pirate movie

Feathering the Nest

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Think how profoundly we all have been impacted by the cellular telephone. A generation is growing up that knows nothing about the “phone booth” or telephones in your house that used to be tethered to walls. What? It’s all part of the march of technology, and as I sat and watched Errol Flynn’s 1952 pirate picture, Against All Flags, last night, I thought most of all about technology and how it brought about pictures like this one.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

What red-blooded lad could resist this art announcing another pirate picture hitting port soon? Many a dad also felt the call of this particular brotherhood of buccaneers

There’s a lot to like about Against All Flags, which has the look and feel of a big-budget picture the way Universal International made them at the time, and they made them that way at that time because of the impact of television. Movies had to keep being bigger and better to lure people out of their homes because in 1952, families could suddenly sit at home while metal antennas pulled broadcast signals out of thin air and allowed people to watch grainy black-and-white images on television for free. You didn’t have to get dressed up and haul the brood to a theater with all its related expenses at the concession stand. You could lounge at home and be entertained.

In Against All Flags, Errol Flynn is a British naval officer who goes undercover to bust up a band of pirates. How could any kid not find this to be a disagreeable plot since Hollywood pirates were always attractive, well-costumed rule-breakers—every boy’s dream of the way life should play out. Anyway, here’s Flynn undercover and since he is Errol Flynn the script tosses out a lot of innuendo, playing on his bad-boy reputation with the ladies, lines that came oh-so-close to being snagged by the censors but never quite crossed the line.

The key gag in the picture is that a virginal Indian princess, age about 16, falls for Flynn on first sight and after an innocent Flynn kiss to quiet her, she spends the second half the picture puckering up and exclaiming with youthful enthusiasm, “Again!” She’s young and willing as portrayed by 19-year-old brunette Alice Kelley, and the tailoring of the subplot says something about how Flynn swashbucklers were constructed at this time. They traded on his reputation as a swordsman in more ways than one and offered sexual morsels in vivid Technicolor that television couldn’t begin to rival.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

What you couldn’t see on TV in 1952: flesh-baring, under-aged girls throwing themselves at Errol Flynn, in Technicolor yet. Or does Spitfire want the wench for herself? Alice Kelley broadcasts raw sexual desire for the bad boy as Maureen O’Hara and Mildred Natwick look on.

There’s a big-three starring here, including Flynn, Maureen O’Hara, and Anthony Quinn, who cuts a fine figure as “Captain Roc” in his black headscarf. And how many of these pictures did Maureen O’Hara make? Here she plays buccaneer Spitfire Stevens in a man’s clothes and fetching leather hip boots and does so with credibility. Am I the only one who sees a hint or two of masculinity in everything about her? How else could she carry and wield a sword as if she could hold her own in a duel and actually hurt somebody? Plus the androgynous nature of her character gives a kinky undertone to dialogue about ownership and uses of a slave girl—television certainly wasn’t offering such suggestive fare.

Maureen O’Hara was smart enough to follow the money wherever it led, including many a swashbuckler, and feathered her nest in these sweet Universal International profit participation deals. It was a setup that Carole Lombard had dreamed up for herself in 1941 with To Be or Not to Be; had she lived past 1942, she would have blazed this trail as an independent for the remainder of the decade.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Hmmm, who to root for…Flynn the undercover do-gooder or Quinn the minding-his-own-business pirate?

In the early 1950s, Universal International managed to thrive on this setup in the ongoing war between the studios and upstart television. UI turned out lush Technicolor offerings that drew top stars like Errol Flynn and Maureen O’Hara specifically because they knew that black ink was likely and they would be getting a cut.

It doesn’t matter that Against All Flags frays long before the last reel and becomes just another loud and mindless pirate picture. I admire the pluck of the studio, the writers, and the stars for managing to turn out product more than 60 years ago that maintains enough sass for a Friday night primetime broadcast run on Turner Classic Movies/U.S. In this case, the dreaded medium, television, is taking a moment to salute a one-time enemy that only went down after one hell of a fight.