Last night, our good friends invited us to accompany them to Los Angeles to attend a rare screening of Warner Brothers 1935 classic Captain Blood at Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater. The event was hosted by the Los Angeles Conservancy, a group which seeks to preserve LA’s cultural and architectural heritage, as part of their Last Remaining Seats series which is dedicated to screening the classic films of Hollywood in Los Angeles’ remaining classic movie houses. John and I both love classic films and this has long been one of my favorites, though it was a first-time viewing for John. There’s really nothing like seeing a classic film on the big screen. What a treat! It was a great beauty break, both on-screen and off.
About the theater…….Sid Grauman (yes, that Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese fame)apparently opened the theater in 1918, seeking to diversify after the San Franciso earthquake damaged some of his property in the Bay area. It is reported he spent $1,000,000 to build the theater, hence the name. (This is an interesting contrast in that the production costs for Captain Blood were in the $700,000 range, which was a huge amount of money to spend on a film for that time, especially during the Depression era. We’re talking blockbuster expenditure here.) And the money shows. Elaborately carved circular wood ceilings easily soaring beyond 50 feet above the orchestra seats, a deep, steep balcony high above the proscenium stage with a magnificent view of the screen, gilded wood trim on simply everything, red back lighting behind dark wood, sumptuous velvet draperies, and Gothic wood alcoves which held the organ pipes for the old Wurlitzer. This photo to the left is the view from our seats. Just going to see a show in such a theater was an occasion. It was easy to imagine what it had been like in its glory days. I think the quality of the theaters in the golden age of Hollywood really reflected the idea that film is an “art” worthy of being experienced in elegant, beautiful surroundings. The theater then necessarily reflected respect and esteem for the art of filmmaking and for those who participated in it. I would argue things are quite a bit different now — I cannot remember the last time I entered a modern movie theater and gasped in awe at its beauty. If the film is artfully done, the movie house should serve as the setting which shows it off at its most brilliant. Grauman’s Million Dollar Theater serves as just such a setting for Hollywood’s gems.
This isn’t to suggest that every theater achieved such a level of refinement, or that every film old Hollywood put out could even be considered art. Quite simply, there was an effort and an emphasis in those days that has been lost, and both the Million Dollar Theater, as a showcase setting,and Captain Blood, as a timely tale of virtue and chivalry in the face of trials, illustrate this effectively.
The film is based on the novel of the same name by Rafael Sabatini, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland cast as the main characters, Peter Blood and Arabella Bishop, respectively. The plot, briefly: British physician and gentleman Peter Blood is sold into slavery in Port Royal after being wrongfully accused of treason in a plot to overthrow the evil King James. He and his companions endure much cruelty and torture before Peter is able to use his skills as a doctor to help them all escape. They cleverly steal a pirate ship, thereafter vowing to become pirates all, as they have no home or country to which they can return. And so begins Blood’s notorious, albeit chivalrous, career of piracy. Still, we see that what meant the most to him as a physician — the vow he had taken to “do no harm” — seems to have been buried in his greater desire for revenge. He breaks this vow by his life of piracy. Thus, when Peter again encounters Arabella on board his own ship, after he has “bought” her back from the lecherous Lavasseur (brilliantly played by Basil Rathbone) she spurns him. In Peter’s mind, he has reclaimed his manhood and his freedom, symbolized by all of the pillaged treasure he encyclopedically parades before her; however, to Arabella, he has sold out, merely escaping from one form of slavery into another, and she’ll have none of it. She reminds him of who and what he used to be, of the dignity he possessed as a man and a physician, and suddenly Peter sees that his willing enslavement to revenge has not only led him to break his professional and chivalric vows, but has lost him the thing he wanted most– Arabella’s love. Of course, the story doesn’t end there — but you’ll just have to see the movie to find out what does happen! Truly, Arabella stands as a reminder for all that is noble and good and she reminds Peter of the unspoken code of chivalry which he had always held himself to. She raises his heart and mind to something higher than his baser instincts. These are timeless, beautiful, and necessary themes that are sadly missing in the majority of today’s films.
Amazingly, Olivia de Havilland was only 19 years old when she made this film. She and Errol would go on to make eight more films together, all of which are wonderful as they had quite a chemistry. Right from the first, she captivates the viewer and demonstrates her grace and beauty on-screen. She brought this grace and beauty to whatever character she portrayed in such a natural way that she fully commanded the attention of the audience with her presence. It seems to me a case of the person infusing the character, and not vice-versa. For my part, I can’t think of any tween or twenty-something actress today that has such presence, such command of an audience, who captures the definition of what it means to be a lady in the classical sense of the word. Of course, older actresses come to mind, but who now, at 19, possesses this trait? Its more than being just a pretty face. Any beautiful woman can draw attention simply by her beauty alone; but it’s not every beautiful woman who is also able to inspire a man to strive for what is noble and good and virtuous. Because Olivia de Havilland was a lady, it was easy to believe her character’s challenge to Peter — to reclaim his life and live it for the higher purpose he was called to rather than the degradation and false freedom he had chosen to sink to. If more actresses today had that spark of beauty and grace within themselves, they’d be better role models for our girls, and inspire more men to lives of noble virtue.
If you’re in LA or environs, make plans to stop at the Million Dollar Theater for a nostalgic beauty break — you won’t be disappointed. And if you’ve got young boys or girls — or are young at heart yourself — make some time to watch Captain Blood — you’ll experience beautiful filmmaking, a compelling story, and classical themes of beauty and grace that are priceless.
Thanks so much, Bob and Kris, for a spectacularly beautiful evening!