Robert Louis Stevenson is the author of a number of interesting stories including the “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Kidnapped” and “Treasure Island.” I’ve always thought Treasure Island is one of the best boy’s stories ever written. I give a copy to each of my grandsons when he reaches the age where he can read it. It is one of the best.
Treasure Island has been made into a movie several times by Hollywood but for my money the best by a mile is the 1934 version with Victor Fleming directing. It stars Jackie Cooper as the boy hero Jim Hawkins and Wallace Beery as the pirate chief Long John Silver. Cooper was a kid actor in the Little Rascals series and also known for melodramatic roles in some big movies. Beery was a big star of the time who appeared in both comic and dramatic roles. The idea of using American actors in this British story seems ridiculous. Cooper doesn’t even pretend to use a British accent. He speaks in an obviously 20th century American accent. Beery uses a very stagey 18th century English accent. This is also the case with the rest of the cast. There is one actual brit Nigel Bruce (of Sherlock Holmes’ Doctor Watson fame) in the cast but he doesn’t come off any more authentic than any of the other actors. On the face of it, it seems impossible that anything good would emerge. But it does. It’s the best.
The story entertains at every turn. Boys from six to a hundred and six love this movie because it has everything they want. Treasure, pirates, sailing ships (the Hispaniola), desert islands, battles with flintlocks and cutlasses, and all manner of exciting adventure. The movie version takes some liberties with the book (mostly to put Long John Silver in a slightly better light) but the adaption is faithful to the spirit of the story and it remains solidly entertaining.
One of my favorite scenes is Jim Hawkins confronting the pirate, Israel Hands, while Jim is stealing the Hispaniola from the pirates to forestall the use of the ship’s cannons against his friends in the besieged blockhouse. In that scene Jim needs to be brave and resourceful and no adult is there to help him against a deadly adversary. In other scenes, the comedy inherent in his conversations with the ruthless but personable Long John Silver are memorable.
I guess what makes it timeless is the young protagonist proving himself a heroic and resourceful figure in the company of men, both good men and truly evil men. Basically it’s the same formula in the greek myths and every other hero coming of age story.
If you have a son or a grandson or a nephew or other boy who enjoys adventure (as most boys do) buy him the book and after he’s read it give him the movie to watch. And make some popcorn and watch it with him. You’ll enjoy it and so will he. Certain he will matey. Certain he will.
Can a movie made in 1973 be a classic? Hell yeah! The Sting, to my mind, is one of the last identifiable big studio system type movies. Everything about it exudes quality. The cinematography, music, actors, sets, sound and script show attention to detail and professionalism. The only thing that sets it apart from earlier productions is a little profanity that wouldn’t have gotten past the Hayes Code censors of twenty years earlier.
The plot is grifters versus mobsters in 1930s Chicago. Revenge for a murdered grifter has the two stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford partnering to orchestrate a “big con” against a vicious mobster played by Robert Shaw. Supporting cast includes Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan and a host of familiar faces. George Roy Hill directed it and the ragtime music of Scott Joplin suffuses it from beginning to end and reinforces the feeling that you are immersed in an earlier era. I cannot think of a false note in the whole movie. Newman is at his best. Redford is very good and Shaw chews up the scenery with his best Irish gangster characterization. His mannerisms are fantastic. One of his best bits has one of his henchmen asking if it’s worthwhile hunting down the grifters who stole such a small amount of his money. Shaw’s on a golf course and he points to another golfer and says to the hitman, “Ya see that fella? He and I went to fifth grade together. If he finds out that a two-bit grifter got away with stealing from me I’m gonna have to have you kill him and every other small timer from here to Atlantic City. Yafalla (which means do you follow)?
The plot is intricate involving Newman’s crew of con-men, Shaw’s gang, hired hitmen from out of town, local police and even FBI agents after Newman. There are twists, turns and surprises. The movie combines comedy, action and some drama in a fast-paced and highly entertaining way. It’s an homage to the gangster movies of the 1930s that feels like it could have been written by O’Henry or Ring Lardner. But there’s a modern feel to the pessimistic tone of the ending. When Newman asks Redford what he’ll do with his cut, he says he doesn’t want it. “I’d only lose it anyway.”
Give it a try if you’ve never seen it. Highly recommended.
Anyone who has watched TV around Christmas has probably seen a Frank Capra movie because every year they play “It’s a Wonderful Life” non-stop for a week straight. And that’s a really good Capra film. But Capra made a bunch of good films in his day and some of them are among my favorites. And my all-time favorite is “It Happened One Night.” Filmed in 1934, it stars Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in a screwball comedy that wants us to believe that an heiress on the run from her father would meet up accidentally on a bus with a reporter who needs her runaway story to salvage his newspaper career. Their trek from Florida to New York begins with each despising the other and ends up, of course, with them falling in love. But of course, the course of true love is never smooth and never was that truer than with this goofy tale. The key to the success of this movie, for me, is the chemistry between Gable and Colbert. He is the seemingly self-confident man of the world. He knows it all and claims to be able to write a book about every skill from how to correctly dunk a doughnut, to how to thumb a ride on the highway. She starts out as the arrogant little rich girl. Pretending to need no one’s help and always in charge. Once they broker a deal to travel together to their mutual interests, they proceed to heckle each other and bicker until they pretty convincingly fall in love. My wife and I have always thought of this as a pretty much perfect date movie. It has a little something for both sexes. Gable gets to strut and brag in his king of the jungle act and Colbert is the sarcastic little woman. In one of my favorite scenes Gable is demonstrating his various “foolproof” methods of thumbing a ride. After a string of failures, he dejectedly admits maybe he shouldn’t write that book after all. Colbert says she’ll get a ride and won’t even have to use her thumb at all. Of course, she walks over to the rod, lifts her skirt above her knee and the first passing car slams on the brakes and the emergency brake too. An amused Colbert says to the glum Gable that she had just answered an age-old riddle. He asks what and she replies “that the limb is mightier than the thumb.” And he viciously replies “well why didn’t you just take off all your clothes and you could have gotten a hundred rides?” to which she serenely replies “when we need a hundred rides I will.”
As I mentioned earlier, the couple don’t smoothly move from reluctant partners to sweethearts without obstacles and by the last reel misunderstanding and anger almost conspire to destroy this match made on a Greyhound Bus. But of course, happily ever after is bound to be in a Capra film so the fear of tragedy is never serious.
The movie is full of little details of life in depression era America and the vignettes with the denizens of the bus and other locales add charm to the story. Capra filled his depression era movies with scenes of the common people displaying compassion and camaraderie in the face of adversity. The scene where the bus riders amuse themselves with a relatively untalented singing performance is amusing and appealing if a little contrived.
If you’ve never seen the movie, I unreservedly recommend it. If you don’t like it then I recommend you do not read any more of my reviews. Our points of view on film would be just too far out of synch to allow any value to you. And may God have mercy on your poor shriveled soul.
As our first official classic movie review, I’ve picked a beaut. “The Caine Mutiny” is a World War Two movie made nine years after the war had ended. It is an adaption of Herman Wouk’s novel and stage play. This movie has a cast that included star, Humphrey Bogart, veteran actors like Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray and Jose Ferrer along with character actors like Lee Marvin and Claude Akins. It follows the crew of the USS Caine, a minesweeper under the command of a very difficult captain, Philip Francis Queeg played by Bogart. A series of incidents convinces the officers that Queeg is a dangerously paranoid lunatic. It all comes to a head during a typhoon when the officers relieve Queeg of command. This sets up the finale of the movie, a court martial of the officers who mutinied against their captain. Jose Ferrer portrays the defense counsel and his part is a tour de force. He dominates the end of the movie and resolves the conflicting faults of the main characters by identifying “the true author of the Caine Mutiny” and placing blame where it was deserved. All of the veteran actors perform admirably with Fred MacMurray being especially notable for his character portrayal against type. There is one weak aspect to the movie. One of the primary strands of the plot is the story of young Ensign Willis Seward “Willie” Keith played by neophyte actor Robert Francis. A love story between Keith and his girl at home, May Wynn, is woven into the plot. In my opinion it is a weak element and a distraction. Some of the stronger elements involve humor stemming from the crew’s experience of Queeg’s erratic behavior. But for all of his extreme behavior, Bogart comes off as a strangely sympathetic character and the lack of a truly heroic character seems fitting and realistic. I think Wouk was capturing the actual experience of war. The fear and uncertainty that even the sane individuals felt humanizes the behavior of someone like Queeg. I think it will strike a chord for many people who have had to work together under crisis conditions.
Who will like this movie? I guess folks who like court room dramas are likely candidates. Even though it’s a WW II movie and mostly takes place on a war ship it’s not really a war movie. But it is about navy men and it does reflect the time when it took place. One interesting historical detail is the social reality of the place of black sailors in the US Navy of the time. The mess-boys are the cooks and all of them are young black men. They have an important plot element and I’m sure if Alec Baldwin and Dave Letterman ever review this movie on TCM they’ll denounce the rabid racism of the United States and the military then, now and forever. Luckily for all of you I just think it’s an interesting footnote on a different time.
In conclusion, to quote from Captain Queeg, the Caine Mutiny can be counted among “the greatest, I kid you not.”