Monday, August 4, 2008

DECADE BY DECADE, Part 1: The First Swash Ever Buckled.

This series will walk us from the 1920s through the 1970s, taking a look at one book, one comic book (meaning a specific issue rather than a series), one movie and one radio show from each decade.

But in the 1920s, comic books featuring original stories weren’t yet around. (Early comic books reprinted newspaper strips; comic books with new stories weren’t regularly published until the mid-1930s.) Commercial radio was in its infancy, with little if any of what was produced in the 1920s surviving today.

So for this first decade, we’ll discuss one movie and one book. Comics and radio will be added when we get to the 1930s.

The Black Pirate (1926) starred Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.—the father of the swashbuckler. Few other actors, in fact, have buckled swashes with the same flair and style as Fairbanks. A skilled athlete and acrobat, he performed some amazing stunts over the course of his career in silent films.

In The Black Pirate, Fairbanks plays a man who joins up with the pirates that had killed his father—secretly planning on destroying the band. Along the way, he also takes time to fall in love with the lovely damsel that the pirates have taken prisoner.

The plot is perfectly serviceable in terms of story, but its main purpose is to set up the various action set-pieces that allow Fairbanks to be suitably heroic. Most notable is a sequence in which he captures a merchant ship single-handedly. At the movie’s climax, there’s an extraordinary scene in which a crew of seaman swim underneath the pirate ship in order to board it unexpectedly from the other side.

An early color film, The Black Pirate remains an entertaining and visually striking film to this day. It’s an interesting bit of film history in that it introduced many of the elements that would become clich├ęs of the genre. But it’s also an example of great storytelling; Fairbanks was perfectly at home within the silent film genre (his high-pitched voice pretty much ended his career with the advent of sound) and his wonderful stunts are as good as any you might see in a modern movie. Besides, all those old sailing ships appearing throughout the movie are just plain cool to look at.

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