores of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman and Max Steiner for inspiration.

As had been the case with his earlier science fiction films, Gordon released the film primarily on the drive-in circuit, though with its family friendly material it also played extensively at kiddie matinees. For a while it also was a popular feature on local television, but gradually fell out of sight as more recent material became available. The film was not released for home theatres until 2006, after the success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) renewed interest in pirate films. The film's appearance on Turner Classic Movies marks its first major television screening in decades.

Producer: Bert I. Gordon
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Screenplay: Lillie Hayward, Jerry Sackheim
Based on a story by Gordon
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Score: Albert Glasser
Cast: Charles Herbert (Jimmy Warren), Susan Gordon (Katrina van Keif/Kathy), Murvyn Vye (Blackbeard), Paul Guilfoyle (Snipe), Joe Turkel (Abu the Genie), Timothy Carey (Morgan).
C-85m.

by Frank Miller

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