Analyzing the work of an Old Hollywood stalwart is no easy task. All the prime candidates have been written about to death; who, in all my majesty and knowledge, can I actually tackle without self-repetition? So much I wanted to take on Nicholas Ray, one of the reigning “brash young men” skirting around Hollywood royalty in the 1950s, but having reviewed In a Lonely Place and Johnny Guitar (and thinking his most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause, is the least fun film of his to write about) crossed him off the list (Bigger Than Life desperately needs a review though). Jacques Tourneur certainly popped up, but I’ve already covered his two most famous films, Cat People and I Walked With a Zombie, and Out of the Past and Night of the Demon can hop their way on over to Midnight Screenings anyway.
Hmmm, there is that functional Casablanca fellow though. What’s his name? Well, no matter, he’s not important anyway. I mean, there is that whole “directed Casablanca, a film for which the entirety of the characters, themes, and narrative are epitomized and encapsulated in his style and camerawork” business, but no one remembers him for it, nor do most people know his name. It isn’t like he directed anything else of note anyway. He’s one of those “oh yeah, victim-of-the-studio-system guys…” everyone always shrugs off without even the privilege of specifically naming him. But wait… Michael Curtiz may just be the most underrated Great American Director of all time that no one mentions by name outside of the most ardent cinephiles. He is proof positive not only of what a great stylist and storyteller can do with the studio system, but how the studio system could breed great stylists and storytellers when it really set its mind to it. I think we have something here.
Casablanca may be his crowning achievement, but Curtiz was no one trick pony. Looking at his earliest canonical work, Captain Blood, clues us in to his grand cinematic achievements, his take on cinema, and most importantly, the limits of his reputation in the here-and-now. Captain Blood, the story of doctor Peter Blood (Errol Flynn) tried with treason who escapes only to become a pirate on the high seas, is an undeniably fluffy version of history, the sort of story that implies Democracy was gained in English society via the barrel-chested shenanigans of famously “unvarnished” men standing up for what they believe in. And in this case, “standing up” entails becoming a supercilious Robin Hood-of-the-sea, un-contained by land and free to fight oppression to his heart’s content. Undeniably under-weighted and aloof by today’s standards, understanding Captain Blood requires a look back to the 1930s at large, and an exploration of the hearts of people who saw cinema not as some sort of society-spanning critique or descent into the human mind, but as proudly superficial, presentational entertainment to curb the horrors of daily life with the righteousness and fluff of fake cinematic days and nights.
Certainly, the Great Depression saw a surfeit of this sort of superficial, fable-like entertainment that had interest in championing the common-man, the undernourished, and the oppressed (played with an undeniably white, heterosexual, male face, of course, so limits to this vision abound). Captain Blood is no stranger to this vision. It is a story with one intent: to transport through well-mounted, even foolish entertainment, to tuck away the bitterness of everyday life and replace it, however temporarily, with dreams of another. Obviously, there are limits here, making the social realities of Blood a difficult beast. What is surprising today is how much it openly courts approval of anarchy, but, as per usual, this is conditioned on its distance from nominal US society; would it have been as anarchic had it taken place in the US in the 1930s? England in the 1700s is a safe, detached, fantastical environment within which a film can support revolution and radicalism and social anarchy without actually courting danger by coaxing US society to a clamorous, persuasive uprising. Instead, it allows cinema to lull people into a safe fantasy of revolution in a different time, facilitating the idea of revolution for historical English society in juxtaposition with its danger in modern US society. Imagine a Captain Blood set in the US during slavery where a group of slaves escaped their confinement and took to the high seas. That this story doesn’t exist tells us all we need to know about the limits of escapist ’30s cinema as genuine moral politics.
Yet, cinema isn’t always a field for moral politics, and Captain Blood’s intentionally slight version of escape is part and parcel with cinema more broadly. Even if Blood isn’t Yo Soy Cuba, we still must confront it for what it is: elastic, marauding pop cinema with a devil may care attitude to good sense and the spirit of a great show-and-tell theater piece. Curtiz isn’t held in much esteem today because of the cheerily surface-level quality of his works, a holdover from silent cinema lacking the pure artistic experimentation present in the pre-sound era. Blood isn’t much more than a children’s bedtime story, in other words, but reducing it to such a level belies the harder questions of cinema: what is the difference between a good bedtime story and a bad one? For, flaws aside, Captain Blood is undeniably a good bedtime story. The “why” takes us right into the heart of cinema, and into the most misguided comment in the entire history of the discussing the medium: that cinema is bad because it is “style over substance”. This is a discussion best reserved in full for Curtiz’ higher achievements still to come, but “style over substance” is a military grade false dichotomy, implying as it does that style itself is not a form of substance in its own way, and implying that a script of Great Themes is more important than cinema that plays around with the visual medium itself to tell its story in stylistic, inventive new ways.
Curtiz is a great stylist, in other words, but people concede him that, if only in vaguely derisive ways. What isn’t discussed is the depth of his style and how he uses that style to play around with the form in ways that are not only justifiably entertaining, but validly artistic. Take for example the opening, centering literature to key us in to the fictional qualities of the narrative before it even begins, followed almost immediately by one of Curtiz’s all time shots: a close-up of a sign reading” Dr. Peter Blood”, backed in deep-focus by a wonderfully pop-up-book version of an English town. Such a wonderful, cheeky shot this is, and a reflection of Curtiz at his playful, even meta-textual best. Simply put, he knows that a name like “Captain Blood” dances visions of larger-than-life adventurers and pirates around the head. By opening the film on a shot of the character’s name that intentionally subverts our expectations, he pokes around with the self-conscious fiction of the material. The idea of “Captain Blood” is that it is a name no real person could have; the idea that this character has a first name at all, and that it is such a mundane first name as Peter, is as far from our imagination of this man as possible, and that he is a doctor, a most grounded and respectable land-lovers profession, seals the deal. The name “Dr. Peter Blood” cheekily blends the fantastical with the mundane into something surreal.
Here, Curtiz is accomplishing a number of things that he pursues throughout the rest of the film whole-sale. He is first letting the audience know that he knows they expect something fictional. Secondly, he is letting us know that, at the end of the day, this is all actually fictional and that we should be weary of taking it all too literally or too seriously. Finally, he is saying “you know this character is going to become a pirate, don’t you, and even if we should take this with a grain of salt, there is nothing wrong with fantasizing about yourself, mundane daily profession and all, becoming a pirate too”. It is an implicit explication of a certain duality: that this is all a fantasy vision of reality we should be weary of taking over our lives in lieu of genuine political action, and we should understand the need for escape and fantasy when our real-world options for social improvement are being quashed by oppression and inequality. It is a remarkably complicated little self-contradiction, and all within one little, seemingly insubstantial, menial shot.
Without going into too much depth, Captain Blood is filled to the brim with these sorts of knowing stylistic gestures. The soft romantic lighting, dextrous use of shadows underlying the tale, and the profoundly frisky, frolicking music all do well by the proudly fictional quality of the film, as do the performances. Errol Flynn, in the role that made him a star and established his “man’s man” credentials, roils around the lines with confidence and a fey, theatrical quality that captures the fun of a child playing pirate, but it is the silent plank-of-wood moments where his real strength comes through. Olivia de Havilland is let down by material that has much more interested in being a boy’s game than a genuine love story, and she is primarily treated as an object by the material. That the character – the niece of the villain who purchases Blood before he escapes – has so much dignity in the finished product is entirely because of the determination and willful dignity she imbues in the character. Basil Rathbone sounds like he is having the most fun in the world with the relentless chaos of his ambiguous character, and Lionel Atwill is villainy at its grandest and most self-absorbed.
Add to this the gently wonderful way that the film eschews any real sense of conventional danger for the lightness of an old storybook, meandering about and drifting from scene to scene, depicting its characters hanging out more than doing anything with pointed purpose, and casually swaying from time period to time period without much consideration for what happened in between. All of this is enhanced and even given primacy of mood by Curtiz’s almost ever-moving camera, quite literally wooing us and considerately coasting us along with the tale. Everything in Captain Blood, from the acting to the framing to the structure, singularly constructs this necessary quality of pageantry to the whole affair, cluing us into the texture of the film with a wink and a smirk rather than a stoic sledgehammer.
In the name of expediency, Captain Blood isn’t Curtiz at his best (but you already knew that), and it arguably isn’t even essential cinema. But it is filmmaking at its most buoyant and lithe, weighted down with nothing, not even common sense. It is cinema having fun being itself; we’ve lost that over the years, and that does make Blood essential, aloof spirits and all. If you believe in the mantra of cinema as a dream, Captain Blood is dreaming at is finest, and most self-referential. Plus, and here is the real deal, it is a great, passionate work of directing a dream first and foremost, rightly championed for its acting but seldom understood for the high spirits present behind the camera. Michael Curtiz would go on to better things almost immediately afterwords, but as an entry into the mainstream, you couldn’t do much better than Captain Blood.