Release Date(s)1951 (March 14, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal-International (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
Donald O’Connor is chiefly remembered today for a four-minute piece of film—his show-stopping acrobatic dance number Make ‘Em Laugh, in MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952). For that reason, many wrongly assume he was under contract there, an MGM star like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. In fact, O’Connor spent the bulk of his starring career under contract at Universal, from 1941-1954. Born in 1925, he began appearing in films from the age of eleven, but it was at lowly Universal where his career really took off.
It was there O’Connor, still a teenager, started making low-budget musicals and comedies opposite Gloria Jean and other young contract talent, the studio’s response to the huge popularity of MGM’s Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland pictures, Universal cranking these features out like so many sausages. When O’Connor was drafted into the Army on his 18th birthday, Universal rushed four more into production prior to his induction six months later, resulting in a backlog of seven O’Connor pictures, enough for the entire two years he served. Though he never cracked the Top Ten of box-office stars, O’Connor’s films were solid money-earners for Universal; conversely, these movies are nearly forgotten today, even by film buffs. Remember Get Hep to Love? Give Out, Sisters? Me, neither.
After the war, and with the studio under new management as Universal-International, O’Connor’s popularity continued rising but the company mismanaged his career, sticking him in a peculiar mix of lower-case but still-glossy “A” vehicles and higher-profile if lowbrow, cut-rate comedies. Of the latter, the Francis the Talking Mule films, beginning with Francis in 1949, unaccountably became quite popular, to O’Connor’s growing displeasure. Of the former, Double Crossbones (1951) is an unusually good example. Filmed in Technicolor, it plays a lot like Bob Hope’s contemporaneous comedies being made at Paramount.
In 18th century Charleston, South Carolina, O’Connor is Davey Crandall, shopkeeper’s apprentice, who along with shop owner Caleb Nicholas (Morgan Farley) and co-worker Tom Botts (Will Geer) are arrested for selling stolen goods and taken before territorial governor Gerald Elden (John Emery). Elden, who is actually trafficking goods stolen by Pirates, shoots Nicholas dead but Davey and Tom escape, buying passage aboard a ship captained by Bloodthirsty Ben Wickett (Charles McGraw), they unaware he and his men are actually pirates. (Despite this, their vessel is unusually luxurious for a pirate ship.) Upon reaching the open sea, Wickett plans on tossing Davey and Tom overboard, but Davey breaks out in hives which the pirates mistake for the pox and in a panic they abandon ship, leaving the vessel to Davey and Tom. To man the new ship at their command, Davey and Tom rescue men being transported to debtor’s prison (prominent among them is a young James Arness), and sail to the Island of Tortuga, home port of all the great pirates: Henry Morgan (Robert Barrat), Captain Kidd (Alan Napier), Anne Bonney (Hope Emerson), Captain Long Ben Avery (Glenn Strange), and Blackbeard (Louis Bacigalupi).
This rogues gallery of pirates hints that perhaps, at least at some point early on, Double Crossbones might have been earmarked for Abbott & Costello. The comedy team had a recent huge hit with Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), and Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949) soon followed. The ongoing popularity of the swashbucklers would seem to make “Abbott and Costello Meet the Pirates” a natural, and with minimal retooling the parts played by O’Connor and Geer could easily have been played by Bud and Lou. Their usual writer, John Grant, wrote material for Double Crossbones, some of which has a strong, even derivative A&C flavor, while Charles Barton, who directed the team’s first two Meet films, is at the helm here as well.
But even if Double Crossbones was conceived for O’Connor from the beginning, one can’t help but wonder if Bud and Lou weren’t more than a little jealous of O’Connor’s treatment by the studio. They were much bigger stars during the ‘40s though they began slipping a bit by the early ‘50s. They frequently complained that Universal put them in films—always in black-and-white—with second-rate production values, and yet the Technicolor Double Crossbones looks more expensive than, say, Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (also 1951), which cost $627,000. (At a guess, Double Crossbones probably came in at around $800,000.) Notably, independently for Warner Bros., the team would eventually make Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd, in color, a 1952 release.
O’Connor himself thought Double Crossbones “one of the worst pictures ever made” but, while it’s undeniably a formula action-comedy, it does deliver the goods, and O’Connor himself gives a spirited, athletic performance, at one point even briefly dancing up walls, anticipating his far more ambitious Make ‘Em Laugh number. Some of the gags are tired and overly-familiar, but he’s surrounded by lavish production values—far more lavish than the undernourished Meet Captain Kidd—and it has a great cast of character actors: Charles McGraw, John Emery, Hayden Rorke (as Emery’s lieutenant), Glenn Strange, Alan Napier, Hope Emerson (who voice seems dubbed). Jeff Chandler, a rising star at Universal, provides the film’s narration, uncredited.
Will Geer, later famous as Grandpa Walton on The Waltons, had been kicking around since the early 1930s, but recently had begun attracting attention in prominent character parts, especially as Wyatt Earp in the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Western hit Winchester ’73. An unapologetic American communist (and homosexual besides), Geer was blacklisted by Hollywood soon after Double Crossbones’ release, reemerging, ironically, playing a Strom Thurmond-esque conservative U.S. Senator in Otto Preminger’s film of Advise and Consent (1962). Given Geer’s background, it’s rather bemusing to see him clowning broadly with Donald O’Connor, yet his performance here is distinctive, even delightful.
In its own modest way, the film is reasonably amusing and well-paced; at 76 minutes, there’s no time for it to wear out its welcome. Director Charles Barton, a former actor and assistant director, segued into directing assignments from low-budget Westerns to nervous “A” features like this one. He was good with actors and had a strong visual sense, plus he worked fast and had a flair for comedy, a rare combination.
Kino’s Blu-ray of Double Crossbones is presented in its original 1.37:1 standard aspect ratio. The video transfer of the three-strip Technicolor production is mostly excellent—colors really pop with primary richness and I noticed little in the way of misaligned matrixes, so this may be derived from the original camera negatives. The picture has the storybook look of Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride, and the extensive use of miniatures of the pirate ships is particularly fun on big screens. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) is fine, and supported by optional English subtitles on this Region “A” disc.
A new audio commentary track by Lee Gambin and actor/film historian Gary Frank (to clarify, he’s not in the film) is okay. Some promotional material for this release mentions a trailer among the extra features, but I certainly couldn’t find one.
No great masterpiece of comedy but pleasant and colorful, for classic movie fans this is Recommended.
- Stuart Galbraith IV