Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Story Construction 101

Let’s careen away from animation for a moment, and look at one of the great nine minutes and twelve seconds in American film (partly because it's terrific; partly because it's on-line here.)

It’s The Sea Hawk, photographed at Warner Bros. in Burbank in early 1940. It represents (for me) the apex of the studio system, when every department at Warners, Fox, MGM and others fired on all cylinders: music, sets, miniatures, casting, cinematography, editing. Everything worked...

But that’s not the reason I’m posting it. I’m posting it because it represents nine minutes, twelve seconds of top-of-the line story telling and character development.

This is the second nine minutes of the picture, where we’re introduced to every one of the “good guys”. Geoffrey Thorpe, captain of the Albatross, and all the crew members (or the ones who have speaking parts). A single, sweeping shot introduces each one of them, gives them a few lines and a little of their characters.

Then we get to First Mate Carl Pitt (Alan Hale, Sr.). And in a few lines, we get his relationship with Thorpe. Pitt is over-eager, but the level-headed captain reins him in. And what’s interesting here is Thorpe is seriously in charge throughout, maintaining control of the entire crew.

And at the same time we are enveloped in a slam-bang action sequence with two full-sized ships on a soundstage, limited (only slightly) by 1940 technology. And as the nine minutes and twelve seconds end, we get a little more of Thorpe’s character as he reprimands the rambunctious Eli Matson (J.M. Kerrigan, in his second sea-faring film of 1940 – the other being “The Long Voyage Home.”)

Erich Wolfgang Korngold did the music that’s been imitated by almost every action-adventure film since; Michael Curtiz directed with his usual style and panache; Howard Koch – fresh from Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre (and three years from the Academy Award for “Casablanca”) -- rewrote Seton I. Miller’s original screenplay.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely brilliant film, with sea battles so complex and so well choreographed it puts EVERYTHING in those badly written Pirates of the Carribean movies to SHAME.

And wonderfully economic staging that almost puts America's greatest film director, William Wyler, to shame! But his films were more smart on a more consistant basis than Curtiz.

It's been a favorite of mine since my Pop took me to see it as a kid in the early '60's.

And while I do appreciate small art houses showing new, independant films, I sure do miss these films being shown on the big screen on a more regular basis...sigh.

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