On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: Errol Flynn in THE SEA HAWK (Warner Brothers 1940)

Warner Brothers pulled out all the stops for their 1940 epic THE SEA HAWK. There’s dashing Errol Flynn swashbuckling his way across the Silver Screen once again, the proverbial cast of thousands, high seas action, romance, political intrigue, superb special effects, and a spirited score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The only thing missing that could’ve possibly made this movie better is Technicolor, but since Jack and his bros had already spent $1.7 million (equivalent to almost thirty million today) to produce it, why quibble?

Flynn is in fine form as privateer Geoffrey Thorpe, captain of the pirate ship Albatross, in service to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I. When they attack and plunder a Spanish ship carrying Ambassador Don Alvarez de Cordoba and his beautiful niece Maria, Captain Thorpe is reprimanded and told to lay off the Spanish. Spain, however, is building up their Armada with world conquest in mind, and Don Alvarez has been sent to conspire with the traitorous Lord Wolfingham. Thorpe and his crew have a plan to attack the Spaniards on land in The New World where they’re looting Native gold to finance their plot for domination. The Queen tells him no officially, but off the record gives Thorpe the okay. This leads Thorpe and company into a trap, captured, and sentenced by Spain to life imprisonment as Spanish galley slaves.

Of course Thorpe, being Errol Flynn and all, hatches an escape plan, and he and his men take over the Spanish ship after learning the Armada is headed for England. The valiant Thorpe returns to the motherland and engages in a deadly swordfight with Wolfingham, an action scene that rivals Flynn’s duel to the death with Basil Rathbone in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD . Flynn is quite the handsome rogue in this one, although the kicker here is he’s shy around women! An in-joke, to be sure! Anyway, he wins the hand of the fair Maria before returning to sea and his swashbuckling ways.

Beautiful Brenda Marshall plays Maria, at first repelled by Flynn’s buccaneer ways but soon falling for him. Miss Marshall starred in some memorable films (CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS, THE CONSTANT NYMPH, BACKGROUND TO DANGER), but her screen career lasted a mere five years. She retired after becoming Mrs. William Holden. Claude Rains lends his villainous presence to the part of the unctuous Don Alvarez. His co-conspirator Lord Wolfingham is none other than Henry Daniell, one of the screen’s great villains (CAMILLE, JANE EYRE, THE BODY SNATCHER ). Daniell is noted for his appearances in three Sherlock Holmes films, including a turn as Professor Moriarty in THE WOMAN IN GREEN. Flora Robson interprets Queen Elizabeth I a bit differently than Bette Davis in THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX (also starring Flynn); her speech at film’s end rallying her subjects to fight against the enemy is a not-so-subtle plea against German aggression in those days before U.S. involvement in World War II.

Other cast members are burly Alan Hale Sr. as Thorpe’s second in command Pitt, Una O’Connor as Maria’s servant, Gilbert Roland as Spanish Captain Lopez, and a veritable Who’s Who of Familiar Faces: David Bruce , Edgar Buchanan , Clyde Cook, Donald Crisp , Pedro de Cordoba, Ian Keith , J.M. Kerrigan, Frank Lackteen, Jack LaRue, Montagu Love, William Lundigan, Lester Matthews , Gerald Mohr, Nestor Paiva, Jay Silverheels , James Stephenson, Victor Varconi , and others too numerous to mention. It seems like everyone who wasn’t employed at the time took part in this one except Rin Tin Tin!

Master storyteller Michael Curtiz directs the film, his tenth and last with Flynn in five short years. Though the two weren’t exactly best buds (to put it mildly), their films together are among Hollywood’s finest. Korngold’s majestic score is certainly among the greats as well, adding to the pageantry and spectacle. Special effects were handled by Byron Haskin (later the director of WAR OF THE WORLDS) and Hans Koenekamp (THE BEAST WITH FIVE FINGERS ), and for 1940 they’re pretty damn good! Howard Koch and Seaton Miller wrote the screenplay, and knew just when to insert some comedy or heat up the action. I’d love to see THE SEA HAWK on the big screen, as it was meant to be seen, but if I have to settle for the comfort of my living room, I’m okay with that, too. It’s one of the grandest of entertainments produced during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and one you definitely need to keep an eye out for!

Halloween Havoc!: THE SMILING GHOST (Warner Brothers 1941)

A mysterious killer stalks his prey in an old, dark house! Sound familiar? Sure, the formula has been around since Lon Chaney Sr. first crept his way through 1925’s THE MONSTER, and was perfected in the 1927 horror comedy THE CAT AND THE CANARY. THE SMILING GHOST, a 1941 variation on the venerable theme, doesn’t add anything new to the genre, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion with a solid cast courtesy of the Warner Brothers Stock Company of contract players and a swift 71-minute running time.

Lucky Downing, a somewhat dimwitted chemical engineer heavily in debt to his creditors, answers a newspaper ad for a male willing to do “anything legal’ for a thousand bucks. Rich Mrs. Bentley explains the job is to get engaged to her granddaughter, Elinor Bentley Fairchild, for a month. Smelling easy money, and a way out of the hole, Lucky and his best friend/valet Clarence take a train to the countryside to meet Elinor.

What Mrs. Bentley hasn’t explained to Lucky is that Elinor is the infamous “Kiss of Death Girl”, whose three previous fiances have all met with disaster. The first drowned and the third was bitten by a cobra “on the 18th floor of a Boston hotel”. The second, Paul Myron, is in an iron lung due to a car accident, and is working with plucky girl reporter (is there any other kind in these films?) Lil Barstow to prove victim #1 is the undead “Smiling Ghost”. Elinor’s family is your basic motley crew of eccentrics, including Great-Uncle Ames, a collector of shrunken heads who develops an interest in Clarence!

There’s sliding panels, secret passageways, and a masked killer roaming around, all the ingredients necessary for “old, dark house” fun. The script by Kenneth Garrett and Stuart Palmer is geared more towards humor than horror, though there’s a few atmospheric scenes staged by director Lewis Seiler , including one in a fog-shrouded graveyard. There’s also an innovative scene with Paul Myron in his iron lung talking to Lucky and Lil , his face reflected in the mirror,  well shot by DP Arthur L. Todd, whose career stretched from 1917 until his death in 1942.

Wayne Morris (KID GALAHAD, BROTHER RAT) does his good-natured lug act as Lucky, and he’s delightful. Ingenue Alexis Smith (THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS) has one of her earliest credited roles as Elinor. Brenda Marshall (THE SEA HAWK, THE CONSTANT NYMPH) gets the plucky reporter part, David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL , LADY ON A TRAIN) is Paul, Lee Patrick (THE MALTESE FALCON, GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE) is a cousin, Charles Halton (TO BE OR NOT TO BE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is the creepy Grand-Uncle, and brawny Alan Hale Sr. (ROBIN HOOD’s Little John) gets to show off his comic talents as Norton the butler.

Wonderful Willie Best plays Clarence, whose relationship with Lucky is more as a pal than a servant. Mr. Best was a black comedian who no less than Bob Hope once called “the greatest actor I know”. Willie’s from the Mantan Moreland school of acting, meaning he was usually typecast as a superstitious, “feets don’t fail me now” stereotype, and this film’s no different. However, Best’s comic timing was impeccable, and he and Morris make a great duo. Unfortunately billed as “Sleep’n’Eat” early in his career, the actor brightened many a 30’s & 40’s film with his talent. Equally unfortunate, a 1951 drug bust made him unemployable. Gale Storm , who knew Willie from her Monogram days, gave him steady work as Charlie the elevator operator in her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE, and had nothing but good things to say about his professionalism. Ostracized by the black community during the civil rights movement, forgotten by Hollywood, and reduced to making his living selling weed and women, Willie Best, one of Hollywood’s first recognizable black stars, died of cancer in 1962 at the young age of 45.

THE SMILING GHOST is silly fun, and won’t scare anyone under the age of ten, just an  “old, dark house” mystery done by some seasoned pros that knew their business when it came to making quick ‘B’ movies. Sometimes I like these ”second features” better than the more prestigious films produced at the time. This one’s definitely worth a look.

 

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