Judge Maurice Cobbs always thought that a buccaneer was too high a price to pay for corn.
Fifteen men on the dead man's chest—
Swashbucklers have long been an essential staple of the Hollywood movie machine, and there is arguably no more famous tale of skullduggery and adventure on the high seas than Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, so it's only natural that this tale should be revisited on the silver screen every generation or so. When most people think of Treasure Island, it's the 1950 Disney version that springs to mind; the studio was somewhat less successful with their 2002 animated reimagining of the story, Treasure Planet. More enthusiastically received was the Muppets' slapstick pastiche, The Muppet Treasure Island, which featured Tim Curry as an appropriately menacing Long John Silver, and the 1990 cable TV production starring Christian Bale, Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, and Oliver Reed. In fact, Stevenson's pirate tale has been adapted for movies and TV more times than anyone can count—some good, some bad, some just downright unfortunate. But one version that definitely stands out from the crowd is this rousing 1934 film, made not only at the height of the golden age of Hollywood cinema, but also when swashbucklers were relatively new to movie audiences, and not yet considered clichéd. With its stellar cast, moody direction, and thrilling battle sequences, this Treasure Island can hold its own with the best of the genre.
Facts of the Case
It was an ominous day when the mysterious Billy Bones (John Barrymore, The Devil-Doll) arrived at the Admiral Benbow Inn—a day that would change the life of young Jim Hawkins (Jackie Cooper, Superman) forever. With Bones's untimely death, a map that leads to riches beyond belief falls into young Hawkins's hands. With trusted friends John Trelawney (Nigel Bruce, The Hound of the Baskervilles) and Dr. Livesey (Otto Kruger, High Noon) and the stalwart Captain Alexander Smollett (Lewis Stone, best known as Andy Hardy's father in that popular series of films), Hawkins is swept along on a thrilling ride (promising money, adventure, fame, the thrill of a lifetime, and a long sea voyage), but when the colorful seaman Long John Silver (Wallace Beery, Grand Hotel) insinuates himself into the bold undertaking, has Hawkins found a surrogate father figure? Or the terrible scoundrel who will betray and destroy him?
Treasure Island is one of the all time great classics, not only of adventure stories, but of literature as a whole, so it is no surprise that filmmakers have returned to the story time and time again. This 1934 version doesn't race along at the breakneck speed of Captain Blood or some of the other swashbuckling classics of the era, but Treasure Island is more than just a swashbuckling adventure. The heart of the story is the odd, bittersweet relationship forged between the young Jim Hawkins and his colorful (if ill-chosen) surrogate father figure, Long John Silver. As we watch the boy become a man in the face of deception and betrayal, youthful naïvety washed away in a flood of greed and violence, it is still difficult to despise the architect of Jim's troubles. As observers, we cannot help but relate. Certainly, there are more honorable men in Jim's life, like the upright Squire John Trelawney, or the stern Captain Smollet, both brave men who would risk their lives to save his, but none of them connect with Jim on the level that Silver does.
Of course, we also know that the bond that Long John Silver works so hard to forge is in fact a cruel deception. Silver, the classic con man, can read Jim like a book and be the things that he craves the most—a mentor, a sympathetic ear, a mischievous companion—while laying plans to betray the boy and perhaps even kill him. We should hate Long John Silver. But thanks to an outstanding performance by Wallace Beery, we cannot. So when Jim makes his final decision regarding Silver's fate at the end of the film, we understand the how and the why. Jim has no illusions about Long John Silver's true nature, and neither do we. But we understand.
It's no wonder that Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery look so good together onscreen. MGM had teamed the popular child star with Beery in the 1931 Academy Award winning film The Champ, casting them as flawed father and devoted son; and in 1933's The Bowery the two share a similar relationship. In Treasure Island, they slip back into these roles with ease; and O'Shaughnessy's Boy would follow in 1935, but none of these films would approach the critical acclaim or popularity of The Champ. Indeed, although the two were always cast against each other as mentor and devoted child, Cooper would much later reveal that he despised working with Beery, whom he recalled as a sadistic, foul-mouthed drunkard with abusive tendencies. And so one is left to wonder, is the Silver-Hawkins relationship in Treasure Island due to on-screen chemistry, in spite of off-screen tension? Or merely a case of art imitating life?
It certainly has nothing to do with Jackie Cooper's acting ability. Though the plucky star has a certain amount of raw talent (which would bear fruit in later films as the actor grew and matured), in these early films, he is obviously getting by on sheer force of adorable personality. This is all right when the scene demands nothing more from him than being cute. But when more subtle nuance is required, especially in the company of such accomplished actors as Beery and Barrymore, Cooper seems to be in over his head—an older, wiser Cooper would look back on these days as a child star and admit, candidly, that "I can see I wasn't involved, and I wasn't very good." In fact, despite a prelude added to the story, presumably to give the audience-pleasing Cooper more time to look cute on film, the entire first act of the film is dominated by the intrigue between the swaggering, hard-drinking Billy Bones and his sinister adversaries Black Dog (Charles McNaughton, who would return to Stevensonian adventure in Otto Preminger's Kidnapped) and Blind Pew (William V. Mong, Seven Footprints to Satan).
Having said that, one should not completely discount the ability of a charming personality to entertain—heck, there are scores of modern actors who find success strictly on that basis—and make no mistake about it, Cooper does entertain, even though he is far too broad and has a tendency to overact. On the other hand, he is part of what keeps this film from being truly great; after all, the one actor that needs to be the most nuanced in this story is the actor playing Jim Hawkins. Fortunately, director Victor Fleming, who would later bring other literary classics such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind to the screen, seems fully aware of Cooper's limitations and manages his young star's screen time accordingly, with the end result being all in all, pretty darned good.
Once again, our fine friends at Warner Bros. have given us a wonderful release of a classic film—the movie has probably never looked better. It's a crisp picture with good, strong contrasts that mixes well with the remarkable mono sound, which is very nearly flawless. This is especially remarkable when you consider that at the time the film was made, sound was still something fairly new, and the viewing experience today, thanks to this release, must be at least as good as it was for those viewing it in theatres in 1934, and probably a good deal better.
As usual, Warner Bros. has supplied a range of neat special features to compliment Treasure Island, but there is no commentary on the film and no making of feature, which is unusual. "The Spectacle Maker," a musical fairy tale loosely based on a Frank Harris short story; directed by John Farrow, it stars prolific character actor Christian Rub, best known perhaps for his voice work as Geppetto in Disney's Pinocchio. The short also features young Cora Sue Collins (the adorable little girl from the beginning of Treasure Island) in a pivotal part, and if you look carefully, you'll find a very young Robert Taylor (Ivanhoe) in a supporting role. Interestingly, the spectacular town square set would later be reused in both A Tale of Two Cities and Marie Antoinette (1939).
The next feature included is a rather odd Pete Smith short called "Strikes and Spares," a riveting look at the thrill-a-minute world of recreational bowling. After a bit of an instructional on proper bowling form, we are treated to a variety of admittedly remarkable trick shots by professional bowler Andy Varipapa. Must have been pretty hot stuff back in '34; this short managed to wrangle an Academy Award nomination for Best Novelty Short. To wrap things up, there's a classic MGM cartoon called "Tale of the Vienna Woods," one of the studio's series of "Happy Harmonies," which were begun by former Warner Bros. animators and innovators Hugh Harmon and Rudolf Ising—so it's no surprise that the animated short bears a noticeable resemblance to the "Merrie Melodies" of the same era. And of course, the theatrical trailer is provided.
Treasure Island is offered by itself, and also as part of Warner's Motion Picture Masterpieces box set, which brings together a slew of classic films based on classic literature, except for the lavish 1938 Norma Shearer spectacle Marie Antoinette—why was it included when there were plenty other films that actually are based on famous books that could have completed this set? Also included are the 1935 adaptations of the Charles Dickens masterpieces David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, as well as the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier. It's a fine collection of films, and each one of them is at least worth a look.
There are far more guilty TV offerings than this one, and what is justice if not tempered with mercy? Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Vintage early 3-Strip Technicolor MGM short "The Spectacle Maker"
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