Treasure Island (1934)

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Me Timbers Remain Shivered

I’ve never read the book Treasure Island so I can’t compare this 1934 adaptation to the source material but rather give a point of view as someone who watched the film out of admiration for the stars involved. Treasure Island doesn’t have the unmanufactured feel or the neo-realism of the pervious pairing of Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper of The Champ (then again few films do) but I was satisfied to get my fill of another Beery-Cooper pairing. The chemistry they share, what a pure and natural delight.

For me Cooper’s performance in Treasure Island is priceless; a little kid trying to act tough. I can’t help but let out an “awwwww!!” at any moment when he’s in over his head. I can see how his performance would rub others the wrong way but I can’t get enough of it. Cooper’s relationship to Beery in reality was nothing like it was in fiction but watching him on screen you would never think otherwise. You can see the admiration Jim Hawkins has for Long John Silver on his face and likewise, when he discovers the truth about Long John, just look at the pure horror that bestows his face. Wallace Beery on other hand looks just like a true, rugged seafarer and a beast of a pirate. Being an actor of the silent era he has a beat up face which says so much. Beery simply had the look this role required.

Treasure Island saw the return of the swashbuckler to Hollywood, popular during the 1920’s but almost nonexistent during the pre-code era. Coming from MGM, the production values are second to none, even throwing some exotic animals into the mix and a taster of what was to come in MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty.

Before Beery appears on screen Lionel Barrymore as Billy Bones steals any scene he’s occupies and when I say steals, I mean steals. I can’t determine whether or not his performance is supposed to be funny or not but his scenery chewing grounceness, rambling and his constant desire for rum cracks me up (“Bottle of rum ya old hag!!”).

The ending is an emotional punch to the gut albeit one of mixed emotions. It’s not clear during the film whether or not Long John has any affection for Jim or is just manipulating him and taking advantage of his naivety. Regardless watching Jackie Cooper crying his little heart out as Beery embarks of the ship, you would need to have a heart of stone not to be moved.

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The Pirate (1948)

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Caribbean or Caribbean? Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the beginning of The Pirate we learn Manuela (Judy Garland) has a life of servitude ahead of her while she yearns for a life of adventure. She desires to be taken away by the legendary Mack the Black, swooning over dreams of stolen treasure, maidens captive, of villages destroyed; kind of twisted don’t you think? Regardless I don’t think anyone can project an innocent yearning for adventure better than Judy Garland. The Pirate was a different role for Garland; more exotic, less girl next door and more grown up. For once she plays the object of desire and I find she pulls this off perfectly as although I’ve never found Garland to be a woman of sexual appeal, I do find her one of great beauty (why she was ever referred to as an ugly duckling is beyond me). At heart however Manuela is still very much a Judy Garland character, a down to Earth girl with aspirations for greater things.

The title of The Pirate could come off as misleading. Gene Kelly isn’t a pirate but rather a performer named Serafin masquerading as one. No the pirate of The Pirate is Mack the Black, whom in a odd turn of events is actually the man Manuela is going to wed in an arranged marriage known as Don Pedro, the mayor of a small Caribbean town who has put his life of crime behind him  and kept it a secret. The Pirate is enhanced on second viewing knowing the true identity of Don Pedro as he speaks of his dislike of travelling on the sea and telling Manuela home is the perfect spot; remind you of another Judy Garland film? There is even a moment in which Manuela frantically tells Auntie Inez (Gladys Cooper) she wants to go home which feels like Wizard of Oz redux. The second half of the pirate is one huge comic, screwball like farce which doesn’t fully work for me; it’s amusing but not so much laugh out loud making me prefer the first half to the second.

The Pirate shows Gene Kelly had the ability to be a natural swashbuckler while his introductory sequence in which he gives a lengthy monologue promoting his acting troupe has to be one of his most entertaining non-musical moments on screen. However what really makes his role in The Pirate stand out among his other films is the oozing sexuality he projects on screen; more than any other film he did. Serafin is a real Don Juan with his Gable like moustache as well as with his tightly fit pirate attire and the wipe he is seen sporting in the film (plus that cigarette trick, what a play-a!) His introductory song Nina is one steamy number with Kelly flirting and dancing with oodles of women (just look at that state his hair is in by the end of the number) while the topical setting just enhances the eroticism. The Pirate is another movie in the “how did they get away with that club”. You can censor all you want but you can’t tell someone to simply stop projecting natural sexuality.

Although Judy and Gene do display affection for each other at points in the film, the romantic element of The Pirate comes off to me as secondary. Serafin pursues Manuela for reasons other than love as he can tell she is going into a life she doesn’t want due to his ability to know an entire woman through their body language. This gives his character another element and shows he isn’t totally  shallow and just out to get laid; he wants to prevent Manuela from going down a path she doesn’t want to and expose the adventuress that she is as well as her hidden performing talents. By the end it’s evident they share a more of a professional association than a romantic one, nor is there even a final kiss between the two.

Mack the Black is the musical highlight of the film and an interesting change of pace seeing Judy Garland doing a more racy number. Mack the Black was the replacement for a number titled Voodoo of which the negatives where burned at Louis B Mayer’s instance over the number’s reportedly scandalous content. Would it be considered shocking by today’s standards, was it even that shocking to begin with?  – One can only imagine. As the audio still survives, the song itself is one of the darker, more eerie songs in the MGM library but doesn’t strike me particularly memorable. Perhaps going with Mack the Black was the right decision after all. Be a Clown on the other hand is notably the basis for the song Make ‘em Laugh from Singin’ In the Rain and plagiarised it may be, Make ‘em Laugh is a far superior rendition in my view. The ballet sequence in The Pirate however is a treat with a real sense of three dimensional depth. The sequence with its many explosions and Gene Kelly’s masculine athleticism makes for one of the more primal musical numbers in film history.

The production values of The Pirate aren’t quite up to MGM’s usual standard with clear dividing lines on the sky backgrounds, visible wires holding Gene Kelly on the tight rope and even a very visible thread attached to Judy’s hat as its hoisted away by the wind. Come on MGM, you can do better than that. Ultimately The Pirate is not my favourite MGM musical but is unique enough to make it worthwhile.

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975)

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Young Holmes

I’m not a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, so usually Holmes films appeal to me if they do something unique with the formula. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother is not only a comedy which spoofs with reverence its source material but is also a straight up action/adventure swashbuckler; a vehicle for writer, director and star Gene Wilder to show off a full range of talents including comedy, singing and fencing.

What prevents me from considering Holmes’ Smarter Brother from being a masterpiece is that the movie is not consistently funny. The first third of film had me laughing a lot, particularly the scene in which Wilder, Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn are introduced to each other had me laughing a lot with their kangaroo hoping madness (plus that fencing machine is one of the most amusing props ever); after that I only laughed seldomly. Most of the jokes after the first third are only chuckle worthy but at least avoid being embarrassing.

Even with the depleting laughs there is enough to the film to keep it afloat. Firstly that the movie works on its own as an action/adventure film, full of interesting characters as well as a heavenly chemistry between the trio of heroes. I was still able to care what was going on even with the largely incomprehensible plot. Likewise despite being as neurotic as he is, Gene Wilder does make for a convincing romantic hero – an intriguing, contradictory combo. Holmes’ Smarter Brother was one of Wilder’s directing ventures and he definitely has an eye for detail with the film’s handsome and lush production values – another aspect which helps elevate the film above its comic shortcomings.

The film also hosts some exciting swashbuckling action scenes in which Wilder gets to show off his skills as a swordsman. The final duel between Holmes and Moriarty is a real treat, taking place in a costume and props storage room of a theatre; it’s full of clever and inventive uses of the surroundings. It reminds me of the scene in The Lady Vanishes in which the two protagonists inspect the cargo bay of the train.

The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Bother misses the mark of being a comedy masterpiece but is still a fun time.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

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Who’s Your Bagdaddy?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Could there be a more enchanting silent adventure than The Thief of Bagdad? – A film which is enormously pleasurable, fun, captivating and relaxing to watch. Even at the lengthy running time there was never a dull moment and in my opinion is far superior to the 1940 version. The film has a dream like state, one which I’m happy to see go on and on. This is a rare film which I feel you can pop into at any point and watch from there.

The Thief of Bagdad has a straightforward message which is literally spelled out in the stars at both the beginning and end of the film; “Happiness must be earned”. The film also opens with a verse from The Koran; “Praise be to Allah – the Beneficent King – the Creator of the Universe – Lord of the Three World!”. The remainder of the film however portrays the religion of Islam in a non-proselytizing manner. The film isn’t afraid to show the extent of slavery in the Islamic world of the time, likewise the thief himself isn’t big into faith and even dismisses Allah as a myth in a Mosque right in front of worshipers. What’s particularly interesting about this scene is the Imam (Charles Belcher) prevents the worshipers from attacking the thief after the makes his comments. Islam is touted as the so called “Religion of Peace” and this is at least symbolised in this scene. The Thief’s distaste of religion doesn’t last though as he later asks the Imam to be his catalyst in his transformation (“Allah hath made thy soul to yearn for happiness, but thou must earn it”). Anyone who grew up associating Bagdad with bombs and terrorism, seeing a movie which refers to Bagdad (or Baghdad as other sources spell it) as “dream city of the ancient east” is surreal to see. What happened to this dream city? Did such a place ever really exist or is it just fictional fantasy?

The Thief of Bagdad was one of the most expensive films of the silent era and that money sure went to good use. William Cameron Menzies’ huge, D.W. Griffith like sets are a marvel to behold in their grandiosity and opulence. There’s so much going in many shots with people moving in the background and doing their own thing. Like other silent epics The Thief of Bagdad is a movie of predominantly long shots which offer a voyeuristic like insight into this fantasy world. Not to mention many shots like a 2D platformer video game, so feel free to hold a controller while watching the movie and pretend to play away.

Julanne Johnston’s role as the Princess is very limited as she isn’t given a huge amount to do. However the real stand out female performance is Anna May Wong at the Mongolian slave girl, a real toxic sexual siren. She acts as an insider for the villain of the film, the Mongolian Prince in helping him take over the city. Although considering she is a slave at the hands of a foreign power and the Mongolian Princes’ seizing of the city could ensure her freedom, I can empathise with her character. She is last seen telling the Mongolian Prince to escape with the Princess on the flying carpet all while one of her fellow slaves sees her doing this; the viewer is left to decide what happens to her character. The Mongolian Prince himself does not have much to his personality other than being overtly evil but is delightfully evil all the same while giving off the Fu Manchu vibes.

Like Errol Flynn who would come after him, on screen Douglas Fairbanks projects a real lust for life. He is a marvel to watch with his athletic prowess, feline grace as well as his ability to give the middle finger to the laws of gravity and physics; and nice pecks too. Like some of the great silent comics, he also displays lateral thinking skills. Just looks at the scene in which he creates a makeshift pulley out of a turban, a chair leg and a donkey in order that he can get up to a balcony and steal some food. If his later films are anything to go by, Raoul Walsh was a great director of action. The Thief of Bagdad is a movie full of glorious action set pieces full of those oh so glorious “how’s he going to get out of this?” moments.

The fantasy element of The Thief of Bagdad really kicks in during the final hour. The special effects on display are not of the delightfully fake kind but are actually very convincing. The creature in the Valley on the Monsters or that creature in the sea are definitely something to be feared, or the Enchanted Tree – very eerie stuff. The movie’s two big money shots on the other hand do not disappoint. The first being the shot of the thief flying away on the winged horse, one of those cinematic images that always stay with you. The second of these being the first instance in which we see the flying carpet in action. You’ll believe a man can fly…on a carpet.

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)

Oh England, My Lionheart

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

No Robin Hood movie can dream of even coming close to the perfection that is 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, but Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves ranks as my 2nd favourite movie about the famed English outlaw. If the 1938 Robin Hood is one extreme of a bright, colourful, tight wearing, saccharine induced fantasy and the Ridley Scott Robin Hood is the opposite extreme of an unnecessarily dark, gritty and overly mature version of the tale, then Prince of Thieves is the middle ground.

Is the all American Kevin Costner miscast as Robin Hood? Yes. But do I care? No, not really. Costner’s enthusiasm does come through in his performance and shows he has what it takes to be an action hero. Most people won’t think of Costner as a screen presence, but to me he is. Likewise, realism is besides the point with a movie like this.

The movie opens unexpectedly in Jerusalem showing that this is a Robin Hood movie which does thing a bit different, largely with the character of Azeem (Morgan Freeman), a black man in medieval England. Azeem represents positive representation of an Arab as well as the Arab world. He holds more progressive views on women and in one of the movie’s pivotal scenes in which he hands Robin a rudimentary telescope (very similar to a paralleling scene in Dances with Wolves) which isn’t recorded to have been invented until the 17th century. However the notion that an individual or individuals from the Arab world might have known about such technology isn’t a too “out there” idea due to the Middle East being far more advanced society during the middle ages. I assume it’s unlikely we’ll see a character like Azeem in the post 911 world in which the Middle East is no longer portrayed in media as an exotic fantasy land rather than a haven for terrorists. Costner and Morgan Freeman make for a fun duo; who wouldn’t want to have Morgan Freeman always by your side giving you winsomely knowledge? After all what other actor embodies dignity more than Freeman? Yes there is a big gaping plot hole when Azeem saves Robin’s life as soon as they arrive in England. But do I care? No, not really.

The film’s message of equality between race and gender isn’t shoved down your throat and doesn’t come off as overt political correctness. Likewise Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s (try saying that name three times) Lady Marian is a woman in medieval England who has a sense of self and is not subservient to anyone; not historically accurate but progressive. Plus I do love a girl in armour.

However it’s Alan Rickman who steals the show as the twitchy, scenery chewing mad man that is the Sherriff of Nottingham. His performance is full of little things which feel like they were improvised and his many outbursts are music to my ears. Is it just me or do classically trained actors often make the most memorable villains? Sean Connery’s appearance on the other hand is one of the better uses of a celebrity cameo in a film. Just like how the characters are surprised to see Richard the Lionheart we as the audience are surprised to see Sean Connery; plus he’s perfect in these kinds of roles.

How can that score by Michael Kamen not evoke the adventurer in you? The music is so good that it appears Disney have been using it on their own logo. Likewise I guess I’m also the only person in the world who isn’t sick to death of Bryan Adams’ (Everything I Do) I Do It For You; I still jam to it now and then. Ah the days when the pop song tie in was as big, if not bigger than the movie itself.

Prince of Thieves is good old fashioned swashbuckling action. The action on display has a sense of weight and physicality with the impressive large scale action sequences with even the out there moment with Robin and Azeem being fired over a wall with a catapult still feeling believable, and not a computer generated effect in sight; all practical glory.

The movie does the English landscape justice; even in the drab winter weather there is still a beauty to it. Prince of Thieves features some breathtaking money shots, such as that of Robin firing an arrow with an explosion behind him filmed at 300 frames per second; or perhaps my favourite shot in the film, the romantic elevator with the sun in the background splitting the trees. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is film with its faults but I’m so engaged with the world and its aesthetic that I can look past them, a world in which everything feels used and lived in, one beaming with personality.

Adventures of Don Juan (1948)

The Don Patrol

You could look at it cynically and view Adventures of Don Juan as a career life support, seeing Errol Flynn going to back to doing what made him famous in the first place after a string of unsuccessful pictures at the box office but it is none the less Errol Flynn returning to do what he does best. Despite not having done a swashbuckler since The Sea Hawk in 1940, Adventures of Don Juan manages to recapture the magic of his earlier days in this very dialogue driven swashbuckler. Flynn’s signs of ageing are increasingly apparent but considering his health and status as a star this would have been the final time Flynn could have headlined a big budget production such as this.

The Technicolor here doesn’t have the striking vibrancy of The Adventures of Robin Hood but the beautiful, detailed backdrops and very large scale sets with immaculate attention to detail are superb. The only complaint I have production wise is the very obvious use of footage taken from The Adventures of Robin Hood which sticks out from the rest of a movie which was filmed a decade later. It’s a shame they couldn’t get Michael Curtiz to direct for one last Flynn adventure or Erich Wolfgang Korngold to do the music score, none the less Max Steiner’s score does the job. I also previously knew Viveca Lindfors as the teacher from the 1985 comedy The Sure Thing. To see her 37 years earlier play a Spanish queen in the 17th century was such a contrasting role.

Unlike John Barrymore’s take on Don Juan in 1926, Flynn’s Don Juan uses the character’s insatiable lust for woman for laughs rather than for tragedy (I doubt a film in tone of the Barrymore Don Juan could be made during the code era). Flynn’s Don Juan is a charmer but with a tad buffoonery to him, who’s love making antics threaten relations between England and Spain. However Flynn injects some John Barrymore into his performance with his manner of speaking, which it should then come as no surprise that Flynn would later portray Barrymore in Too Much, Too Soon. What is also taken over from the Barrymore Don Juan is the famous breathtaking epic dive down the stairs; and it does not disappoint.

The two villains in Adventures of Don Juan, the King of Spain (Romney Brent) and the Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas) attempt to hatch a plan to build an armada in secret for world conquest and use shady tactics along the way such as abducting subjects by force for the navy. This was only a few years after the Second World War had ended and the memories of Hitler where still vivid in people’s minds. Robert Douglas channels a bit of Basil Rathbone in his performance while the partnership between these two villains is the classic Emperor/Darth Vader set up; with one figure taking the public limelight and the other pulling the strings behind the scenes; as the Duke de Lorca puts it, “I have no desire to sit on a throne, I much prefer to stand behind it”.

Captain Blood (1935)

There Will Be Blood

Captain Blood, the one that started it all. The beginning of both the Flynn-de Havilland partnership and the Flynn-Curtiz partnership, establishing Erich Wolfgang Korngold as a movie composer and ushering in a new era of swashbucklers. Talk about a great start for two careers; two unknown actors being cast in a major production at one of Hollywood’s biggest studios. Should Hollywood have taken more risks like this more often or was this just a freakishly lucky gamble?

Warner Bros where the best studio of the 1930’s when it came to making thrillers and action pictures in this their answer of MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty. The combination of Michael Curtiz’s direction, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s pumping music scores, Errol Fylnn’s embodiment of a swashbuckling action hero and the dynamic he shared with Olivia de Havilland represents all the elements coming together at the right place and time to create something truly special. It’s no surprise that these elements would reunite many times over the next few years.

The scenes between Flynn and de Havilland are pure movie magic, when they’re together and alone it’s like they’re suddenly in a whole world of their own, it’s truly phenomenal. With his long hair and muscular physique I don’t think Flynn has ever been more attractive that he was in Captain Blood; he certainly never appeared this beat up than he did in any of his subsequent movies. During production scenes had to be reshot as Fylnn’s acting had improved so dramatically over time; the man is a far better actor than he’s given credit for. The character of Peter Blood reflects Flynn’s real life personality, a free spirit who has had enough adventure for 6 years to last him 6 lifetimes. De Havilland on the other hand was only 19 during the filming of Captain Blood, and it never ceases to amaze me I watch her in a film and knowing that she is still alive. As of writing this review there are only two years left until see reaches 100. I am counting down the days.

The plot of Captain Blood is a surprisingly empowering tale of defiance against corrupt authority and the ultimate meaninglessness or war (“I fought for the French against the Spanish and the Spanish against the French”) giving the film that added intelligent edge but this doesn’t take away from the film’s aurora of just pure unmitigated fun.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Perfectly Perfected Perfection

 

I’ve long considered reviewing this movie before but it’s hard to do it justice. For my money, The Adventures of Robin Hood is just too dam perfect a film, every element fits together to an nth degree; I could put this movie under the microscope and not find a single thing I dislike about it. Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilliand, Basil Rathbone and Claude Raines as the villains, the Technicolor, the sets, the action, the romance, the music, just the sear escapism of it all. It’s the type of film that fuels imaginations and makes you feel like a kid again. This all may sound hyperbolic but the more think about this movie the more I fall in love with it and have even gone as far as contemplating to label it as my favourite movie of all time, maybe not quite but I put it in my top 10. The Adventures of Robin Hood Is just so dam perfect that I am actually envious of it.

Just the first four names billed names in the cast list would make The Adventures of Robin Hood one of the greatest casts ever assembled. Who can play a more ridiculously charming lead hero than Errol Flynn? Who can play more loathsome villains than Basil Rathbone and Claude Raines? Rathbone being unabashedly evil while Raines surely most have helped popularise the trope of the effeminate villain. Likewise the flawless beauty that is Olivia de Havilliand as The Lady Marian isn’t just some useless damsel in distress but a central figure in the plot’s progression, acting as an insider after Robin has red pilled her.

Along with the masterful direction of Michael Curtiz, these talents coming together in the same picture is one in a million. It’s hard to talk about any Michael Curtiz directed film and not praise the film on a technical level. Let’s talk about that eye watering Technicolor. Where the middle ages really this colorful? Every frame of this movie is oozing in beauty and with sets featuring such an astounding level of detail, those gorgeous matte paintings or the brightly coloured outfits (especially those worn by The Lady Marian); I just love staring at it and can never take my eyes of the screen. Really, The Adventures of Robin Hood is my choice as the most visually arresting movie ever. If you have contemporary film directors who resurrect the use of black & white cinematography, then why isn’t anyone resurrecting the use of Technicolor? There also isn’t a frame in the movie which doesn’t have an eye pleasing composition with layers of props in the foreground and background.

Every action sequence is unbelievably exciting, with the film’s climatic sword fight being one of the most intense action sequences ever filmed. Also that shadow effect is just so dam stylistic and cool; no one could implement shadows into the frame better than Curtiz (one of his visual trademarks as a director). Such scenes wouldn’t be as effective though without Erich Wolgang Korngold’s highly melancholic and at other times adrenalizing score. I do rigorously listen to this soundtrack in it’s entirely on a regular basis; there is no other film score which evokes a greater sense of emotion from me.

On top of that, every time I watch Robin Hood it’s felt like a different experience every time, even as if I was watching the movie for the first time. I swear I’m not making this up but on every viewing I’ve had with this movie has the weird, uncanny effect of having scenes I have no memory of seeing. Normally when I say I don’t remember a scene that would be a criticism but not in this case. That’s just the magic this movie possesses and the reason it is my number 1 choice of desert island movie.  If you have not viewed its perfection then what are you waiting for? That’s not a recommendation, that’s an order! There will never ever be a better Robin Hood movie…ever!