The Film Detective: Dancing Pirate (1936) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of The Film Detective

In 1934, American film writer-director Lloyd Corrigan changed the face of the film world forever with his Academy Award winning short film La Cucaracha i.e. the first three-strip Technicolor film that didn’t consist of hand drawn animation.  Akin to a short feature with a startling budget at the time, some $65K against the usual $15K price tag, La Cucharacha though only running twenty minutes proved to be successful enough for its leading actress Steffi Duna as the cafĂ© singer of the short film’s title track to reunite with director Corrigan for what became the third film shot in the “Process No. 4” technique and the first fully fledged Technicolor musical: the lighthearted 1936 Oscar nominated romp Dancing Pirate.

In the 1820s, Boston after young dance instructor Jonathan Pride (Charles Collins) is duped into joining a pirate ship crew, the man narrowly escapes his captors only to find himself being outfitted for a noose by the California residents led by Mayor Don Emilio Perena (Frank Morgan doing a dress rehearsal for The Wizard of Oz).  However, he gets a break when the Mayor’s daughter Serafina (Steffi Duna back from La Cucharacha) learns he knows how to dance the waltz.  Still, the plot thickens when Serafina’s suitor Don Balthazar (Victor Varconi) shows up with intention to overthrow the town and do away with the dance instructor, something he’s not about to let happen without a fight.

A screwball comedy, a musical, a swashbuckler and above all things a tech demo, Dancing Pirate is more or less an extended version of the far more engaging and vibrant La Cucharacha with Steffi Duna as the sassy mayor’s daughter and hero’s eventual love interest and Frank Morgan making up most of the film’s Technicolor energies.  For one thing its shot beautifully by William V. Skall who would later go on to do such legendary fare as winning an Oscar for Joan of Arc who in his career received a total of nine Oscar nominations.  The soundtrack by Alfred Newman of All About Eve and How the West was Won in conjunction with original songs by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers is mostly good though considerably lacking when compared to what these three composers would do later in their careers.
The main problem with the Merian C. Cooper RKO production (the same man who brought King Kong into the world) is Charles Collins who is a good singer and actor on Broadway often working in the musical comedy field.  Despite his obvious talents as a dancer and performer, the actor never really comes across onscreen as confident or larger than life.  In a film where the spectacle of the dancing and the screen presence of its central actor is key, Dancing Pirate finds its tapdancing hero a bit lacking in terms of identifiable personality or character.  Not necessarily bad but far from what one should expect from the leading man in your musical escapist fantasy.

Still, The Film Detective has given this often overlooked entry in musical film history a mostly good digital restoration though some of the Technicolor elements look a bit faded in some scenes.  Including an audio-commentary by Jennifer Churchill and two short documentaries about the Technicolor process as well as a brief memoir on the film itself, the blu-ray disc release of Dancing Pirate will satisfy film historians keen on seeing where many of our favorite musicals found their origins.  However, of that era, in the pantheon of escapist colorful musical fantasies onscreen including but not limited to comparisons to the still electric La Cucharacha, Dancing Pirate is kind of flat.  Glad to see a key component precluding The Wizard of Oz onscreen but overall sadly it is a mediocrity.

--Andrew Kotwicki