While watching the thorough making-of featurette on this DVD, we're bowled over to realize that in 1935 Captain Blood was a big gamble for Warner Brothers because its cast featured no household names. After all, this swaggering costume adventure yarn (from Rafael Sabatini's popular novel of 17th-century pirates on the high seas) prevails as the very model of classic Hollywood star power. It catapulted to overnight superstardom 26-year-old Errol Flynn, an unknown Australian bit player whose athletic good looks and inviting devil-may-care charm as the gentleman corsair put the buck in swashbuckling for years to come. Nowadays, after seventy years, Flynn still possesses the dash to win us over with a grin while ordering "me lads" thusly: "Up the riggings, you monkeys! Break out those sails and watch them fill with the wind that's carrying us all to freedom!" Somehow there's no tongue in anyone's cheek when he tallyhos, "Alright, my hearties, follow me!" and swings like Tarzan to board an enemy privateer through blazing cannons and sword battles. He does cut a ravishingly handsome figure in his long pirate coat and broad-brimmed feathered hat, or holding a spyglass to his eye from the deck of his stolen pirate ship.
Another newcomer here is 19-year-old Olivia de Havilland as the spirited noblewoman who enchants the captain's heart. Her only previous noteworthy screen appearance was earlier that year in the lavish box-office disappointment, A Midsummer Night's Dream, so we tend to note Captain Blood as her career-making debut as well as the first of eight films she and Flynn made together.
England, 1685. Flynn is Dr. Peter Blood, a kindly Irish physician who's more concerned with his geraniums than with the rebel Monmouth uprising clashing through the countryside. But when he mouths off to the wrong representative of tyrannical King James II, a drumhead court finds him guilty of high treason, sentences him to slavery, and ships him off to His Majesty's colonies in the West Indies. Bad move. Years ago, Blood was an international adventurer, fighter, and seaman before he "hung up the sword and picked up the lancet." He's sold to beautiful and feisty Arabella Bishop (de Havilland), niece of a cruel plantation owner (Lionel Atwill). Taking a fancy to her handsome property, she elevates him from floggings and the brutal toil in the sulfur mines to be the doctor attending Jamaica's frivolous English governor. Armed only with his cunning, he engineers an escape, saving a band of fellow slaves who are just the loyal and true men he needs to commandeer a Spanish pirate ship and launch a new career in noble-hearted buccaneering across the Caribbean. And that's just the first hour.
Who better to come between Blood and Arabella than the archetypal Hollywood bad guy, Basil Rathbone? He plays Capt. Levasseur, the French freebooter who joins Blood in a partnership that, of course, goes sour when Levasseur's villainous nature emerges after he captures Arabella. Flynn and Rathbone's first screen sword duel (on an island shore played by Laguna Beach) is a vigorous rehearsal for their rematch in The Adventures of Robin Hood.
As fates and stations both individual and political from Blood and Arabella all the way up to the King himself get turned upside down, it's up to Blood and his crew to fight for England and honor. If that means a broadside battle in an exotic seaport, followed by the wicked deposed and virtue rewarded, so much the better.
This rousing actioner comes so grandly appointed with pieces of eight, chivalric romance, and cannons blasting from tall ships that life with a merry "brotherhood of buccaneers" never again seemed like such fun, or at least not until The Sea Hawk five years later. Captain Blood's combination of Flynn's ebullient heroics, that Flynn-de Havilland chemistry, Rathbone's charisma, and Warner's can-do director Michael Curtiz proved so irresistible that the studio repeated the formula, upping the ingredients, in 1938's Robin Hood. Flynn is so accomplished that so we're told on this disc Captain Blood remains "the most amazing debut of a new actor in the history of Hollywood." But we also learn that the inexperienced new kid was so visibly nervous during the initial shooting that director Curtiz, Flynn's ideal taskmaster, eventually reshot early scenes after the actor grew into the self-assured and easy screen presence that defined him for the rest of his career. de Havilland instantly stood out as a new A-list star, a position soon validated again in Robin Hood and Gone With the Wind.
Further wind in Captain Blood's sails comes from the goose-pimply score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who later orchestrated more Flynnish gallantry and romance in Robin Hood, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and The Sea Hawk. And as you'd expect from a Warner Brothers picture of the era, even the second-tier characters, whether dramatic or comic relief, are cast with top-notch contract players such as Ross Alexander, Guy Kibbee, and E.E. Clive. At the same time, Curtiz's brisk pacing and shadow-accented action scenes helped make Flynn the obvious successor to Douglas Fairbanks and Captain Blood the template for subsequent swashbucklers.
Studio head Jack Warner's gamble of entrusting his million-dollar investment to two unknowns not only paid off, it still holds up today as one of those too-good-to-be-true-(except-that-it-is) Hollywood success stories.
* * *
This Warner Home Video DVD arrives as part of the "Errol Flynn Signature Collection." The source print has seen better days, so it's a little spotty and displays mild wear from time to time. But the black-and-white imagery looks quite fine, with pleasing grayscale and detail. The DD 1.0 audio is strong and clear.
Warner has earned a reputation for excellence in the presentation of its Golden Age classics, and this disc carries on the tradition with a good new featurette plus ample vintage period flavorings. In Captain Blood: A Swashbuckler is Born (23 mins.), Rudy Behlmer, Robert Osborne, and others trace the film's history and legacy, from the discovery of Flynn and de Havilland to behind-the-scenes looks at the casting, performances, and production. Leonard Maltin hosts Warner Night at the Movies, which kicks off with the trailer for 1935's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The "News Parade of 1935" brings us the death-house last mile of the Lindbergh Baby kidnapper, footage of an earthquake and Dust Bowl devastation, the airplane crash that killed Will Rogers and Wiley Post, and FDR rousing a crowd by stating that the U.S. must remain "unentangled and free" from the troubles boiling up overseas. The program of short subjects includes an Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy comedy, Johnny Green and his orchestra (with The Hillbilly Trio), and Friz Freleng's Merrie Melodies cartoon "Billboard Frolics."
More extras are the film's theatrical re-release trailer and Captain Blood's February '37 Lux Radio Theater production (58 mins.) starring Flynn, de Havilland, and Rathbone. Keep-case.