A Pirate’s Life For Me!: THE SPANISH MAIN (RKO 1945)

Today we celebrate the birthday of classic actor Paul Henreid (1908-1992)  

THE SPANISH MAIN is one of those films where the acting is cranked up to 11 and tongues are held firmly in cheek. That’s not a bad thing; this is a fun, fast-paced romp that doesn’t require much thinking, a colorful piece of mind candy that doesn’t take itself too seriously and features a great cast. It’s not what you’d normally expect from director Frank Borzage, usually associated with weightier matters like 7TH HEAVEN, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, STRANGE CARGO , and THE MORTAL STORM. Maybe after all that heavy drama, the veteran needed to lighten up a bit!

Paul Henreid  stars as our hero Laurent Van Horn, a Dutch captain whose ship is wrecked in the Caribbean waters near Cartagena. The Spanish Viceroy there, Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak ), is a tyrant who holds the captain and his crew as slaves to the Spanish Crown. Van Horn is imprisoned with the Brit Gow (J.M. Kerrigan), Frenchman Paree (Henreid’s CASABLANCA costar Curt Bois), and the mute brute Swaine (Mike Mazurki ). The four men escape, and terrorize the Caribbean with Van Horn becoming the notorious pirate known as The Barracuda!

The Contessa Francesca (Maureen O’Hara, in all her gorgeous Technicolor glory!) sails from Mexico to wed Alvarado sight unseen in a political marriage. Van Horn, disguised as her ship’s navigator, meets her and of course they don’t get along at first… Francesca even demands he be whipped for his insolence! The Barracuda’s ship attacks and commandeers the Mexican ship, with Francesca forced to marry Van Horn so a passing ship will be spared of another raid. Van Horn plans to ransom off Francesca, The Bishop, and her duennas, but once they reach the pirate stronghold of Tortuga, The Brotherhood of the Pirates, led by Van Horn’s treacherous mate Du Billar (John Emery), plot to get rid of her, and turn Van Horn over to the wicked Viceroy…

Henreid makes a dashing hero, and Maureen’s a feisty heroine. The pair have good chemistry, and both would sail the seas in more buccaneer movies to come. Slezak gives a broad performance as the evil Viceroy, Barton MacLane has a field day as Henreid’s rival pirate Captain Benjy Black, but for me bawdy Binnie Barnes (shown above) steals the show as the rowdy female pirate Anne Bonny, who fights like a wildcat and gets to indulge in some swordplay herself! There are plenty of other Familiar Faces sailing over the bounding main: Nancy Gates, Brandon Hurst, Ian Keith, Tom Kennedy, Victor Kilian, James Kirkwood, Jack LaRue , Fritz Leiber Sr., Antonio Moreno , Dan Seymour (another CASABLANCA alum), and Leo White.

The screenplay by George Worthington Yates and Herman Mankiewicz contains plenty of exciting action, romance, and witty lines for the players to deliver, all of whom look like they’re having a ball with the material. THE SPANISH MAIN is harmless juvenile fun, and was one of many movies that (at least according to IMDb) inspired Walt Disney to create his Pirates of The Caribbean attraction, which in turn spawned the whole Johnny Depp/PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise. It may not be the greatest swashbuckler of all time, but it sure fills the bill on a rainy afternoon. Get the popcorn ready, turn off your mind, and have some fun with THE SPANISH MAIN!


All for One, Fun for All: AT SWORD’S POINT (RKO 1952)

France in 1648 is in upheaval: Cardinal Richelieu has passed away, the Queen is ill, and evil Duc de Lavelle is plotting to usurp the crown by forcing a marriage to Princess Henriette and murder young Prince Louis. The Queen summons the only persons that can help: her trusted Musketeers! But the quartet have either grown old or died, and in their stead come their equal-to-the-task children, Cornel Wilde (D’Artagnon Jr.), Dan O’Herlihy (Aramis Jr.), Alan Hale Jr (Porthos Jr.), and – Maureen O’Hara , daughter of Athos!!

AT SWORD’S PONT isn’t a great movie, but it is a fairly entertaining one, with lots of flashing swordplay, leaping about, cliffhanging perils, and narrow escapes. It kind of plays like a Saturday matinee serial, and there’s a lot of fun to be had, with Cornel Wilde a dashing D’Artagnon Jr, O’Herlihy a competent second fiddle, and Hale doing his usual good-natured lug thing. But it’s marvelous Maureen who kept me captivated throughout, her flaming red hair streaming as she battles side by side with the male Musketeers. She’s no slouch with that sword either; Maureen could buckle her swash with the best of ’em! 

The backstory behind the making of AT SWORD’S POINT may actually be more interesting than the movie itself. Republic first announced it would make the film in 1947, based on a screenplay by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen. It ended up being filmed two years later at RKO, then sat on the shelf another two years. When it was finally released, Walter Ferris and Joseph Hoffman got the screenwriting credits, with Wisberg and Pollexfen credited for the story only. By this point I’m sure they didn’t care, having moved on to form their own Mid Century Productions, making low budget flicks from 1951’s MAN FROM PLANET X to 1961’s SECRET OF MONTE CRISTO. Why the movie sat so long is unclear; no doubt notoriously meddling RKO boss Howard Hughes had something to do with that!

The supporting cast offers fine performances from Gladys Cooper as Queen Anne and Blanche Yurka as tavern keeper and Musketeer aide Madame Michom. Robert Douglas makes a hissable villain, Nancy Gates a regal Princess, and Familiar Faces Tanis Chandler, Tris Coffin, Holmes Herbert, Lucien Litlefield, and Phil Van Zandt pop up as well. Director Lewis Allen has some good films on his resume (THE UNINVITED, SO EVIL MY LOVE, CHICAGO DEADLINE, SUDDENLY ), and keeps the action running along swiftly. Roy Webb’s jaunty main theme sounded suspiciously familiar to me – compare it to John Williams’ theme from 1978’s SUPERMAN and judge for yourselves!

AT SWORD’S POINT is an ‘A’ film in intent, but ‘B’ in execution. It’s hardly a classic of the swashbuckler genre, but it has it’s moments and can certainly be enjoyed on a mindless level. The bold Technicolor helps give it a big budget sheen, Maureen is both lovely and dangerous, Wilde is a heroic D’Artagnon, and it’s all harmless fun. It’s light and breezy and if you’ve got an hour and a half to spare, by all means give it a shot.


First Shot Fired: THE DEADLY COMPANIONS (Pathe’-America 1961)


Maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah got his start in television, writing and directing for Westerns such as GUNSMOKE, THE RIFLEMAN, and HAVE GUN- WILL TRAVEL. In 1959, he created the series THE WESTERNER, starring Brian Keith as a drifter named Dave Blassingame, noted for its extreme (for the time) violence. When Keith was cast as the lead in THE DEADLY COMPANIONS, he suggested his friend Peckinpah as director. This was Peckinpah’s first feature film, and the result is a flawed but interesting film which has brief flourishes of the style he later perfected in THE WILD BUNCH and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.


Keith is again a drifter, this time an ex-Union soldier known only as Yellowleg. He hooks up with a pair of Southern outlaws and they ride to Hila City to rob the bank. They get sidetracked at the saloon when it converts into a church service. Next thing you know, some robbers beat them to the punch in robbing the bank, leading to a shootout. Yellowleg accidentally kills the young son of redheaded dance hall girl Kit, played by none other than Maureen O’Hara (whose brother Charles Fitzsimons was the film’s producer).


Kit is determined to bury her son in Siringo, located across hostile Apache territory. Yellowleg, feeling guilty, offers to help, but is spurned by Kit. Nevertheless, he and his companions Billy and Turkey, follow along. Billy, who noticed Kit at the barroom sermon, has sexual designs on Kit, who wants no part of him. Yellowleg catches Billy in a rape attempt and, after a fight, sends him away. Turkey, who’s not right in the head, goes with his pal, and Yellowleg and Kit are left to cross the desert alone, battling the heat, the Apaches, and each other.


Peckinpah plays on his theme of misfits banded together, working from A.S. Fleischman’s screenplay (based on his own novel). Yellowleg has a bum arm, and never takes his hat off, hiding a deep, dark secret. A Rebel soldier once attempted to scalp him, and revenge has fueled him for the past five years. Kit, a prostitute with a bastard son, has been ostracized by the women of Hila City. The only thing she ever truly loved was the boy, now shot dead by Yellowleg. Billy (Steve Cochran) is a good-looking man with a lustful dark side. Chill Wills turns in the best performance as Turkey, an unrepentant criminal who dreams of setting up his own little empire. He’s crazier than a loon, and twice as dangerous. It doesn’t take much to figure out it was Turkey who attempted to scalp Yellowleg during the Civil War.


The trademark Peckinpah violence is there, not nearly as gory as what was to come, but probably shocking for 1961. The movie’s Arizona locations are vividly filmed by DP William Clothier , noted for his work with John Wayne and John Ford, together and separately. The problem laid in a choppy script, which slowed the film down. Peckinpah demanded script control from then on, and his next film, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, proved him right. It’s now considered a Western classic, while many critics dismiss THE DEADLY COMPANIONS. It’s worth watching for a look at what the director could accomplish on a low-budget. The four lead actor’s all shine (Maureen even sings the film’s mournful title song!), and Strother Martin and Will Wright offer strong support in minor roles. THE DEADLY COMPANIONS doesn’t get much recognition, but for fans of Sam Peckinpah, it’s required viewing to see the beginning of a controversial but brilliant career.


Thieves and Cutthroats: Alfred Hitchcock’s JAMAICA INN (Renown 1939)


Critics weren’t kind to JAMAICA INN when it first appeared in 1939, and the film is still unappreciated today. Many consider this Alfred Hitchcock’s worst movie, and those scoundrels the Medved brothers included it in their book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time”. I take a different view, and though it may not be top-notch Hitchcock, it still has The Master’s touch, along with an entertainingly over-the-top performance by Charles Laughton, and a star-making turn by the late Maureen O’Hara. I can think of hundreds of worst ways to spend your cinematic time than giving JAMAICA INN another look. In fact, I can think of far worse Hitchcock (anyone out there remember MARNIE or FAMILY PLOT?)


Young Mary Yellen (O’Hara) arrives in the coastal town of Cornwall in 1819 to live with her aunt after the recent death of her mother. The coach carrying her refuses to stop near Jamaica Inn, stranding her miles away (in a scene reminiscent of Renfield’s trip to Castle Dracula). Mary walks up to the stately home of Sir Humphrey Pengallon (Laughton), the local squire. The portly, charming Sir Humphrey accompanies her to the Inn, where she encounters Aunt Patience’s sadistic, lusty husband Joss Merlyn. Through a crack in the floorboards, Mary discovers Joss is the leader of a band of pirates, “thieves, smugglers, and cutthroats”, who are planning on hanging suspected traitor Treherne. Mary cuts him down from the rafters and the two make their getaway to Pengallon’s estate. Unbeknownst to the pair, Pengallon is in cahoots with Joss and his murderous bunch, the brains behind the outfit, and quite mad to boot! Deceiving Mary and Treherne (who’s in reality a member of the Royal Navy sent to investigate the wreckers) at first, Pengallon shows his true colors and attempts to flee with Mary in tow. Can the madman be stopped in time?


Charles Laughton and Alfred Hitchcock butted heads (and egos) making this film. The original Daphne DuMaurier story had Pengallon as a preacher, but Laughton had it changed and demanded more screen time. Hitchcock balked, but since Laughton was producer of the film, he got his way. Laughton’s Pengallon is at turns coy and cruel, bellowing at his manservant, charming with Mary, and mincing about to his own tune. Hitchcock and author DuMaurier weren’t pleased with the changes, but it’s a grand performance by a grand actor and he dominates very scene he’s in. Laughton got his way, but it’s still unmistakably a Hitchcock film. The suspense is taut (even though Pengallon’s role as pirate leader is revealed early on), and the camera angles and use of sound have that distinctive Hitchcock touch. This was Sir Alfred’s last British film before moving to Hollywood to work with producer David O. Selznick on classics like REBECCA and SUSPICION, and an enduring career as The Master of Suspense. I do have one regret about JAMAICA INN, however…there’s no Hitchcock cameo!


Maureen O’Hara had done two small film roles before Laughton gave her this break, for which the film world should be eternally grateful. Nineteen year old Maureen gives a fine performance as Mary, and travelled with Laughton later that year to costar in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, zooming her to Hollywood stardom and a long, rich film career. There are some great British character actors on hand, chief among them Leslie Banks (Joss), the evil hunter Count Zaroff in the 1932 horror classic THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. Banks appeared in Hitchcock’s 1934 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and with Lawrence Olivier in HENRY V. Emlyn Williams plays the whistling pirate Harry. Williams was featured in THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, MAJOR BARBARA, and THE MAGIC BOX, but gained more fame as a playwright, whose stage productions include NIGHT MUST FALL and THE CORN IS GREEN.



Hero Jem Treherne is actor Robert Newton, who was more well-known for his screen villainy. Newton was Bill Sykes in David Lean’s 1948 OLIVER TWIST and Inspector Javert in the 1952 LES MISERABLES. But he’ll be forever remembered as Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 production of TREASURE ISLAND. Whenever you hear someone doing that “Arrgh, me bucko” imitation pirate-talk, you’re hearing Newton! After playing another famous buccaneer in 1952’s BLACKBEARD THE PIRATE, Newton returned to his most famous role for a sequel, LONG JOHN SILVER (1954), and then portrayed the salty sea dog in a syndicated 1955 TV series. The British star died a year later of acute alcoholism.


JAMAICA INN isn’t a bad film; in fact, I like it a lot. Behind the scenes squabbles and critical brickbats aside, I think it’s a fine showcase for Charles Laughton, a good look at early Maureen O’Hara, and uses that signature Hitchcock style to its advantage. My suggestion to you Dear Readers is simple: watch it and judge for yourselves.


Irish Eyes Are Smiling: THE QUIET MAN (Republic 1952)


With the passing of screen legend Maureen O’Hara today, I’ve decided to put aside my Halloween Havoc! series this evening to take a look at one of my favorite Maureen movies, THE QUIET MAN. Paired once again with John Wayne and director John Ford, Maureen shines as Mary Kate Danneher, a feisty, hot tempered colleen who refuses to honor her marriage vows until she gets her “fortune” from brutish brother Red Will Danneher (perennial big lug Victor McLaglen). Mostly filmed in Ireland by Winton Hoch, the countryside scenery is breathtaking in vivid Technicolor, with Maureen radiant as ever.


The story concerns American ex-boxer Sean Thornton (Wayne), returning to his Emerald Isle birthplace of Innisfree after accidentally killing an opponent in the ring. When he first sets eyes on Mary Kate herding sheep, he’s immediately smitten. Sean buys his family homestead from the Widow Tillane (Mildred Natwick), outbidding Danneher, who knows how to hold a grudge (he has his flunky Feeny write every slight down in a notebook). Sean wants to wed Mary Kate but Will holds back his consent, a custom Sean’s not too fond of, so the locals convince Danneher that Widow Tillane will marry him if he gets Mary Kate out of the house. Sean and Mary Kate get hitched, but when Danneher finds out he’s been duped, he withholds his sister’s “fortune”, consisting of furniture, fine china, and 350 pounds in gold. Mary Kate won’t consummate the marriage without her fortune, and thinks Sean’s a coward for not demanding it from her brother. When she finally gives in, and Sean still refuses to fight for her dowry, she leaves him, heading for the train to Dublin. Having had enough, Sean retrieves her then drags her to Danneher, followed by the whole town. Danneher gives up the money, and the couple throw it in the incinerator, infuriating Red Will. The two finally get into a rollicking fight (one of the longest in screen history, lasting nearly ten minutes) and Sean emerges victorious. The two brothers-in-law, now totally soused, march to the Thornton cottage singing “The Wild Colonial Boy”, and Sean and Mary Kate live happily ever after in this cleverly crafted Irish fairy tale


There are so many great scenes in this film, including that now-classic battle royal. Sean and Mary Kate escaping their chaperone Micheline (the one and only Barry Fitzgerald), running through lush green fields and getting caught in a rainstorm, is one of the most romantic in movies. Ford won his fourth and final Oscar for directing this gem, and Hoch took home the statue for his cinematography. The score by Victor Young, peppered with Irish folk tunes, should’ve won (Dmitri Tiompkin got the win for HIGH NOON). The cast is perfect, with Duke giving a restrained performance as the ex-patriate. McLaglen is his boisterous self as Danneher, Fitzgerald plays his role like a leprauchan, and the rest of the ensemble (Ward Bond, Arthur Shields, Jack MacGowan, Sean McClory) add to the authenticity. THE QUIET MAN is somewhat of a family affair, with director Ford’s brother Francis taking part, Wayne’s children featured in the horseracing segment, and Maureen’s brothers Charles Fitzsimons and James O’Hara in supporting roles.


Maureen O’Hara herself is marvelous as the coquettish yet headstrong Mary Kate, a role made for her talents. She was never lovelier than in THE QUIET MAN, even more so in gorgeous Technicolor. This is one of my favorite films, and no one else could’ve played Mary Kate but Maureen O’Hara. The woman is gone now, but her movies will live on for as long as there are classic film lovers, and we pass them down to the next generation. Here’s to you, Maureen:

“May your glass be ever full – May the roof over your head ever be strong – And may you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead!”

This is Your Life, Maureen O’Hara! (1957)


And what a life it was! Maureen O’Hara, the most beautiful actress to ever grace the Silver Screen (in my opinion), passed away today at age 95. Star of such Hollywood classics as THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, and of course THE QUIET MAN, Maureen was featured in this rare 1957 edition of TV’s THIS IS YOUR LIFE. I’ll be taking a break from my ‘Halloween Havoc’ series to polish up my post on THE QUIET MAN, which I was going to save for St. Patrick’s Day. Until then, enjoy Maureen and some surprise guests with Ralph Edwards on THIS IS YOUR LIFE:

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