Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Sea Hawk's 68th Birthday

As long as I'm on an anniversary kick ...

On July 1st, 1940, Michael Curtiz's second-greatest swashbuckler opened for business. (The Adventures of Robin Hood would be the first greatest, but Mike shares that one with the erudite William Keighley).

And yes, The Sea Hawk has almost nothing* to do with animation, but it was a film that mesmerized me when I was nine years old, and captivates me still, so what the hell. To this day, I retain the memory of Errol Flynn slicing candles inside a shadowy palace ...

Like Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk is a glowing testament to the studio system at its pre-World War II pinnacle. Script, casting, art direction, camera work and everything else meshed seamlessly to make cinema art that continues to resonate seven decades after its creation. Which isn't to say that the machinery was always well-oiled:

February 19, 1940

To: T.C. Wright

From: Frank Mattison - unit manager

...Saturday ... the company ... made 16 set-ups ...of the duel. This duel has turned into a matter of a walk. Mr. Daniell is absolutely helpless and his closeup in the duel will be mostly from the elbows up.

Mr. Curtiz was greatly discouraged with his results on Saturday, as well as Friday, but there is nothing we can do as it will be impossible to go back and change to someone else in this part.

The Casting Office and everyone connected with the picture were duly warned of Mr. Daniell's inability to fence long before the picture started, and we knew of him being taken out of a part in Romeo and Juliet because he could not handle a sword. Neverthelss, he is playing the part and it is going to take two more full days to finish the duel at the rate we worked on it Saturday and last Thursday ...

The film, a thinly disguised allegory for the Battle of Britain, was a personal favorite of Winston Churchill. Throughout the 1940s, it made Warner Bros. handsome profits, and continues to generate cash for Time-Warner well into the 21st century. And though writers Seton Miller and Howard Koch (no relation to TAG's current president) squabbled over screen credit, the pair ultimately shared it.

And here's a shocker: nobody connected with the film ever received a penny in residuals. What were all those unions and guilds thinking?

"It's cutlasses now men! We're going to board her!" ...

(*Almost. "Family Guy" did a parody/homage to "Hawk", with Peter Griffin becoming Errol Flynn while Erich Wolfgang Korngold's thunderous score booms on the sound track.)


Anonymous said...

I would argue strongly that "The Sea Hawk" is a MUCH better film than "Robin Hood," although I'd sit through a double feature ANY day!
And it's Korngold's best score, too.

The choreography of the battles is so crisp, thrilling, and clear. It puts all modern pirate movies to shame (especially the Pirates of the Carribean debacles).

Anonymous said...

I always loved that film too. Korngold's music is fantastic and the direction sublime.
A few years ago we were filming Looney Tunes Back in Action on the Warner Bros lot. We were using the mammoth Stage 16 for the Jungle set. My first thought upon seeing it was that stage once housed the immense water tank where they floated the two pirate ships grappled side by side when the boarding scene happened.

Michael Curtiz, was originally from Hungary where his name was Mickaly Kertesz. His brothers Andre Kertesz and Istvan Kertesz became world famous photographers.

Steve Hulett said...

I've never seen anything to compare with the duel of the galleon and British ship in The Sea Hawk's first act. The pacing and detail are one-of-a-kind.

The '59 Ben Hur has a somewhat similar sequence, though not nearly as well done.

Jenny Lerew said...

I wouldn't give Keighley co-directing credit for Robin Hood-no one else does(no matter what he'd filmed already). It's a Curtiz film through & through. ; )

Poor Daniell! I'd pay to see the outtakes. Can you imagine "Mike" screaming his head off (or muttering beneath his breath) at a poor fencing performance? Yikes.

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