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Treasured Books on Film : ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON'S FUN CLASSICS ARE OUT THERE FOR THE SMART AT HEART

July 29, 1990|Joe Saltzman

Any youngster who can resist one-legged pirates, secret maps and buried treasure should be sentenced to spend the next year reading Robert Louis Stevenson. If he or she can't read, order the wayward child to do the next best thing-watch Stevenson's "Treasure Island" on the small screen.

Two exciting versions are available in video-the 1934 all-star MGM version starring Wallace Beery as Long John Silver and young Jackie Cooper as Jim Hawkins (MGM/UA, tape and laser disc) or the 1950 Walt Disney film featuring Robert Newton's definitive Silver and Bobby Driscoll's fine Hawkins (Disney Home Video tape and disc).

A version with Charlton Heston in a made-for-TV adaptation has just been released (Turner). It isn't quite up to the high standards of the earlier films.

Stevenson's tale has all the old-fashioned virtues of a classic adventure story: an old pirate map in 18th-Century England leads to a long sea voyage, a mutiny, buried treasure and a fight for honor and country. Few characters are as memorable as Long John Silver, who bewitches and beguiles young Hawkins even as he deceives him.

Beery had an irresistible countenance: big eyes; a sloppy round face capped off by a drinker's nose and drooling mouth. He was one of cinema's great hams. His Long John works because Beery looks the con artist and has enough of a temper to make us believe underneath that lovable exterior is a tough guy capable of anything.

The child star, Jackie Cooper, is wooden in the role, looking as if he is scared to death of Beery. The rest of the cast (including Lionel Barrymore in a memorable cameo) are first-rate. The MGM storytellers keep the action moving, the dialogue tight and the characters true to the book.

Newton's Long John is vastly superior; he seems the ingratiating pirate capable of winning you over with his gift of gab only to slit your throat when you turn away. Driscoll's Hawkins captures the innocence of boyhood beautifully and the two draw you into the story as deftly as Stevenson does in print.

Both versions are meticulously produced (although Disney changes the novel's original ending to keep everyone smiling).

There is an animated feature of "Treasure Island" using animated puppets, but that one's definitely for very small children (Planet Video Inc.). Even more curious is the Gilbert and Sullivan musical version on Pioneer Artists LaserDisc. It's a made-for-video production featuring Christopher Cazenove, Frank Gorshin and John Judd. Only for the truly faithful.

Filmmakers have embraced Stevenson since the silent era. No story fascinated them more than "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which has beens made into several films.

The 1941 MGM version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is available (MGM/UA tape and video disc). It's an elaborate production featuring Spencer Tracy as Jekyll-Hyde, Ingrid Bergman as the object of Hyde's desire and Lana Turner miscast as Dr. Jekyll's loyal fiancee. The film emphasizes the emotional more than the physically grotesque side of Hyde's evil. It even features elaborate Freudian dream sequences that today seem a bit silly.

Yet the film is great fun with Tracy chewing up the scenery, Bergman never looking more sensuous and Turner never looking more vulnerable.

The Jekyll-Hyde theme is twisted into "Doctor Heckyl and Mr. Hype," a 1980 film starring Oliver Reed in which the doctor suffers from various comic personality disorders (Paragon Video Productions). There's also "Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde," a 1972 film in which the doctor turns into a beautiful but dangerous woman (Ralph Bates and Martine Beswick look like twins). That one's not out in video yet. But it will be.

One of the best movies based on a Stevenson story is "The Body Snatcher," a 1945 film set in 19th-Century Scotland in which a doctor (Henry Daniell) is blackmailed by a grave robber (Boris Karloff) who brings him bodies for medical experiments (Media Home Entertainment). It is a chilling horror story beautifully directed by Robert Wise.

There have been three films based on Stevenson's "Kidnapped." One of the most faithful is Disney's 1960 version, and it's the only one on video (Disney). It stars James MacArthur as a young heir whose uncle arranges for his kidnaping-he is shipped away from 18th-Century England. It ends up being a swashbuckling delight.

Stevenson's story of two Victorian brothers who try to murder each other for an inheritance inspired a sparkling film in 1966 written by Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove.

"The Wrong Box" (RCA/Columbia Pictures tape) features an all-star British cast including Ralph Richardson, John Mills, Michael Caine, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Peter Sellers in a hilarious cameo as an oddball doctor. Bryan Forbes directed this combination of slapstick and black humor.

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