Monday, March 21, 2016

Anne of the Indies – Pirate Spitfire

I’ve always said that I fell in love with pirates when I saw Johnny Depp stagger across the screen for the first time. It’s true – I felt, and still feel, that POTC got the pirate genre just right. The bad guys were really bad, but the good guys were a little bad, too. And everyone needed a bath.

But I recently had a major revelation about why pirates have been so dear to me. It came in the form of a movie, Anne of the Indies, which showed up on Turner Classic Movies a week ago.

Suddenly it all came back. This 1951 adventure flick is so old that is was showing on TV when I was a child – a very small child I might add. And Anne of the Indies is about a female pirate.

Now, female pirates are still a very rare commodity, and they are rarely done right. Even the Queen of the Swashbucklers, Maureen O’Hara, didn’t captain her own ship, but held the honorary position of “Captain” because she owned a pirate vessel. The recent addition of Penelope Cruz’s Angelica to the lineup of female pirates hasn’t done much. Angelica is firmly under the thumb of her powerful father, Blackbeard.

Someday I may write an analysis of female pirates in movies, but today it’s about a particular movie. As I said, Anne showed up when I was very small. Living in a blue-collar family in the 1960’s, strong female role models were few and far between. My mom was partial to Eleanor Roosevelt, but she’s a tough role-model for a small child. However, I received a massive jolt of fierce self-esteem in the form of Jean Peters playing Anne Providence, a real swashbuckling pirate captain.

Anne captivated me. She wore men’s clothes, bossed the crew around like a pro, killed the captives, made jokes about rum and wenches (even thought I was far too young to understand them) and generally kicked ass. I wanted to climb through our TV screen and join her crew immediately.

Jean Peters was as beautiful as you needed to be to achieve stardom in 1950’s Hollywood. But, in true pirate-girl style, she fought against the star system of the time. She simply refused “glamorous” roles. Instead, she played more down-to-earth women.

Jean Peters

Her first movies was The Captain from Castile, a historical drama set in the early years of Spain’s conquest of the New World. She played opposite heartthrob Tyrone Power (who would later portray pirate Jamie Warring in The Black Swan.) After that she mostly showed up in Westerns – the kind of movie were a strong, feisty woman could be at home.

Peters campaigned to get the role of Anne Providence, and some say that it was the breakthrough hit of her career. But later she fought with the studio, which wanted her to take parts that emphasized physical appeal over emotion. After several successful roles, (including Pickup on South Street, for which Marilyn Monroe tutored her on how to play a siren) she retired in 1955. She married reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, and then pretty much disappeared from sight.

One of the other “just right” parts in Anne is that of the pirate’s surgeon, Dr. Jameson, played by Herbert Marshall. Why, exactly, a full-fledged doctor is serving on a pirate ship is never explained, but Marshall’s Jameson performs with a moral exhaustion that hints at some horrible past. One line also tempts us – “Now I will have committed every sin.” We wonder how he could have racked up so many, because the doctor, Anne’s confidant, is a very sympathetic character. (The actor, Marshall, was inconstant pain from a war wound that has cost him his right leg. He managed to go back to acting, and hid the fact that he had an artificial limb.)

Dr Jameson

It’s been said that there are only two stories – Either “a person goes on a journey”, or “a stranger comes into town.” In the case of Anne, the stranger who comes on board Anne’s pirate ship is Frenchman Louis Jordan, playing the French captain Pierre François La Rochelle. Jordan was a staple in Hollywood films – whenever a suave, sexy leading man was called for, he could probably fill the bill. Interestingly enough, the film that was supposed to be his first was called Le Corsaire (The Pirate). Production had been stopped when the Germans captured Paris in WWII.

I don’t want to spell out the plot of Anne of the Indies – it’s available on line, but comes with a warning. “You’ll enjoy this movie better if you don’t know anything about it.” And I think this is true.

Louis Jordan
One of the many things that is “right” about the movie is Jordan’s character is entangled with the Irish. His ship is named the Molly O’Brien. Another thing is that his story is convoluted enough that, like Dr. Jameson, you never quite find out all of it. Is he a pirate? A captain of the French navy? A privateer? We never know for sure. I think this is story-telling for grownups. Every detail doesn't need to be spelled out.

Of course, no movie is perfect. Blackbeard appears in Anne, but he’s largely played for laughs, something I’ll never enjoy. And, while most of the movie’s sets are wonderful – crowded ship decks, exotic islands, the sea itself, one set stands out glaringly.  The Spanish port of Maracaibo is for some reason dressed up like an Arabian village. The only possible reason for this is that slaves are being sold here, and someone must have thought that only Arabs had slaves.

Thomas Gomez as Blackbeard

As child, I couldn’t understand the ending of this movie. It’s not exactly happy, and at the time I had no idea what rum and a lovesick heart can do to a person. But it’s definitely worth a look. The movie is not available on DVD, but camp out on Turner Classic Movies. Anne of the Indies is worth the wait. It's now a permanent fixture in my TeVo list, and will remain there for quite a while.

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