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Monday, September 30, 2013

Flynn As "The Robin Hood Of The Seas"

Favorites List --- The Sea Hawk

There's a provocative entry among Steven Scheur's Movies On TV entries that reads thus: Sea Hawk (1940) Try and stop your youngsters from watching this salty tale of a sea-going Robin Hood. Don't leave the set too fast yourself because you're liable to enjoy this lusty sea story. Scheur's capsule reviews used to appear in our Winston-Salem Journal with TV movie listings. He was the critic who infamously referred to Bride Of Frankenstein as "way above average for this kind of trash." Ten-year-old me wanted to box his ears. Such snobbery prevailed in the 60's and much of the 70's. Are we even now past it? There was a Hollywood and The Stars episode, done around 1963, wherein Joseph Cotten narrated an appreciation of swashbucklers and referred to The "magnificent" Sea Hawk. Now that was more like it. Trouble was low contrast prints sent by then owner United Artists to stations leasing The Sea Hawk and others of the pre-49 Warners package, 16mm washed in flat gray-tone to meet prevailing broadcast standard (it was felt that low contrast registered better on home receivers). Collectors had a fit finding a Sea Hawk worthy of rich B/W audiences in 1940 experienced.

There also was a wonderful soundtrack album issued in 1972 to renew interest in The Sea Hawk. Charles Gerhardt conducted selections from the sefaring epic and others of Erich Korngold composition in what RCA sold as first in a series of classic music revivals. Colleges could rent The Sea Hawk for $75, but prints from UA/16 were a same as television, to-wit gray as ghosts. A hazard too were cuts that had been made by WB for a 1947 reissue, these diminishing The Sea Hawk from 127 first-run minutes to 109 for a pairing with The Sea Wolf (also trimmed). The footage had been put back to most prints in later TV/rental circulation, but collectors still felt the bite of stragglers reduced down from Dominant Pictures' 35mm that serviced 1956 dates. Dominant was a late theatrical stop for The Sea Hawk before its surrender to television with other Warner oldies. You could recognize cut prints for Dominant's logo that appeared at the head of credits. For 16mm gatherers, this meant Buyer Beware.

Now all that is as much quicksilver, for The Sea Hawk flies upon High-Definition wings on streaming services and hopefully soon from Warner Blu-Ray. It is a show that benefits for sharpest delivery of black-and-white, being one of the most richly designed and photographed of Gold Agers shot monochrome, a word I almost hesitate to use considering that The Sea Hawk looks more vivid than many peers boasting Technicolor. It might have been done in the latter process but for stock footage from earlier Captain Blood and even 20's sword/sash stuff Warners intended to use, but barely did, as spending for The Sea Hawk rose to a near studio record of $1.701,211 (only The Adventures Of Robin Hood had cost more). Of pirate pics Errol Flynn top-lined, actually fewer than you'd think considering his iconic status as such, The Sea Hawk was a summit. It's among his best and now even better thanks to HD delivery.

A Concluding Scene for The Sea Hawk That UK Patrons Saw More Of.

What Warners has today is unique too as a definitive and for years unseen version of The Sea Hawk, being complete beyond even what American audiences saw in 1940. British prints featured an extended version of Flora Robson's Queen Elizabeth speech at The Sea Hawk's conclusion, it being a call to arms and plea for preparedness that would resonate with a UK public girding for their own war with Germany. The speech wasn't used for US prints, Flynn's character being knighted, and no more, for the pic's finish. Even notwithstanding the trim (and a sequence aboard ship between Flynn and Donald Crisp), The Sea Hawk was nakedly political, and one more reason voices rose in protest over Hollywood's support for Euro intervention. TV watching of years after WWII ignored or didn't notice parallels between Spain's King Philip, the Hitler counterpart, and Queen Elizabeth standing in for beleaguered England. Where was difference between plotted Spanish conquest and Germans laying in 1940 wait? The message couldn't have been clearer if contemporary-set.

A "Color-Glos" Still As Issued by Warners for The Sea Hawk in 1940

Something else I noticed this viewing was the violence. Was that basis for Steven Scheur's counsel for parents to  "stop your youngsters from watching"? Battling aboard ship is brutal, as are whips applied to captive backs below deck. The old Fairbanks model could distance itself from carnage through silence. The Sea Hawk used the clash of swords and an aggressive music score to update benign pageantry to a new level of costumed bloodletting. We notice it less today for endless imitating since, but imagine 1940 response to The Sea Hawk's fresh coat on swashbuckling. Captain Blood had been a start, but harked more to a ruffle sleeve past than to vigorous future The Sea Hawk would herald.

Flynn's performing too, had matured. I don't know of another 30's lead man whose acting progressed so rapidly (compare him in Captain Blood with immediate-after Charge Of The Light Brigade). Errol gets a little cute and ad-libby at times in The Sea Hawk, business with the monkey as example, but in moments where he exhibits leadership under stress, there's just no peer to Flynn. Watch next time business in the swamp where he notes desperate condition of his men, then draws himself up in knowledge they'll look his way for salvation. It's a great moment that wordless-conveys quality this star had that others wouldn't duplicate.

Luxury in Abundance at The Ambassador Theatre in St. Louis 

Here's an interesting engagement for The Sea Hawk that illustrates ongoing love-hate between exhibition and a by-1940 entrenched double-feature policy. The Ambassador in St. Louis was a deluxe house that seated 3,005, and was thought fully equal to any palace in the country. Their launch of The Sea Hawk in September 1940 would also inaugurate a Single-Feature strategy, featuring the "Finest Short Subjects Available" as opposed to the customary B feature in support. Reserved seats were available with prices advanced. RKO supplied the junior fare, a March Of Time about the Dutch East Indies, and Walt Disney's Technicolor cartoon The Bill Posters, with Donald Duck and Goofy. The entire program, with perhaps a newsreel, would have exceeded two and one half hours. The Sea Hawk teed off a testing period for the new policy as conducted by Ambassador owners, the Fanchon and Marco chain. Over five weeks following The Sea Hawk, these were tendered as singles: Brigham Young, The Howards Of Virginia, Spring Parade, No Time For Comedy, and Down Argentine Way. According to Variety report, the plan failed and double features were back by late October. Had two-for-one been implanted for keeps in the minds of moviegoers?


Blogger rnigma said...

I recall RCA's "Classic Film Scores" albums - I blieve they were produced by Korngold's son George. One album featured the music that accompanied studio logos.

5:20 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon has some good things to say about Errol Flynn and "The Sea Hawk":


That's a wonderful entry on "The Sea Hawk", and that's a film that could sustain any number of scholarly + enthusiastic histories, about its incredible cast, it's incredible production (I think---I'm not sure---they 'purpose-built' an entire new stage at Warners just to do the magnificently faked scenes at sea on Thorpe's various ships), and it's all-but-incredible score by Korngold that rewrote the book on the impact of music with great imagery. Or, on Curtiz, or Flynn, or...where do you END? There are plenty of places to begin!

But, your take on the history of the film, itself, and its sad misadventures in the uncertain '50s that claimed the life, almost, of its edited sequences---at least, based on the inferior looking quality of some of them that were restored for the 2004 (or so) DVD from WB---is thorough-going and fascinating, too. Film is very, very vulnerable as far as damage or inferior printing. Gray prints, indeed. The same could be said of stills. Aren't we always stunned when we see a beautifully-preserved, well-reproduced still from that day? The tones almost become colors, as you aptly put it in daring to say that "The Sea Hawk" looks almost BETTER than Technicolor!---and I'm bound to agree with you.

Also, your observation about the subtlety of Flynn's acting, and his incomparable presence---nay, indispensable---is on the head of that old nail. More and more and more he emerges as perhaps the great talent from WB in those years. I've lately felt that in subtlety he actually eclipses Bogie, who's owned the trophy in that department for years. Yet, intelligent fans are apt to be getting the impression upon repeat viewings of Flynn's vehicles that this was no pretty boy---though he was handsome as Apollo---but an incredibly smart, subtle, witty and intelligent actor...not merely some kind of extended flash-in-the-pan. I mean, you only have to watch his good-natured turn in "Thank Your Lucky Stars" to see how funny he could be, on top of everything else. (There too he tops Bogart's turn in the same film, very funny in its own right.)

I think the Queen's speech, brilliantly performed by Robson, is a HUGE improvement to the end of "The Sea Hawk". After all, it makes bold to present an "English" POV throughout. This ending fits perfectly and actually almost succeeds in turning this Yank---of primarily Irish descent, to boot!---into a complete (if temporary) Anglophile! The artfully-bedraggled men, the handsomely 'noble' Flynn, and his hearties, particularly Alan Hale with his great smile, saluting Robson at the conclusion of her speech, and Korngold's almost unbearably glorious peroration in his score, are the things movie legend are made of.

Your final remarks about the 'one feature' experiment in the apparently magnificent movie palace in St. Louis, the Ambassador, is interesting in itself, but it also provokes this 60-year old to smile at the fact that my children look at me strangely when I tell them that "when I was a kid..." (groannn!), ALL excursions to the movies were predicated on the expectation of seeing TWO current feature films! It's almost unbelievable to me that in my own humble lifetime I've seen that change so much, not only in quantity, but---to my prejudice---even more so in quality. Showmanship has certainly changed, even if it isn't entirely gone.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Although I've always been a great fan of Flynn's, I wasn't charmed by "The Sea Hawk" when viewing it on regular TV way back when. I wonder if it was due not only to the disruptive commercial breaks but also the washed-out prints themselves. Next time it turns up on TCM, I'll have to re-watch it.

9:05 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

Craig Reardon's comments are (as is usual for him) dead-on. Flynn's acting is superb (try it sometime; in a doublet-and-hose and see how far you get, not to mention how silly you feel....) Flynn fit into these roles as well as Charlton Heston fit into a toga. The icing on most of Flynn's cakes were the magnificent musical scores provided by Erich Korngold and Max Steiner for his films. I, personally would LOVE to see a Blu-ray box-set of Flynn's best: "Robin Hood", "Sea Hawk", "Dodge City" and "Adventures Of Don Juan" (my personal favorite Flynn)...after all, we're getting BD box-set of Vincent Price, why not one of Flynn? Are you listening Warner Bros.?

10:53 AM  

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