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DVD SAVANT

Treasure Island
Motion Picture Masterpieces Collection


Treasure Island
Warner DVD
1934 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 103 110? min. / Street Date October 3, 2006 / 19.98 / Also available in the Motion Picture Masterpieces Collection with Pride and Prejudice, Marie Antoinette, A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, at 49.98
Starring Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Lionel Barrymore, Otto Kruger, Lewis Stone, Nigel Bruce
Cinematography Clyde De Vinna, Ray June, Harold Rosson
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Blanche Sewell
Original Music Herbert Stothart
Written by John Lee Mahin from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Produced by Hunt Stromberg
Directed by Victor Fleming

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

MGM's Treasure Island has lost much of its charm, mostly owing to the non-mystique of actor Wallace Beery, who is now more famous for apocryphal stories about covered-up crimes than for his acting ability. The handsome production has its amusing aspects, mostly a penchant for violence and cast of amusingly creepy pirates. But Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate tale has been twisted to pander to the commercial personae of big stars Beery and Lionel Barrymore. The conclusion is particularly disturbing.

Synopsis:

Alcoholic, threatening Captain Billy Bones (Lionel Barrymore) stops at the seaside inn run by Mrs. Hawkins (Dorothy Peterson) and her son Jim (Jackie Cooper), and expires when various creepy pirates come to call. Jim discovers Bones' secret -- a treasure map to the fortune of a pirate named Flint, buried on a Caribbean isle. Along with Dr. Livesey (Otto Kruger), Squire Trelawney (Nigel Bruce) and Captain Smollet (Lewis Stone), Jim journeys across the sea to find the treasure -- unaware that old buccaneer Flint's scurvy pirates, led by the one-legged Long John Silver (Wallace Beery) have infiltrated the crew. Beery's main weapon is his faked friendship with young Jim ... which slowly becomes sincere.

First we get Lionel Barrymore's overdone Crazy Captain bit; he raves and bellows and forces the common folk to sing his depraved song "Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest." Barrymore's Captain Bones is a great opportunity to wear weird makeup and ham up the hall, but he barely connects with young Jim Hawkins, when in the story they formed a solid relationship. Jackie Cooper's Hawkins has a stubbornly unimaginative face and succeeds by being credibly naive about such subjects as pirates, double-dealing and greed.

The movie has a definite lack of imagination when it comes to morality. The stern-faced and upright upper class representatives are immediately galvanized with the thought of treasure hunting, which is approached as both noble sport and a privilege reserved for well-to-do adventurers. The pirates, on the other hand, are all depraved maniacs who can barely control their violence long enough to present a united front. That the pirates covet the stolen gold is enough to condemn them all to horrible deaths, or at least the doom of abandonment on a lost island. Essentially stealing from thieves, the white-wigged nobles are not criticized in the least.

Not content to waste the opening of the picture on an extended one-man Barrymore show, the movie then gives the rest of the tale to the incredibly un-charming Wallace Beery, a lout previously featured in some of MGM's most annoyingly false sentimental stories, like the now-deadening The Champ. MGM essentially remade Chaplin's old pathos opus The Kid more than once, with Beery's boozy old soak repeatedly redeemed by the love of teary-eyed little Jackie Cooper. This formula is jammed into Treasure Island, making hash of the film's second half.

The death toll on the H.M.S. Hispaniola is almost equal to that of King Kong, as Beery's Long John Silver murders honest sailors and fellow pirates alike. He's a conniving creep from the beginning, when he bitterly compares splitting a head of lettuce to what he wants to do to the Captain. He gives Jim Hawkins a paternal snow job, keeping him away from the other pervert pirates (just to control what the kid hears, although now these scenes play rather differently). Rape and slaughter are mentioned as common behavior among these ugly mugs. The movie has a lot of violent action and embraces it as just more fun and games. But the pirates do most of the suffering. One sadistic moment has an admittedly loathsome blind pirate run down by a coach and horses ... and we see him crushed under the wheels.

After baldly bringing on the slaughter of at least eight good men, Silver still appeals to Jim Hawkins' emotions. The film adaptation confects a vestige of decency in Long John Silver that's 'worthy' of Hawkins' concern. (spoiler) Hawkins allows the mass murderer Silver to escape, and even take part of the loot with him. It's a clear case of pandering to the audience while distorting Stevenson's refreshingly hard-edged original.  1

It was good that David O. Selznick came along and pointed MGM in a direction more faithful to literary sources. When Selznick stuffed a tale with a star, he didn't ruin the story to suit box office demands ... like W.C. Fields in David Copperfield.

Jackie Cooper is an awful lot like a spunky but dense Our Gang character, running around stealing entire ships and avoiding scurvy cutthroats like Douglas Dumbrille's reptilian Israel Hands. The real reason to enjoy Treasure Island now is to see the various pirates -- Dumbrille,'Chic' Sale, William Mong, Edmund Breese and Owlin Howland -- do their stuff. They're so lovable in their villainy, it's almost sad that they're so easily fooled and routed by the self-righteous heroes. The Doctor Liveseys and Captain Smolletts will have no trouble perpetuating much worse atrocities in the Eastern colonies, dwarfing in scale the nasty crimes of these pirate scum.


Warners' DVD of Treasure Island looks very good, which can't be said of every disc from a popular1934 'classic.' The grain is under control, for the most part, and the stage sets and Catalina locations work just fine. A pirate movie that could boast a real, full-scale pirate ship must have been an impressive sight in 1934.

The extras are three MGM short subjects. The Spectacle Maker is an overproduced morality tale about magic glasses that show their users first 'beauty' and then 'the truth.' John Farrow directs, in experimental 3-Strip Technicolor. Strikes and Spares is a still-interesting examination of bowling, showing many basic and a few trick shots. Tales of the Vienna Woods is a Hugh Harman 'prestige' cartoon with poorly animated fawns and satyrs cavorting in the Austrian scrub. It's an artless abomination that makes the kitchiest Disney animation seem heaven-sent.

A trailer is also provided. At 103 minutes, Treasure Island may originally have been several minutes longer.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Treasure Island rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Featurettes The Spectacle Maker, Strikes and Spares, Tale of the Vienna Woods;, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 22, 2006

Footnotes:

1. Highly recommended as a fascinating look at the intersection of Pirates and Children is Alexander Mackendrick's fascinating A High Wind in Jamaica. It's a lot more realistic about the Caribbean 'underworld' of the 18th century.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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