– a clip from “The Black Pirate,” sadly without the music of the Alloy Orchestra…
Review by J Hunter
I used to love going to the movies, but I don’t do it very much any more: Too many blockbusters, too little plot, too much CGI… and, if I really get down to it, I think MASS MoCA has ruined me for modern films. I mean, why watch a snail race around Indianapolis when the animations Bill Frisell accompanied in the singular gallery’s courtyard were more original and more bizarre? Why watch Adam Sandler try to be funny (let alone relevant) when I’ve seen Charlie Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy do their best work to the music of Marc Ribot and Steven Bernstein’s Millenial Territory Orchestra? And, most importantly, why should I watch Liam Neesen and a cast of nobodies ruin a perfectly good board game when I can watch Douglas Fairbanks ride the high seas in “The Black Pirate,” all to the music of MASS MoCA faves Alloy Orchestra?
Alloy’s become a beloved tradition at MASS MoCA, thanks mostly to their multiple appearances backing Fritz Lang’s iconic silent film “Metropolis.” (Alloy’s 2011 show was the eighth time they’d brought Fritz Lang’s twisted sci-fi masterpiece to North Adams.) Both “Metropolis” and “The Black Pirate” are two of many films Alloy has helped regenerate, including Lon Chaney’s “Phantom of the Opera” and the vampire movie equivalent of Genesis, F.W. Murneau’s “Nosferatu.”
“Pirate,” by comparison, is a lot lighter fare, but that doesn’t mean there’s no drama, no pathos, no damsel in distress, and no hero with a smile so bright, it’ll light your way home. This is a silent film we’re dealing with, after all. There’s even a progressively lovable sidekick, played by Donald Crisp, a major director of silent films who went onto be an Academy Award-winning character actor in the post-silent era.
The plot, from a story by Fairbanks himself, is a classic potboiler: You’re taken back to the days of “the most bloodthirsty pirates who ever infested the Seven Seas!” And you get to see that concept in action right from the jump, as the film opens near the end of one pirate crew’s attack on a merchant ship. The defeated crewmembers that aren’t tied to the base of the mast are quite dead and are being plundered for their valuables; one crewman swallows his wedding ring to keep it from the pirates, but the evil Pirate Captain (a menacing, skin-headed Anders Randolf) has one of his crew retrieve the ring… with a knife! The pirates withdraw to their ship, but not before lighting a trail of gunpowder that goes right to the magazine and blows the merchant ship to Hell. However, two survivors (Fairbanks and his real-life father) have escaped, swimming to a nearby island. As his father dies in his arms, Fairbanks vows vengeance on the pirates.
As it happens, that island is where the pirates have their underground treasure trove. Having buried his father, Fairbanks comes out of the dunes smiling like the happiest man on Earth, telling the pirates, “I would join your company!” Challenged to prove himself, he says he will take on their best fighter – who happens to be the Captain. They duel across the island until Fairbanks kills the Captain. Most of the pirates embrace him, but the Pirate Lieutenant (Sam de Grasse) is unimpressed, not to mention perturbed that his old boss is dead. Fairbanks tells them he will capture the next ship they attack single-handed, and by golly, that’s just what he does, performing a litany of stunts that would make Tom Cruise lock himself in his trailer.
Fairbanks’ character has brains as well as skills: He stops the pirates from blowing up this ship by convincing his new “compatriots” to hold it for ransom, and saves a princess (Billie Dove) that’s found below-deck from “a fate worse than death” by using her as a guarantee that the ransom will be paid. Naturally, Fairbanks falls in love with the princess at first sight, and naturally, the Pirate Lieutenant schemes to foil Fairbanks, get the girl and take back his crew.
All this happens while Alloy creates a seafaring score that adds depth to the film and fills the gaps between title cards. Given the relative hokiness of silents, it must be tempting to fill the music with snark, but the Cambridge-based trio plays it straight as an arrow. Roger Miller’s orchestral keyboards conjures strings and horns that amply represent the rolling high seas, the evil of the pirates, and the burgeoning love between Fairbanks and the Princess. The score gets more color from Ken Winkour’s clarinet and Terry Donahue’s accordion, and both musicians contribute percussion that gives Miller’s “orchestra” some strapping muscle.
Fairbanks is the classic silent film leading man: Handsome, athletic and charismatic as all get out, he is the template for which Hollywood cast future heartthrobs. You can see Errol Flynn quite easily in Fairbanks, just as you can see Basil Rathbone in de Grasse and Wallace Beery in Crisp. Dove has the acting ability of a small tree, but all she really has to do is look overcome, which she manages quite well. Although the models look cheesy and the two-tone Technicolor extremely dated, these were groundbreaking effects in 1926. Combine that with excellent direction by Albert Parker, and “The Black Pirate” deserves its preservation status by the U.S. National Film Registry.
But again, it’s the mix of movies and music that made this evening as fun as it was. I’m hoping that MASS MoCA kicks this matrix up a notch next year and convinces Dave Douglas to bring his Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle tribute “Keystone” to the Berkshires. Failing that, though, I’m sure whatever happens will be eminently entertaining – certainly more entertaining than anything at the multiplexes!