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« Stage Door: A Hellavu "On the Town" Revival | Main | Interstellar Mania in 3...2...1 »
Monday
Oct272014

The Honoraries: Maureen O'Hara in Black Swan (1942)

Drum roll please...

Welcome to our miniseries "The Honoraries". From now until November 8th when the Governor's Awards are held, we'll be celebrating the careers of the three Honorary Oscar recipients of 2014 (Maureen O'Hara, Hayao Miyazaki, Claude Carriere) and the Jean Hersholt winner (Harry Belafonte). Because I am behind  schedule and sniffly and sneezy we'll start with a reprise repurposing of a look back to the super entertaining swashbuckler Black Swan starring matinee idol extraordinaire Tyrone Power (who so deserves a biopic) and the woman we've campaigned to receive a Honorary for years and years now. The Academy finally listened and Maureen O'Hara, Queen of Technicolor, we'll finally get her golden due on November 8th. 

Herewith a look back at Black Swan which the Portman/Aronofsky drama was NOT a remake of. Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara don't see themselves in mirrors or have hallucinatory mental breakdowns scored to Tchaikovsky in this swashbuckler. But cinephiles with good taste in Old Hollywood beauties may feel like they're hallucinating when looking at Tyrone Power or Maureen O'Hara in Technicolor. [more...]

 

As the movie begins we see a pirate ship called "Black Swan" and a super saturated matte painting of a blue sky (no one speaks of matte paintings anymore) and the following campy text.

This is a story of the Spanish Main -- when Villainy wore a Sash, and the only political creed in the world was --- Love, Gold, and Adventure.

The last time I remember villainy wearing a sash was the X-Men Dark Phoenix saga -- Villainy wore a gold lame sash to be precise. But back to the beginning of the movie. A town crier is shouting "All is well". Oh foolish extra, that's the kind of thing you only shout at the end of a story. Otherwise, you're basically asking for trouble!

(I'm waiting to see what color Villainy's sash is.)

Turns out sashes aren't that much of a focal point of the costumes, mostly because Tyrone is always out of his. The studio knew where his bankability was buttered.

 

"Nothing like a stretch on the rack to raise the thirst!"

So "Jamie Waring" (that's Tyrone) and his pirate friends loot a town, and attempt to steal some wenches only some of them get captured. Jamie ends up on the rack and there's a very fast rescue scene and plot twist which puts he and his pirate buddies into respectable positions in civilized society, attempting to fit in with the people they were just looting / threatening.

In the midst of this rapid fire plot twist, which is less "twist" than "flip" as power changes hands, he meets Lady Margaret Denby (Maureen O'Hara) and it's lust/hate at first sight. He immediately threatens to rape her (not in those words but pretty much, yeah. Charming), calls her "nasty" (no, really), and then backhands her when she bites him when he tries to kiss her. Sometimes old movies take the 'root for the anti-hero' thing too far. So she's out cold and there's this visual gag wherein he's carrying her (presumably to some bedchamber) and then tosses her aside like dirty laundry as soon as he spots a long lost friend, Captain Sir Henry Morgan (Laird Cregor).

Here's the thing. It is actually a physically funny gag in execution and timing but since he's just threatened to rape her and has verbally and physically abused her, it's... not an enjoyable laugh.

His sash is maroon. Villainy wore a maroon sash.

Only it's already clear you're not supposed to think of "Jamie Boy" as the villain. Who the villain is is still in flux. I promise not to regurgitate the whole plot. I'm almost done with the oversharing of details but I found the first half of the movie the most interesting in terms of conversation fodder and the last half more "enjoyable." The Black Swan is a good swashbuckler in the grand scheme of things but in its gender politics one can mistake it for a horror movie.

The Black Swan won the Oscar for Cinematography. Was it the moonlit way it caressed Tyrone & Maureen in bed, with and without each other?

Soon Jamie and Lady Margaret are travelling in the same social circles. Jamie is now living in Margaret's previous bedchambers (long story) and doing things like smelling her pillows instead of burning them as he originally suggests he will. 

He's deeply in love with her. She's deeply in irritation with him. As co-starring pairings go the Power/O'Hara chemistry has nice friction and they look simply delicious together, him all swarthy and frequently disrobed and her all porcelain with those exclamatory red lips. (Despite their opposites attract looks and demeanor both stars are actually of Irish descent and fairly close in age -- at least as movie-pairings go; he was 28 and she was 22 at the time of Black Swan.

An example of their "charming" (read: horrifying) banter.

Jamie: You can lower your pistols Lady Margaret
Margaret:
 Unfortunately I have no pistols.
Jamie:
 Your eyes. I've looked into pistol barrels that are kinder.
Margaret:
 Get out of my way.
Jamie: Please. Do me a favor and don't make me angry. I'm trying my hardest to behave like a gentleman.
Margaret: [Incredulous] A gentleman?
Jamie: Not entirely. I only meant that my new character keeps me from seizing women and hugging and squeezing them into submission. Instead I woo them with politeness and with gifts. Here. [Hands her a locket]
Margaret: Where did you get this?
Jamie: I found it in your bed.
Margaret: You have my room.
Jamie: Yes, and you haunt it sweetly each night. Not an evening passes but I find some new and fascainting souvenir of you, a stocking, a garter, a bit of lace. [She tries to slap him. He grabs her wrist.] In Tortuga when a woman slaps a man's face, it means she wants him to grab her, overpower her, and smother her with kisses. I understand in Jamaica a gentleman must refuse such overtures.

See, when women say "no" it really means "yes!" EVERYONE KNOWS THAT.

In their next tete-a-tete, she actually clobbers him in the head with a rock when he is at his most genuinely friendly, so it shifts into a straight up abusive relationship in both directions. The movie sides with him; she is clearly "asking for it" and he is clearly excited by his position as the "hero" of this Swashbuckler's cover of Taming of the Shrew. Ah, the comforts of prehistoric gender politics!

To O'Hara's credit she doesn't exactly play the "no" like a "yes" though the less generous will say the ambiguity is just stiffness in line readings. But give her a break. While it's true that Black Swan isn't close to her best performance it's still a grade A star vehicle and she gave us Miracle on 34th Street and Parent Trap which gives her a lifetime pass. Plus she's tied up or mistreated or gagged or unconscious for half of this movie! It's Ty's movie as a result and because this is the 40s it's probably no spoiler to tell you that she'll eventually do exactly as he has both predicts and commands.

A series of plot complications thrust Maureen and Ty closer and closer together. The movies most erotic and effective act is its last set aboard an evil pirate's ship. It's pretty racy for 1942. To sell their pretend marriage (very long story) Jamie actually leaps into the good Lady's bed... shirtless. Bear, or should I say bare, in mind that this came at a time in film history when even happily/legally married screen couples slept in separate beds. As the danger level increases, the movie gets better and better. The second half is quite strong as swashbuckler adventures go with well executed and genuinely exciting battle sequences and one particularly riveting swordfight between Jamie Boy and the principle villain Leech (George Sanders, yes the George Sanders "Addison DeWitt" himself. I didn't recognize him!).

Sadly, I've already forgotten the color of his sash.

For the first half of the movie I kept uncharitably equating Tyrone Power (who I haven't seen in that many films) with a B version of Clark Gable -- much sexier but without the inarguably potent screen presence. But there's a reason Power was so popular in derring-do style films, he really sells the physicality of both the romance and the action, particularly with a sword in hand. O'Hara has less to work with and she'll be more effective later on in the cinema (we'll get to a few of those performances) when the movies catch up to her fiery willfullness and don't feel the need to mislabel it in its entirety as shrewishness. All in all Black Swan is a great old school watch if you can divorce yourself from the thankfully antiquated misogyny. 

How happy are you that Maureen O'Hara is finally getting an Honorary? Have you ever seen this swashbuckler? 

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Reader Comments (13)

Aronofsky/Portman, not Fincher.

October 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

That first still is beautiful.

October 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Very happy for Maureen, glad they are acknowledging her before it's too late as they have many worthy stars, more female than male though they missed some of them too.

She could seem stiff at times, especially when she was younger, but I think part of it was her precise way of speaking and lets face it often the dialog and situations she had to sell did not lend themselves to a natural delivery.

I have seen Black Swan, I have the Tyrone Power box set, and it's beautiful to look at despite being rather ridiculous most of the time. Ty was quite adept at many genres although in musicals he was used strictly to pretty the place up while Alice Faye did the singing and dancing.

He made quite a few decent films-Blood & Sand, The Mark of Zorro, Johnny Apollo, Son of Fury, The Rains Came, although he is absurdly cast as an Indian, Jesse James etc. but his best is the dark noir Nightmare Alley, probably his best performance too.

October 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

Oh, man, now I want to see Fincher's vision of Portman in Black Swan.

October 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

LOL. i haven't made that Fincher/Aronofsky mistake in years. it always leads to crazy juxtapositions.

October 27, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Henry - the whole movie is beautiful!

October 27, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I'm going to get booed, but I'm not a big fan of this choice. Other than a terrific nomination-worthy performance in The Quiet Man, I've always found her to be average at best. Through her association with John Ford, she appeared in a number of remarkable films, but they weren' remarkable for her presence.

I'd have been much happier to see Doris Day recognized (if she'd accept it). Although I'm not a huge fan of hers, I can see her talent and the place she has in film history. She was also incredibly versatile.

I'd also get a kick out of seeing something for Donald Sutherland. He's been consistently interesting and effective in a long list of memorable films, and he's definitely an original.

Sorry to Maureen O'Hara fans, but she'd just be lower on my list for an honorary Oscar.

October 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

To appreciate a good swashbuckler these days is kind of like looking at those the MGM musicals. You just have to suspend belief. There are good ones and not so good ones……..Black Swan is one of the better ones. All of the pirates in these are bad boys needing the right time ( and woman) to be good with lots of sword fighting, dungeons, ships, cannon and inappropriate sexual dialogue(wooing?) that may or not further the plot. There is such a clear difference in the fun of the Black Swan vs another Maureen O’Hara movie The Spanish Main. The genre hit its height with DeMille’s The Buccaneer. The Black Swan one is better because there is a spark between Tyrone and Maureen and it is visible on screen.
My favorite films of Miss O’Hara are The Quiet Man, and of course, How Green was My Valley. (That wedding veil) . I also like an earlier appearance in The Jamaican Inn. Hitchcock was not a fan of costume drama, but this was his stepping stone to Rebecca and her stepping stone to Hunchback of Notre Dame.

A great selection for this year. And I do agree the Academy should honor Miss Doris Day. I hope its soon.

October 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie19

@Jamie-Go watch The Parent Trap. I would love to see Miss Day accept her little gold man, but Maureen so totally deserves this. She is magic in human form.

October 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

I started reading this article, and it has made me so eager to re-watch Black Swan asap that I've had to stop reading halfway and get to ordering/downloading. That first still in particular just looks stunning.

And yes, very happy for Maureen O'Hara. She was such a prominent part of my early days of discovering cinema - due to Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quiet Man, How Green Was My Valley, Black Swan - and I feel very guilty that I haven't thought about her much recently. In fact I might do a mini-Maureen-marathon by way of (joyous) penance.

October 27, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

@ Henry - I've seen The Parent Trap, but it didn't do much for me. I just checked out her IMDB page and I've seen the majority of her top 20 rated films. There were a number of really good films there, but what I liked about them had little to do with her. I guess this is one case where the magic escapes me!

But at least I can say I really did enjoy her in The Quiet Man. She was easily better than some of the nominated actresses that year.

October 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

misogyny? For heavens sake.

January 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Hyde

I love this movie.Its one of the best adventure movies of all time.I dont think Ty Power wanted to be a version of Clark Glable on this...and saying that he had few or little screen presence makes me very, very sad 😔. ..trully i wanted to see him on the widescreen it must be somenthing close to heaven....Does Ty has an Honorary??? He deserve one..worked so hard for the industry...

June 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEve

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