(On Cable TV, February 2019) I’m done apologizing for the way I can’t process Shakespearian dialogue. Fortunately, there’s enough in the 1930s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to get us into a surprisingly detailed early example of a fantasy film. As my attention wandered from the dialogue and plot, I was left to admire nearly everything else: The great sets and costumes, as well as the vivid imagination on display. Remove Shakespeare’s name from the credits, and there’s still enough here to make this a modest masterpiece of early fantasy filmmaking. Clearly, the filmmakers saw in Shakespeare the license to go wild (comparatively speaking) in terms of fantastic creatures, wondrous realism and other tropes of the genre what would be developed decades later. If tracing the evolution of fantasy moviemaking isn’t your thing, then maybe you’d be interested in a very early role for Mickey Rooney, or seeing Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney once more. Still, I’m more appreciative of the fantasy filmmaking aspect: there weren’t that many big-budget fantasy movies at that time, and this one fills an early slot in the development of the subgenre.
(On Cable TV, May 2018) High-sea swashbuckling is the name of the game in Captain Blood, and the film certainly delivers. A thematic prequel to the better-known The Adventures of Robin Hood, it also features Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland and plenty of sword-fighting derring-do. The plot is serviceable, as a good but capable man finds himself in charge of a pirate crew. This leads to the expected hallmarks of a pirate pictures (governor’s daughter and perfidious enemies included). From a contemporary perspective, the ship battles still have quite a kick to them, which adds to the film’s overall impact. 1934 was still early in Hollywood’s blockbuster history, but you can already see most of the elements firmly in place, with the result that Captain Blood is still surprisingly accessible to modern audiences, especially those who really liked the Pirates of the Caribbean series and want something in the same genre.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) Perhaps the best thing about 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood is how it doesn’t feel like a 1938 film at all. You can credit the colour for that: One of the first big movies shot in Technicolor with decent image detail, it’s visually distinct from other movies of the time and would remain so for nearly two decades as colour took until the early sixties to truly become the standard. As a result, the film does feel as if it’s from the 1950s, something that director Michael Curtiz’s fast narrative pace helps support. The fantastic Errol Flynn plays the lead part with bravado and wit—the sequence in which he first confronts the enemy in their castle could be transposed with few modifications a modern superhero movie. Olivia de Havilland is nearly as striking as Maid Marian, but let’s be honest—this is Flynn’s film. The other reason why The Adventures of Robin Hood still feels so modern is that it has been endlessly re-used in other modern movies. Nearly every take on Robin Hood (notably the 1973 Disney version, 1991 Kevin Costner vehicle and 1993 Mel Brooks parody) has been inspired by this one, often to the point of re-creating scenes. It does make for a film that can be readily re-watched today with a considerable amount of fun, especially for audiences (kids, for instance) where black-and-white could be an obstacle.