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Review: Treasure Island (1934)

Directed by: Victor Fleming | 103 minutes | adventure | Actors: Wallace Beery, Jackie Cooper, Lionel Barrymore, Otto Kruger, Lewis Stone, Nigel Bruce, Charles ‘Chic’ Sale, William V. Mong, Charles McNaughton, Dorothy Peterson, Douglass Dumbrille, Edmund Breese, Olin Howland, Charles Irwin,

movies starring pirates, such as ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, are timeless. One of the best known of these swashbucklers is without a doubt ‘Treasure Island’. Author Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this famous novel about a young teenager who has adventures on The Hispaniola as early as 1881. His book turned out to be an evergreen. This story has been made into a countless times. The most famous film adaptation is the version that made in 1950. But many other versions of the story were made: as an animation in ‘Treasure Planet’ (2002), with The Muppets and Tim Curry in the lead roles in ‘The Muppet Treasure Island’ (1996) and as a television movie with a still young Christian. Bale as Jim Hawkins and as Long John Silver (1990).

The story is known to many. Young Jim Hawkins (Jackie Cooper) helps his mother run The Admiral Benbow Inn. One day a mysterious guest comes to stay. This Billy Bones (Lionel Barrymore) turns out to be a pirate with a predilection for rum. He has a chest with him, but no one knows what is in it. When Billy dies a few days later, Jim takes the gamble. In the chest he discovers a treasure map. He gives it to his friends, Dr. Livesey (Otto Kruger) and landowner John Trelawney (Nigel Bruce), who confirm that it is a real treasure. Together with the brave Captain Alexander Smollet (Lewis Stone) they decide to search for the treasure, and Hawkins is allowed to come along. But of course they still need a crew for their ship. The colorful sailor Long John Silver (Wallace Beery) offers himself and takes his men with him. Jim immediately becomes good friends with Silver. But can he actually be trusted…?

Director made two unforgettable classics with ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and ‘Gone with the Wind’ in 1939. Several years earlier he directed ‘Treasure Island’, starring the then wildly popular child star Jackie Cooper. In 1931, Cooper was the youngest actor ever (he was only nine years old!) To be nominated for an Oscar for his lead role in ‘Skippy’. He also played in ‘The Champ’, ‘O’Shaugnessy’s Boy’ and ‘The Bowery’. In all those films, Wallace Beery was his opponent, just like in ‘Treasure Island’. So you would think that those two, who actually always had a father-son relationship on the silver screen, also got on well with each other in real life. But nothing is less true. Much older, Cooper revealed that he hated Beery, who he thought was a sadistic, rude drunk, and who also had loose hands too. Then you can safely call it a miracle that the two on the silver screen could play so well together.

By the way, Cooper does not deliver his best acting work in ‘Treasure Island’. In addition to experienced born actors such as Barrymore and Beery, it is all the more striking that little Cooper puts it all too thick. Fortunately that he is a cute kid, with whom you can easily empathize. If he had only had to rely on his acting qualities, he would have fallen through the basket. The gets off to a slow start, because in the first half it is Cooper who has to carry the film. When Wallace Beery shows his weathered face, the story goes a lot smoother. Beery and Barrymore can enjoy themselves as the dark types of Silver (complete with wooden leg and parrot) and Bones. The ‘good’ men from the cast, Kruger, Bruce and Stone, are very solid and actually a bit boring compared to the colorful pirates. And then there’s the eccentric Ben Gunn (Charles Sale), a stowaway who has stayed behind on Treasure Island. Women are almost absent from this film. That would be different in a pirate movie that was to be made now.

When you consider that ‘Treasure Island’ was taken in 1934, the images are exceptionally beautiful. The fights are well portrayed, which also applies to the island itself and the scenes on the boat. All in the beautiful black and white cinematography of Clyde DeVinna, Ray June and Harold Rosson. The story is a traditional boys’ book, so not very original, but wonderfully classic. For fans of old-fashioned movies, ‘Treasure Island’ is a must. The gets off to a slow start, but once Wallace Beery is up and running, you as a viewer can wet your chest for a piece of top-shelf mutiny.

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