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Organ pipes blow wind into the sails for ‘Old Ironsides’

The Everett Collection

The national convention of the American Guild of Organists meets in Boston this week. The festivities include an homage to the pipe organ’s most gloriously non-sacred incarnation: on June 25 and 26, Peter Krasinski will improvise accompaniment to a geographically appropriate movie: director James Cruze’s 1926 silent epic, “Old Ironsides.”

The film parallels the voyages of the Esther, a merchant ship out of Salem, and the USS Constitution: The Esther is captured by Tripolitan pirates, the Constitution battles them. The romantic leads were New Englanders, Maine-born Esther Ralston (a vaudeville veteran Florenz Ziegfield Jr. dubbed “The American Venus”) and Massachusetts-born Charles Farrell. Other roles featured once and future celebrities: gold-medal swimmer and surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku as a pirate captain, Boris Karloff in a bit part as a Saracen guard. The Esther’s cook was played by the great African-American boxer George Godfrey, who was denied a shot at the world heavyweight championship despite recording 80 knockouts over an 18-year-career.


By design, Wallace Beery and George Bancroft stole the show, typecast as their then-customary screen personae: Beery a Dickensian rogue, Bancroft a gruff heavy. (Bancroft’s in-movie tattoo reveals that his character’s name is, in fact, “G. Bancroft.”) But the real star was the ship itself. Standing in for the USS Constitution was the Maine-built downeaster Llewellyn J. Morse, first launched in 1877. Producers bought it for $4,500 (from Douglas Fairbanks’s film company), refitting it — with new masts and a false hull — to match the original Constitution.

Screenings featured a process called Magnascope, which magnified the picture with a zoom lens as curtains pulled back, widening the screen: “[T]he great boat appeared to sail straight out of the screen into the audience,” the Globe reported. Filmed on the water off Catalina Island, “Old Ironsides” provided, according to one reviewer, “a true conception of a frigate at sea.” (The realism came at a price: during filming of the climactic battle scene, the detonation of dynamite charges drilled into the masts — simulating cannonball impacts — killed one sailor extra.)


“Old Ironsides” was a box office failure, though gala screenings raised money for the actual USS Constitution’s restoration. The Llewellyn J. Morse, ironically, fell victim to piracy — or, at least, a pirate ship: the Ning Po, an 18th-century Chinese raider that became a California tourist attraction. Its 1938 destruction by fire in Catalina Harbor took with it a number of neighboring vessels, including the screen version of “Old Ironsides.”

Peter Krasinski improvises organ accompaniment to “Old Ironsides” (1926) Wednesday and Thursday at 8:45 p.m. at Old South Church, Boston (tickets $20; www.agoboston2014.org/ticketavailability/).

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.