Lloyd Corrigan: Dancing Pirate (1936) | RKO publicity photo
Lloyd Corrigan: Dancing Pirate (1936) | RKO publicity photo

Tied and Noosed ‘Dancing Pirate’ Waltzes into Technicolor

Restored 1936 Technicolor film Dancing Pirate crosses the early talkies’ vogue for absurd musicals with its other vogue for Hollywood Mexicana.

Dancing Pirate
Lloyd Corrigan
Film Detective
22 February 2022

Lloyd Corrigan‘s Dancing Pirate (1936), the first musical in full three-strip Technicolor, is one of those films that’s been lost and ubiquitous at the same time. Public domain copies have floated around forever, but they’re in black and white. The Film Detective, however, recently unleashed a Blu-ray in gorgeous creamy color, digitally restored and scanned in 4K. Dancing Pirate probably hasn’t looked so beautiful since its release, so this is indeed a major recovery, although there’s a catch, as we’ll see.

The film opens in 1820 Boston, where dancing master Jonathan Pride (played by Broadway star Daniel Collins) teaches the locals a new continental sensation: the waltz. Elderly matrons are scandalized that the dance involves the man putting an arm around the woman’s waist, but Daniel tells them to dance “with abandon”. Daniel’s a handsome and slender fellow who will spend the whole film in the same form-fitting Regency gentleman’s attire, from tight pants to outsize collar.

As soon he steps outside, the naïve Daniel is conked on the bean and shanghaied, or maybe we should say boston’d, to work in the cook’s galley of a pirate ship. An animated map shows us with dotted line how the ship sails all the way around the Cape of Good Hope and up to the west coast of North America, where California is currently Spanish territory.

When the ship stops to take on fresh water, Daniel manages to escape and finds his way to the village of La Palomas (wouldn’t it be Las Palomas?), or “the doves”. Convinced he’s a pirate, everyone in town begins firing upon him with gun and cannon. He scampers up to what turns out to be the room of Serafina (Steffi Duna), daughter of the Alcalde (Frank Morgan in full Frank Morgan mode), where he’s arrested and bound for hanging. While tied and noosed, he dances on the gallows to prove he’s a dancer, not a pirate, and his fate is temporarily delayed until everyone sees what a shameless dance is the waltz.

Clearly, this is a pack of nonsense, and there’s more. Further conflict will be introduced by a band of soldiers from Monterey, led by Don Balthazar (Victor Varconi) and his handsome lip-curled henchman Chago (Jack La Rue). Daniel has converted the townsfolk into allies, especially the jailer Pamfilo (Luis Alberni of Barcelona) and the old Indian he befriended in prison, Tecolote (William V. Mong). The film’s just about enlightened enough to depict indigenous people as abused by being drafted into servitude and prison labor.

Tecolote summons his tribe to aid our hero, but first Daniel must teach them how to make a proper war dance. “What kind of Indians are they?” asks Daniel, and Tecolote answers, “Peaceful Indians!” That’s today’s anthropology lesson.

Yes, these flabby specimens with feathers and loincloths are absurd excuses for Native Americans, less convincing than Daniel as a pirate. We must remind ourselves that this was Hollywood’s cock-eyed notion of representing diversity, as opposed to simply ignoring the fact that Spanish California had any Native Americans. Lest we feel too superior, let this thought lead us to wonder which of today’s unexamined conventions will give people dyspepsia in future decades.

This whole time, Daniel has been safeguarding his aunt’s umbrella, an ungainly thing with a big white curving handle, which he somehow stuffs down his tight trousers. (This was a post-Code film, so Serafina never asks, as Mae West would, if he’s just happy to see her.) Pamfilo declares that if Daniel were a real man, he would trade the umbrella for a sword, so the characters are aware of symbolic implications. The pay-off will be when Daniel uses the umbrella as a pseudo-sword in a duel, demonstrating that his dancing ability triumphs over traditional male aggression.

This film crosses the early talkies’ vogue for absurd musicals with its other vogue for Hollywood Mexicana. Examples of the latter trend: In Old Arizona (Irving Cummings, 1928), In Old California (Burton L. King, 1929), The Cisco Kid (Cummings, 1931), The Gay Caballero (Alfred L. Werker, 1932), The Bold Caballero (Wells Root, 1936), In Caliente (Lloyd Bacon with Busby Berkeley, 1935), Rose of the Rio Grande (William Nigh, 1938), the more serious Viva Villa! (Jack Conway, 1934) and numerous others.

Although such productions were made long before the conventions of ethnically correct casting, they employed many Latino actors, some of whom are forgotten and some of whom had long character careers. Dancing Pirate includes Julian Rivero as the shepherd, Alma Real as Serafina’s duenna, and the Royal Cansinos, a troupe that included young dancer Rita Cansino, later called Rita Hayworth.

Steffi Duna and Victor Varconi were Hungarians with heavy accents. They convey their roles reasonably, and Duna got the part because she’d already starred in an Oscar-winning short, La Cucaracha (1934), also directed by Corrigan. It’s been promoted as the first live-action production entirely in three-strip Technicolor, although it seems to have been beaten by one month by a Warner Brothers item called Service with a Smile (Roy Mack, 1934).

La Cucaracha was the first of three films produced by Pioneer Pictures, a company formed by Merian C. Cooper of 1933’s King Kong in partnership with millionaires John Hay “Jock” Whitney and his cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Their second film was Becky Sharp (Rouben Mamoulian, 1934), which made history as the first feature in three-strip Technicolor. Their third and final effort, Dancing Pirate, is largely forgotten and didn’t exactly set box office records. That said, the final dance sequence was nominated for an Oscar, back when the Academy did things like that.

The film’s source is a 1930 story by Emma Lindsay Squier, “Glorious Buccaneer”, although film writer Jennifer Churchill states in her commentary that there’s not much connection. Cooper hired his effects wizard from King Kong, Willis O’Brien, whom I assume is responsible for the fabulous process shots of the pirate ship in the California bay. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart contributed two songs. The central auteur, however, is prominently credited as color designer Robert Edmond Jones, a Broadway designer who performed the same task for La Cucaracha and Becky Sharp.

Film Detective’s publicity quotes company president Phil Hopkins naming Dancing Pirate as “our first Blu-ray from the recent acquisition of the late Alexander Kogan’s Films Around the World Library.” He adds, “This particular title was his prized possession, obtained from the famous film collector Wade Williams more than a decade ago. This important piece of film history is finally getting the proper attention it deserves.”

So the good news is that we finally have a watchable version of this significant title, and it’s far from a chore to sit through. The bad news is that this print is incomplete at under 80 minutes, as can be determined by subjecting ourselves to Youtube prints that run up to 86 minutes.

Aside from brief jumps of missing moments here and there, as at the end of Duna’s castanet dance and the opening flourish of the final big number, a major omission is the saucy sequence that cross-cuts between Varconi and Morgan taking baths assisted by male attendants. The Alcalde makes two later references to this, and even Churchill’s commentary refers to it. You don’t want to miss those scenes.

If these bits of footage are missing from the only known Technicolor source print, then perhaps nothing can be done about restoring their color. Even so, since this is a public domain film, the missing footage might have been provided as an extra for the sake of completeness.

I previously noted missing footage in Film Detective’s The Capture (John Sturges, 1950) and also the print of Silver Blaze (Thomas Bentley, 1937) in The Sherlock Holmes Vault Collection. The company needs to pay more attention to such things in order to serve up definitive prints. It’s what film buffs want, especially if somebody’s in the bath.

RATING 7 / 10


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