Sunday, November 03, 2002
Well, it is now National Novel Writing Month and, no surprise, my attempt at participation isn't going very well. It seems you can't just sit down and write a novel. I never really expected to get through 50,000 words, so I'm just trying to look at this whole experience as a writing exercise and to get some writing done every day. (Apart from this blog, which is a hell of a lot more fun.)
I set aside all day yesterday to write, only to find myself discovering more and more ingenious ways to pass the time doing other things. One thing I did last night instead of writing was to sit down and watch a movie called "Dancing Pirate" that I bought from Sinister Cinema some time previously because it starred Frank Morgan - one of my favorite character actors. I'd never gotten around to watching it, but with a deadline hanging over my head, what better way to waste 90 minutes?
Well. "Dancing Pirate" turned out to be an early Technicolor musical starring a dancer I'd never heard of named Charles Collins. It was not very good. In fact, it's pretty bad. The movie is set in the 1820's and starts out in Boston, but ends up in Old California. How does this happen? Strenuously. In the first fifteen minutes we get Mr. Collins (who plays a dancing teacher) doing a silly little dance around a room putting candles out at the conclusion of his dance class (he's teaching the waltz), after which he steps out onto the city streets and promptly gets knocked over the head and press-ganged onto a pirate ship. We then see the old routine of a ship model sitting on a map, followed by a moving line that tracks south to Cape Horn and up the other side of the Americas to California in fifteen seconds flat - that must have been one fast pirate ship.
At this point, Mr. Collins jumps ship to get away from the pirates and walks into the town. Unhappily for him, a local shepherd has seen the pirate ship and warned the town, so first he nearly gets his head blown off and then the town wants to hang him as a pirate. I had mental whiplash at this point from following the guy's adventures. But, as with most musicals, having laid the situation in place the action comes to a screeching halt for several dance numbers. The mayor's daughter wants to learn how to waltz, so he teaches her. At first she is affronted, but then she figures out that she likes to, uh, waltz. The stage is set for a happy ending at this point but we've got another 45 minutes to get through, so the Bad Guys from Monterrey down the coast (up the coast? I don't know) show up. Their leader, the Capitaine, wants to marry the mayor's daughter and get control of the rancho which her father, Frank Morgan, owns. They arrest Our Hero under the pretext that he's a pirate - again?? - but the heroine, Serafina, offers her honor to marry the Capitaine on the agreement that they will release Mr. Collins. Our hero (that would be Collins), having had the forethought to befriend a local Indian in the prison, leads his friend and fellow tribesmen in a remarkably fey wardance and thus incites them to overpower all of the Capitaine's militia so that he can break into the church, stop the ceremony, overpower the Capitaine in a swordfight despite the fact that he has no sword (I am not making this up), lead the town in one more samba dance and then lead the heroine into the church. End of movie. God Almighty, what a mess.
A few postmortem comments here. First, Charles Collins, as you will see if you check out the IMDB.com link above, starred in a few movies but not many. From having seen his dance numbers in this thing, I can tell you with a fair amount of confidence that he was being groomed as a Fred Astaire wannabe. He didn't quite cut it, mainly, I think, because the choreography just wasn't up to snuff. I'm no judge of these things, but the guy seemed to be a technically adept dancer. The first two numbers here, though, were enough to put paid to his film career: in the first one (I alluded to this above), he tapdanced around the room to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" (his signature tune throughout the movie) snuffing out candles. Actually, he PRANCED around the room - he didn't dance. Then, when he's pleading for his life in California and trying to prove that he's a dancer, he dances around the gallows where he's about to be hung, with a noose around his neck and his hands tied to his sides. Again, I am NOT making this up. Blair Witch has nothing on this, people. But for those MST3K fans reading this - and I know that you're out there - you will no doubt be pleased to know that Mr. Charles Collins surfaced playing a role in Master Ninja I in 1984 (at the age of 80). He died in 1999.
Two further notes: First, in this film Frank Morgan played his patented blustering ignoramus character that he was to repeat to greater fame, three years later, in "The Wizard Of Oz." I would just like to say that, if you want to see him at his best, rent "The Shop Around the Corner" and watch him do his thing opposite James Stewart. This is one of my very favorite movies and you will NOT be disappointed. Second, one of the chorus dancers in this film was a Rita Cansino dancing with her father, Eduardo Cansino, and their family dance group the Royal Cansinos. She was later to achieve much greater fame as Rita Hayworth. Unfortunately, the print quality was so bad that I couldn't tell which of the chorus dancers she was.