1 May 2003 | HenryHextonEsq
Cheery, qualified success of a pirate romp.
I've seen no other film versions of this, so I was going merely from a long-ago remembrance of the book, and a memorable children's audio reading (backed by Bedrich Smetana's majestic 'Die Moldau').
Let me say; this is on the whole a satisfactory, if not completely satisfying film version of the classic adventure. It's difficult to envisage it being done better at the time, at MGM, than it was here. That is not to say that I am entirely happy; the ending is a bad misfire. Irresponsibly altering Stevenson's ending to 'tie in' with the film's top-heavy emphasis on the Long John Silver/Jim Hawkins relationship. It's all rather silly, sentimental stuff; going unnecessarily far in trying to 'soften' the inimitable ship's cook...
But broadly, I did really appreciate this film, which captures much of the book's zest and adventure. Some of the scope and scale of the story is missed, but not as badly as it could have been. A fine cast see to that; an instantly recognizable (if somewhat young by his standards!) Nigel Bruce as the crusty, jingoistic buffoon, Squire Trelawney, is tremendously Dickensian and makes a real impression. Smollett is essayed imperiously by Lewis Stone (stuffy and boring two years previously in "The Mask of Fu Manchu"); could this sort of completely steadfast assurance and quiet dignity be easily replicated today? Oh, the pronounced sobriety of the way the camera lingers over the putting up of the Union Jack at the Stock Aide... truly of a long past era, and yet this is an American film displaying convincing old British patriotism.
Jackie Cooper is also far away from today's acting styles; manifestly limited to a few notes, but heck, the kid plays it for all its worth. He invests it all with a slightly precocious indignation that somehow works - 'Bless my *soul*...!' 'Upon my word, I don' know what you're talking about!' He's like an American William Hague transplanted to the 1930s with an interest in seafaring and maritime adventure.
Wallace Beary is limited also, as the marvelous character, Long John Silver; only really bringing out the lovable, unreliable charlatanry of Silver. Beery hams it up; oh yes; but not to the definitive degree of Robert Newton (from what I have heard); it doesn't strike me as entirely right that ol' Long John is a drawling, almost completely comical American seadog. But Beery just about wins me over, with a performance of some charm. Not to be forgotten amongst the cast are William V. Mong as a sinister Blind Pew and a typically gibbering, truly insane Ben Gunn played by Charles 'Chic' Sale. His initial scene with Jackie Cooper is an absurd, humorous delight, as you see this exaggeratedly world-weary child being completely flummoxed by this bizarre, apeish chap, all wild body language and liberty with language...
The early part of the film ought to be mentioned; the tavern is portrayed as dingy - surprisingly so for the time and considering the studio - Jackie Cooper seems a little out of place really. In a sense, it is a shame that the cast is not uniformly British to lend a bit more of the Stevenson air to things. Lionel Barrymore as Captain Billy 'Bill' Bones completely walks away with the early section, appropriately sailing well over the top in acting approach; marvellous stuff, like Tom Waits crossed with how I'd really imagined LJS. Obviously, it was to be only a cameo - the story is thus followed - but it's a shame, as his presence is wonderful. Might he indeed have made a fine Long John? He seems a fine actor to me; here even outstripping the stylized pathos of his Otto Kringelein in "Grand Hotel".
In overall estimation, this is a dandy fine effort really; it lacks some sense of the book's exuberant mystery and majesty, and the ending is a serious mistake, but this is a wonderful entertainment. Victor Fleming was an artisan of the populist, but thankfully he doesn't totally unbalance this production in favour of the treacly and 'family-orientated'. This film bears the Jolly Roger with jocular aplomb.