Treasure Island (1934)

Treasure Island
Rating: *****
Origin: USA
Director: Victor Fleming
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

Treasure Island

Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1883 novel established the entire genre of pirate swashbucklers, so naturally it had been filmed in the silent era—five times, in fact. However, none of these older films have survived, so the earliest adaptation we have is this one—but this one’s all we need. It’s a wonderful film that has a lot going for it, but what makes it endlessly re-watchable is the larger-than-life performance of Wallace Beery as Long John Silver.

Conversely, alas, it has one major liability that, despite Beery’s best efforts, makes the modern viewer cringe and wince: the inclusion of Beery’s co-star, child actor Jackie Cooper, as young Jim Hawkins. To be fair, Cooper delivered exactly what was asked of him, which was to be painfully over-earnest and sentimental, like every other 1930s child star. It’s just that by current standards and sensibilities, the performances of 1930s child actors like Jackie Cooper, Shirley Temple, and their ilk, are so God-damned grating that you just want to fast-forward right past them.

All right, we got that little rant out of the way. On to the movie: Treasure Island is a pretty close adaptation of Stevenson’s novel, which means it starts slowly, with the first act involving the fugitive pirate Billy Bones at the Admiral Benbow Inn that establishes the backstory. Fortunately this production has the great Lionel Barrymore (brother of John) in the rôle of Billy Bones, and he leaves no scenery unchewed in a bravura performance that ends in his death from equal parts terror and rum. But in death he unwittingly bequeaths to Jim Hawkins the map to the plunder buried on Treasure Island, and avast! We’re off to the Caribbean.

But how to get there, eh? Eh? Enter Squire Trelawney as played by Nigel Bruce (later to be Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes—harrumph, harrumph!). He takes Jim off to Bristol Port, perfectly depicted with a forest of masts above a row of docked ships. On the Bristol wharf we meet Long John Silver, and from there on the rest of the film belongs to Wallace Beery. Silver is the original engaging scoundrel, and Beery plays him broad, smiling, squinting, rolling his eyes and looking around furtively, making sure the audience is in on the joke of his duplicity from the beginning. Jim Hawkins and Squire Trelawney are completely taken in, allowing Silver to pack the crew of the “Hispaniola” with pirates. But Captain Smollett (craggy Lewis Stone, whom we last saw in the 1923 Scaramouche) isn’t fooled by Silver’s smarmy ways, and spots him as a cunning rogue.

But by that time they’ve arrived at Treasure Island, and it’s mutiny, mates, so serve out the cutlasses! The plot adheres closely to the twists and rapid reversals of the novel, and the action scenes are staged well, their imagery striking and memorable. The tense scene in which Jim Hawkins is pursued around the drifting “Hispaniola” by a wounded pirate, Israel Hands, is particularly fine. One can almost forgive the swab for letting Jackie Cooper survive!

Incidentally, they used a genuine three-master for the “Hispaniola,” a beautiful ship, filming key scenes at sea, so the sailing’s all true to life, and the episodes shot high in the rigging are vertiginous. And cackling, mad old Ben Gunn is the real treasure of the island. What a classic! Immortal line: “Them that die’ll be the lucky ones!”

Three Musketeers (1950)

The Three Musketeers
Rating: *
Origin: USA, 1950
Director: Budd Boetticher
Source: Amazon Streaming Video

Over the opening title card, the Magnavox Theater announcer intones, “The Three Musketeers: the first full-length film made in Hollywood especially for television!” Magnavox Theater was a brief series of seven one-hour dramas broadcast in the fall of 1950, all of which were live TV except this episode, which was produced by Hal Roach Studios. These sort of early TV “prestige” productions were a lot like Classics Illustrated comic book adaptations—earnest and well-meaning, but stiff, flat, and awkwardly abridged. The abridgement here consists of throwing out nearly everything in the novel except the duel between the musketeers and the Cardinal’s Guards, Buckingham’s secret visit to the queen, and the gauntlet d’Artagnan and the musketeers must ride to Calais to recover the diamond studs, with narration by Athos to fill in the gaps. Production values are better than usual for 1950 television—that is, just two notches above terrible. For once, Porthos is well cast, played here by Mel Archer, a giant of a man with a booming voice, but the rest of the actors are forgettable. For Dumas completists only.

Three Musketeers (1948)

The Three Musketeers
Rating: *****
Origin: USA, 1948
Director: George Sidney
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

The Three Musketeers 1948

There were a lot of movie and TV adaptations of The Three Musketeers in the 20th century, but three of them tower above all the others: the Fairbanks film from 1921, Richard Lester’s 1973 version, and, falling almost exactly in between them, MGM’s star-studded entry from 1948.

This is an interesting adaptation: it starts out as a typical Hollywood vehicle for star Gene Kelly, bright, colorful, charming, and light-hearted, a musical without songs, as d’Artagnan (Kelly) finds camaraderie with the musketeers and romance with Constance (June Allyson). But the top-billed actor here is actually Lana Turner, then at the height of her fame, and based on her rôles as a femme fatale in films noir, she’s cast as the wicked Milady de Winter. Now Milady appears mostly in the second half of Dumas’s novel, so to give Turner enough screen time, the movie races through the Affair of the Diamond Studs in its first hour, enabling it to spend its second hour on the schemes of Milady. These schemes take the story into darker places than most screen versions of T3M, and toward the end the tone turns quite grim. The emphasis on Milady also explains the elevation of Athos (Van Heflin), her bitter estranged husband, almost to the level of co-protagonist with d’Artagnan. Heflin, an actor of stature and gravitas, is right up there with Oliver Reed for Best Athos Ever, but Turner doesn’t seem entirely engaged with the part of Milady—though when she’s into it, it works.

One thing the aforementioned top versions of T3M all have in common is a recognition that the novel is not only full of adventure, intrigue, and romance, but is also funny as hell. The humor in the MGM version is mainly delivered by Kelly, who puts in a broad and over-the-top performance, adopting some of the exaggerated silent-film mannerisms of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and all of his athleticism. Kelly goes Fairbanks one better, because he’s not just an acrobat, he’s a dancer, and his swordplay owes as much to the school of ballet as it does to the academy of arms. Of course, at age thirty-five, Kelly is too old for the part of d’Artagnan, but that’s true for every screen incarnation until Michael York takes the rôle in ’73, and he makes up for it with energy and dexterity. All the fencing in the film is with thin foils rather than proper period rapiers, but the swordplay, Kelly’s especially, is deliberately theatrical rather than realistic, choreographed to the split-second, and very entertaining indeed.

On top of that, besides Turner and Heflin, Kelly is backed up by a top cast. On the male side, though Aramis and Porthos are mostly reduced to spear-carriers in the shadow of Heflin’s Athos, we get Frank Morgan (the Wizard from Oz) waffling adorably as the ineffectual King Louis XIII, and sly, malicious Vincent Price gives us the best Cardinal Richelieu since Raymond Massey, a decade before. On the female side, Angela Lansbury is perfect as Queen Anne, while June Allyson gives Constance more depth than the character usually gets. (As is usual in a Hollywood T3M, Constance is single here, goddaughter to the landlord Bonacieux, rather than his wife.)

Playwright Robert Ardrey’s script is very good, tight and fast-moving without ever feeling rushed, and contains the inspired idea of making Constance the jailer-in-chief when Milady is imprisoned in England, a vast improvement over the weak coincidence that throws them together in the novel. We get some scenes from the book that are rarely filmed; for once all four of the musketeers’ lackeys make an appearance, though only Planchet (Keenan Wynn) gets any lines; and even minor villain the Count de Wardes shows up, mainly so d’Artagnan can impersonate him later. The ending, as alluded to earlier, is dark, but Richelieu’s revenge is forestalled by the famous carte blanche: “It is by my order, and for the good of the State, that the bearer has done what has been done.” Indeed.

Three Musketeers (1939)

The Three Musketeers
Rating: **
Origin: USA, 1939
Director: Allan Dwan
Source: Fox Cinema Classics Collection DVD

The Three Musketeers 1939

This is the first filmed musical version of The Three Musketeers (there are others!): it’s a musical comedy swashbuckler, believe it or not. So, the first question is, is it any good as a musical? Well, Don Ameche, who plays d’Artagnan, can certainly sing—you have to give him credit for that. But the songs aren’t particularly worth singing, and they don’t really add much. As a musical, then, it’s pretty much a bust.

How is it as a comedy? In that regard it’s mainly a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers, a comic trio briefly popular in the 1930s; some compare them to the Marx Brothers, but that isn’t really apt, because each Marx had his own distinctive character, while the three Ritzes, like the crackers, are indistinguishable and interchangeable. Also, they’re not funny, which is kind of a liability in a comedy. So no joy there.

Most importantly, then, how is it as a version of The Three Musketeers? Surprisingly, it’s one of the more faithful adaptations of Dumas’s novel, which is rather amazing since, if they were already jamming songs and the goofball Ritz Brothers into the story, why did they bother? At a guess, it’s because the original story is so sturdy and resilient it can support the insertion of Ritzes and songses and still carry on just fine. Ameche is too old for the part of the young Gascon, but he’s energetic and far from the worst d’Artagnan ever cast—and the beguiling Binnie Barnes is one of the best-ever-cast Milady de Winters. She kills. Bonus: watch for the fun early appearance by John Carradine as Naveau (i.e., Bonacieux), Constance’s treacherous guardian.