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 #16: Gable & Harlow in RED DUST (MGM 1932)

(Hello, all! I haven’t been able to do much posting this week due to a severe bout of sciatica. I’m starting to feel better, and have watched tons of films while recuperating… stay tuned!)

  

Rising young MGM stars Clark Gable (31) and Jean Harlow (21) were red-hot in 1932, and the studio teamed them for the first time in the steamy romance RED DUST. Actually, Gable and Harlow had acted together in the previous year’s gangster epic THE SECRET SIX, but as part of the ensemble. RED DUST marked their first pairing as a screen team, and the duo make the film burn as hot as the sweltering jungle setting!

He-man Gable plays he-man Denny Carson, owner of a rubber plantation in French Indochina (now known as Vietnam). Denny’s a no-nonsense, tough taskmaster, as hard on his foremen as he is on the coolies. Into this manly milieu steps Vantine (Harlow), a platinum blonde Saigon hooker who travelled by supply boat looking for a place to lay low for a while. Denny’s originally against the idea, but Vantine’s playfulness soon cracks his macho armor, and the two become more than just friends.

Vantine’s about to leave on the return trip (Denny tells her, “Goodbye kid, nice having ya!”), when new engineer Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his refined bride Barbara (Mary Astor ) come ashore. The happy hooker notices that certain look on Denny’s face when he spots Babs, and gets jealous, hoping to rekindle things with Denny down the road. Gary has developed “fever” (malaria?), and reluctant Denny helps nurse him back to health, hoping to score points with beautiful Barbara.

Guess who drops back in – it’s Vantine, after the old scow gets disabled chugging down the swamp. Denny warns her not to interfere as he sends Gary and his men out on a month-long surveying mission, making sure Barbara stays behind. Monsoon season is about to arrive, but there’s also a storm brewing  between Denny, Barbara, and Vantine…

RED DUST has the justly famous scene with a nude Harlow bathing in a rain barrel, a sequence where she’s flirty, flippant, and a whole lot of fun as Gable tries to keep her from Astor’s prying eyes. Gable and Harlow have such great chemistry together, calling each other ‘Fred’ and ‘Lily’, and their sex appeal is still heating up viewers 80+ years later. The suggestive dialogue is hot as ever, and that final scene where Harlow’s reading Gable a children’s story while he’s recuperating from a gunshot wound (“Hippity-hop, hippity-hop”, she coos while Gable tries to get frisky) is a Pre-Code classic. It’s easy to see why RED DUST put them both in the upper echelons of MGM stardom.

Stereotyped but wonderful Willie Fung

There’s chemistry and sexual tension too between Gable and costar Mary Astor. The film gave an added boost to her career as well, and Astor went on to become one of Hollywood’s finest actresses. Gene Raymond, as the cuckolded husband, was known primarily as a song-and-dance man, but here the only song-and-dance he gets is from Gable! Familiar Faces slogging through the brutal swamp include Donald Crisp, Forrester Harvey, and Tully Marshall. Comic relief of a sort is supplied by Willie Fung, a Chinese actor relegated to stereotyped servant roles. Some may view Fung’s movie parts as being racist (and they were – times were different), but Mr. Fung managed to make quite a good living in Hollywood, appearing in 138 films, from 1922’s HURRICANE’S GAL to 1944’s THE ADVENTURES OF MARK TWAIN. Though many times he went uncredited, movie buffs all know it’s Willie whenever he pops up!

John Lee Mahin delivers a rugged script, and director Victor Fleming was an MGM workhorse whose credits include THE WIZARD OF OZ, GONE WITH THE WIND, and tons of classic films you’ve all seen. RED DUST was a sizzling success, raking in over a million dollars in the midst of the Depression Era, and made both Gable and Harlow forces to be reckoned with in Hollywood. 21 years later, John Ford directed a remake, MOGAMBO, with a now 52-year-old Gable reprising his leading role, and co-starring Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly (Jean Harlow having died tragically of kidney disease at age 26). The story scorched the box office once again, but as much I love Ford, I prefer the original, where Clark Gable and Jean Harlow simultaneously seduced us all, and soared their way into the Hollywood stratosphere.

More ‘Pre-Code Confidential’!!:

1. James Cagney in LADY KILLER

2. Walter Huston in KONGO

3. Joan Blondell in MAKE ME A STAR

4. Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU

5. The All-Star HOLLYWOOD PARTY

6. Gable & Harlow in THE SECRET SIX

7. Loretta Young in PLAY-GIRL

8. Barbara Stanwyck in BABY FACE

9. Cagney & Blondell in BLONDE CRAZY

10. Claudette Colbert in DeMille’s CLEOPATRA

11. 1931’s THE MALTESE FALCON

12. Joan Crawford in DANCE, FOOLS, DANCE

13. Wallace Beery in John Ford’s FLESH

14. Lee Tracy & Lupe Velez in THE HALF-NAKED TRUTH

15. Cagney (again!) in THE MAYOR OF HELL

 

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