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I'm watching this antique Old Dark House mystery on TCM right now and
it quickly became evident to me that the film, its first silent
incarnation ("Strangers In The Night") or the play it was adapted from
were the first kernel of inspiration for Belgian comic book artist
Hergé (Georges Rémi)'s "Secret of the Unicorn" and its sequel "The
Treasure of Rackham the Red" (1943-1944). More proof that a large part
of the inspiration for Hergé's melodramatic adventures were from
sometimes second-rate Hollywood movies and plots that were very creaky
to begin with. What he did with them of course was sheer genius and
entirely original. But the basic idea was this: An ordinary man
discovers that he is the descendant and inheritor of a famous pirate's
treasure hidden somewhere in an old house. In the process, he has
flashbacks of being the pirate himself, which is just what happens to
Captain Haddock in those comic books.
Of course, not all of Hergé's inspirations were "second-rate". One might also reflect on the similarity of the ending of Sacha Guitry's "Les Perles de la Couronne" (The Pearls of the Crown, 1936, finally available on DVD in the US) and the ending of Hergé's "L'Oreille cassée" (The Broken Ear, published as a serial starting in 1935 and ending in 1937).
A little bit of research on the Broadway Database website confirms that
the play Captain Applejack ran for 195 performances in the 1921-1922.
It's the kind of fluff that people went to the theater to see back in
the day, but wouldn't have any great audience today.
Watching it this morning two things struck me. It reminded a whole lot of George M. Cohan's Seven Keys To Baldpate which also takes place on a windswept stormy night with a group of strange characters intruding on someone's privacy. Further research shows that the producer on Broadway was Sam Harris, Cohan's producing partner who probably thought he had another similar show on his hands.
I also thought how perfect Leslie Howard or Ronald Colman would have been for the part. The film would be more well known today had either of them done it, though John Halliday does a fine job in the lead. He plays a comfortable squire with an estate in Cornwall who yearns for a more exciting life and expresses same to ward Mary Brian. Before long he's besieged by visitors who are giving him all kinds of stories and he discovers the family fortune may have had its foundation in stolen pirate loot.
Captain Applejack is a most dated item, fortunate indeed to have been preserved in both a silent and sound film. I doubt you'll see it revived on Broadway any time soon.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If your coming across this title because it's being shown on Turner Classic Movies like I did, and you are a very early talkie fan, than look no further! You found something decent to watch. If you are a Jack Black Pirates of The Caribbean fan, you would also like this for one really good pirate scene. I saw this on TCM and afterward they showed Captain Thunder and both looked like they were made at the same time and by the same studio (Warner). This is strictly escapist fare it reminded me of watching a Jeeves film from the 30's except it's pre-code and so you can watch for some things that may not have flown later on in the 30's to early 60's, like cleavage and compromising situations. I would give this a 4 or 5 except for a pirate dream sequence which I thought was dynamite and showed pirates in a way that I have not seen much of EVER. So check it out for that part alone, as a matter of fact you could skip the first 20 minutes until our hero discovers the parchment because before that its pretty bad filler. 7 of 10, strictly for early talkie or pirate movie fans.
There was in the 1920s on stage and the 1930s in the movies a genre of
'Old Dark House' shows, so-called for the J.B. Priestley novel of the
same name. Priestley's novel was eventually made into a wonderful movie
by James Whale with some great stars playing people with ordinary
problems who are forced to take shelter from the storm in an ancient
house inhabited by lunatics.
But what, this movie asks, do you do if you live in an ancient house, you are bored out of your mind and a horde of lunatics descends on you during a storm? Well, you have this movie, which is quite all right, although not a patch on Whale's movie, being hampered a bit by competent but not great actors, stagy direction and a plot which distracts you from the potentially interesting performances. Definitely worth a look, but you won't be coming back for a second show.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
1963's remake of The Old Dark House aside, this is probably the silliest 'old dark house' mystery you are likely to see. John Halliday plays Ambrose Applejohn, a bachelor whose coastside mansion is constantly wracked by heavy storms. On one such night, he has some special visitors: a Russo-French noblewoman (the extremely sexy Kay Strozzi, whose terrible acting is compensated for by other factors) carrying valuable jewels, a pair of thieves (Julia Swayne Gordon and Otto Hoffman) masquerading as upright citizens, and mysterious Ivan Borolsky (Arthur Edmund Carewe), whose cape and Eastern European manner seem to have been influenced by Bela Lugosi's stage performance as Count Dracula (the film version of which would follow Captain Applejack into cinemas a month later). This is a thoroughly daft film, with a bizarre pirate fantasy inserted mid-way through the proceedings, but it's enjoyable enough and features decent cinematography by Ira Morgan (The Great Gabbo, Tell it to the Marines).
This film, I suppose, is a comedy. Because of that, the cast was
apparently informed to really overdo it--with some of the broadest
acting I have ever seen. It was originally a stage production and in
this case, it looks like they must have filmed it as it was done on
stage--loud and over-emoted. CAPTAIN APPLEJACK begins with Ambrose home
on a stormy night in his mansion. He is dying for some adventure in his
life, and almost immediately it begins! People start coming in and out
of his house at an alarming rate and he is deeply involved in all sorts
of silly intrigue. It's like your typical "old dark house" film so
common in this era but on steroids--with everything coming rapidly and
with no letup.
The first thing I noticed is how much Kay Strozzi sucked in this film! This probably sounds very harsh, but when this actress came storming into the home of Ambrose Applejohn, I was just bowled over by how terrible her accents were. She didn't know if she was supposed to be French, Russian or just an idiot. Kids in high school productions usually have better accents than hers! And, to top it off, within the first ten minutes of the film, three different women fainted--talk about a load of malarkey! These factors combined with the style of the production (with people walking on and off camera much like they'd do it in a play) made me realize early on that I was in for a very long ride, indeed.
After several actors came in and out of the set, in came "Ivan" (Arthur Edmund Carewe) to prove that Strozzi was not the only actor who could produce a crappy and unconvincing Russian accent! I think, honestly, that any of the Ritz Brothers could have done this job better. He was lousy, but fortunately he didn't stick around for long. As for leading man John Halliday, he also overdid it quite a bit. In 1931, perhaps people thought this was all a funny farce. Today, it mostly just seemed tedious.
I cannot recommend this film to anyone--even people who like bad films, as this one wasn't bad enough to be funny--it was just plain bad. There is nothing really positive I can say about the movie other than it was blessedly short!
By the way, at about 32 minutes into the film, note the breast grabbing scene--something you might just see in a Pre-Code film but you'd never have seen once this Production Code was strengthened and adopted in 1934. Quite a shocker, eh?
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