Friday, January 7, 2011

The Black Pirate

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: The Black Pirate (1926) on Blogcritics.

The Film
One of the earliest color films ever made, The Black Pirate is perhaps more impressive for its technically astute two-strip Technicolor than its story or direction, but how can any film that features the astonishingly agile swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks be anything but entertaining?

Fairbanks stars as a passenger on a ship that is overtaken by a gang of pirates. He narrowly escapes the explosion of the vessel, but his father, a duke, is not so lucky, and Fairbanks vows to take revenge. He infiltrates the pirate gang by posing as the Black Pirate and impressing them when he defeats their best man in a duel and later, takes an entire ship captive single-handedly.

Once taken, the Black Pirate discovers a princess (Billie Dove) onboard, and he must concoct a plan to extract a ransom in order to keep the pirates’ leering eyes and grubby hands away from her. Every action Fairbanks takes is done with jaunty athleticism, and he makes the films numerous stunts (most of which he performed himself) look effortless, whether he’s leaping from one tier of the deck to another or sliding down the sails.

The film is a crowd-pleaser from start to finish, with every action scene executed with aplomb. The story is slight, but The Black Pirate is never less than diverting — even the silent film-allergic should have no trouble staying engaged through this one.

The film’s two-strip Technicolor images are some of the best examples of the technology that survives, as the process made it difficult for the film stock to endure without great damage. While the colors certainly aren’t as striking as what would be achieved with three-strip Technicolor, any film lover should delight at this beautifully realized piece of film history.

The Blu-ray Disc
The Black Pirate is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The two-strip Technicolor process resulted in colors that sometimes appear slightly washed-out, but every color shines on this presentation, with clear delineation and a vibrancy despite rather pale tones. The print shows nominal scratching throughout, but this is a wonderful restoration that is overwhelmingly clean. The amount of fine detail that can be seen on the ship’s ornate detailing and on the expressive actors’ faces never wavers, and is nothing less than astonishing.

Two stereo audio tracks are presented. The default features a Robert Israel-conducted version of the original score by Mortimer Wilson. A second track is organ-only by Lee Erwin.

Special Features
Kino ports over all the features from its DVD release of the film and adds a couple new ones, making for a nice set of extras. Previously available features include a commentary track by historian Rudy Behlmer and an 18-minute collection of black-and-white outtakes, also narrated by Behlmer and packed with excellent production history for those who don’t want to sit through the entire commentary.

New to this release are 30 more minutes of outtakes (also in black-and-white) and a recut version of the film, which is presented in black-and-white and features narration from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. instead of intertitles. A stills gallery also accompanies the extras.

The Bottom Line
The Black Pirate is a wonderfully fun film, and with the dearth of silent film available on Blu-ray in this country, it’s nice to see Kino consistently produce quality releases to help fill that void.

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