The Buccaneer (1938) by matthew c. hoffman

Washington burning… The White House aflame… The enemy at our doorstep… and the fate of a young nation in the hands of a French smuggler with a bounty on his head.

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The Buccaneer is a change of pace from what we are used to seeing in Crossed Swords. In place of European castles and sea battles, we’re in the bayous of Louisiana. Instead of classic literature, our story comes from the pages of American history. It’s not your typical swashbuckler, but ironically, it’s the first in the series where we see that staple of so many pirate movies: walking the plank. A film that incorporates our history as well as grand spectacle should come as no surprise that it was directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille.

Though based on the life of French pirate Jean Lafitte, there is a good deal of fiction at work. DeMille wasn’t about to let history get in the way of a good story. For instance, the treaty ending the War of 1812 had already been signed by the time the Battle of New Orleans takes place in this film, but that would’ve robbed the film of its drama. We can forgive this cinematic license because DeMille exploits a fascinating time in our country’s history, and I can think of no other film with the War of 1812 as a backdrop. The Buccaneer is an entertaining adventure with a great pace that makes you forget it’s 124 minutes.

Fredric March as Jean Lafitte was never a swashbuckler like the other actors in this program, though he had appeared with sword in hand in films like The Affairs of Cellini and Anthony Adverse. I’ve never seen Fredric March give a bad performance no matter what was expected of him. Perhaps his French accent is an issue to some critics, but he makes the part more interesting with it. (In fact, March had worked with a Frenchman to perfect the accent he used.)

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For Jean Lafitte, with his curly hair and pencil-thin mustache, he brings the sort of bravado that is expected of the character. March essentially “plays pirate” with a sometimes over-the-top eagerness to become respectable, such as the scene in which he’s waving the American flag on the shore amidst the cannon fire. Respectability—motivated by a woman’s love—is the basis for his desire to help the Americans—at least, in the DeMille version of history. Cecil B. DeMille had worked with Fredric March in 1932’s The Sign of the Cross, so he knew he had cast the right actor to convey what he wanted onscreen. Years after The Buccaneer, DeMille would write, “Fredric March made a dashing and completely believable Lafitte, a man of curiously mingled ruthlessness and honor, a vagabond of the high seas who wanted desperately to be rooted somewhere.”

Fredric March made this film in-between two contemporary roles playing newspaper reporters. His previous film was the terrific screwball comedy Nothing Sacred with Carole Lombard. His next release after DeMille would be There Goes My Heart, which was a weak imitation of It Happened One Night. March alternated between contemporary and costume films and was equally adept at both. Earlier in his career when he was appearing in weak films with cardboard characterizations, there may have been more of a tendency for March to overcompensate with a more florid style. But such acting flourishes never defined his acting technique. He always gave the part what he thought it called for. If the character he was playing was larger-than-life in some way, it didn’t make March the actor a “ham.” This is a point some modern film critics miss.

Period films such as Les Miserables reveal March to be one of the finest actors of his generation. He was indeed an actor and this allowed him to disappear into his roles and try new things. Other stars of the time were personality actors, like a Gary Cooper or a Clark Gable, and they essentially played themselves in every film. Clark Gable, by the way, did play Jean Lafitte in the 1938 Lux Radio Theatre version of tonight’s film; he did not attempt a French accent. But when you think of Fredric March, you don’t think of any one role that defines his entire career. Some of us remember his Dr. Jekyll. For others, it’s his Al Stephenson in The Best Years of Our Lives. And in-between these wonderful films are so many other Oscar-worthy performances.

Lafitte’s kingdom: the men of Barataria…
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Co-starring with March is Margot Grahame, who plays the governor’s daughter. Grahame was an English actress who is probably best known for her role in John Ford’s The Informer. But she also appeared in two other swashbucklers. She was the only highlight in the 1935 version of The Three Musketeers, made at RKO, and later in her career, she appeared in 1952’s The Crimson Pirate, which starred Burt Lancaster. Though her casting is certainly a benefit, Grahame’s role as the love interest is designed strictly for the box office. This is also the case with Franciska Gaal as the Dutch maiden, Gretchen.

Gaal was a Hungarian cabaret singer that DeMille had discovered, but she didn’t last long in Hollywood. She only made a couple more movies and failed to make an impression with American audiences of the 1930s. She went home to Budapest just before the outbreak of World War II. Years later, she returned to America and appeared on Broadway in the early 1950s. There are moments in The Buccaneer when it seems as though she’s playing to the camera with her innocence and spirited manner, but she injects some cute lines into the festivities that are quite good. Maybe she pops her head up one too many times in this film, but this is more the fault of DeMille and the screenwriters than it is her performance. Where they decided to place her was the issue. She simply did not belong in many of the scenes.

She would’ve been fine simply as a background character with a few colorful scenes, but her continual presence– even as a uniformed “powder monkey” on the battlefield– creates a jarring shift in tone at dramatic moments in the film. The scene at the Victory Ball is a case in point. The moment revolves around a beautiful dress that Gretchen wears which had been worn by the dead sister of Lafitte’s fiancée. (It’s one of many items taken from the Corinthian, which had been sunk earlier in the film.) It’s a profoundly tragic moment when we realize this, but something was off here. Perhaps it was because Gretchen is using this reception to win Lafitte over; this light-hearted game of hers is contrasted sharply with the horrific reminder that she wears. Everything else in this scene, especially Margot Grahame’s reaction, works.

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I think it would’ve been more interesting seeing Lafitte’s “one hour’s head start” out of town or a similar action sequence rather than devoting so much screen time to an unnecessary Hollywood love triangle. (NOTE: After our screening on April 11, I realized I was a little off in my assessment of Franciska Gaal. Audiences enjoyed her performance in this film. It just goes to show you how seeing a film with an audience can make you reevaluate your first impressions. The full measure of a film’s impact is lost when you miss these reactions of how viewers respond.)

More impressive, however, are the many great character actors in this film such as Akim Tamiroff who provides some humor as Dominique You, a former cannoneer for Napoleon. Screenwriter Preston Sturges, who had been connected with the film early on before parting ways with DeMille, is the one who recommended casting Akim Tamiroff as Lafitte’s second-in-command.

In the part of General Andrew Jackson is Hugh Sothern, who gives one of the best performances in the movie. His first meeting with Lafitte, in which the Frenchman pulls the gun on him, is terrific. And as Jackson’s aid in the coonskin cap, DeMille casts the venerable Walter Brennan. He was one of the greatest of all character actors in Hollywood’s golden age, and he has a wonderful moment with Akim Tamiroff later at the Victory Ball. There are many other fine actors in the film, such as Ian Keith as the Louisiana senator who, in fact, was another one of those fictional embellishments that DeMille and his screenwriters devised.

“He left a corsair’s name to other times. Linked with one virtue and a thousand crimes.” ~ Byron
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Anthony Quinn also appears as one of Lafitte’s men. His career at this point was just getting started. In Fredric March: Craftsman First, Star Second, author Deborah Peterson relates a story involving Quinn’s interaction with March. “Quinn’s was a rather small part, but during one of their dialogues together, March was supposed to turn to Quinn and give him an order. Quinn’s answer was very simple, but March responded with a strange look. As his back was to the camera, the camera did not capture this look. After the shot, March sat next to Quinn and said, ‘You know, in pictures, I seldom hear a ring of truth from my fellow actors, and that’s why I looked at you so peculiarly, because you sounded real and truthful in your answer. You’re either going to become one of the lousiest actors in the world, or one of the best.’”

There is a short swordplay sequence in the film between Lafitte and the senator which justifies the film’s inclusion in our series. But the more impressive scene visually is the sequence where the pirates are led from the swamps in preparation for their battle with the British. This episode is tinted green and it recalls the color tints one associates with the silent era. DeMille was perhaps remembering a not so distant time in his own moviemaking past. At the time of production, this was his twenty-fifth year in the business and he had already made over sixty films. Incidentally, there is one other moment that recalls the silent film tradition. The astute viewer will catch it; it involves a miniature photo. Cinematographer Victor Milner was, in fact, nominated for his beautiful photography throughout the film.

Author Deborah Peterson writes, “The Buccaneer required more than four months location work at New Iberia, Los Angeles, Catalina Island, and Baldwin Oaks. The New Orleans Cabildo, Jean Lafitte’s home, and the American first presidential home all had to be constructed at Paramount Studios, where the unit shot for an additional ninety days. Employing more than 6,000 people, DeMille revived such historical incidents as the Battle of New Orleans, and the attack on Lafitte’s pirates by the U.S. Navy. Fifty-six men worked four weeks to construct the seven acre settlement representing Barataria at White’s Landing, Catalina Island.”

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The film certainly looks good in terms of costumes and set design. Dwight Franklin co-designed the costumes in this film and we’ll see his work in the Douglas Fairbanks silent film, The Black Pirate, which will be screened at the Pickwick Theatre in a couple weeks. According to some press material, Lafitte’s home as depicted in the film was furnished with a collection of silver valued at over $250,000. DeMille and his production successfully captured the flavor of the era.

The Buccaneer is not DeMille’s greatest film nor is it March’s, but the combination of the two makes for some rousing fun in the best spirit of swashbuckling. I watched this film for the second time just the other night, and I really do look forward to seeing it again. The reason so few people have seen it is because it had been pulled from circulation in the wake of the pretentious, 1958 remake starring a wigged Yul Brynner. That film was produced by DeMille and directed by his son-in-law, Anthony Quinn. So The Buccaneer is a very rare film, having been released on dvd only last year. And like next week’s The Man in the Iron Mask, few movie buffs have seen it. So we are honored to present it here tonight.

Jean Lafitte leaves behind an “American” New Orleans…
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For more on Fredric March, visit his hometown: click here!


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