Monday, December 15, 2014

Roaring Dan of the Wanderer

Roaring Dan’s Rum was named after the captain of the Wanderer, a rough, tough sailor, who made his fame by wrecking ships and stealing their cargo. He once sank the ship of a competitor with all hands aboard. Roaring Dan Seavey liked to sneak into ports and rob vessels that were tied up for the night. He also transported women for nefarious purposes, and was an important player in the venison poaching trade.


Yup. Because Roaring Dan was born in 1865, and did most of his pirating in the 20th century. In the Midwest. The Great Lakes to be specific.

Like a lot of pirates, Dan went to sea young, joining the navy at age 13. He married and had 2 children, and settled in Wisconsin, where he fished, farmed and owned a saloon. But like a lot of men who had been pirates before him, he wanted more.

Dan left his family in 1900 to head up to the Klondike in Alaska, joining thousands of others in a gold rush. But like a lot of others, he lost everything instead. Finally he fled south to Minnesota and acquired (we don’t know how) an old schooner, which he named the Wanderer.

One of Dan’s signature moves was to alter lights that marked the shipping lanes.  The practice was called “moon cussing” by the locals. Once a misguided ship had run aground, Dan would sail in and loot the wreck.

He also made so much money poaching venison on private land that the Booth Fisheries tried to beat him at his own game. Dan hunted down one of their ships, attacked it with a cannon, and sank it.

But his most famous exploit was capturing the Nellie Johnson. The adventure did not involve cannon, but rum. Dan showed up at the Grand Haven, Michigan dock where the schooner lay at anchor with friendly look and a great deal of liquor. He shared this with the Nellie Johnson’s crew. Once they were all drunk, he threw them overboard and sailed for Chicago, where he sold the cargo.

Pursued and arrested, Dan was eventually arrested for piracy and dragged back to Chicago in chains. Conveniently, the owner of the Nellie Johnson never appeared to testify. Dan got away with it, and claimed for the rest of his life that he’d won the ship in a card game.

Like a lot of pirates, he eventually retired and became a law enforcer. Since the days of the privateers were long over, this took the form of a job with the US Marshall’s Service, where he worked to curb poaching, smuggling, and piracy on the great lakes.

Though the Wanderer was destroyed by fire in 1918, Dan stayed on the water, now using the kind of motor launch favored by the very smugglers he was chasing. When Prohibition made the sale of alcohol illegal in the US, he may or may not have smuggled liquor in from Canada.

In the kinder, gentler 20th century, it was possible for a pirate to actually retire. Dan stopped his activities in the late 1920’s. He died in a Wisconsin nursing home in 1949, at the age of 84.

We don’t think of pirates in the peaceful Midwest, but piracy is a worldwide practice. In fact, the Great Lakes have seen as much piracy as any other body of water. Rum running, venison poaching, illegal clear-cutting of timer on private land, these were the work of Great Lakes pirates, and many of them were colorful characters like Roaring Dan’s Seavey.

So when the cold closes in and the snowflakes begin to fly, raise a glass of rum to the pirates of the Midwest and remember that piracy is never too far away. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Pirate Card Games

Once in a while when I read pirate fiction, the pirates will be playing poker. This drives me absolutely mad, since the card game poker wasn’t invented until about 1850 (roughly 150 years after the Golden Age). It grew up along the Mississippi river boats, and then spread to the California gold fiends. It is a product of the American frontier.

In the early Caribbean, card games were certainly popular, but they were games that had originated in Europe.

The cards themselves were very much like the ones we use today. A deck held 52 cards, with the same four suits as our own, and the number 1-10 in each, plus the 3 face cards of Jack Queen and King in each suit.

What was not the same was the look of the cards. No one had yet thought of designing the cards so that they looked the same with either end up. The royal figures had heads and feet, and the “pip” cards likewise had only one “right” way up.  The backs of the cards were blank, and the edges were not rounded in the manner of modern cards. Also, they were printed on plain cardboard, without the waterproof coating we expect now. Cards were also much harder to come by. It’s easy to imagine them being dog-eared and dirty.

A lonely pirate might pass the time by playing Patience, which was the word used at the time for the game we call Solitaire. The version at the time was the one most likely to be found today on a computer, an arrangement of cards that starts out with seven piles of face-down cards, and ends with 4 piles, face up, each containing only one suit and arranged from ace to king.

The classic English game was Cribbage, in almost exactly the same form it is played today. It was descended from an even older game called “Noddy”. Cribbage boards, the scoring mechanism for the game, have been found in the wrecks of pirate ships. Today cribbage is the “official” game of the American submarine service. 

Seafaring novels set during the Napoleonic wars (1799-1815) often mention the game Whist, a game similar to modern-day Bridge. But this game is believed to have come into being at about 1728 – too late for our period.

France, a major player in the Caribbean, was also a major producer of playing cards. Produced a number of famous card games, including Piquet (pronounced P.K.).

Piquet was developed at about the year 1500, possibly from an even older Spanish game. It uses a deck of 32 cards, from 7-King in each of 4 suits, plus the Aces, which are high. It is a game for 2 players, each of whom receives 12 cards, and can discard and re-draw to improve their hand. The game then progresses something like Bridge, with combinations being made to score points by "taking tricks."

This is a scientific game. It’s possible to figure out exactly what cards your opponent holds by noting your own cards and your opponents’ discards. Possibly because this led to over-confidence, betting sometimes reached fantastical heights. French nobles sometimes wagered whole estates on a single game. Eventually the king of France banned Piquet, though play did not actually die out for another two centuries.

This may also have been one of the reasons that pirate ships banned card games except on shore.

The spiritual, if not quite factual, ancestor of all these games was the Spanish Ombre. A complicated game, it was, like the others, a trick-taking game similar to Bridge. Its name is derived from the official statement that one had won the game, similar to the exclamation “Check!” in chess. It was actually the Spanish word “hombre,” meaning “I’m the man!”

Of course, there were dozens of other card games. The number of ways that a single deck of cards can be dealt, stacked, combined, spread and recombined in almost limitless variations. Where today we have a variety of card types (Uno, Go Fish, Old Maid) , in the early 1700’s there was only one basically type of was only one type of deck. The variations were wide indeed.

While many card games required “tricks” to be acquired, the Irish game Maw (sometimes rhymed with cow) was a game of discarding. The first person to lay all his cards on the table was the winner. It was, ideally, a five person game.

Maw had one other interesting detail. It was against the rules to tell the rules to any other player. The official statement was, “I can only tell you the first rule, and that’s this one.” After that, players needed to figure it out for themselves. The appearance of certain cards reversed the order of play, caused play to skip a player, changed the cards that were “high” or made other changes. If a new player didn’t figure it out he played a penalty.

So a tavern full of pirates playing cards would have been a vibrant and loud affair. The cards would slap, the cribbage board would clack, arguments would break out over the rules of the various games, and every once in while someone would clash his tankard to the table top and shout, “I’m the man!”


Monday, December 1, 2014

Hook Hands, Peg Legs and Eyepatches

It seems like whenever someone wants to create a pirate costume or drawing of a pirate, the fist thing they do (well, maybe after the tricorn hat and the parrot) is to add a patch, a pegleg or a hook. How come? What’s the big deal with these and pirates?

To begin with, all of these things were real in the 18th century. People really did have pegs ofr legs and hooks for hands, and wear patches over their eyes.  And I’ve personally encountered people who think that this was some kind fashion statement, in the same way that people today wear tattoos, or decorative scarring, or practice extreme body modification.

They were not. In fact, these things were standard medicine at the time. They were, simply, the best way of helping disabled people to go on with life in a normal way.

Loss of limbs was much more common during this time, especially among sailors. Not only were men wounded in battle, but the everyday activity of the ship was dangerous (something we have trouble relating to in a world were OSHA regulations protect us).  People tripped fell down hatches, or missed their grip and plunged from the high masts. Things dropped from the masts and landed on those below.

In an age before the invention of antibiotics any sort of wound could be dangerous. A broken bone – especially a compound fracture – often became infected.  In order to save the patient’s life, the affected part would be amputated.

Any limb severely damaged would probably face the same fate. Remember, anesthetics had also not been invented yet, so any reconstructive surgery took place with the patient screaming and trying to get away. Reconstructive surgery was hardly more than a dream. Since a crushed hand, foot or leg could not be reconstructed, and was at great risk of infection, it was safest to simply remove it.

For the rich, skilled physicians and talented craftsmen teamed up to create the most workable and aesthetically pleasing results possible. During the 1600's it had been discovered that the stump of a severed limb could be sculpted during the amputation process to make it better adapted to receive a prosthesis.

In th4e case of a leg, the stump needed to be formed as much as possible into a cone, When walking on the stump, the weight would be dispersed over the surface of the leg, rather than concentrated on the end of the stump, which would be very painful.

Of course, this assumed a competent medic. Pirates most often recruited from among common sailors. Officers and skilled workers were harder to persuade to abandon everything for the sake of freedom. In the absence of a surgeon, the ship's carpenter (good at using saws) the cook (skilled at butchering animals) or even barber (practiced with knives) would be pressed into service. If worse came to worse, any brave man with an axe could try. A person badly enough injured to need an amputation was in danger of death anyway.

These results often yielded very unsatisfactory results. The most famous legless pirate - Long John Silver - didn't have a wooden leg. He used a crutch instead. One assumes that putting weight on the remnants of a botched amputation were too painful to stand.

Must have been pretty bad. Crutches of the time were simple wooden "T"s without even a hand grip. Actors who have played Silver remark on how painful these crutches are to use.

And this leads us to why amputations and pirates go together - Writers.

Robert Louis Stevenson created Long John, and gave him the missing leg to make him distinctive. Similarly, J.M. Barrie gave his pirate a hook hand and the name Hook to make him a memorable, frightening character. And when Chris Columbus wrote a screenplay about a group of kids looking for pirate treasure, and needed a pirate that could be positively identified by his remains, he created One Eyed Willy.

It's been suggested that the eye patch thing actually had a reason. Famously, the Mythbusters postulated that wearing an eye patch enabled attacking pirates to keep one eye acclimated to the dark, so they could run belowdecks on a merchant ship without being blinded by the change of dark to light. This is persuasive, except that every effort was made to keep the lower decks on a ship as brightly lit as possible. After all, people had to work down there.

Historically, there are no really famous pirates missing either legs or hands. Pirates who lost limbs in the course of their work were paid a benefit out of the ship's operating so they could retire comfortably. One pirate did have a disabled eye. French pirate Olivier Levasseur (aka The Buzzard) had an eye that had been damaged by a sword stroke, and wore a black silk patch later in life.But he wasn't famous for the patch, and pictures don't show it, choosing instead to show the dramatic scar.

So hook hands, peg legs, and eye patches are associated with pirates simply because they could be. And because some very good writers chose to make these kinds of disabilities a distinctive mark of their greatest creations. It worked. We associate disabilities with pirates.

One other kind of prosthetic that was fairly common at the time was the prosthetic nose. People lost their noses - to frostbite, injury, and to disease. Syphilis, in its later stages, can cause skin lesions that ultimately cost the patient extremities like noses and ears.

My favorite is this ivory nose, although silver was also used by those who could afford it. Those who couldn't afford it wore a flap of leather to hide the disfigurement.

Anyone inspired to create a new pirate?

Monday, November 24, 2014

Pirate Costumes in Pirates of the Caribbean

And now we come to the most obvious Pirate Movie Costumes. Pirates of the Caribbean is the movie that changed it all.

Movies like Cutthroat Island had given us a bit of a grungy look for the pirates. And the effect of star power in costuming goes all the way back to the 1920’s. But it all came together in POTC. Let’s begin with Johnny Depp.

Mr. Depp came into the project with enough star power to be allowed to “create his own character” in the wardrobe room with some pre-selected costumes. Depp chose the hat, Depp chose the coat. And, famously, Depp chose the dreadlocks, which scared the Authorities half to death.

Depp had an unusual grasp of the pirate mentality. He has famously said that pirates were the rockstars of their day. Many pirates kept an eye on what their image was. They dressed the part, either of madmen or of gentlemen, as the occasion warranted.

Jack Sparrow has the fine linen coat of a captain, a good hat, and a number of baubles about his person. Looking at him, you see a man who travels with only the clothes on his back. All of his gear is well-worn. And yet it has style. Depp had finally found the perfect image of a pirate.

Although technically it’s not part of the costume, Depp’s eyeliner is now seen on a lot of pirates that don’t claim to be be directly copying. It’s become something expected, as a mark of the job. Real pirates probably didn’t smear kohl around their eyes, but it’s now a mark of the profession. We’ll see if it lasts.

The costumes for POTC were much better researched than was usual for pirate movies. This might not seem at first like no big deal. After all, most people wouldn’t recognized out-of-time clothing.

But the clothing and decorations of a time period have a way of going together. After all, at any given period in history, there were a large number of artistically inclined people – tailors, dressmakers, furniture makers, decorative artists, taking inspiration from each other’s work and trying to create a harmonic “look”.  When a costume designer picks up on this, they are getting thousands of hours of free design time to help create mood.

The mood of POTC is an excellent one for pirates. The civilized world – as shown by the crisp uniforms of Norrington and the Marines, as well as Governor Swan’s elaborate wigs and Elizabeth’s corset, is trying to impose itself on the “wild west” of the Caribbean.

Jack and his pirates – as well as the average people on the street – are dressed practically in rags (in fact, costume designer Penny Rose aged the fabrics by throwing them in a cement mixer with gravel and bricks, and letting them tumble).

The wear may seem excessive, but in fact the poor people of the time often wore clothing until it literally fell apart. The line between rich and poor was very clear during the 18th century. That’s part of what caused piracy to rise.

It’s kind of symbolic that when Jack first meets Elizabeth, he frees her from her corset, releasing her to go on the pirate adventure. She still doesn’t have the corset on when she ends up on the Black Pearl, but is dressed primly in a nightgown and wrapper. Barbosa gives her dress to wear, significantly a dress from an earlier time (the red gown he gives her looks like it dates from Captain Morgan’s time – when piracy was a more acceptable lifestyle).

Elizabeth throws the gown back at Barbosa when he makes her walk the plank. What she’s left with is underwear – a lot of underwear for a modern-day viewer, but underwear all the same. So she’s wearing underwear when she reveals her true self.

She gets Jack drunk, then burns all the rum, creating the smoke tower that brings about her rescue. And then she makes her deal with Norrington to save Will. It’s as if she is finally stripped down to her true self.

For the final battle, she’s in a marine’s uniform, appropriately enough. Her return to “proper attire” for Jack’s hanging is meant to hint that she may yet be forced into her previous role. But a close look reveals details in her clothing and carriage that are no longer the same. Elizabeth is a woman now, and she knows her heart.

Norrington, another one of my POTC favorites, also has clothing that tells a story. Originally meant to be the “bad guy” in Curse of the Black Pearl, Norrie was just too nice a guy. His perfect uniform tells the audience who he is.

But James Davenport, the actor playing Norrie, wanted to look more like Depp, decrying his own look as being “an ice cream.” In the second movie he’s all roughed up, and dirty as well, but he doesn’t carry it well. For Jack a little dirt is just part of the persona. It doesn’t sit well on Norrington.

In the third movie, Norrington regains his position as a “proper gentleman” but at great cost. Now the long coat and gold lace which he had worn with such grace in the first movie have become over-conspicuous ornaments that weigh him down, almost hiding his real nature.

POTC has raised the bar for pirate movies, hopefully forever. And it made enough money that other films will copy it. We can only hope that the next good pirate movie comes out soon. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pirate Costumes in the Movies Part 3

Against All Flags wasn’t the only movie to steal sailing-ship scenes from Black Swan. Film clips from the 1942 movie were still being recycled forty years later, in 1982, when an Australian film company made The Pirate Movie, an adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.

The film is a bizarre mish-mash of the 19th century original and 80s fashion and music. Framed by a story in which a shy, mousy girl named Mable falls for a handsome young fencing instructor named Fredrick. A knock on the head puts Mable into a dream state and takes us back in time to pirate days, where the plot of the original Operetta unfolds (more or less).
The movie certainly doesn’t know what it wants to be, and the costumes echo this difficulty. The original 80s scenes look like the 80s all right, but once we’re in dreamland, all kinds of things happen.

The original pirate ship harbors men wearing stereotypical pirate gear… eye patches, fancy satin vests, beautiful wide-sleeved pirate shirts that lace up the front. But their costumes cover an unusually wide range of time, ranging from the mid 1600’s through the 1900’s (The dream sequence is set firmly in 1876, with dates mentioned in the movie locking it in place.) One assumes that this is supposed to reflect the dream state of the proceedings.

Fredrick himself appears throughout much of the movie in white tights, cream colored thigh boots, and a vest that looks like Sargent Pepper was involved in a paintball fight.

This at least is understandable. It’s an effort to make the romantic leads “relatable” to the teenaged audiences of the time. The male lead’s clothes have been seriously touched by the 80s, even while all those around him come from much earlier times.

Likewise the female lead, surrounded by “sisters” in Victorian summer dresses, first appears in a decidedly 80’s off-the-shoulder number with a skirt hiked up to the hip. Later, when the sisters change into bathing suits circa 1900, Maud keeps her slinky dress. (The remark that she’ll have a hard time finding a husband seems especially out-of-place here.)

Irrationally, she shows up later for a swimming scene in a corset and bloomers. I suppose they were sexy, and sexy sells.  Also sexy was the off-the-shoulder white blouse and peach colored satin shorts she wears through most of the movie.  

In one way the production did know what it was trying for. The female lead consistently stays in provocative clothes, and the male lead wore what was designed to attract teenage female viewers. The costume that best shows off his sex appeal is a simple white loincloth.

The actor, Christopher Atkins, had made an enormous splash only two year before, when he had starred opposite Brook Shields in The Blue Lagoon. This idyllic story of two young people, marooned on a tropical island made Shields a major star and Atkins a major heart-throb. Showing him in this outfit was probably the wisest move made by the company.

The movie didn’t do well, and received terrible reviews. It probably would have completely slipped from memory, except that it’s about pirates, and provides such an odd little footnote in the list of pirate movies.

On a much larger budget, Cutthroat Island aimed much higher, spent a lot more money, and came out about even in the ratings department. It was supposed to be an opportunity for Geena Davis, previously known as a star of light comedies, to become an action heroine.

Unfortunately, difficulties casting a leading man, messed up the production and drove up expenses, and it turned out that Davis didn’t have a strong enough personality to be quite believable as a pirate captain. This, combined with an overabundance of times when the leads nearly fall to their deaths, only to be saved by landing on a piece of waded-up sailcloth, or a banana leaf, and topped off by the film’s extremely weak ending, made the movie one of the biggest flops of all time.

There was certainly no problem with the costumes. It was becoming acceptable for a movie to be shadowy, and the production makes good use of firelight and candlelight for atmosphere. All the costumes are suitably worn and dirty.

This is a world where even the good guys don’t wash too often. Even the rich party-clothes of the nobility seem a little tawdry, a little tarnished.

This movie takes place in the late 1600’s, the era of Captain Morgan. Davis spends most of the beginning of the show in a very practical suit of men’s clothes (a set of garments that’s actually about 100 years too late, but which matches much of the other clothing in tone).

But female pirates need to wear sexy clothes, and the story gives Davis a chance to wear a beautiful noblewoman’s dress, with all the accoutrements, as she goes into town to look for someone to translate the inevitable treasure map. Circumstances lead to a chase, which leads to Davis loosing most of this outfit. She has a great scene driving a team of white horses madly through town, wearing little beside her expensive embroidered bodice and a pair of bloomers.

Later she has occasion to switch clothing with a streetwalker by way of a disguise. Davis succeeds here in being sensual and sexy, and the dirty, worn clothing is both scuzzy enough and attractive enough to stand beside any pirate costume ever.

Further proof here that the details tell you who the main players are. When the streetwalker is wearing the outfit, she has quite good in-period hair and makeup. Davis wears it with “natural look” makeup and hair that would have been popular among the movie’s viewers when it was released. The result is a look that’s not accurate but far more attractive, while not seeming to stray too much from the rest of the movie’s look.)

The authorities were slightly boxy red coats and full-bottomed wigs, a-la Captain Hook, but without the panache. It’s easy to dislike them, especially the governor, whose white makeup and beauty mark are entirely in period, but which make him look effete and slimy.

Dawg (played by Frank Langela) Davis’s uncle and nemesis, is the only person in the movie with a wildly unlikely look. As a successful pirate, Dawg should be wearing an embroidered coat, even if it’s in disrepair. Instead he wears a period vest, with no shirt under it.

It’s unlikely that anyone in the time of the movie would have actually dressed like this. A shirt was underwear, and a vest wouldn’t have been worn without one, especially since the vest would be wool. But Dawg is a man who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. The strange clothing, his close-cropped hair, different from anyone else in the cast, set him completely apart.

If only the rest of the movie has stood up as well as the clothes.  

Monday, November 10, 2014

Pirate Costumes in Movies - Part 2

As we discussed in the previous article, the costumes in pirate movies have jobs to do. They need to make the star look good, give us a strong sense of the exotic, and enhance the theme of the movie. With the advent of Technicolor, pirate costumes needed to fulfill another requirements. They needed to be colorful!

The first movie we’ll look at is The Black Swan, from 1942. For the time, this show had a relatively gritty look. It also gets one thing about pirates just right… Shipboard clothing was often very different from what the pirates wore to impress the ladies on shore.

Tommy Blue, a secondary character and comic relief, doesn’t care much for his appearance. He’s usually in work clothes, baggy pants, a head scarf, and my favorite, a baggy shirt with the sleeves ripped off at the elbows. This small details was the reason I first began to like the movie.  

The main character, Jamie, is shirtless (sexy male lead) or coatless throughout many of his shipboard scenes, but on shore he wears a dashing cape and a black hat – not period clothing at all, but romantic, as befits a leading man. I don’t know how much input the actor Tyrone Power had into his costume, but these are clearly clothes that are used to make him look good.

Another character in this movie is Henry Morgan, closely based on the historic pirate. The costume designer (Earl Luick) takes this very seriously… The fictional Morgan, governor of Jamaica, dresses much as as the historic Morgan would have done… Including a “full bottomed wig,” an extravagant piece of headwear that looks extremely foppish, even stupid to the modern viewer. But this character is supposed to be sympathetic.

This problem is solved partially by dressing the character in somber tones – grey, brown, earthy red. His wig is a restrained as the style of the time would allow. And the actor is given a charming bit of business where he takes the wig off, scratches his head and then puts it back on. This both establishes that the character isn’t comfortable in his elaborate formal attire, and endears him to the audience.

Later on, as with most of the piratical characters, Morgan goes to sea and appears in a much more practical outfit… Pirate clothes in the more classical sense, rugged, drab and plain.

Contrast this with the evil Don Miguel, who wears the same type of formal clothing that Morgan does in his “official” scenes. The bad guy’s outfit is far more over-the-top. It’s very shiny satin, elaborately decorated with lace and bows (both appropriate to men of the time, but effete by modern standards). The wig is shiny as well, and extreme in both length and fullness.

The character’s black beard (not historically typical) and eyebrows contrast with all this, letting us know that, even though he looks like a poof, this bad guy needs to be taken seriously.

One more costuming note: While we don’t know about Tyrone Power’s input into his costume, we do know about George Sanders, who played evil pirate captain Leech. Sanders was forced into the role by his studio. He demanded, however, that his character wear a long, distinctive red beard. Why? He didn’t want his fans to see him playing a dirty, unsophisticated character. And he wanted to make it as easy as possible for stunt doubles to take over.

In Against All Flags, a lower budget pirate movie, color was an even more important feature. Many of the characters wear very modern shades of very bright colors (notice the lavender stripe on O’Hara’s head scarf, and the matching feather). Such shades are only possible with modern chemical dyes.

The female pirate’s main job is to be sexy, and she comes outfitted with a gold spanged green coat that sets off her hair, and a pair of black leather crotch-high boots that have one, only one, obvious function.

O’Hara also features a hairstyle that makes no pretense of being current with her costumes. It’s an interesting fact that in movies set in the past, characters often wear hairstyles current to the time the moves was being shot. (Saying “modern” doesn’t quite work with a movie that was made over 60 years ago.) The people who analyze such things tell us that this helps the audience to relate, since the character’s “head” is in the present.)

There’s also a scene where she gratuitously puts on an evening gown – probably just so the men in the audience have a chance to see Maureen O’Hara in an evening gown.

The bad guy, played by Anthony Quinn, also wears the height of sexy pirate fashion. Tight bright and color-matched, the costumes display the character’s success as a pirate. The very white shirts highlight his swarthy skin, emphasizing his exotic attractiveness (Quinn was Mexican American). His black silk head scarf sets off his dark eyes.

The good guy, played by Errol Flynn, is much more conservatively dressed throughout. This serves to remind the audience that he’s not really a pirate, only a navy officer spying on them.

Flynn, who had been the king of the swashbucklers for years, was no longer the man he had been. Deep in alcoholism, he was forbidden to drink on the set, but got around this rule by spending his evening injecting oranges with vodka, then snacking on the fruit during the day. He was pickled throughout most of the film.

This wasn’t a serious pirate movie… Not with the bad guy in such tight white velvet pants, and the leading man almost too drunk to stand. Other signs? Ship footage from The Black Swan, a decade before, is prominently used during the movie.

But all the costumes were brand new.   

Monday, November 3, 2014

Pirate Costumes in the Movies

I’ve written quite a bit about pirate clothing, but have not yet touched on what makes pirate costumes so special when they’re in the movies.

When we’re looking at a picture of a historical pirate in a book, or making our own costumes to wear for events, the largest consideration is whether or not this looks like pirate clothing. Movie costumes must meet a number of requirements.

In a movie, costumes must meet budget requirements, clearly identify the wearer as star or walk-on, provide a flavor of long-ago-and-far-away, and match the theme of the movie. Keeping the star happy is another consideration, which comes into the story of several pirate movies.

We’ll look first at The Black Pirate (1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks was one of the earliest of the great Hollywood stars. He was the sexiest man on the screen, a dashing figure who did all his own stunts and swept the ladies off their feet, both on screen and off – kind of like a combination of George Clooney and Jason Statham. He was one of the three stars who created the United Artists studio.

When he set out to do a pirate film, he threw all historical accuracy out the window. After all, who knew what pirates looked like anyway? Fairbanks wanted to show off his (for the time) outstanding physique. At home he exercised in the nude, and his costume for this movie was as close to nudity as he could get in the mid 1920’s. In fact, it looks like nothing so much as a pair of running shorts and a tank top.

If you look closely at the group picture, you will see that the rest of the pirates are in standard pirate gear, baggy shirts, baggy pants and boots, though a few striped shirts show up as well.

The difference is star power. Very often, even today, stars are let loose a room full of assorted costume pieces to “create” their character in front of a mirror. Fairbanks in The Black Pirate is probably the most exaggerated version of this. He dressed himself so scantily that the posters don’t even show his costume as it really was… Notice how they modestly cut him off at the legs. Apparently the public wasn’t ready for such sex appeal. (At least in certain cities. Other posters were more explicit.)

Another very early pirate whose costuming dates back to the silent age is the infamous Captain Hook. Barry, Hook’s creator, was very specific in his description of the pirate. Hook looked like – and dressed like – Charles II, king of England from 1660 to 1685, a career as a ruler that runs almost exactly parallel with Captain henry Morgan’s career pillaging the Spanish Main.

Hook’s costume of long coat, fancy buckled shoes and extravagant wig remain largely consistent throughout his many appearances, from 1904 (the original play Peter Pan) to the present.   Hook’s extravagant dress is only limited by the constraints of the film’s budget and the requirement of the character to move.

For over a hundred years, Hook wore a flamboyant cavalier hat with an extravagant plume, a long coat covered with gold trim, tight breeches that ended at the knee and buckled shoes. It’s a pretty close approximation to what Charles himself wore, but Hook’s coat was red, always. Why? It could be just the image of the thing, a pirate captain in a red coat. Or it may hark back to Captain Morgan, who, famously, raised a navy in Jamaica by putting on his best red coat and going from tavern to tavern all night long, making speeches about patriotism and gold.

Only with the most recent incarnation of Hook has he lost his trademark look. In the current TV series, Once Upon a Time, Hook has a new coat, in dark brown leather and – for the first time, boots. The red remains only in his vest.

Why the change? Partially to update the character, making it possible for him to become a love interest. The traditional Hook regalia appeared too “swish” for the 21st century. Indeed, Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins decided between themselves that Hook and Smee were lovers. In order to meet the requirements of the storyline, Hook had to modernize. The leather coat transforms a historic figure into a modern bad-boy, just like that.

Hook also sport guy-liner nowadays, and that can only refer back to the 21st century’s most all-pervading pirate, Jack Sparrow. Jack changed the pirate costume game. We’ll analyze him later.

Come back next week for more Pirate Costumes in the Movies.