Category Archives: 1938

The Buccaneer (1938, Cecil B. DeMille)

Even if you give The Buccaneer a lot of its historical absurdities and classic Hollywood whitewashing, even if you give it a motley crew of murdering (but not raping, good family men) pirates getting giddy and doing a singalong while they row themselves through the bayou to fight for Andrew Jackson against the British, even if you give the film lead Fredric March’s accent, it’s got a lot of problems. Without even mentioning how director DeMille gives everyone a slave, American, British, Pirate. Like, he likes it. It’s creepy.

Especially at the opening when you want to be enjoying Spring Byington doing a brief cameo as a capable (and rather sexy, like what is up what that dress) first lady Dolly Madison who was to suffer men trying to rescue her when she’s doing it herself.

The big problem is The Buccaneer himself. Not March, who’s rather likable even with that accent and able to whether the silliest of DeMille’s jingoism. But the character. So he’s a pirate who doesn’t rob American vessels and doesn’t kill passengers, unless they’re asking for it (everyone gets a chance to disembarck). He’s in love with New Orleans society girl Margot Grahame, who grossly comes on to Andrew Jackson (Hugh Sothern) at one point. Not because it’s in character, but because no one–not the four-ish screenwriters, not director DeMille, not Grahame herself–knows what to do with the character. She’s there to give March a reason to fight to be an American. For the pretty, well-spoken girl who gets shown up in every one of her scenes with guardian aunt Beulah Bondi. Just because Grahame’s got nothing else to do. She’s in love with a pirate, if only he’d go legit for her. She’s just not the female lead, so she’s got squat.

The female lead–and kind of protagonist, certainly more than March–is Franciska Gaal. She’s playing an adorable–literally squeaking–Dutch girl who ends up with March and his band. March becomes her protector and, accordinly, Gaal falls in love with him even though she’s seen his men kill an entire ship of innocent people and even try to kill her. She only escapes because pirate Fred Kohler, who met her in the film’s first scene, has been trying to rape her since that first scene.

The film does this whole “she’s not in any great danger with these pirates, oh, wait, no, it’d be better if the nicer one just killed her instead” thing for the first act and beginning of second, so you’d think you’re supposed to take it serious. But then you aren’t whenever Gaal’s supposed to be foolish instead of brave. Like, the movie craps on Gaal’s performance and all the potential for the character. After the setting up the movie to focus on those things.

Because, as Gaal later whines to March when her character does nothing but lather him with unrequited verbal admiration, all the men are acting like little boys and fighting. Once the movie starts moving toward the opening text exposition on Lafitte’s place in history, once all the fighting starts, Gaal gets dropped like a rock. Worse, there’s more with Grahame. No fault to her, but she and March have even less chemistry than March and Gaal. At least March is protective of Gaal. With Grahame, it’s bewildering. She’s supposed to be his obsession and they’re flat together.

Maybe the accent got in the way. But more likely Grahame’s character being really thin. And, really, March’s isn’t much better. He’s supposed to be this great pirate captain yet the only times things go right it’s because of Gaal or Akim Tamiroff as his main sidekick. Anthony Quinn’s all right as the second sidekick. Tamiroff’s in love with Gaal. He makes it cute. He’s the best performance in the film, with Walter Brennan a somewhat close second as Andrew Jackson’s dotting frontiersman sidekick. Gaal’s a far third.

Because there aren’t any standout supporting performances. Douglass Dumbrille’s okay as the governor who’s out to get March. Ian Keith’s bad as the bent politician, working for the British. Hugh Sothern’s hilariously bad as Andrew Jackson. Though at least he doesn’t play Jackson horny old man when Grahame offers.

Beulah Bondi is fine as the aunt. Some of the third tier supporting performances are solid. It’s a big movie. There are a lot of people around. They’re mostly all right. Even Kohler. He’s not good but he’s not bad.

Technically, the film’s competent. I mean, DeMille has annoying two shots because–apparently–of height disparities and Anne Bauchens never cuts to them well. Based on DeMille’s composition, it’s probably because he didn’t get the right shots, which is weird since it’s clearly big budget and so on. He saves his energy for the battle scenes, which really aren’t effective because March doesn’t do much. He tells the other guys what to do mostly.

He does have a sword fight, but it’s got a bad finish and leads into his second asinine patriotic speech (after the Americans have massacred a bunch of his men) and the movie doesn’t even try. DeMille doesn’t try with anything in Buccaneer. It gets annoying. The massacre of the pirates at their base is probably the best action sequence. But it’s in the middle of the rather long two hour and five minute film. And it’s a dramatic fail of a plot beat.

The Buccaneer clearly was a big production and DeMille and company do make an epic. It’s just not a successful one. The script’s alterately lazy, cheap, and dull. The third act only “saves” the film because it stops getting worse. It plateaus. And Gaal’s charming and March’s likable and you just want it to end so why fight it. It’s not a success, it’s a surrender.

1/4

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille; screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer, Harold Lamb, and C. Gardner Sullivan, adaptation by Jeanie Macpherson, based on a novel by Lyle Saxon; director of photography, Victor Milner; edited by Anne Bauchens; music by George Antheil; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Fredric March (Jean Lafitte), Franciska Gaal (Gretchen), Akim Tamiroff (Dominique You), Margot Grahame (Annette de Remy), Anthony Quinn (Beluche), Ian Keith (Senator Crawford), Douglass Dumbrille (Governor William C.C. Claiborne), Fred Kohler (Gramby), Hugh Sothern (General Andrew Jackson), Walter Brennan (Ezra Peavey), Beulah Bondi (Aunt Charlotte), and Spring Byington (Dolly Madison).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE MADE IN 1938 BLOGATHON HOSTED BY ROBIN OF POP CULTURE REVERIE AND CRYSTAL OF IN THE GOOD OLD DAYS OF CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD.


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Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill)

Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars is far from the ultimate trip. It’s not even a very good trip. It’s the kind of trip where you go somewhere, go somewhere else, then somewhere else, then go back to the second place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the third place, then go back to the first place, then go back to the second place, then go back to the….

You get the idea.

Mars starts right after the previous serial, before Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) and company have even returned to Earth. Earth knows they’ve saved the planet and there’s a big ticker tape parade for the returning heroes–Crabbe, damsel in distress and ostensible love interest Jean Rogers, and scientist Frank Shannon. Of course, it’s all stock footage and the cast isn’t present, but the sentiment is there. Pretty soon, there’s another threat to the Earth and the United States government is freaking out and reporter Donald Kerr realizes the only person who can save the planet–again–is Crabbe.

So right after getting back to Earth from the first serial–Rogers apparently got a haircut on the return rocket trip (in the first serial, which will come up in flashback footage, she had long blonde hair, in Mars she’s a sensibly cut brunette)–the heroes head back out into space. With Kerr a stowaway.

They’re headed to Mongo, convinced villain Ming (Charles Middleton), who they thought was dead, is out to get them again. They’re right, only he’s on Mars, not Mongo, so the rocket ship has to change course.

On Mars, Middleton has teamed up with Martian queen Beatrice Roberts, who needs Middleton’s help to destroy the Clay people, who are political exiles Roberts has turned into clay. Even though Roberts has a whole fleet of airships, she goes along with Middleton’s plan to drain the Earth’s atmosphere of nitron. Earth needs its nitron; Middleton’s got Roberts convinced he can use the nitron to make more effective weapons, but it turns out he just wants to destroy the Earth. And he’s got designs on Roberts’s throne.

Crabbe and company get into it with Middleton and Roberts in the Martian city, then have to go to the Clay kingdom, where the Clay king (C. Montague Shaw) is alternately hostile and laudatory, and eventually end up in this forest fighting the hostile Forest people. Along the way, they reunite with Prince Barin of Mongo (Richard Alexander), who has come to Mars for some reason or another. Turns out the Forest people are actually Middleton’s lackeys. They cause a lot of trouble for Crabbe and friends, including brainwashing Rogers for a few chapters, and just generally being exceptionally annoying.

Mars doesn’t exactly start off promising–the use of stock footage for the heroes’ arrival on Earth, their immediate disappearance from the action, the stock disaster footage (which isn’t terrible or unexpected or anything, just not exciting)–but it certainly doesn’t start on any kind of shaky ground. Crabbe, Rogers, and Shannon are all extremely likable and introducing comic relief Kerr to the team seems like it’s going to work out rather well. Middleton was a bit much in the previous serial, but he’s all right here. And Roberts is rather effective as the evil queen.

And even the Clay people stuff is good at the start. There are these awesome shots of the Clay men coming out of the walls. It’s not until Shaw shows up things start getting questionable. The screenplay–with four credited writers–never addresses how long the Clay people have been around, since Roberts is turning people into clay if she doesn’t like them and then banishing them. She’s got a magic jewel letting her do all sorts of stuff. Is Roberts immortal? Have the Clay people been around forever? Or is it more like a recent thing? Doesn’t matter. The writers are real bad at explaining the history of Mars, including how Middleton got there immediately after the previous serial.

The first half of the serial usually involves Crabbe trying to bring Roberts to the Clay people so she can break the spell–including a really awesome sequence where he saves her in a disaster and she realizes he’s a sap who doesn’t kill and she can exploit that weakness. Then there’s something with another jewel the Forest people have. It can negate Roberts’s jewel’s power, so for a couple chapters it’s a thing. Only Middleton (even though the Forest people are his secret lackeys–it’s not at all clear why the arrangement is secret) wants the jewel too because, pretty early on, it’s clear Middleton wants to double-cross Roberts. While she wants to kill all the Clay people, she doesn’t necessarily want to destroy Earth.

It’s also never addressed why she turns disobedient soldiers into clay instead of just executing them.

And Mars ignores how there are no female Clay people or female Forest people, though Forest people at least seem to know women exist–when they brainwash Rogers, she becomes a priestess or something. They’ve got a word for it.

All the action either takes place in the Martian city, the forest, or the Clay kingdom. Some of the city and most of the forest look good. The Clay kingdom, above ground, is just rocky terrain. The underground stuff is okay, though it’s never explained why Roberts lets the Clay people have advanced technology–in some cases more advanced than her own (including a subway system). The serial just bounces between the locations, unless it’s something in the airships, which actually happens quite a bit. The Martians have these gravity defying capes, leading–occasionally–to some decent action sequences.

But by the end of Mars, every new action set piece is just a regurgitation of a previous one. It’s rather tired by the end. Especially since the serial never improves on the most annoying aspects of the action sequences–entirely inappropriate stock music. They rarely use action music and when they do, it rarely fits. It kills all tension and most excitement, which is a real disservice to the cast–particularly Crabbe and Alexander–who always give it their all.

Crabbe clear runs out of enthusiasm towards the end, however. Maybe the last four chapters, he looks miserable.

There are some good sequences throughout the fifteen chapters–particularly Rogers getting to save the day (while otherwise just being damsel in distress)–but by the second half of Mars, it’s obvious the trip isn’t going anywhere new, just places its already been. And then it’ll go somewhere else it’s already been and then somewhere else it’s already been.

The frequent flashbacks to the first serial backfire too, just revealing how much better the production values were on the original compared to this sequel.

Only Kerr and Alexander are able to maintain energy during the last few chapters–Rogers theoretically should have a big arc thanks to the brainwashing but she doesn’t and Shannon’s just around. Middleton gets nuttier and nuttier as it goes along. His performance getting worse. Roberts’s material (and, inexplicably, her direction) gets worse too, really ruining her performance. There’s no character development in Mars, even though some characters desperately need it.

And Shaw’s super annoying. Most when he prostrates to Crabbe, which seems to happen all the time. But he’s also kind of insincere about it, like at any moment he might double cross the Earth people. Sadly he never does, because such a twist is too much for Mars.

Wheeler Oakman is almost good as Middleton’s chief flunky. Anthony Warde is comically godawful as the king of the Forest people.

Crabbe, Rogers, Alexander, and Shannon (and Kerr to some degree) have enough charm to keep the Trip tolerable but there’s really nothing they can do with the concluding chapters, when it all starts collapsing. It was always flimsy, it just had momentum. Without momentum, without any good finale set pieces, without a decent plot, the Trip flops out. It could be much worse, sure, but it’s still majorly disappointing.

Almost anything would help Mars significantly. Real music. Another set. Better performances–heck, just keeping Crabbe engaged through the finale–almost anything. Sadly, there’s nothing.

It’s worse than disappointing; it’s a defeat.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), Wheeler Oakman (Tarnak), Anthony Warde (King Turan), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


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Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill), Chapter 15: An Eye for an Eye

An Eye for an Eye is a disappointing finish for Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars but maybe not an unexpected one, not given the serial’s trajectory. The cliffhanger resolution is quick–Buster Crabbe gets away from Charles Middleton due to Middleton’s lack of observational prowess. They’re fitting foes. Neither of them pays attention enough.

While Middleton is going back to turn on the Earth zapping ray, Crabbe and Richard Alexander are wasting time trying to figure out what secret passageway he used. Instead of just going to find him; Middleton thinks they’ll know where he’s headed. Silly Middleton, they have to be told.

Eye also makes it really clear instead of calling Jean Rogers’s character “Dale Arden,” she should just be called, “Dale You Should Stay Here.” Crabbe ditches her again in his effort to save the day.

There are a couple double crosses in the chapter–three, actually–and they change the plotting a bit. Instead of some grand air battle to save the Clay kingdom, instead it’s Crabbe having to rescue his captured friends. Again.

His showdown with Middleton is dramatically inert and lacking in much excitement, especially since it’s truncated by plotting.

The finale uses the same newspaper from the first chapter, only with a different headline, which means poor Donald Kerr is left out of the celebration sequence. It’s particularly unfair since, when he gets to make faces at Middleton (shooting at the good guys with a laser rifle), Kerr has the chapter’s best three seconds.

Eye for an Eye is a bad finish, but Mars has been burning off its goodwill for so long it doesn’t really matter.

Some real bad acting from Middleton here though. Maybe his worst in the serial overall.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


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Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars (1938, Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill), Chapter 14: A Beast at Bay

A Beast at Bay could just as easily be called We Give Up, There’s One More. After a lackluster cliffhanger resolution, Buster Crabbe’s plan to save the Clay kingdom fails because he couldn’t control one unarmed prisoner and then couldn’t beat him in a fistfight. The thirteen chapters of Crabbe kicking Martian ass… well, they were all just wimps, apparently. Crabbe gets zero material through the rest of the chapter, but he seems perpetually perturbed, which is accurate given his utter failures at the opening.

Once Crabbe gets the upper hand again–because he remembers he’s got a ray gun on him–it’s back to the Clay kingdom to tell no longer clay king but still overdoing it C. Montague Shaw he’s failed to execute his plan. Bay skips how Crabbe’s sidekicks knew he’d failed since I think they were waiting for him at a rendezvous point. Whatever.

Luckily the new Martian prisoners realize–immediately upon their arrival in the scene–Crabbe is actually a good guy and pledge their allegiance to him. Just after Shaw gives Crabbe command of the army, which seems questionable given his planning has been so terrible. Again, whatever.

They end up going back to the palace, where Charles Middleton is about to be crowned King of Mars. Now, you know it’s the penultimate chapter because instead of telling Jean Rogers she’s too girly to go along or Donald Kerr he’s too annoying to go along and dumping them in Shaw’s care, Crabbe–still looking put out–brings them along.

After some trouble, they get to Middleton’s coronation and Crabbe–with the help of flashbacks to the previous serial–talks the Martians out of making Middleton king. So he holds them up with a ray gun–everyone else is armed but no one is willing to risk Crabbe–and makes a getaway.

It’s a sad chapter. It’s not even disappointing. It’s just sad. It’s sad from the start. Especially when they use footage from the obviously visually superior previous serial. Trip to Mars can’t end soon enough.

CREDITS

Directed by Ford Beebe and Robert F. Hill; screenplay by Ray Trampe, Norman S. Hall, Wyndham Gittens, and Herbert Dalmas, based the comic strip by Alex Raymond; director of photography, Jerome Ash; edited by Joseph Gluck, Saul A. Goodkind, Louis Sackin, and Alvin Todd; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon), Jean Rogers (Dale Arden), Frank Shannon (Dr. Alexis Zarkov), Charles Middleton (Emperor Ming), Beatrice Roberts (Queen Azura), Donald Kerr (Happy Hapgood), Richard Alexander (Prince Barin), and C. Montague Shaw (Clay King).


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