The Black Swan (1942)
Swash, swash! Buckle, buckle! It’s time for pirate ships and dashing rascals in The Black Swan (1942). That handsome box office champion Tyrone Power plays a rakish pirate-turned-good-guy who fights and romances across the high seas. Lovely, feisty Maureen O’Hara is his lady love, but she’s the governor’s daughter, so their match is forbidden and shocking! Think they’ll end up together before the credits roll?
The film takes us to Tortuga, Maracaibo, and Jamaica, and features scenes of pillage, chests of gold, barrels of grog, a grizzled but loyal first mate, and of course duels with ships and swords. If it sounds like a bunch of pirate movie clichés, it is. But remember that they only became clichés because of movies like this one!
The Black Swan is based on Rafael Sabatini’s 1932 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Sir Henry Morgan, a 17th century pirate-turned-governor. (Sabatini’s 1922 book Captain Blood was also loosely based on Morgan. It became a hit movie starring Errol Flynn in 1935.) Morgan has become one of the best known pirates in popular culture, and he turns up in pirate movies and books even today. You may also recognize the name from a certain brand of rum!
In real life, Henry Morgan was a Welsh privateer who made himself known across a wide swath of the Caribbean and South America. He captained his own ship in the 1660s-1670s before he was arrested and tried for his years of piracy in 1672. He was taken back to England, but King Charles II pardoned him in 1674. This wasn’t completely crazy, since for the last few years before his arrest Morgan had ostensibly been working under Jamaica’s British governor and exclusively going after Spanish ships and territories.
King Charles also knighted the former pirate and sent him to Jamaica to serve as Lieutenant Governor! That is basically the path of the Henry Morgan in The Black Swan, though Hollywood takes some liberties. But modifying history isn’t unusual. As I’ve written about in my History Through Hollywood series, classic Hollywood wasn’t that concerned with historical accuracy. It’s not that they tried and failed, but more that the historical “truth” wasn’t always a priority.
So the Harvey girls have weirdly 1940s hairstyles and are awfully clean for pioneers, and Calamity Jane is a gorgeous blonde who enjoys a happy-ever-after with Wild Bill Hickok. (Similarly, the pirates in this movie are remarkably healthy and clean!)
Despite his larger than life persona, the real star of the movie isn’t Henry Morgan. Instead, it’s his right hand man James Waring, played by Tyrone Power. By 1942, Power had been a big time movie star for several years. He’d come to Hollywood in 1936 and gotten a contract as a bit player at Fox. He was waiting for his big break when he approached director Henry King about a role in Lloyd’s of London (1936). Power probably would have been thrilled with a smallish role, but King decided to test him for the lead.
King was taken with the young actor’s poise, and perhaps he felt a special affinity for him since King had worked with Power’s father, the well-known actor Tyrone Power, Sr., on Hell Harbor (1930). Power won the part, and King’s unconventional choice was vindicated when Power became a matinee idol almost overnight. Fox threw Power into more movies immediately; he starred in five films that premiered in 1937 alone.
Power became one of the most popular male stars in Hollywood and a true heartthrob. Although he is most famous for his swashbuckling adventure films like The Black Swan, he appeared in nearly every genre, including musicals, war films, westerns, romances, and film noir. He worked steadily (apart from three years of distinguished service during WWII when he was a pilot in the Marines) until his untimely death at age 44 in 1958.
The Black Swan reunited Henry King with Power in one of their ten films together. But unlike Lloyd’s of London, King didn’t have to lobby for Power to get the starring role in The Black Swan. After all, Power had recently caused a sensation in The Mark of Zorro (1940), his first big swashbuckling picture. He was perfect for the part of Waring.
The female lead (pretty much the only woman with a speaking role), went to Maureen O’Hara. The Irish actress was relatively new to Hollywood. RKO had offered her a contract after she appeared in Hitchcock‘s British film Jamaica Inn (1939), and they’d kept her busy in various movies until The Black Swan, which was her 8th Hollywood film in three years.
The movie opens with this wonderfully romantic title to get us ready:
“When Villainy wore a Sash!” Amazing. And then we’re off! A quiet Caribbean town is attacked and set alight by nasty pirates headed by James “Jamie” Waring (Tyrone Power) and Billy Leech (George Sanders with red hair and beard.) Both men are operating under Captain Henry Morgan, though he has been captured and sent to England to stand trial.
It’s a disturbing scene because women from the town are tied up and strewn around the pirate’s landing site. Many of them are in their nightgowns, and the film does not shy away from showing the pirate’s brutal treatment of their captives. But our hero, Jamie, doesn’t engage in such cruelty. He just drinks his stolen wine and looks mildly preoccupied.
The pirates are too busy enjoying their spoils to notice troops from the town preparing a counterattack. Jamie is captured and taken to the Spanish leader’s fortress. Don Miguel (Fortunio Bonanova), wants to know where Henry Morgan is, so he tortures Jamie on the rack. But Jamie claims that Morgan is in England. Don Miguel orders more torture to get the answers he wants, but fortunately Jamie’s buddies break in and save him.
Soon it is Don Miguel on the rack, but Jamie is interrupted by a lovely lady named Margaret Denby (Maureen O’Hara). She’s the daughter of Lord Denby, the governor of Jamaica.
Unfortunately for Margaret, Jamie easily overpowers her and carries her off. It’s another disturbing moment, though it makes for a very striking shot.
But Jamie doesn’t get far with his unconscious burden. He runs into Lord Denby and– surprise surprise!–Captain Morgan, who was pardoned by the King and named Governor of Jamaica. He got across the ocean in record time, apparently.
Morgan makes sure that Jamie and his friends are released and they all meet up later in an appropriately seedy tavern. (Jamie literally dropped Margaret on the floor when he saw Morgan, so she has gone back to Jamaica with her father.)
You can watch the opening scenes here:
Some of the pirates, led by Leech, think that Morgan is a traitor and a spy for the British, and they want nothing to do with him. Others, including Jamie, still trust Morgan and decide to work with him as “legal” privateers under the British flag. There are some sword fights and drunken brawls as the various pirate factions work out their differences, but eventually Leech and his gang decide to be pirates, and Jamie and his friends follow Morgan to Jamaica. Fun fact: it’s really hard to recognize George Sanders beneath the red wig and beard! The voice gives him away, but otherwise he looks completely different!
At Morgan’s inauguration, Jamie is distracted by Margaret, who refuses to bow to the new governor. That’s Morgan (Laird Cregar) in the incredible wig and orange silk, and Tommy Blue (Thomas Mitchell), Jamie’s loyal first mate, in the tan cloak.
Jamie follows Margaret into the garden and they get into another fight. He expects her to forgive him and be thrilled about her father’s replacement. He doesn’t understand women. Or human beings, for that matter.
Margaret’s suitor, Roger Ingram (Edward Ashley), comes to her aid, but Jamie easily beats him in a duel. Meanwhile, a stuffed parrot perched in a tree lends some “local color.”
Soon after this encounter, Jamie ambushes Margaret while she is out riding. She tells him to beat it, but her horse stumbles and she falls off. Jamie “rescues” her. It’s not a terribly original way to get the unwilling heroine alone and vulnerable with the hero, but it does its job. Margaret cleverly feigns interest in Jamie as he massages her hurt ankle (highly inappropriate!) which allows her to knock him on the head with a rock. Then she escapes.
You can watch it here:
Before this romance can really get going, though, the movie switches back to pirates and intrigue. And that is one of the film’s problems. Unlike Captain Blood (1935), this movie does not develop the romance very well. In the earlier film, we understand why the heroine’s opinion of the hero changes, and we see that they are a good match. But this movie glosses over that pretty crucial development so that we never quite understand how Margaret’s hate blossoms into love. We also don’t feel confident in their compatibility as a couple, but oh well.
Anyway, back to the plot! Roger Ingram, Margaret’s boyfriend, hates Governor Morgan and resents the fact that the King has placed a common pirate in power.
So he starts collaborating with evil Captain Leech. He gives Leech information about British ships and their routes so that the pirate can easily pick them off at sea. Then he blames Morgan and pirate ilk like Jamie for conspiring with Leech and decimating the British fleet. Naturally, everyone assumes they’re guilty. Once a pirate, always a pirate! Or so I always say.
Ingram’s dastardly scheme works. His coffers are bursting with his percentage of Leech’s booty given as payment for Ingram’s information, so he tells Margaret that a rich aunt died and left him everything. He suggests they get married right away now that he’s rich! No one suspects a thing.
Meanwhile, Morgan claims innocence and sends Jamie to lead an attack on Leech at Tortuga. But Ingram sends word to Leech and the pirates skedaddle. Tortuga is empty when Jamie’s fleet arrives. Fun fact: There are some beautiful ship shots in this film, most likely filmed using miniatures.
Jamie realizes that something is not right and hurries back to Jamaica. He arrives just as the council votes to impeach Morgan. But they need a letter from the King to make it official, so Ingram volunteers to sail to England. He announces he will be taking his bride, too. They’re getting married the next day.
Despite the fact that Jamie and Margaret have spent maybe fifteen minutes together in their whole lives, and putting aside the minor detail that Margaret hates him and is about to marry someone else, Jamie goes to her house that night. She is walking alone in the garden in a beautiful dress. As one does.
Earl Luick designed the costumes in this movie, and he ensures that O’Hara always looks glamorous and gorgeous.
Anyway, Jamie professes his love, which Margaret rejects. As Alfred Newman’s lush, romantic score surges in the background, Jamie kidnaps her and takes her aboard his ship as he goes hunting for Leech. She refuses to eat with him and maintains an icy hauteur onboard. Again, these weren’t such clichés at the time.
I’m distracted wondering how Jamie keeps his red scarf so clean and bright! The pirates in these old movies are quite different from the purposefully gruesome characters in recent films such as the Pirates of the Caribbean!
The crew spots Leech’s ship, the Black Swan, but they know they can’t outrun it nor win a gun battle. It’s a very good ship. So Jamie replaces the British flag with the Jolly Roger and approaches Leech. He claims that he and his crew have grown tired of the legal life in Jamaica and have gone back to piracy. They wants to join Leech’s fleet.
Leech is suspicious, so he brings Jamie and his “wife” onboard the Black Swan as hostages. Margaret isn’t thrilled to be Mrs. Waring, but Jamie tells her it’s the only way to keep her safe. But she refuses to let him sleep beside her. Although he’s not behaved very gentlemanly up to this point, he respects that and gets a hammock. He tells her that he won’t go near her until she calls him “Jamie Boy” three times. But he jumps into her bed quickly enough when Leech comes to check on them.
They think they’ve fooled him, but Leech notices that Jamie is still wearing his boots, and he sees the hammock lying in a corner. Oh dear.
After Leech leaves, Jamie gets back into his hammock and Margaret looks at him with something like affection. It’s the old “He didn’t rape me so he must be a good man who loves me!” routine. Yuck.
Leech bursts into their cabin the next morning and catches them in their non-marital sleeping arrangement.
The lighting is quite beautiful in this scene, and in the movie as a whole. In fact, the film won the Academy Award for Best Color Cinematography. It was Leon Shamroy’s first of four Cinematography Oscars out of eighteen nominations.
Leech locks Margaret in the cabin and ties Jamie up on deck. Fun fact: George Sanders played Tyrone Power’s enemy in Lloyd’s of London, too, but in actuality they were great friends. They would make five movies together, and Sanders was performing a scene with Power for Solomon and Sheba (1959) when Power had his fatal heart attack. (Power was replaced by Yul Brynner in the finished film.) Sanders would write the eulogy for Power, and he also included Power in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Professional Cad.
Leech sails for Maraicabo, where ex-Governor Morgan fled after Jamie kidnapped Margaret. You can imagine that Jamaica was no longer safe for Morgan once his right hand man stole the previous governor’s daughter.
Time for a sea battle! Leech’s forces attack Maracaibo and Morgan scrambles to defend it. Fortunately, Jamie escapes his bonds and basically takes over the Black Swan singlehandedly. He’s a very good pirate. Fun fact: some of the background footage throughout the movie was shot in Florida, Honduras, Cuba, Jamaica, and Mexico.
Another fun fact: the Black Swan ship was also used in That Hamilton Woman (1941), The Princess and the Pirate (1944), and Captain Kidd (1945).
The battle ends after a lengthy sword fight between Leech and Jamie. Despite being injured, Jamie manages to kill the evil captain. Morgan boards the Black Swan, but fortunately Jamie is able to convince him that he was only pretending to betray him. But Morgan still has to arrest him for kidnapping Margaret. Fortunately for Jamie, Margaret claims that she went with him willingly. Morgan is happy to return to Jamaica and let his buddy Jamie go free!
Margaret stays on the Black Swan, which is now under Jamie’s command. She changes into pirate clothes and tells Jamie she’s into him now. Then she calls him “Jamie Boy” three times, and asks him to kiss her. The sun sets and the music surges, and it’s a very happy ending!
I guess…Is she going to be a privateer’s wife? What about all of her pretty dresses and luxurious life? Will Jamie go back to Jamaica and become a landlubber? How is all of this going to work? And they really don’t know each other…
Don’t worry about it. You can watch the battle to the ending below. Take special note of the sword fight between Sanders and Power as the latter was one of the screen’s best swordsman. In fact, Basil Rathbone, another of the greats, dueled with Power in The Mark of Zorro, and remembered that “Power was the most agile man with a sword I’ve ever faced before a camera. Tyrone could have fenced Errol Flynn [whom Rathbone fought in Captain Blood] into a cocked hat.”
Although she often complained about being the “Queen of Technicolor” and getting stuck in less than challenging roles, O’Hara enjoyed making this movie.
She wrote in her autobiography, ‘Tis Herself that the film “had everything you could want in a lavish pirate picture: a magnificent ship with thundering cannons; a dashing hero battling menacing villains (Tyrone Power, Laird Cregar, and Anthony Quinn); sword fights; fabulous costumes; and a damsel in distress draped in oodles of jewelry…The Black Swan proved to be a super-smashing box-office success…” She remembered that “Working with Ty Power was exciting. In those days, he was the biggest romantic swashbuckler in the world…But what I loved most about working with Ty Power was his wicked sense of humor. He was an absolute devil and quickly figured out that I was a naive Irish lass. I was the perfect stooge.”
She would spend more time on pirate ships in 1945’s Spanish Main, though it’s Paul Henreid who kidnaps her in that movie.
The Black Swan was in production in April through June 1942, with a few scenes shot in July. The U.S. had entered WWII the previous December after Pearl Harbor, and although the war doesn’t surface in the movie, it was very present behind the scenes. For example, the studio was trying to conserve materials to help the war effort, so the actors and crew tried to use as little film as possible. About thirty of the scenes were shot in just one take.
Fox marketed The Black Swan as Tyrone Power’s last film before he joined the military. In fact, he would make one more movie, the war film Crash Dive (1943), before he enlisted in the Marines.
He attended Officer’s Candidate School, and since he had earned his pilot’s license before the war, he was able to skip some of the basic flight training and become a First Lieutenant.
He was past the age for combat missions, so he flew cargo planes in the Pacific, which included missions surrounding the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He was awarded two bronze stars and the WWII Victory Medal, among other awards. He remained in the reserves after the war ended and was eventually promoted to major.
The Black Swan premiered in December 1942 to mostly good reviews. Photoplay called the movie “a gorgeous riot” and a “rowdy, gusty, colorful [story] of romance.” The review added that O’Hara “is wondrously beautiful” and “Power comes forth with one of his best performances.”
The New York Times critic T.S. agreed that the film was well cast, noting that
It is performed by actors as if to the hokum born. Mr. Power is a very vision of manly loveliness, and he growls just like a big bad pirate; Laird Cregar, as Morgan, bellows oaths like an irate opera singer; George Sanders’s Billy Leech is as naughty and quarrelsome a man as one would care not to meet on a moonless night; Thomas Mitchell’s Irish accent still stands him in good stead as one of the roisterers, and Maureen O’Hara is brunette and beautiful—which is all the part requires.
T.S. predicted that after watching The Black Swan, “a good many small boys are going to feel they were born too late into this world…The small fry probably will be brandishing wooden swords in the parlor and slitting sofa pillows for some time to come. But a lot of grown-ups are going to like it, too.” After all, Fox has:
hauled a likely lot of studio swashbucklers all over the Spanish Main and with enough Technicolored sword-play and double-barreled oaths to make a 12-year-old’s eyes pop. Directed in headlong style by Henry King, filled with rococo rhetoric by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller, and acted in the ripest tradition, “The Black Swan” is one of the waning season’s prettiest adventures. Sir Henry Morgan, Jamie Boy, and Tommy Blue—they were men, sirrah!
Film Daily agreed, concluding that, “Historical romance is offered at its best in this production, a lavish Technicolor affair crammed with entertainment value. Swashbuckling, romance, and red deeds of valor crowd the story to provide thrills and excitement that should bring a fervid response especially from the younger patrons.”
The review noted the visual splendor of the film, too: “The Technicolor in The Black Swan has an amazing quality about it–a quality that makes each frame take on the appearance of a painting done in oil–with rich deep hues that are a treat to behold. Yes, the visual appeal of this film is tremendous.”
American Cinematographer was also impressed and included the film in its “Photography of the Month” feature. The magazine praised cinematographer Leon Shamroy, writing that after watching this film, “it’s hard to think of a pirate story in monochrome.” The article continues:
Shamroy paints his picture in broad, vivid strokes, as becomes a story in which colorful settings and colorful costumes and action combine so vividly. Yet on analysis, you’ll notice that much of the color is actually subdued, toned down either in the actual set or costume, or toned down by Shamroy’s careful use of strong effect-lightings, so that while you get an overall impression of strong color, you get it actually without being chromatically surfeited.
The magazine also noted Shamroy’s “striking portrait-lightings” of Power and O’Hara, writing that it was those shots that made the strongest impression on the reviewer. Critics weren’t the only ones to praise Shamroy’s work. As I mentioned earlier, he won the Best Color Cinematography Oscar for this film. The movie also received nominations for Best Music and Best Special Effects, but Cinematography was its only win.