One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reviewed the latest adaptation of Treasure Island and made fiction lovers’ usual complaint about movie adaptions: it wasn’t like the book:
If he had not christened it Treasure Island, Maurice Tourneur would have had a picture at Grauman’s Theater this week that, while not actually above criticism, would be a wild and rollicking romance of buccaneers, with comparatively few of the flaws to which such stories are subject. As it is, there is one might fault with the production of the Stevenson story—it is not Stevenson.
This does not destroy the value of the picture, except if you start in to make the very natural comparison….Much of the skidding away from the original is due to the effort to short cut to the main episodes of the island fight, which affords the best and most thrilling scenes in the play.
It sounds like Tourneur got to the interesting bits as quickly as possible. After all, you can’t fit a whole novel into six reels. Film Daily thought he didn’t cut enough of the opening set-up. As it was, “the first reel of the offering is exceedingly slow to the point of tedium.” However, they said that things soon picked up and the picture became “a real, thrilling pirate tale…one which happily came to the screen under the guidance of a man capable of realizing on the artistic opportunities presented by the story as well as its many bloodcurdling moments.” We can’t decide for ourselves who was right because the film is lost.
Kingsley also objected to the casting of Shirley Mason as Jim Hawkins:
which—even though that young lady plays her part very well—is an effeminizing taint in the virile story.
Heaven forefend, there can’t be effeminizing taints in the movies! In the bad old days girls didn’t get to set off on hunts for buried treasure or fight pirates. Now a woman in a breeches role would make the story more interesting to female viewers and gender scholars. The story would be even better if it turned out she was a girl disguising herself as a boy for the sake of adventure.
Photo-play Journal was much more enthusiastic about her performance: “Shirley Mason is just the right sort of a Jim Hawkins. I felt a bit skeptical, I must admit, about a girl taking the part, but no boy could have done as well. Jim Hawkins had a highly developed love for romance together with a large amount of courage, and Shirley Mason is able to show these qualities as well as add a little wistfulness.”
Despite her objections, Kingsley decided Treasure Island was “a remarkably absorbing affair…a brilliant achievement in general construction, photographically and by virtue of most of the acting.”
Shirley Mason was having had quite a week in Kingsley’s columns. Another (also now lost) film she starred in opened in Los Angeles this week, Her Elephant Man, and Kingsley wrote:
Shirley Mason really puts the “new” in “ingénue.” If rightly handled, this young woman, I believe, would become one of the biggest favorites of the screen. And instead of the Mary Pickford curls on the heads of our ingénues hereafter, look out for bobbed hair.
Despite the fact that it’s all quite unbelievable, and that it’s even naïve in spots, there’s a fresh charm in this story…Shirley as Joan begins life as the child of an African missionary, and ends as a circus bareback rider.
She’s right—who needs believability when you can have an excuse for this:
Shirley Mason really did ride a horse bareback and did stunts in the circus—no mistake about it, because you can see her plain as day, and this certainly is a refreshing change from the everlasting “double.”
Even with all of her hard work, Mason didn’t become a superstar like Pickford, but she had a very solid career. By 1920, she really wasn’t new: she’d been acting since 1910 when she was 10 years old. Born Leonie Flugrath in Brooklyn, she tagged along with her older sisters Edna Flugrath and Viola Dana when they were hired to act at the nearby Edison Studios. She went on to appear in over 100 films, including Lord Jim (1925) and Sally in our Alley (1927). She retired in 1929.
To round off her big week, Kingsley had news about Mason’s vacation plans:
A yachting trip to Santa Cruz is the reward which fate had in store for a good, hard-working little picture star known as Shirley Mason. Miss Mason left yesterday on her own sixty-five foot gasoline yacht, which she had just purchased. She was accompanied by sister Viola Dana and husband Berney Durney.
Maybe she developed a taste for boats while making Treasure Island. There’s no word if they ran into pirates in the Channel Islands. She would have known how to fight them, if she did.
“Colorful Production Furnished Stevenson’s Classic Pirate Tale,” Film Daily, April 18, 1920, p.12.
Nadeyne Ramsay, “Shirley Tomboy,” Photoplay, July 1920, p.28.
“Treasure Island,” Photo-Play Journal, May 1920, p. 46.