Yo-Ho-Hollywood!: TREASURE ISLAND (MGM 1934)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s  venerable 1883 adventure novel TREASURE ISLAND has been filmed over 50 times throughout the years, beginning with a 1918 silent version. There was a 1920 silent starring Charles Ogle (the original screen FRANKENSTEIN monster!) as that dastardly pirate Long John Silver, a 1972 adaptation with Orson Welles, a 1990 TV Movie headlined by Charlton Heston, and even a 1996 Muppet version! Most movie buffs cite Disney’s 1950 film as the definitive screen TREASURE ISLAND, with Bobby Driscoll as young Jim Hawkins and Robert Newton as Long John (and Newton would go on to star in the TV series LONG JOHN SILVER, practically making a career out of playing the infamous fictional buccaneer), but…

…a case can certainly be made for MGM’s star-studded 1934 interpretation of the story, teaming Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper as Long John and Jim. This was the first talking TREASURE ISLAND, and the 3rd of 4 screen pairings  for Beery and Cooper, as likable (and unlikely!) a movie team as there even was. Though it’s not 100% faithful to the novel – and what film adaptation is? – it’s pretty damn close, and can stand on it’s own as a rousing pirate adventure.

One dark and stormy night, young Jim Hawkins (Cooper) and his widowed mom (Dorothy Peterson) are visited at their Admiral Benbow Inn by the mysterious drunken sailor Billy Bones, played to the hammy hilt by a scenery-chewing Lionel Barrymore . The rum-soaked Billy, travelling with a sea chest containing “pieces of eight, pearls as big as ostrich eggs, all the gold yer ‘eart can desire”, tells Jim to alert him if a “one-legged seafaring man” arrives. After being visited by pirate cronies Black Dog (Charles McNaughton) and the one-eyed Pew (William V. Mong), drunk Billy takes a tumble down the stairs, dead.

Curious Jim opens the chest, only to find it empty… except for a mapbook containing the location of Capt. Flint’s treasure on a Caribbean isle. Pew and his pirates storm the inn, and Jim and his mom are forced to flee, rescued by the straight-arrow Dr. Livesey (played by the straight-arrow Otto Kruger ), who  along with scatterbrained Squire Trewaleny (who else but Nigel Bruce? ) and Jim, hires the ship Hispaniola, under the command of stalwart Capt. Smollet (played by stalwart Judge Hardy himself, Lewis Stone ). Then that “one-legged seafaring man”, Long John Silver (Beery), talks his way into becoming the ship’s cook, filling the crew with his scurvy pirate cronies, and young Jim sets sail for the adventure of a lifetime…

The role of Long John Silver was custom made for the talents of Wallace Beery, Hollywood’s greatest lovable rogue, and young Jackie makes a spirited Jim Hawkins. The mismatched pair are always a delight to see together, with an unmatched screen chemistry. Offscreen, the grouchy Beery disliked Cooper, and the younger actor later accused Beery of constantly trying to steal scenes (and he was notorious for that!), but while the cameras were rolling, the two made movie magic together. Barrymore’s bit is brief but a lot of fun, and besides those mentioned earlier, vaudeville vet Chic Sale stands out as crazy hermit Ben Gunn, as does screen villain par excellence Douglass Dumbrille  as the murderous pirate Israel Hands.

TREASURE ISLAND has some pretty gruesome moments scattered through it, coming as it did at the tail end of the Pre-Code Era (Will Hays’ Hollywood do’s & don’ts went into effect a few weeks before the film’s release). Victor Fleming was one of MGM’s top directors, and he keeps a lively pace throughout the 105 minute running time, with nary a wasted scene. Fleming doesn’t get discussed a lot among film bloggers these days, but anybody with movies like THE VIRGINIAN, RED DUST , RECKLESS, CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and GONE WITH THE freakin’ WIND on his resume must’ve known a thing or two about moviemaking!!

This was the first time I’d seen the 1934 TREASURE ISLAND, having been much more familiar with the 1950 Disney version. I wouldn’t dare try to pick between the two, so I’ll just say that both are fine films in their own rights, and leave it at that. But with sincerest apologies to Robert Newton, it’s pretty difficult not to choose Wallace Beery as the definitive screen Long John Silver!

Pre Code Confidential #8: Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE (Warner Brothers 1933)

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Barbara Stanwyck uses sex as a weapon and screws her way to the top in BABY FACE, an outrageously blatant Pre-Coder that had the censors heads spinning back in 1933. Miss Stanwyck plays Lily Powers, a young woman who works in her Pop’s speakeasy in smog-filled Erie, PA, where Pop’s been pimping her out since she was 14. Lily has a black female friend named Chico who seems to be more than just a friend (though it’s never stated, the implication’s definitely there). All the men paw over her like dogs with a piece of raw meat except the elderly Mr. Cragg, who gives her a book by Fredrich Nietzche along with some advice: “You have power… you don’t realize your potentialities… you must use men, not let them use you… exploit yourself, use men! Be strong, defiant!”.

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When Pop’s still blows to smithereens, taking Pop with it, Lily and Chico hop a freight train to New York City. It’s here she first tries out Cragg’s advice by seducing the railman who tries to throw them off. Arriving in The Big Apple, Lily and Chico stop outside the Gotham Trust Company, a huge skyscraper that’s an obvious phallic symbol. Lily quickly lands a job by seducing an office boy and begins her climb to the top. One of her first victims is a young John Wayne , an innocent sheep to Lily’s ravenous wolf. Wayne introduces her to Douglass Dumbrille , who’s been around enough to know better, but inevitably succumbs to Lily’s carnal charms.

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Lily and her boss get caught together in the lady’s room by his boss, Stevens (Donald Cook); he’s dismissed, but sly Lily gives a sob story about the rat forcing himself on her, and the gullible Stevens makes her his secretary. If you guessed Stevens is next on Lily’s list, give yourself a hand! However, Stevens is engaged to bank VP Carter’s daughter, who catches the two fooling around in his office, and she flees up to Daddy’s suite. Big Daddy Carter orders Stevens to fire Lily, but the jerk can’t bring himself to do it. Lily’s called up to see Carter and gives him another sob story claiming she didn’t know about the engagement. Carter then axes Lily, but sets her up in a lavish penthouse to become his mistress! Stevens loses his cool, barging in on them and shooting his former future Father-in-law, then committing suicide in Lily’s boudoir!

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This headline-inducing scandal results in the Board of Directors terminating the bank’s president and bringing in the founder’s grandson Courtland Trenholm (George Brent). “a playboy… society globetrotter” with no experience whatsoever. But Courtland’s no dummy; after Lily demands $15 Grand for her diary (the newspaper’s have offered ten), Courtland refuses, not buying her story (“I’m a victim of circumstance!”) and shipping her off to their Paris branch under an assumed alias. Courtland thinks he’s solved he problem, but when he arrives in Gay Paree, there’s Lily, and yep, he falls for her, this time actually marrying Lily, resulting in another scandal that forces the bank’s closure, an indictment for Courtland, and a suicide attempt.

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I’ve gotta say, the men in BABY FACE act like complete idiots, practically driven to the brink of madness by Lily’s sexual prowess. She must be really good to elicit that kind of response! This kind of sex scandal isn’t unheard of in real life,  especially among the rich and powerful (hello, Anthony Weiner!), which leads me to conclude the more money and fame you have, the stupider you get! Stanwyck is really good as Lily, the original Material Girl, who goes after what she wants using what she has. Equally good is Theresa Harris as Lily’s companion, Chico, who spends much of the film singing “St. Louis Blues”. Harris was an African-American actress and singer who’s featured in many classic films of the 30’s and 40’s, and doesn’t play to the stereotype of the times, but rather as an equal. Other Familiar Faces dotting the cast (besides those mentioned) are Robert Barratt, Henry Kolker, Margaret Lindsay Nat Pendleton Harry Gribbon , and Edward Van Sloan .

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Director Alfred E. Green keeps things moving as fast as Lily herself. His fifty year career in films includes directing two stars to Oscars (George Arliss in DISRAELI, Bette Davis in DANGEROUS), but he’s most remembered for THE JOLSON STORY. Gene Markey and Kathryn Scola based their sordid little screenplay on a story from Daryl F. Zanuck, shortly before he moved over to Twentieth Century Pictures. The cinematography by veteran James Van Trees is superb, as is Anton Grot’s amazing art direction. BABY FACE contributed mightily to the formation of the Hays Code, its frank look at a wanton woman causing blood vessels to pop in prudes across the country. It’s a film of its time, when the Great Depression caused desperate people to take desperate measures, and a must-see for lovers of Pre-Code films.

Pre-Code Confidential #1: James Cagney in LADY KILLER (Warner Brothers, 1933)

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Pre-Code Hollywood movies like LADY KILLER are always fun to watch. They’re filled with risqué business, sly innuendos, and are much more adult in content than post-1934 films. This little gem features James Cagney in one of his patented tough guy roles as Dan Quigley. Dan’s a brash, cocky movie usher who gets fired for insulting his patrons. While indulging in rolling some dice at a hotel lobby, he sees Myra (Mae Clarke)  drop her purse as she’s leaving. Ladies man Dan follows her to her apartment with it, hoping for some afternoon delight.

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Myra’s grateful, and offers him a drink (Her: “Chaser?” Him: “Always have been!”). Myra’s “brother-in-law” Duke (Douglass Dumbrille) emerges from the next room, and invites Dan to play a little poker. Losing all his dough, Dan leaves the apartment. He comes across a gentleman holding another purse in the hallway looking for Myra. Realizing he’s been set up, he storms back in and demands his money back. Yet another sucker comes in with a purse, and Dan muscles his way in on the con. Soon he’s leading the gang, and they make enough to open their own speakeasy, the Seven-Eleven Club. The gang branches out into burglary, targeting a rich widow. Dan fakes a car accident, weaseling his way into her home to get a layout of the joint. Things go awry when a maid is “brutally slugged” and dies. One of the gang squeals and gets iced by his pals just as the cops raid the Seven-Eleven. The gang takes it on the lam, with Dan and Myra ending up in LA. The coppers pick him up at the train station for questioning, and hold him on bail. He calls Myra at their pre-arranged hotel room to post bond, but the devious dame has hooked up with Duke scramed to Mexico, leaving Dan high and dry. Dan’s released when “New York can’t get the goods” on him, with a warning to find employment in 48 hours or get out of town. At a pool hall, Dan’s discovered by a Hollywood producer looking for new faces, and begins working as an extra in a prison picture.

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LADY KILLER now shifts gears to give us a backstage look at Hollywood. Cagney does bits as a con and an Indian chief (!) as the tone turns from gangster pic to comedy. He meets up with leading lady Lois Underwood (Margret Lindsey) and becomes a star in his own right. Seems the studio’s looking for the “rough and ready” type, and Dan writes bogus fan letters extolling his popularity! Now a star (complete with pencil-thin moustache), Dan and Lois start dating. She facetiously tells him she wants “a crate of monkeys, Tyrolean yodelers, and an elephant” for her birthday party, and wise guy Dan obliges in a hysterical scene.

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Dan’s still the same street kid he’s always been, as we see where he makes a critic literally eat his words (an actor’s dream!). Dan brings Lois to his apartment, only to find Myra waiting in his bed! Lois storms out. In a scene that could only happen in a Pre-Code movie, he drags Myra out by her hair and kicks her ass out the door! It’s not the first time Cagney brutalized Clarke on screen. Film fans all remember the classic grapefruit scene in PUBLIC ENEMY.

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Next day, we find the old gang back in town (including Myra), wanting Dan’s Hollywood contacts to set up more robberies. Dan gives then ten grand to keep away from him and leave Hollywood, but Duke and his boys take a guided tour of star’s homes to do their own dirty work. Lois’s house gets robbed and a cop is killed during the escape. Dan busts in on their hideout, gun in hand, and demands the loot to return to Lois. The cops then arrive and arrest him, allowing the gang to flee. They bail him out, and Myra is waiting for him in a car. She confesses to Dan he’s being set up by his old pals who plan to bump him off on the highway. But Dan’s no dummy. He’s alerted the coppers, and they’re in pursuit. A wild car chase with tommy-guns blazing sets up the final shootout. Dan is exonerated, and he and Lois fly to Yuma for their wedding.

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LADY KILLER is fast paced fun, loaded with snappy dialogue. One of the gang asks Dan where he’d like them to go, and he replies with a smile, “Need I say?” Offering one of them some fruit, Dan slyly says, “You like fruit. That I know.” In one scene, he sneakily kisses Myra on the breast (through her dress). The film’s director Roy Del Ruth got his start as a Mack Sennett gag writer. The veteran also worked with Cagney in BLONDE CRAZY, TAXI, and BLESSED EVENT. Other films include THE BABE RUTH STORY, the noir RED LIGHT, and horror entries PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE and THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE. Del Ruth was by no means a top-flight director, but he did some interesting films and his career deserves a second look.

LADY KILLER abounds with familiar faces, Besides Dumbrille (who’s good as Duke), the gang members are Raymond Hatton, Leslie Fenton, and Russell Hopton. Others in various roles are Henry O’Neill, Luis Alberni, Herman Bing, George Chandler, Edwin Maxwell, Dewey Robinson, Sam McDaniel, and Dennis O’Keefe. While not a classic, LADY KILLER is a great example of Pre-Code filmmaking, with an energetic performance by Cagney. Pre-Code fans, gangster buffs, and movie manques looking for a peek at the soundstages of 30s Hollywood will all enjoy this well made time capsule.

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