"The Black Pirate" (1926), UHD. A Kino Lorber release from 2010.
Video for this restored, Silent Film is 1080p/24 -- ORIGINAL COLOR! -- presented in 4:3 Aspect Ratio. It is accompanied either by the 1966, Robert Israel, re-creation of the original, Theatrical orchestral score (in LPCM 2.0 48kHz 24-bit), or by Lee Erwin's modern, organ score (in DD 2.0 48kHz).
Extras include an excellent Commentary track by Film Historian, Rudy Belhmer. Also 18 minutes of outtakes, narrated by Behlmer. Plus an additional 29 minutes of other outtakes, recovered during the restoration process, shown without narration. And a manual-advance, still photos gallery.
In addition, this disc includes the entire, "narrated talkie", re-release of the film -- in Black & White.
WOW! Come on, me hearties it's time to buckle your swash!
Cast your mind back:
It's 1926, and Douglas Fairbanks, then 42 and owner of his own studio, has decided he wants to get away from the more, light-comedy, action roles he's recently been playing and make a full-on, all-action movie.
AND he wants to do it in full color!
This is 4 years after the development of the 2-strip Technicolor process (and 6 years before the introduction of the more famous, 3-strip version). Previous attempts to make full color films (as opposed to tinted films like sepia prints) involved either hand painting EVERY print -- way too expensive for a feature length film -- or a new process which projected black and white film at double frame rate through a rotating color filter wheel to merge alternate colors. The resulting flashing and color fringing caused viewers to become nauseous and suffer severe headaches, leaving color films with a decidedly bad reputation. (Shades of today's 3D stuff)!
The 2-strip Technicolor process eliminated the filter wheel, the flashing, and the color fringing, but there were still questions about whether watching in color would be "too tiring" to viewers. Before committing to the film, Fairbanks commissioned a medical study -- actually published in the professional, medical journal, JAMA -- demonstrating just the opposite.
The next problem was whether color would be too "distracting" to the story. Fairbanks went through a series of tests: How MUCH color could you include before it became garish or distracting?
Then there was the problem of lighting and color matching. The filming required 2 to 3 times the amount of light as normal Black & White of the day. And the only lighting available strong enough for indoor shots was carbon arc lamps -- which have a substantially different "color temperature" from sunlight. So just about everything in the production had to be designed TWICE -- two distinct sets of costumes, actor makeup, props, etc. -- so that indoor and outdoor shots would match!
The 2-strip process produced 2 black and white negatives, one shot through a red-orange filter, the other shot through a blue-green filter. When developed, dyed, and combined the result was a color palette which excluded yellows. So the entire production design had to be planned around lack of yellow (which makes flesh tones a neat trick!).
Having figured out how to do all that, the production details were still daunting. The Technicolor camera was hand cranked at 48 frames per second (very tiring for the operator). There were only 7 such cameras in the first place -- Fairbanks secured 4 of those. For most shots, 3 were just held available as spares. But for the climactic, final rescue scene at sea he had all 4 of them cranking, and even brought in a 5th!
Each camera had lashed to it ANOTHER camera shooting regular black and white through the same length lens, which would serve dual duty as the protection negative and as the master negative for production of black and white prints for foreign release. (In those days, the practice was to send a "foreign negative" overseas and have prints made there, sometimes varying from the US release as the editing choices were different in the foreign negative, as, of course, were the dialog title cards.)
Even developing was a chore. Technicolor up until very recently had required negatives be shipped to them in Boston for developing -- something which would never work in a feature film's production schedule. But they had just opened a new processing operation in Hollywood, and this would be its big test.
Producing a print involved developing and separately dyeing the two film strips and then cementing them back to back (film emulsion out) to produce a single projection positive. More on the consequences of that later.
Fairbanks also decided that he would commission a new orchestral score just for the picture. The composer (Mortimer Wilson) actually got to work on the score WHILE the film was being made -- unusual for the time -- so the visuals and music could be better coordinated.
This Kino disc includes a 1996 performance of that original score, conducted by Robert Israel, presented in an uncompressed Stereo LPCM track which sounds just wonderful. The disc also includes an alternate, organ score (in a lossy track) as an example of what many theater audiences would have heard in venues which could not afford the musical ensemble necessary to present the orchestral original.
As for the story itself, it doesn't appear Fairbanks really gave too much thought to plot or story line. His main requirement was for something which would tie together his intended series of action sequences. Even in critical reviews of the time the story line was recognized as thin, but who cared? The action was marvelous. And it was in color!
The release of the film was a sensation. It was also a major headache for Technicolor. First of all, the two positives cemented together were not precisely on the same plane, which meant there was some inherent resolution loss. Second, having the emulsion facing out on both sides meant the film "cupped" under the heat of the projection lamp. And the direction of cupping would tend to reverse as the film was played -- resulting in jarring shifts which audiences complained about. Third, untrained projectionists had no clue how to handle the double-thick film properly. They were frequently tearing and scratching it. Technicolor was kept constantly busy recalling cupped and damaged prints for replacement. And the process of making the prints in the first place was so time consuming they simply couldn't make them fast enough. Which meant many theaters had to make do with Black & White prints. Which STILL packed the theaters. (Heck the action looked just as good, even in Black & White!)
Finally as time went on, the instabilities in the color dyes, and the degradation of the cement used, basically meant the color prints became unwatchable. All too soon, ONLY Black & White prints were available.
Later on, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., re-released his father's film as a "talkie"; the idea being to get his father's work in front of newer audiences. He edited out the title cards and added a narration in their place. By that time he only had Black & White to work with. This Kino disc includes his talkie re-release as an "Extra", which means you also get to see what the Black & White prints were like. ALSO a nifty transfer, by the way.
The restoration work for this film, begun back in 1970, is based on original camera negatives, which were preserved in museum conditions in England. Since modern prints (and of course Blu-ray) don't have to deal with two layers of film cemented together, the version available on this disc is, in all likelihood, SHARPER than the original Theatrical presentation.
It is also remarkably clean for its age. The restorers did an excellent job handling negative shrinkage, and matching the original color palette within modern film technology. In the very few cases where damage was too extensive, they resorted to cutting in very brief scenes from the Black & White version.
The weaknesses of the original are still evident of course. Flesh tones look kind of sun-burnt. Night scenes have very limited dynamic range. And there is none of the gorgeous color gamut of the 3-strip Technicolor process yet to come. But even given all that, it just looks great! The PQ on this disc is entirely up to the task, with no technical problems whatsoever.
As mentioned above the default musical track is an uncompressed, modern, Stereo recording of the original, orchestral score; and the AQ is really VERY good. If you've never watched a Silent Film presented with a proper orchestral score, by all means watch this one. You'll be astounded how much the score adds to the enjoyment of the film. Keep in mind, in the original Theatrical presentations, this music was being performed live for every showing.
From a story point of view, this film is kind of like the Cirque du Soleil of its day: Not much more than a basic framework of a story line allowing Fairbanks to link together fabulous set pieces of action. As for the stunts and "special effects", keep in mind this is 1926 and they are still inventing all this stuff! Even things we take for granted as filming basics today were not nearly so simple back then. For example, dissolves had to be done "in camera" because there was no such thing as optical printers. Given all that, the action sequences are even more amazing.
Indeed, some of the shots puzzle professionals, even today, as to just how he did it! (This is the film which includes the iconic shot of Fairbanks sliding down a ship's sail -- slicing it with his sword as the only thing to control his descent.)
There were no Oscars for this film of course. It wouldn't be until the following year, 1927, that Douglas Fairbanks co-founded the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and became its first President.
Kino has produced yet another outstanding Blu-ray disc, presenting what I believe remains the oldest, full color, feature-length film available on Blu-ray.
The extras on this disc are also top notch. In addition to the "talkie", Black & White version of the film mentioned above, there is an outstanding Commentary track by Rudy Behlmer for the main feature, and a selection of deleted scenes also narrated by him -- and even slowed down (or reversed for "reverse-filmed action" shots) so you can get a better look at Fairbanks making this stuff look easy. There's an additional collection of un-narrated outtakes for those who still want more. There's also a still photo gallery presented in HD. All nifty stuff.
AVAILABILITY NOTE: This Kino disc is no longer in print. Used, and even new copies can still be purchased at a premium, however. And various disc rental outfits also stock it.
Very impressive, in every respect. Highly recommended!