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!

A Pirate’s Life For Me!: THE SPANISH MAIN (RKO 1945)

Today we celebrate the birthday of classic actor Paul Henreid (1908-1992)  

THE SPANISH MAIN is one of those films where the acting is cranked up to 11 and tongues are held firmly in cheek. That’s not a bad thing; this is a fun, fast-paced romp that doesn’t require much thinking, a colorful piece of mind candy that doesn’t take itself too seriously and features a great cast. It’s not what you’d normally expect from director Frank Borzage, usually associated with weightier matters like 7TH HEAVEN, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, THREE COMRADES, STRANGE CARGO , and THE MORTAL STORM. Maybe after all that heavy drama, the veteran needed to lighten up a bit!

Paul Henreid  stars as our hero Laurent Van Horn, a Dutch captain whose ship is wrecked in the Caribbean waters near Cartagena. The Spanish Viceroy there, Don Juan Alvarado (Walter Slezak ), is a tyrant who holds the captain and his crew as slaves to the Spanish Crown. Van Horn is imprisoned with the Brit Gow (J.M. Kerrigan), Frenchman Paree (Henreid’s CASABLANCA costar Curt Bois), and the mute brute Swaine (Mike Mazurki ). The four men escape, and terrorize the Caribbean with Van Horn becoming the notorious pirate known as The Barracuda!

The Contessa Francesca (Maureen O’Hara, in all her gorgeous Technicolor glory!) sails from Mexico to wed Alvarado sight unseen in a political marriage. Van Horn, disguised as her ship’s navigator, meets her and of course they don’t get along at first… Francesca even demands he be whipped for his insolence! The Barracuda’s ship attacks and commandeers the Mexican ship, with Francesca forced to marry Van Horn so a passing ship will be spared of another raid. Van Horn plans to ransom off Francesca, The Bishop, and her duennas, but once they reach the pirate stronghold of Tortuga, The Brotherhood of the Pirates, led by Van Horn’s treacherous mate Du Billar (John Emery), plot to get rid of her, and turn Van Horn over to the wicked Viceroy…

Henreid makes a dashing hero, and Maureen’s a feisty heroine. The pair have good chemistry, and both would sail the seas in more buccaneer movies to come. Slezak gives a broad performance as the evil Viceroy, Barton MacLane has a field day as Henreid’s rival pirate Captain Benjy Black, but for me bawdy Binnie Barnes (shown above) steals the show as the rowdy female pirate Anne Bonny, who fights like a wildcat and gets to indulge in some swordplay herself! There are plenty of other Familiar Faces sailing over the bounding main: Nancy Gates, Brandon Hurst, Ian Keith, Tom Kennedy, Victor Kilian, James Kirkwood, Jack LaRue , Fritz Leiber Sr., Antonio Moreno , Dan Seymour (another CASABLANCA alum), and Leo White.

The screenplay by George Worthington Yates and Herman Mankiewicz contains plenty of exciting action, romance, and witty lines for the players to deliver, all of whom look like they’re having a ball with the material. THE SPANISH MAIN is harmless juvenile fun, and was one of many movies that (at least according to IMDb) inspired Walt Disney to create his Pirates of The Caribbean attraction, which in turn spawned the whole Johnny Depp/PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN franchise. It may not be the greatest swashbuckler of all time, but it sure fills the bill on a rainy afternoon. Get the popcorn ready, turn off your mind, and have some fun with THE SPANISH MAIN!


Thieves and Cutthroats: Alfred Hitchcock’s JAMAICA INN (Renown 1939)


Critics weren’t kind to JAMAICA INN when it first appeared in 1939, and the film is still unappreciated today. Many consider this Alfred Hitchcock’s worst movie, and those scoundrels the Medved brothers included it in their book “The Fifty Worst Films of All Time”. I take a different view, and though it may not be top-notch Hitchcock, it still has The Master’s touch, along with an entertainingly over-the-top performance by Charles Laughton, and a star-making turn by the late Maureen O’Hara. I can think of hundreds of worst ways to spend your cinematic time than giving JAMAICA INN another look. In fact, I can think of far worse Hitchcock (anyone out there remember MARNIE or FAMILY PLOT?)


Young Mary Yellen (O’Hara) arrives in the coastal town of Cornwall in 1819 to live with her aunt after the recent death of her mother. The coach carrying her refuses to stop near Jamaica Inn, stranding her miles away (in a scene reminiscent of Renfield’s trip to Castle Dracula). Mary walks up to the stately home of Sir Humphrey Pengallon (Laughton), the local squire. The portly, charming Sir Humphrey accompanies her to the Inn, where she encounters Aunt Patience’s sadistic, lusty husband Joss Merlyn. Through a crack in the floorboards, Mary discovers Joss is the leader of a band of pirates, “thieves, smugglers, and cutthroats”, who are planning on hanging suspected traitor Treherne. Mary cuts him down from the rafters and the two make their getaway to Pengallon’s estate. Unbeknownst to the pair, Pengallon is in cahoots with Joss and his murderous bunch, the brains behind the outfit, and quite mad to boot! Deceiving Mary and Treherne (who’s in reality a member of the Royal Navy sent to investigate the wreckers) at first, Pengallon shows his true colors and attempts to flee with Mary in tow. Can the madman be stopped in time?


Charles Laughton and Alfred Hitchcock butted heads (and egos) making this film. The original Daphne DuMaurier story had Pengallon as a preacher, but Laughton had it changed and demanded more screen time. Hitchcock balked, but since Laughton was producer of the film, he got his way. Laughton’s Pengallon is at turns coy and cruel, bellowing at his manservant, charming with Mary, and mincing about to his own tune. Hitchcock and author DuMaurier weren’t pleased with the changes, but it’s a grand performance by a grand actor and he dominates very scene he’s in. Laughton got his way, but it’s still unmistakably a Hitchcock film. The suspense is taut (even though Pengallon’s role as pirate leader is revealed early on), and the camera angles and use of sound have that distinctive Hitchcock touch. This was Sir Alfred’s last British film before moving to Hollywood to work with producer David O. Selznick on classics like REBECCA and SUSPICION, and an enduring career as The Master of Suspense. I do have one regret about JAMAICA INN, however…there’s no Hitchcock cameo!


Maureen O’Hara had done two small film roles before Laughton gave her this break, for which the film world should be eternally grateful. Nineteen year old Maureen gives a fine performance as Mary, and travelled with Laughton later that year to costar in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, zooming her to Hollywood stardom and a long, rich film career. There are some great British character actors on hand, chief among them Leslie Banks (Joss), the evil hunter Count Zaroff in the 1932 horror classic THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. Banks appeared in Hitchcock’s 1934 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, and with Lawrence Olivier in HENRY V. Emlyn Williams plays the whistling pirate Harry. Williams was featured in THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, MAJOR BARBARA, and THE MAGIC BOX, but gained more fame as a playwright, whose stage productions include NIGHT MUST FALL and THE CORN IS GREEN.



Hero Jem Treherne is actor Robert Newton, who was more well-known for his screen villainy. Newton was Bill Sykes in David Lean’s 1948 OLIVER TWIST and Inspector Javert in the 1952 LES MISERABLES. But he’ll be forever remembered as Long John Silver in Disney’s 1950 production of TREASURE ISLAND. Whenever you hear someone doing that “Arrgh, me bucko” imitation pirate-talk, you’re hearing Newton! After playing another famous buccaneer in 1952’s BLACKBEARD THE PIRATE, Newton returned to his most famous role for a sequel, LONG JOHN SILVER (1954), and then portrayed the salty sea dog in a syndicated 1955 TV series. The British star died a year later of acute alcoholism.


JAMAICA INN isn’t a bad film; in fact, I like it a lot. Behind the scenes squabbles and critical brickbats aside, I think it’s a fine showcase for Charles Laughton, a good look at early Maureen O’Hara, and uses that signature Hitchcock style to its advantage. My suggestion to you Dear Readers is simple: watch it and judge for yourselves.


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