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!

Still Great Entertainment: Gable & Harlow in CHINA SEAS (MGM 1935)

Back in the 1970’s, Boston’s WCVB-TV Channel 5 ran a weekend late-nite movie series called “The Great Entertainment”. For 18 years, host Frank Avruch did Robert Osbourne-like introductions to the station’s library of MGM films, way before the advent of cable. This is where I first saw and fell in love with many of the classic movies and stars of the 30’s and 40’s. When TCM recently aired CHINA SEAS, I hadn’t seen the film in decades, and knew I had to DVR it. It had made an impression on me, and while rewatching I was not disappointed; it’s still a rousing piece of entertainment!

Clark Gable is rugged sea captain Alan Gaskill, carrying a quarter million British pounds worth of gold as cargo aboard his liner heading from Hong Kong to Singapore. Jean Harlow plays ‘China Doll’ Portland, Gaskill’s in-port squeeze who comes along against his wishes. Gaskill’s former flame, refined Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell), shows up, and the skipper gives China Doll the big freeze. While Gaskill tries to rekindle that old flame, Dolly takes up with wild animal importer Jamesy McArdle ( Wallace Beery ), who unbeknownst to all is in league with a gang of Malay pirates out to hijack all that loot!

This was Gable & Harlow’s fourth go-round together, and the no-nonsense he-man was the perfect foil for the brassy platinum blonde. Their Jules Furthman/Kevin James McGuiness-penned banter sparkles, with Harlow making the most out of her by-now-familiar floozy with a heart of gold persona. Beery, who appeared with the two in 1931’s THE SECRET SIX , had honed his loveable rogue role down to a science, and the three stars all shine brightly in this romp.

The diverse passenger list is a Familiar Face lover’s dream, with Lewis Stone a disgraced third officer who redeems himself in grand fashion, humorist Robert Benchley  a tipsy American novelist who spends the movie inebriated, stiff-upper-lip C. Aubrey Smith  the fleet’s owner, Akim Tamiroff a shady jewel thief embroiled with passengers Edward Brophy and Lillian Bond, Hattie McDaniel Harlow’s wisecracking traveling companion, and Ivan Lebedeff the chief pirate. Dudley Diggs, Willie Fung, Forrester Harvey, William Henry, and Donald Meek are also onboard for the ride.

For a film made in 1935, there sure are a lot of Pre-Code elements here. There’s no doubt Harlow’s China Doll is less than virginal, and the violence is fairly graphic for the era. The scene during a raging typhoon features extras getting run over by a runaway steamroller, and Gable suffers through the agonizing torture of the dreaded ‘Malay Boot’ at the sadistic hands of the pirates. Executive producer Irving Thalberg had been planning CHINA SEAS for over five years, and it seems some of those Pre-Code elements sailed right past the Hayes Office!

Director Tay Garnett was the ideal choice to helm CHINA SEAS, striking the right balance of masculine action with his deft comic touch. Garnett’s career stretched back to the days of Mack Sennett, and among his filmography you’ll find gems like SHE COULDN’T TAKE IT, SEVEN SINNERS, MY FAVORITE SPY, BATAAN, THE CROSS OF LORRAINE, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT. He dove right into episodic TV in the 50’s and 60’s, and capped off his career with a pair of family friendly made-in-Alaska flicks, CHALLENGE TO BE FREE and TIMBER TRAMPS. Garnett’s movies are well worth looking into.

CHINA SEAS is a rollicking adventure with a cast of professionals at their peak, headlined by the red-hot screen team of Gable & Harlow. I’ve been hearing a lot recently about how millennials don’t really get into older, black and white movies, but I think this film will turn anyone into a classic film buff. It’s “Great Entertainment”, indeed!

Pre Code Confidential #6: Jean Harlow in THE SECRET SIX (MGM 1931)

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(Once again, your Cracked Rear Viewer is taking part in the TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon, hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film  .  Just like last year, I’ll be posting on two stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age: Jean Harlow (8/7) and Boris Karloff (8/26).)

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Before she became The Platinum Blonde Bombshell of 1930’s Hollywood, Jean Harlow played a pivotal role in early gangster films. She was James Cagney’s second moll in the essential THE PUBLIC ENEMY, and a slutty seductress in THE BEAST OF THE CITY. In THE SECRET SIX, Jean plays a temptress who turns on the mob in a wild Pre-Code film that represents another milestone for Miss Harlow: it’s her first of six with costar Clark Gable.

THE SECRET SIX [US 1931] WALLACE BEERY, JOHNNY MACK BROWN, JEAN HARLOW

Wallace Beery plays Slaughterhouse Scorpio, who rises from the stockyards to the top of the gangster heap. He accomplishes this by brute force, bribery, and rubbing out his rivals. Slaughterhouse is as thirsty for power as his customers are for bootleg booze, and he’ll go to any lengths to get it, including using sexy Ann Courtland (Harlow) to seduce reporter Hank ( Johnny Mack Brown ).

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Hank’s fellow reporter Carl (a moustacheless Clark Gable) is also hot for Ann, but he’s too smart to fall for Slaughterhouse’s games. Carl becomes a double agent working for The Secret Six, a mysterious group of public officials determined to take Slaughterhouse down. When Hank goes searching for Slaughterhouse’s gun, instrument of many a murder, Ann warns him that the gangster is after him. She helps him escape, but the reporter is gunned down in a subway car.

Slaughterhouse is arrested and taken to trial. His aide Metz, whom everyone thought was mute, breaks down and confesses. Ann testifies, but the rigged jury finds Slaughterhouse not guilty in a gross miscarriage of justice! Carl and Ann are about to be taken for  ride, but The Secret Six swing into action with warrants for Slaughterhouse and his mob for tax evasion, arson, murder, and deportation. There’s a violent shootout and a twist ending before Slaughterhouse is finally captured and executed by the state.

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This movie’s loads of fun for gangster film devotees, with its blazing machine guns, colorful slang, and seeing stars in early roles. Beery excels as the rough and tumble, braggadocios Slaughterhouse in a part tailor-made for his talents. Good old Judge Hardy Lewis Stone is on the wrong side of the law here as lawyer Newt Newton, the brains behind the brawn,. Ralph Bellamy makes his screen debut as gangster Johnny Franks, one of Slaughterhouse’s early victims, and it’s a hoot to watch Bellamy play a hoodlum! Marjorie Rambeau shines as the floozy Peaches, and John Miljan, Theodore Von Eltz, and Murry Kinnell all add to the excitement. Even Johnny Mack Brown, more known as a cowboy hero, is good his role as the doomed Hank.

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20-year-old Jean Harlow stands out as Anne, adding a depth of emotion to her scenes, especially her time on the witness stand. Starting out as a typical bad girl, Harlow’s change of heart during the proceedings let her show off her acting chops, and this film led to both her and Gable receiving contracts with MGM and a successful string of hits lasting until her unfortunate death in 1937. Jean Harlow’s three contributions to the gangster genre weren’t large, but were important in getting her noticed after critics excoriated her in Howard Hughes’ 1930 HELL’S ANGELS.

Unlike many early talkies, THE SECRET SIX is fast-paced and energetic, thanks to director George Hill, with a dynamite script from his then-wife Frances Marion. The cast of pros, including young Jean Harlow, bring the tale to rip-roaring life. THE SECRET SIX hasn’t received the attention and accolades of THE PUBLIC ENEMY, LITTLE CAESAR, or SCARFACE, but it’s just as exciting as those classics, and contains one of the genre’s best casts. For a wild screen ride, and a look at Jean Harlow becoming an accomplished actress, pick Six- THE SECRET SIX!

 

Pre Code Confidential #4: Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (MGM 1932)

“Rooted in medieval fears of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian invasions of Europe, the Yellow Peril combines racist terror of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East”- Gina Marchetti, Romance and the Yellow Peril: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (University of California Press, 1994)

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First, a brief history lesson: The Yellow Peril was a particular brand of xenophobia that spread in the late 19th/early 20th century. Named by (of all people) Kaiser Wilhelm II of  Germany, and given credibility during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, this “fear of the unknown” basically said those “inscrutable” Chinese were going to come over and slaughter all the good white Christians and rape their women. Popular culture of the times played on these fears by depicting villainous Oriental characters as barbaric, opium-smoking deviants who lusted for nothing less than racial miscegenation and total world dominance! Comic strips featured evil adversaries like The Dragon Lady (Terry and the Pirates) and Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon) and the pulps were filled with Eastern devils such as Wu Fang and Dr. Yen Sin.  But the granddaddy of them all was Sax Rohmer’s insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, who terrorized Western Civilization in a series of novels from 1913 to 1959. Fu first came to the screen in two silent British serials with Harry Agar Lyons as the megalomaniacal doctor.  Paramount Pictures brought Fu Manchu to Hollywood in 1929 in THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU, starring Warner Oland (the future Charlie Chan). Oland returned to the role in the aptly titled THE RETURN OF DR. FU MANCHU, and later had what was pretty much a cameo in DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON, with Fu’s fiendish spawn (played by the sexy and tragic Anna May Wong) handling most of the villainy.

All of which brings us to THE MASK OF FU MANCHU. And boy, if you thought MGM laid the perversion on thick with KONGO , wait’ll you get a load of this one! Never mind the rampant racism, this movie’s chock full of  blatant sexual lust, drug use, gruesome tortures, and possibly even incest. Wow! Don’t get me wrong now, I enjoy all this stuff, I just don’t expect to see it in a film from 1932. It’s part of what makes rediscovering these Pre-Codes so much fun.

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The plot’s fairly simple: A British expedition is sent to Asia to find the tomb of Genghis Khan before Dr. Fu Manchu gets his hands on the treasures there, including Khan’s golden mask and scimitar, which Fu will use to claim he’s the rightful heir of Khan and kick off a race war. Sir Lionel Barton is sent by British Intelligence, led by Sir Nayland Smith, to lead the dig, but he’s kidnapped by Fu’s minions in the British Museum disguised as mummies! He’s strapped under a bell and tortured while Fu toys with him, eventually killing the old boy. Sheila, Barton’s daughter, and her oversized boyfriend Terry go with Sir Nayland and his crew to search for Sir Lionel, where they’re captured by Fu, along with his “ugly and insignificant daughter” Fah Lo See, and placed in various torture devices. Sheila is set to be sacrificed to Fu’s gods, as he implores his followers to “Kill the white man and take his women!” Of course, our stalwart heroes foil the “hideous yellow menace” and the British Empire makes the world safe for Caucasians everywhere. (See, fairly simple!)

The movie’s serial-like pacing keeps things zipping along. Director Charles Brabin, husband of silent screen vamp Theda Bara, was an old pro, having been in pictures since 1911. His career was mainly in the silent era, though he did do a few Pre-Codes before retiring, including the gangster flick THE BEAST OF THE CITY with Walter Huston and Jean Harlow. MGM gave this one a pretty big budget, with Cedric Gibbons providing some stunning art direction, and famed electrical wizard Kenneth Strickfaden designing Fu’s weird scientific machinery, as he did in FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

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Speaking of Frankenstein, Boris Karloff is sensational as Fu Manchu. He exaggerates his natural lisp, making Fu sound like a slithering serpent. Cecil Holland’s makeup has Karloff looking like a grotesque characture of a Chinaman, with his drooping moustache and long claws. Boris delights in punishing his enemies, gleefully torturing them by dangling Smith over a crocodile pit, shooting up Terry with spider venom, reptile organs, and dragon blood to control his will, and placing another in the old “walls closing in” device, only these walls are full of sharp silver spikes! Dear Boris has a field day as he wickedly attempts to “dispatch (them) to (their) cold, saintly Christian paradise”, and conquer the world. He’s obviously having a blast in the role, and is a depraved delight.

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That “ugly and insignificant daughter” is none other than Myrna Loy, and she’s great as the lascivious Fah Lo See. From the moment she first appears on camera, her braless headlights beaming, we know Fah Lo See’s a wanton woman. The scene where Terry’s being whipped while Fah Lo See watches, practically drooling, commanding her slaves to go “Faster, faster!” is a highlight of Pre-Code excess. Nora Charles was never this horny! The two romantic leads, Karen Morley (SCARFACE, OUR DAILY BREAD) and Charles Starrett (better known as The Durango Kid), aren’t nearly as interesting as Fu and his daughter. Lewis Stone (Andy’s dad Judge Hardy) plays Nayland Smith as a staunch, macho defender of the Crown and all things Anglo-Saxon. Jean Hersholt, Lawrence Grant, and David Torrence round out the cast, but all eyes will be on Karloff and Loy at their deranged, pain-inflicting best.

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The Yellow Peril fervor switched from Chinese madmen to Japanese war mongers in the 1940’s, and there’s plenty of filmic evidence of racist sentiments in the ultra-patriotic movies of that era. But the Chinese supervillain stereotype continued well into the 60’s, influencing everything from James Bond’s DR. NO to Marvel Comics villain The Yellow Claw to a new series of Fu Manchu films starring Christopher Lee. THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, despite its racist elements, is one of the most devilishly fun Pre-Codes around, and features yet another star turn for the great Boris Karloff. Definitely worth watching for the sheer madness of it all!