The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate 1926

After the ship he’s on is taken over and destroyed by a band of pirates, the Duke of Anoldo (Douglas Fairbanks) and his father survive and make their way to a deserted island. The Duke’s father dies shortly afterward and he vows to avenge his father’s death by getting revenge on the pirates. When the pirates also arrive on the island to hide the treasure they’ve found, the Duke decides the best way to get revenge is to become the Black Pirate and try to beat the pirates at their own game by joining their band. First he proves his worthy by demonstrating his skills with a sword, then takes over a ship on his own.

When the pirates get on the ship, they realize a Princess (Billie Dove) is on board and the Black Pirate urges them to hold her hostage so they can get a ransom. Of course, to get a ransom, the Princess has to remain safe so the Black Pirate tries to protect her from some of the other pirates who are trying to sabotage his efforts. When the Black Pirate finds out their lives are in danger, he tries to get himself and the Princess out of harm’s way, but other pirates believe he is trying to escape and force him to walk the plank. But it’s hardly the end for the Black Pirate!

The Black Pirate is the kind of movie that makes me wish I had a time machine so I could travel back in time and seen in theaters when it was first released in. I can imagine the audience reactions would have been absolutely off the charts, between the thrilling action sequences and that glorious two-strip technicolor. Even nearly 90 years after its original release, Douglas Fairbanks’s stunt work is still nothing less than a true marvel to behold. Fairbanks’s performance wasn’t “good for its time,” it’s still a real tour de force. If Fairbanks were alive and working in today’s film industry, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’d still be the go-to star for all the top action blockbusters.

Lost Horizon 1937

Lost Horizon (1937)

In the midst of a revolution in China, author and diplomat Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is tasked with rescuing 90 people and getting them on a plane to Shanghai. Among the people rescued include Robert’s brother George (John Howard), Lovett (Edward Everett Horton), Gloria (Isabel Jewell), and Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell). After spending all night on the plane, the passengers wake up and realize they’re traveling in the opposite direction. Their plane has been hijacked and after an extremely arduous journey, the plane eventually crashes in some Tibetan mountains. All the passengers survive, but the pilot is dead.

The passengers are stranded far away from civilization, or so they think. Before long, they are greeted by porters who guide the passengers to Shangri-La, a beautiful paradise that apparently has magical powers. The people of Shangri-La don’t seem to age and Gloria, who was terminally ill when she left China, seems to be getting better. They have no connection to the outside world and have none of the conflicts that exist in the rest of the world.

Robert begins to feel like he’s been brought there for a reason and those beliefs are confirmed by some of the lamas of Shangri-La. When he meets Sondra (Jane Wyatt), he finds out she’s the one who suggested he be brought to Shangri-La because she’d read his books and thought they reflected the philosophical beliefs of their leader, the High Lama. The High Lama is very old and doesn’t have long to live and they want Robert to take his place.

Robert loves Shangri-La (and Sondra), as do all the other passengers, except for George. George resents being kidnapped and wants to leave with Maria (Margo), another woman who was kidnapped and brought to Shangri-La. Robert is forced to choose between staying in Shangri-La or leaving with his brother.

Spectacular. Simply spectacular. Mention the words “epic film” and you’ll likely think of Cecil B. DeMille or Ben-Hur, but Lost Horizon certainly has a place in that league of filmdom. The sets are grand and absolutely stunning, it’s full of intrigue and excitement, the story has a lot of depth to it so it isn’t overpowered by the grandeur of the sets, and the entire cast is amazing. Not only is Ronald Colman fantastic in it, he’s got an incredible supporting cast with the likes of Isabel Jewell, H.B. Warner, Sam Jaffe, Jane Wyatt, Edward Everett Horton, and Thomas Mitchell. It’s simply a first-rate film in all respects.

China Seas 1935

China Seas (1935)

Alan Gaskell (Clark Gable) is a boat captain with a reputation for hard drinking, but that all changes during a voyage in which he finds himself on a boat with Sybil (Rosalind Russell), a former lover who is now a refined, high society woman. Well, at least he wants to change for her. But on board the same ship is China Doll (Jean Harlow), another one of Alan’s former lovers who still adores him. China is much less refined than Sybil and is more like the hard-drinking and fun-loving Alan.

When China sees Alan with Sybil, she becomes incredibly jealous. Things get even worse when China finds out Alan and Sybil plan to get married as soon as possible. She spends the night drinking with her friend Jamesy (Wallace Beery), and accidentally finds out Jamesy is working with some pirates to steal a large amount of gold that is being transported on the ship. Once Jamesy finds out that China knows what’s going on, he intimidates her into helping him. China tries to warn Alan, but he’s drunk and says hurtful things to her. Out of anger, she steals his key to the ship’s arsenal so the pirates will be able to hijack the ship.

China Seas is one of those movies that’s a bit formulaic, but I don’t mind that because I like the formula. It reminds me a lot of Red Dust in the sense that they’re both about a man (Gable) who has an unrefined woman (Harlow) in love with him, but he falls in love with a more upper class woman (Mary Astor in Red Dust and Rosalind Russell in China Seas), only China Seas takes place on a boat instead of a plantation. But unlike Red DustChina Seas was made while production codes were being enforced, so it lacks a lot of the incredible steam and innuendo that Red Dust had. But even with the production codes, Gable and Harlow are still a first-rate team and the movie itself is a nice mix of romance and adventure with very high production values. It might not be one of the absolute best movies either Harlow or Gable made, but it’s still really entertaining.

Pre-Code Essentials: Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Tarzan and His Mate Weissmuller O'Sullivan


Some time has passed since Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) gave up on civilization style to live in the African wilderness with Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and she couldn’t be happier with her new life. Some of Jane’s old friends miss her and when Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) and Marlin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh) return to Africa to find an elephant graveyard so they can collect their tusks, they also plan to return with Jane. They bring her some of the latest fashions, cosmetics, and music, and although Jane is happy to have a little taste of civilization again, she wants to stay with Tarzan.

Harry and Marlin are also hoping Tarzan can lead them to the fabled elephant graveyard, but when Tarzan learns they plan to take the tusks, he refuses to help. When Harry and Marlin go ahead to the elephant graveyard anyway, he arrives with a herd of live elephants to stop them; forcing them to give up the ivory. Unfortunately, Harry and Marlin aren’t willing to go down without a fight, but they fail to realize the kind of power Tarzan has on the other jungle inhabitants.

My Thoughts

Adventure movies aren’t always my cup of tea, but I do have a soft spot for the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series. Even some of the lesser Tarzan movies are still pretty entertaining. But Tarzan and His Mate is without a doubt one of the best of the series; I like it even more than Tarzan the Ape Man. It’s got plenty of action and excitement and is very fun to watch.

The Definitive Pre-Code Moment

Without a doubt, that distinction goes to Jane’s infamous nude swimming scene.

Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Some movies have one scene that is so infamous, that one scene alone is enough for them to be considered an essential pre-code. Just like Miriam Hopkins’ undressing scene made Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde an essential pre-code, Jane’s nude swimming scene puts Tarzan and His Mate in that same level of notoriety.

Although many people think Maureen O’Sullivan did her own swimming in that scene, Jane’s swimming skills can actually be credit to Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim. Quite famously, three different versions of this scene were filmed and sent out to different areas. Of course, there’s the version where Jane swims completely nude. In another version, Jane is topless, but has a bottom on, and in the third version, Jane swims in her usual outfit. The fully nude version of this scene wasn’t rediscovered until the 1990s and has since been restored.

As much attention as the nude swimming scene gets, Tarzan and His Mate is one of the few (if not the only) pre-codes I’ve ever seen that has gratuitous male undressing scenes in it.

Green Mansions (1959)

Green Mansions PosterAfter his father is killed by rebels, Abel (Anthony Perkins) heads into the Venezuelan wilderness to avenge his death and find a rumored cache of gold. Along the way, he encounters a tribe of natives and wins the respect of their chief Runi (Sessue Hayawaka) and his son Kua-Ko (Henry Silva). Abel is allowed to stay with the tribe, as long as he doesn’t hurt them. Kua-Ko warns Abel to stay out of a nearby jungle, which of course only makes Abel want to go explore them. While getting a drink at a pond, he catches a glimpse of a mysterious woman in the reflection.

When the tribe finds out that Abel has gone into the forbidden jungle, Runi wants Abel to go back to kill the woman. Instead, he goes back to warn her, but before he can, is bitten by a very poisonous snake. He awakens two days later to find himself being cared for by the mysterious woman, named Rima (Audrey Hepburn), and her grandfather Nuflo (Lee J. Cobb). Abel will need a few more days to fully recover, and while staying with Rima, who has been living in the jungle with her grandfather since she was a child. She shows him around the jungle and while he falls in love with her, Rima is confused by her feelings for him.

Abel returns to the tribe a few days later and after explaining that he couldn’t kill Rima, the tribe doesn’t believe him and Kua-Ko vows to kill her himself. Abel runs to warn Rima and Nuflo and together they flee, but along the way, Rima learns some upsetting truths about her grandfather and the childhood she longs to remember.

Oh, dear. I took a break from  the Every Simpsons Ever marathon on FXX for this? Green Mansions is just a mess of a movie. Anthony Perkins is one of the least believable adventurer types I have ever seen. He is woefully out of place here and his performance is as wooden as a lumber yard. Audrey Hepburn isn’t particularly good in it, either, which is hugely disappointing. There’s absolutely no chemistry between her and Perkins, the story wasn’t very interesting, and the whole thing just left me wishing I had spent those two hours watching something else.

Bird of Paradise (1932)

While sailing on a yacht in the South Seas, Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) and his friends meet a bunch of natives while sailing close to their island.  But when Johnny sees a shark swimming nearby, he tries to catch it, and is pulled overboard.  Luckily for him, a beautiful native girl named Luana (Dolores del Rio) dives in to save him.  There is an immediate attraction between them, but when Johnny and his friends spend an evening with the natives, he’s told that she’s supposed to marry a prince on a nearby island.

That doesn’t stop Johnny from pursing her, though, and she feels the same way toward him.  They sneak away to see each other during the night, but when Luana’s father finds out what’s going on, he forces her to marry that prince immediately.  When Johnny finds out what’s happening, he crashes the wedding and whisks her away to a nearby island.  They build some shelter and spend weeks basking in their own, private tropical paradise.

Even though they are blissfully happy on the island, Johnny would like to bring Luana home with him.  Before he can do that, though, the volcano Pele begins to erupt and Luana knows that she will soon have to be sacrificed to appease the volcano god.  Sure enough, it isn’t long before Luana is dragged back to her island for the sacrifice.  Johnny follows, but he’s captured and is set to be sacrificed alongside Luana.  Johnny’s friends arrive to rescue them just in the nick of time.  He still wants Luana to come home with him, but Luana believes it would be best if she allowed herself to be sacrificed to the volcano god.

Bird of Paradise is likeable, but it just didn’t grab my attention enough for me to get terribly invested in it.  However, it’s a very beautifully shot movie.  Even though it’s filmed in black and white so we don’t get to see any lush, tropical colors, King Vidor really captured the essence of this tropical paradise.  There’s one scene where Luana and Johnny go swimming together and Luana isn’t wearing anything.  At first, I thought it was very reminiscent of the infamous swimming scene from Tarzan and His Mate, but then I realized that Bird of Paradise actually pre-dates Tarzan and His Mate by two years.

Joel McCrea and Dolores del Rio are both certainly fun to watch, but the movie also has a some other noteworthy names working behind the scenes.  Bird of Paradise has the distinction of being the first sound film to have a full symphonic musical score, which was created by none other than Max Steiner.  Busby Berkeley, who was still an up-and-coming choreographer at the time, choreographed the film’s jungle dance scenes.  Less than a year after working on Bird of Paradise, Berkeley would move on to bigger and better things when he went to Warner Brothers and made 42nd Street.

Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)

When Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) finds out that some people working for a circus have come to his jungle to capture animals for their show, he warns them to leave.  They agree, although, Boy (Johnny Sheffield) is very curious about the airplane they came in and keeps trying to hang around it.  Just as the circus workers are about to go back to America, they see Boy near their plane.  Boy shows off some of the tricks he can get the animals to do, and one of the workers realizes that he’d be a great asset to the circus so he takes him to New York with them.  When Tarzan and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) find out where their plane was headed, they trade in some gold for new clothes and plane tickets and head on over to New York with Cheeta along for the ride.

Naturally, there are lots of opportunities for Tarzan to be confused by civilization and for Cheeta to wreak havoc.  They manage to find out where Boy is, but they have to go through the courts to get him back.  Tarzan and Jane are honest when questioned, but Tarzan doesn’t like it when Jane has to admit they aren’t Boy’s birth parents and decides to get Boy back his own way.  He jumps out the window and starts swinging between the skyscrapers and later ends up diving off the Brooklyn Bridge to get away from the police.  He makes his way back to the circus and nearly rescues Boy, but the circus workers trap him.  Tarzan and Boy manage to escape with some help from their animal friends and although the Judge sentences Tarzan to jail, he suspends the sentence, allowing the happy family to return to the jungle.

Tarzan’s New York Adventure is hardly great cinema, it’s not even the best of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies.  It’s completely silly and ridiculous, but I can’t help but have a soft spot for it just because it really makes me laugh.  Cheeta’s antics were pretty amusing and the scenes of Tarzan swinging his way through New York City were pretty cool.  Tarzan’s New York Adventure is noteworthy for being the last Tarzan film made at MGM and for being the last time Maureen O’Sullivan played Jane so this was a fun way for them to end their time with Tarzan.  Not quite as good as Tarzan, the Ape Man or Tarzan and His Mate, but  lots of fun nonetheless.

Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942)

After the death of his parents, Benjamin Blake (Roddy McDowall as a child, Tyrone Power as an adult) goes to live with his kind grandfather.  His father was the Baronet of Breetholm, but Benjamin doesn’t inherit the estate that is rightfully his.  Because of some debate over whether or not Benjamin was born in wedlock, it goes to his sadistic uncle Sir Arthur Blake (George Sanders) instead.  Arthur takes Benjamin away from his grandfather and forces him to become his bonded servant.  Benjamin considers running away with his grandfather, but decides to stay and lets his uncle’s torment fuel his ambition to reclaim his father’s estate.

Ten years pass and Benjamin is still a servant, but has also fallen in love with his cousin Isabel (Frances Farmer).  They want to get married, but Benjamin wants to wait until after he has proven the estate is his.  Isabel promises to wait for him, but Benjamin soon finds himself on the run from the law after he and Arthur get into a fight.  With some help from his grandfather, Benjamin manages to escape on a boat headed for the South Seas, but his grandfather winds up in jail for helping him.

On the ship, Benjamin proves to be quite the sailor and makes friends with fellow sailor Caleb Green (John Carradine).  Eventually, the two of them head off for an island where they find a fortune by diving for pearls.  Things get even better for Benjamin, who falls in love with a native girl named Eve (Gene Tierney).  He couldn’t be happier living on the island with Eve, but knows he must go home to clear his name and get his grandfather out of jail.

I saw Son of Fury for the first time recently after buying it on a whim.  I hadn’t even heard anything about it before then, but I just had a feeling about it and I’m so glad I took a chance on it.  It’s got adventure, it’s got drama, it’s got romance.  Although I do wish Gene Tierney and Frances Farmer had a little more to do, I loved Tyrone Power in it and George Sanders brought pure villainy to Sir Arthur Blake.  Roddy McDowall and Elsa Lanchester both make their small roles quite memorable.  The cinematography and score were also first-rate.  There’s nothing about it I didn’t thoroughly enjoy.  It’s a good thing I bought this movie because it’s one I’ll definitely want to watch again.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

About a year after the events of Tarzan the Ape Man, Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) returns to the African jungle with Martin Arlington to go back to the elephant graveyard to gather some ivory.  But Harry isn’t just hoping to go home with some ivory.  He’s still in love with Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and wants to convince her to come back with him.  In hopes of winning her over, he’s brought along lots of beautiful clothes, stockings, perfume, and records to remind her of all the things she’s missing back in civilization.

Since Harry has made the trip before, he knows one thing for sure — they won’t be able to make it to the elephant graveyard without help from Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller).  They set out on their expedition and naturally, it’s very treacherous.  Eventually they meet up with Tarzan and Jane and despite Jane very firmly insisting that she’ll never leave Tarzan, Harry tries winning her over anyway.  He shows her all the fashionable gowns he brought for her and although they are tempting, Jane has become too fond of jungle life and of Tarzan. The expedition continues and Tarzan is only too happy to help them along the way.  At least he is until he finds out that they’re planning to take ivory from the elephant graveyard.  After that, he wants nothing to do with them. But Martin is determined to get to that elephant graveyard and shoots one of Tarzan’s elephant friends, knowing it would go there to die so they could follow it. 

The plan works, but before they can take any of the ivory, Tarzan and Jane come charging in with a herd of elephants to put a stop to it.  To get him off their case, Martin and Harry say they won’t take any ivory with them when they leave, but the next day, Martin shoots Tarzan and leaves him for dead.  When Jane realizes Tarzan is missing, everyone searches for him, but can’t find him anywhere.  She can’t help but fear the worst when Martin tells her he’s dead.  With no other option, a heartbroken Jane starts to head back with the expedition party.  But along the way, Cheeta comes to tell Jane that Tarzan is still alive after all!  He had been found by some chimpanzees who nursed him back to health.  She goes to find him, but the expedition party is suddenly attacked by a native tribe.  Just when it looks like this is really the end for Jane, sure enough, Tarzan comes swinging in on a vine to rescue her.

Tarzan and His Mate is one of those rare sequels that is just as good, if not better, than the original.  It’s got all the action, adventure, and hilarious rear projection shots that made Tarzan, the Ape Man entertaining, but with even more risqué pre-code stuff.  There’s lots of innuendo between Jane, Harry, and Martin.  Maureen O’Sullivan spends most of the movie wearing next to nothing, or in one memorable scene, nothing at all. Surprisingly, for once, the skimpy outfits and gratuitous undressing aren’t only for the women.  Johnny Weissmuller isn’t wearing very much either and early in the film, there’s a gratuitous shot of a man getting undressed and sitting in a bath.  This is my favorite of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films.  Anything after this one is a little hit or miss, but Tarzan, the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate are the two Tarzan movies most worth seeing.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

When Bonnie Lee’s (Jean Arthur) boat docks in Barranca, she gets off the boat thinking she’ll just be in town for the night.  But when she meets American pilots Joe (Noah Beery, Jr.) and Les (Allyn Joslyn), she’s happy to meet some fellow Americans and starts spending the evening with them.  The three of them stop into a bar, but then an order comes in that one of them has to fly out with some mail.  It’s very foggy that night, but their boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is trying to land a mail delivery contract for his airline and has to stay on schedule for six months.  It’s decided that Joe must make the trip, but once he gets a ways out, they decide that it’s too dangerous for him to continue and is ordered to turn around.  When he gets back, he can’t see the runway to land.  Carter orders him to stay up until the fog clears, but he doesn’t listen and tries to land anyway.  He hits a tree on his way down, crashes, and dies.

Bonnie is deeply affected by Joe’s sudden death and is rather disturbed by the cold, distant attitude Carter seems to have about the incident.  But when some of the other pilots explain that they understand the risks of the job and that casualties are just a fact of life to them, she softens up toward Carter.  The two of them have a wonderful night together, drinking, singing, and playing the piano.  She even starts to fall in love with him!  Carter is attracted to her, too, but he’s had a bad experience with a woman that’s put him off the idea of love.  Plus he doesn’t want to give up flying and knows a lot of women couldn’t handle being married to a pilot.  Their evening is suddenly interrupted when Carter has to leave to deliver that mail.  Bonnie’s next boat is due to leave before he’d be back, but she decides at the last minute to skip the boat and stay in town for another week.  Carter is very surprised to find her waiting when he gets back, but not in a good way.  Bonnie feels stupid for having stayed, but she sticks around anyway.

But Carter is in for an even bigger surprise when Bat MacPherson (Richard Barthelmess) and his wife Judy (Rita Hayworth) suddenly arrive.  Bat’s come to town under an assumed name because he’s had a bad reputation in the flying world ever since he bailed out of a plane and left his mechanic to die.  The mechanic that died happened to be fellow pilot Kid’s (Thomas Mitchell) brother.  Carter immediately recognizes him and is hesitant to hire him at first.  The other pilots don’t want him there, but they really need the help and Bat is assigned to the most dangerous flights.  Not only that, but it turns out Bat’s wife Judy is the same woman who broke Carter’s heart.  Meanwhile, even though Carter had hurt Bonnie earlier, she continues to fall in love with him.  But after seeing one of his flights nearly go horribly wrong, she really begins to question whether or not she could handle being married to a pilot.  Then the time comes time to make the final delivery to get that mail contract.  Carter had planned to make the treacherous flight himself, but before he can leave, Bonnie accidentally shoots him in the arm and he can’t go.

Bat and Kid make the trip in his place.  When they realize they can’t fly as high as they need to, they’re told to turn around.  But on the way back, a bird hits the windshield and breaks Kid’s neck.  The plane also catches on fire and Kid tells Bat to go ahead and parachute out of the plane.  But this time, Bat is determined to not leave his companion and the two go down with the plane.  Kid doesn’t make it, but Bat survives and earns the respect of his fellow pilots.  By then, Bonnie is ready to catch her boat and move on.  When she goes to say goodbye to Carter, he gets word that the weather is clearing and he starts rushing to make that mail delivery.  But before he leaves, he tells Bonnie they should flip a coin to decide if she stays or not.  She doesn’t want to decide anything so glibly, but then she realizes he’s flipping a two-headed coin.

Even though adventure movies aren’t typically among my favorite movies, I really enjoyed Only Angels Have Wings.  I really liked that it managed to find a balance between being an action film and a romance without feeling like two different movies got stuck together.  And the best part is that both parts are carried out equally well.  Plus the cast is fantastic!  Of course, I like Cary Grant in just about anything, but I really loved him and Jean Arthur together here.  I mostly know Richard Barthelmess from his silent films and a handful of his pre-codes, so it was nice to see him in this.  This was one of Rita Hayworth’s first substantial roles.  She doesn’t have a particularly big part, but she made herself noticeable and this movie really helped her career.  And to top it all off, it’s got superb direction from Howard Hawks!  All in all, an excellent movie.