Pictures I Like: John Decker

The other night I watched a 1940s crime movie, Scarlet Street, on TCM. Edward G. Robinson plays a hen-pecked husband who holds down a stultifying job as cashier/bookkeeper at some sort of company. His only joy is painting, which he does in the bathroom of his run-down apartment. His wife hates his painting — doesn’t like the smell. One day, Edward G. Robinson meets Joan Bennett and is enraptured. Dan Duryea plays the heel who Joan loves (she likes to be smacked around). He persuades her to seduce the old guy. Things lead to a murderous climax. Okay, pretty much standard noir fare, but…

The paintings that Edward G. Robinson’s character creates are derided by his wife and others, but the first one I glimpsed made me sit up. The subject matter is a nondescript white flower in a glass, the painting looks like the artist was using hallucinogenic drugs. This was something special! In the movie, critics and dealers agree. Leaving aside the movie plot, I had to know more about the flower, some street scenes, and an incredible portrait of Joan Bennett, with eyelashes spiky as a psychedelic flower!

Screengrabs from Scarlet Street: the flower, portrait of Joan Bennett, closeup of portrait. The movie is in black-and-white, of course. I don’t know if any color was used in these paintings or not. (At least one of the paintings — that features a snake wrapped around an elevated train support — was in color). Decker has deliberately aimed at a primitive, untrained style — look at the dead-on composition of the Bennett portrait, for instance.

It didn’t take much digging to discover that the paintings had been made by John Decker. I researched him and that’s where things got really interesting, because John Decker was an artist, art forger, and drinking companion of W.C. Fields, John Barrymore, and other famous boozers. He may or may not have been a spy. He may or may not have forged the Head of Christ attributed to Rembrandt that hangs in Harvard’s Fogg Museum. He certainly did a famous portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Any of these accomplishments are enough to make a man interesting.

John Decker probably about 1935. [Wikipedia]

John Decker was born Leopold von Decken in Berlin. Or possibly in London. Or Greenwich. One story had his aristocrat father eloping with an English opera singer and the young couple fleeing social scandal to England. An art gallery bio has him born in San Francisco before being abandoned in England. Wikipedia has the more conventional tale: that the child was two when his parents moved to London.

Graf Ernst August von der Decken, son of an artist, worked as a reporter and married Maria Anna Avenarius, an opera singer, in Greenwich in 1898. Their son was born in 1895. Hence the scandal. Maria abandoned the household at some point in what was, apparently, a stormy marriage. Ernst left his son alone in 1908. Decker despised his mother, “That red-headed whore!” “I like John Decker,” John Barrymore once said, “He hates sunsets and his mother.” Sunsets, possibly, because they reminded him of his mother’s red hair. At least that is the legend as recalled by one of Decker’s cronies. It does appear that Decker hated the natural auburn shade of his own hair. Maria died in 1918. Ernst in 1934.

Legend has it (meaning John Decker told a drunken story that was recalled later by someone who had heard it while drunk) that, at the age of thirteen, the young lad began to work for an art forger, whose specialty was conning tourists. During World War I, some of these paintings were shipped back to the continent and some had writing on the back of the canvas that may have been coded espionage messages. And that, according to legend, got the young man interned on the Isle of Man in 1917 or 1918. Later, Decker said that it was a terrible experience; that he had witnessed scenes of depravity too horrible now to relate. One that he did relate had to do with an internee who committed suicide by immolating himself on an electric fence. Since there is no record of electric fences at the Man internment camp, that seems unlikely. Decker also claimed that internees had to eat the corpses to keep from starving.

Internee art for one of the four newspapers published at the Isle of Man camp at Knockaloe. [via, copyright Manx National Heritage,]

Most likely Decker was interned because he had been born in Germany and was still a German citizen. His father may have left him in 1908, but someone seemed to support him, and it probably wasn’t an art forger. Decker was studying art at the Slade School of Art in London (where Barrymore also studied) before his internment, but that factoid was later embellished by naming his teacher as Walter Sickert, who, both legend and Patricia Cornwall claim, was Jack the Ripper.

Released at the War’s end, the young man may have travelled to Europe (or not) but did shift his name from von Decken to John Decker. Using phony papers, at some point he sailed to America, probably in 1921. He hung around New York for a while, working as a newspaper caricaturist and set decorator for stage productions. He tried acting, but, legend has it, he was already a heavy drinker and passed out on stage during a scene with Jeanette MacDonald. In 1928, or possibly 1930, Decker emigrated to Hollywood, where anybody can be anyone they want to be. He left his first wife, Helen, in New York, along with his baby daughter. When he arrived in California, Decker had a second wife, Judith. He never divorced Helen, not even after marrying a third time.

Decker had met John Barrymore in New York (in a bar, of course, where they discovered they had the same taste in beer, the legend says) and soon became part of a drunken crew known as the Bundy Drive Boys. Bundy Drive was the location of Decker’s studio and the boys included, besides Barrymore and W.C. Fields: Ben Hecht, who wrote the dramatic sketch that Decker performed in New York; Gene Fowler, journalist turned script-writer; Sadakichi Hartmann, art critic and poet; and actors Errol Flynn, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Alan Mowbray, and others who drifted in and out. Toward the end of the group’s existence, a few younger men, such as Anthony Quinn and Vincent Price, tagged along. Members of the original group had achieved some success in New York, where several of them first met, and had trekked out to Hollywood where the money was. Most of them hated the place and the film industry. All wanted to be a different kind of artist than they were — the screenwriters wanted to be novelists, the actors wanted to be painters, and so on. Decker was very clear about his art and his motivation: he wanted to make money and he would paint anything, anytime for a fee.

Decker was very gifted and could draw well and paint quickly. Somehow, though, he could not become wealthy, or at least, not wealthy enough. Mind you, he was living the high life through the 1930s, but there was an air of dissatisfaction about him that was revealed in the coat-of-arms that he hung on the Bundy Drive door. It shows his initials on a shield flanked by unicorns and bears the motto: “Useless. Insignificant. Poetic.”

Decker portrait of Henry Hull as Jeeter Lester, 1935. [photo from eBay sale of painting. It went for $3250.]

For a time, Decker produced caricatures, the same kind of work he had done in New York. Occasionally, he did a portrait and, one auspicious day, someone — legend varies as to who — requested a portrait in old master style, or as a knight or royalty or something, and Decker obliged. Soon, many of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars had paintings that showed them as a lead character in some historical fantasy. Decker’s forte turned out to be satire and most of his clients understood his work. There were some dissatisfied customers, though — Clark Gable is said to have refused to pay for a portrait that made his ears look big — and there were lawsuits. When one client refused a portrait, Decker painted prison bars over his face and was sued for defamation. Decker counter-sued and the case was dropped.

Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton admire paintings of Cyrano de Bergerac and Hamlet. Note the Army outfit on Durante who was probably on his way to or from a USO gig.

Sometimes Decker worked for himself and not a contracted customer. So he produced a portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Her Majesty, recognizable both as herself and as Fields, frowns at a picture of Johnny Walker. Fields pretended outrage: “Decker has kicked history in the groin.”  Dave Chasen, owner of the restaurant where the Bundy Drive Boys hung out, demanded a copy. Decker dashed one off for him. He claimed to have done many others in various sizes, small copies going for $50 a picture. One would think that there would be more examples on the Internet, but surprisingly few examples of this famous image can be found on line.


Fields/Victoria hanging. [via Movies from the 20’s – 60’s]

Decker continued to create other works besides the caricatures. A few items can be found by googling. A painting of the Normandie on fire in New York harbor is interesting, but a study of black singers is not. Recent auction prices have Decker’s portraits going for $10000 and up, depending on who is the subject, and his “serious” work selling for $2 – 5000.

Harpo Marx as Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy”. Dave Chasen liked this painting so much that he commissioned one with his face on it. The Chasen picture actually was blue and not green.

In 1941, Decker did a series of murals depicting the history of Hollywood for the Wilshire Bowl nightclub. The murals have disappeared, but Decker’s preliminary drawings are in the Smithsonian. Then, in 1942, Decker produced a great piece: a drawing of John Barrymore on his deathbed.

Barrymore on his deathbed. He had eczema and clawed at his skin as he died. Decker turns this into a theatrical gesture.

Barrymore was Decker’s closest friend. The actor’s self-destruction was mirrored in that of the painter. Both were very aware of the damage that they were doing to themselves. Later, Decker worked up some finished, sentimental, death-of-Barrymore pieces, but it is the drawing that strikes home. It may have hung over Barrymore’s coffin at his funeral, or that may have been one of the more sentimental pieces that Decker did at the time. Errol Flynn once claimed to have abducted Barrymore’s body and, with some other Bundy Boys, transported it from bar to bar, feeding it booze. Later, Flynn admitted that he made up the story (which has also been told of other dead drinkers).

Hartmann was the next of the group to die. He was also the oldest, 78 at the time of his death in 1944. In some ways. Sadakichi Hartmann was a model for the other Bundy Drive Boys. Born to a German father and Japanese mother in Japan, Hartmann was thrown out of the family (he said) at the age of fourteen and later adopted a Bohemian lifestyle in New York. He met Walt Whitman, quarreled with him, it is said, and eventually moved west to California. He is more known now for his criticism, which took photography seriously, than his other work, which included poetry, painting, and a brief turn as an actor (he appeared in Douglas Fairbanks’ Thief of Baghdad).  Alcohol and other drugs fueled his poetry. He had the habit of pissing himself while drunk. Decker’s daughter found Hartmann repellant and steered clear of him because he smelled so bad. Alcoholics may be fun to read about but aren’t so nice to live with. [pictures by or of Hartmann may be seen here. And here.]

Decker portrait of Sadakichi Hartmann, 1946 [via Laguna Art Museum ]

Born in Japan with two Axis parents meant that, during World War II, Hartmann was a person of interest to the FBI. He escaped internment because of age and infirmity, but was visited several times by federal agents, just to make certain he wasn’t passing information back to the Motherland. Gene Fowler was working on a biography of Hartmann that was never finished. In 1952 Fowler published a book of Bundy Drive tall tales about attempting to write the bio. Hartmann’s daughter was incensed by the fact that her father’s life had been reduced to a bunch of drunken anecdotes, but that was the fate of others of the Bundy Drive Gang as well, including Decker.

At the end of 1946, W.C. Fields died. Six months later, suffering from diabetes and cirrhosis, Decker passed away. His then-wife, Phyllis, had an open bar at his funeral. She also darkened his red moustache with mascara. The drawing of Barrymore on his deathbed was placed on Decker’s casket and a Decker portrait of Barrymore hung on the wall. Legend has it that, when the minister recited the words, “Let us pray”, the flower wreath fell from Barrymore’s portrait into the coffin. John Decker was 51 at the time of his death.

Van Gogh or Decker?

But that’s not the end of the story. In 1949, a Van Gogh self-portrait purchased by William Goetz, Louis B. Mayer’s son-in-law, was pronounced a fake by experts. Goetz angrily defended the work, which he had bought from a dealer in 1946. The dealer, said to be reputable, withheld the painting’s provenance for “business reasons”. The authenticity of the picture is still being debated and one name that keeps coming up is that of John Decker. According to a drinking buddy, Decker loved Van Gogh’s work and claimed that the Dutch artist sometimes used his penis to apply paint. No one has examined the disputed painting looking for traces of Decker’s organ, but legend has it…

The Fogg Museum says this is a Rembrandt study. Legend has it that the painting was done by Decker.

And in 2003, Stephen Jordan published a biography of Decker in which he claimed that Decker faked a Rembrandt study at the behest of Thomas Mitchell. Whether Mitchell was part of the con or its victim is unclear. According to the story related to Jordan, Mitchell, who was an art collector, bemoaned the fact that he could not afford a Rembrandt. Decker said that he could locate one that only cost $2000. Then Decker bought a piece of 17th Century furniture and pulled out a drawer bottom that he used as a surface. After painting the piece, Decker then cracked it along the back and sent it to Holland for repairs. When the piece returned to the US, it bore Dutch customs papers, which helped provide some provenance. Mitchell may or may not have paid $45000 for it, but it seems to have been part of his estate. That painting is now in Harvard’s Fogg Museum (which bought it for $35000). Harvard and the Fogg maintain that the work is genuine. Some testing was done a few years ago which showed that the wood panel was, indeed, Baltic oak from the 17th Century.

Finally, although not as valuable as Rembrandts or Van Goghs, Decker’s paintings have been a target for thieves.


Bohemian Rogue: The Life of John Decker by Stephen C. Jordan, so far as I know the only full-length biography. The paperback now sells for $90

Hollywood’s Original Rat Pack: The Bards of Bundy Drive by Stephen C. Jordan. Out of print.

Hollywood’s Hellfire Club by Gregory William Mank. Was out of print, now seems to be back in stock.

The books above recycle all the legends and anecdotes that might better be read in:

Minutes of the Last Meeting by Gene Fowler. Fowler’s account of trying to write Sadakichi Hartmann’s biography. Mostly anecdotes about the Bundy Drive Crew.

Good Night, Sweet Prince by Gene Fowler. Bio of John Barrymore with lots of anecdota.









Good Books: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson; Good Movies: Treasure Island, 1950

Sometime around 1951, I saw Treasure Island  and was delighted. What a great movie, I thought, and the hero was a kid! Like me! About a year ago I got a DVD that promised to be a copy of the original film. I am fully aware that memories tarnish over time and did not expect Treasure Island to hold up after more than sixty years. But it did! I read Treasure Island as a kid and several times since, it is a fine novel. And I have seen a number of illustrations for the book done by different artists, and read the Classics Illustrated comic. Anyway, I want to review the movie (as it exists on DVD) and take a look at the book with an eye to plot differences. Along the way, I’ll mention some of the illustrators who worked on this title. (This post is image-heavy and may take a while to load. Many of the illustrations will embiggen if you click on them.)

Stevenson claimed to have been inspired by a map, possibly of one of the Scottish isles re-imagined as a pirate treasure location, by his step-son. (The map is reproduced in many editions of the book.) He also says that he set out to write a book for boys. And although it is true there are no girls in the book — the only female character is Jim’s mother, who does not appear in the Disney film at all — many young women read this novel or watch this movie with enjoyment. (One woman who was enthralled by Treasure Island was J.M.Barrie’s mother, who tried to hide her enjoyment from her novelist son for fear she would be seen as disloyal.)

The map (from the Swanston Collected R.L.Stevenson, available at

The map (from the Swanston Collected R.L.Stevenson, available at The Disney film map shows only the islet in the bottom right corner, which is where the treasure is buried.

The book begins with Jim Hawkins saying that all these events occurred years before, which is taken by cranky critics to be a spoiler, because that means the reader knows that Jim will survive. That just shows how little these critics understand literature. Anyway, Jim’s recollections begin with the wasting away of his father who dies leaving Jim and his mom to look after the Admiral Benbow Inn, located in coastal Devon. A guest named Billy Bones takes up residence at the inn during the period of Mr. Hawkins’ decline, and he is a thoroughly disagreeable mean drunk. He promises various payments to Jim’s parents and Jim himself, and cheats all three. He threatens the guests, has nasty drunken fits, and is generally a blight on the landscape. Here we might note that Stevenson never romanticizes his pirate characters — they are all scum and you don’t want to turn your back on any of them. Bones enlists Jim as lookout: the boy is to watch for seamen inquiring about him and, in particular, he is to watch for a one-legged man, who is to be feared.

Finlay Currie as Billy Bones, getting ready to take his last drink.

Finlay Currie as Billy Bones, getting ready to take his last drink.

One day, a man with a nasty scar on his face does turn up at the Admiral Benbow, looking for Billy Bones. This is where the Disney movie begins. Jim lies and says he knows no such man but the scarred man notices a sea-trunk, marked “WB” and knows that this means “William Bones”. Jim reports to Bones (played by Finlay Currie, who I believe, never, ever played a thoroughly unlikeable character) who immediately identifies the scarred man as Black Dog, which is not a name associated with Goodness and Mercy. In the book, Bones and Black Dog clash and Billy Bones drives the other pirate away.

Billy Bones: catches his sword in the inn sign when he swings at Black Dog by John Cameron; gets the Black Spot by Derek Eyles; is found dead by Louis Rhead

Billy Bones: catches his sword in the inn sign when he swings at Black Dog by John Cameron; gets the Black Spot by Derek Eyles; is found dead by Louis Rhead

Soon enough, another visitor arrives at the Admiral Benbow: Blind Pew, an uncanny figure who latches onto Jim with a vulture grip and demands to be guided to Billy Bones. This scene is handled much the same way in both book and movie. Pew makes Jim guide his hand to that of Bones and drops something into it. “Now that’s done!” he cackles and scuttles away. Bones opens his hand to reveal the Black Spot! A piece of paper with a black circle on it and the words, “after dark”, in the movie. The book has it after ten o’clock. “We have time,” shouts Bones, “We’ll do them yet!” But he collapses and dies. In the book, Jim informs us that this is the second person he has seen die, the first being his father. Now, memory of the first being “fresh in his heart”, he bursts into tears, though he never liked Billy Bones. What he doesn’t say is that he will witness quite a few more deaths over the next year or so.

Pew grabs Jim,left to right: by Frank Godwin, a comics artist whose masterful pen and ink illustrations are some of the best for Treasure Island; Roberto Innocenti, for a 2012 Italian translation of the novel.; Mervyn Peake, from 1947m still in print.

Pew grabs Jim,left to right: by Frank Godwin, a comics artist whose masterful pen and ink illustrations are some of the best for Treasure Island; Roberto Innocenti, for a 2012 Italian translation of the novel.; Mervyn Peake, from 1947 still in print.

In the movie, the dying Bones gives Jim a packet. In the book, he finds it in Billy Bones’ sea-chest which he and his mother are pillaging for the money owed them. Jim’s mother refuses to take a nickel more than her debt but the coins are all manner of issues and denominations and it takes a while to calculate. Jim urges her to take the lot, but she won’t because that is not the Right thing to do. So they are almost caught when the pirates suddenly swarm around the Admiral Benbow, not waiting until the appointed hour at all, those scurvy swabs. Jim and his mother hide outside while he ponders that they might be killed because of his mother’s “greed”. But, of course, it was not just greed, but righteousness, that caused her to delay. Jim is not quite what moderns call an unreliable narrator, but Stevenson makes it clear that he does not always see things the way others — including the reader — might. Later, Jim demonstrates a rather cavalier attitude toward doing the Right Thing. Have I made it clear yet that I admire Stevenson’s writing?

Now the cavalry arrives in the form of a posse of revenue agents called by Jim through the local lord, Squire Trelawney. The details and differences between book and movie aren’t important. What is important is that, during the confusion when the armed guard arrives and the pirates scatter, Blind Pew falls under their horses and is killed. In the book, that is; on the DVD nary a trace of Pew amongst the pirates. I thought I remembered… but possibly that’s an illustration I recall. Maybe Disney couldn’t bear to kill a blind man, even if that same blind man is one of the nastiest villains ever imagined. “It’s that boy,” says Pew, when the pirates can’t find the map, “I wish I had put his eyes out.” There’s echoes of fairy tales and myth in that declaration.

Top: Classics Illustrated #84 by Alex Blum. The face in the chopped-off panel at right is that of Billy Bones. Bottom: Pew seeking the aid of his shipmates, who have fled, by N.C. Wyeth, possibly the most famous illustrator for this story; Pew is ridden down by Edmond Dulac. Dulac was a great illustrator, but chose to see everything in Treasure Island from a distance. There is little of characters in his illustrations.

Top: Classics Illustrated #84 by Alex Blum. The face in the chopped-off panel at right is that of Billy Bones. Bottom: Pew seeking the aid of his shipmates, who have fled, by N.C. Wyeth. Wyeth’s colors are often very similar to those of the Technicolor Disney film; Pew is ridden down, by Edmund Dulac. Dulac was a great illustrator, but chose to see everything in Treasure Island from a distance. There is little of characters in his illustrations.

Jim turns the map over to Squire Trelawney and Doctor Livesey. The doctor, who had ministered to Billy Bones and tried to get him to stop drinking, is very upright, courageous, and, for Disney, a sort of father figure to Jim. In fact, the movie turns on which dad Jim will choose: the upright Livesey or the scoundrel Silver — but that’s yet to come. The Squire is a bluff gentleman, thick as a post, who cannot keep from blathering every thought that winks into his head. The Doctor tries to rein him in, but Squire Trelawney is a fool. Not that Doctor Livesey would allow you to say that, because he is as loyal as he is upright. At any rate, these two and Jim decide to sail after the treasure on the map.

The Squire sets out to Bristol where he finds a ship, the Hispaniola, and Captain Smollett to command her. He also runs his mouth about a treasure map and all the wrong type of seaman are attracted to him. All this is much the same in book and movie, except that Disney leaves out Jim taking leave of his mother and his old home. The lad setting out on his life adventure with both joy and apprehension, and the leavetaking of home, is older than fairy tales and the beginning of many great stories. Stevenson glosses this device. When Jim sees the boy who has been apprenticed to take over his work, he has an attack of tears. Then:

I am afraid I led that boy a dog’s life; for as he was new to the work, I had a hundred opportunities of setting him right and putting him down, and I was not slow to profit from them.

Jim is, you see, not a stainless hero but a genuine human being with both good and bad traits.

Jim leaves home, by N.C.Wyeth. Wyeth’s illustrations are perhaps the best-known. The original paintings are three feet by four and cost Wyeth an enormous effort but one that he felt was worth it. He called the Treasure Island illustrations “far better in every quality than anything I ever did.” Wyeth’s version has remained in print since 1911. (See end notes for more details on this edition.)

In Bristol, Jim finally meets the Old Sea-Cook, as an alternate title of Stevenson’s novel calls him. Long John Silver is a charming fellow. Although Jim remembers Billy Bones’ warning and is alarmed to meet a one-legged man, Silver soon charms him. In the movie, Silver gives Jim a pistol, which will figure in the later action; in the book, he simply talks Jim around. At one point, Jim spots Black Dog and gives the alarm. Silver sets men after the pirate, but, of course, they don’t catch him.

A bit more about Long John Silver from the book: He is now fifty years old. The men call him Barbecue. They say he has education and could have been something more than an ordinary seaman. And he is powerfully strong. Even with only one leg, the other seamen fear him. Silver has a wife, partner in his Bristol inn. She is a woman of color, a “negress” in the novel. The Squire has some casually racist things to say about her that Stevenson later exposes as gas when Silver explains to the other pirates that, the instant the Hispaniola sailed, his wife had sold up the inn and all their belongings, and now awaits his return with Flint’s treasure at a certain secret place in England. Silver also explains compound interest to his pirate buddies and says if they have any sense (which he knows they don’t) they will invest their loot, a little here, a little there, so as not to arose suspicion.

Long John Silver by Frank Schoonover, as played by Robert Newton, by Edward A. Wilson

Long John Silver by Frank Schoonover, as played by Robert Newton, by Edward A. Wilson

Both book and movie describe Silver’s outer trappings, the one leg, his parrot named Captain Flint that squawks “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!” Both present him as a charming, scheming rogue — but he is also a murderous villain, more so in book than movie.

Perhaps here is the place to talk about Robert Newton’s wonderful performance as Long John Silver. It is said that Newton, who had been a major star in English film, was a complete alcoholic. The director, Byron Haskin, kept him working by continually asking his advice on how to do scenes and treating him with the respect due a legendary actor. If so, we owe Haskin a debt of gratitude for eliciting this great performance. (Haskin says that he simply let Newton rip and chew all the scenery he wished.) And it is a performance that everyone remembers. Every time someone goes “Arrrr” on Talk Like A Pirate Day, he is quoting Robert Newton, who adapted his native West Country dialect to the role. But kids in 1951 were the people who really appreciated the Newton performance. Robert Crumb has written about his older brother, Charles, who tied up a leg and crutched around the neighborhood so much that he actually damaged his ability to walk for a while. Others may speak of Wallace Beery or Charlton Heston (haven’t seen that one myself) but Robert Newton’s is The Great Portrayal of Long John Silver for ever. So I say.

From Robert Crumb, Treasure Island Days and from an early comic scripted by Charles, drawn by Robert. (The Complete Crumb Comics vol. 13 and vol. 1, respectively.)

From Robert Crumb, Treasure Island Days and from an early comic scripted by Charles, drawn by Robert. (The Complete Crumb Comics vol. 13 and vol. 1, respectively.)

The Hispaniola sails and the voyage is uneventful except for the death of the first mate, Arrow. He is drunk when he goes on deck in a storm and is swept away. In the book, Jim learns later that Silver has been feeding rum to Arrow; in the movie, Jim is made accomplice to Arrow’s killing by bringing the rum to Silver. That’s pretty heavy and something Stevenson would have made more of. As it stands, Jim winds up his adventure with PTSD — but that’s yet to come.

“Here ye are, Mister Harrow. Sweeten the plum duff to yer taste.” Arrow chugs at the bottle before lurching on deck. Silver pushes him above with his crutch.

Jim goes to fetch an apple from the barrel that stands where every man can help himself. Doctor Livesey thinks this a good health measure, Captain Smollett (in the book) believes it will make the men soft. Smollett is a brave commander, set in his ways. Some time or other I expect some grad student has written a thesis or a dissertation on Stevenson’s approach to class — his characters simply accept it as part of the world they live in, often they are ruled by assholes and that’s the way of it — but someone else can look that paper up. Where was I? Oh, yes! The apple barrel.

The barrel is almost empty and Jim climbs inside to get an apple. Then several men group outside. One is John Silver, another is one of the non-pirate seamen, Dick. Silver (in the book) talks of days sailing with Flint, how he lost his leg and Pew his eyes in the same battle. It was an educated surgeon that amputated his leg, “knew Latin by the bucket”, but that didn’t save him: “He was hanged like a dog, and sun-dried like the rest, at Corso Castle.” Dick declares he will join the pirates — in the book, they call themselves “gentlemen of fortune”. Then both in book and movie, Silver speaks of his plans. Israel Hands wants to move now and take the ship, but Silver reminds him that, although they can steer a course, none of the seamen can set one. He bids them wait until all the treasure is aboard. In the book, he says that he would have them sail halfway back to England, to at least the trade winds region, but he knows that that the impatient pirates won’t hold out that long. He says that when they reach the island and the ship is loaded with treasure, then they will kill the others. One thing, says Silver, “I claim Trelawney. I’ll wring his calf’s head off his body with these hands.”

A pirate approaches the apple barrel and Jim fears he will be discovered — the movie does this well, with a pirate knife descending to pierce either an apple or Jim — when the cry is heard: “Land ho!” And everyone rushes to see.

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Jim calls a council in the Captain’s cabin. There, he tells Smollett, Squire Trelawney, and Doctor Livesey of what he has heard. Everyone recognizes that only Silver keeps the crew from open mutiny. Aside from the four in the cabin, only three brought from Trelawney’s estate can be counted on (says the book). So they are seven against nineteen, nine against twenty in the movie. Now comes a key moment.

In the book, Jim is told to keep his ears open. He is worried but agrees. In the movie, Doctor Livesey tells Jim to stay friends with Silver, something that causes him some dismay — “Stay friends with him?”. (Bobby Driscoll was a good actor.) One surrogate father tells Jim to spy on the other, who is not made out to be quite the villain that Stevenson created. Here is the setup for the drama of the movie’s final scene.

Robert Newton and Bobby Driscoll on the way to the island, before Jim gets away. Good old charming Long John Silver. Even the movie can't completely whitewash him.

Robert Newton and Bobby Driscoll on the way to the island, before Jim gets away. Good old charming Long John Silver. Even the movie can’t completely whitewash him.

Action in the book is compressed in the film, but the effect of both is that Jim is ashore on the island when the pirates aboard the Hispaniola try to take the ship, against Long John Silver’s orders. Then occurs perhaps the most horrifying event in the book, so chilling that Disney left it out of the movie.

Jim has scampered ashore and hides from the pirates. After a while he hears Silver arguing with Tom, who refuses to join the pirates. Their argument is interrupted by a scream from another part of the island. Someone else who refused to join the pirates has been murdered. Tom walks away from Silver who hoists himself on a tree branch and hurls his crutch so that it strikes Tom’s spine with bone-breaking force:

Silver, agile as a monkey, even without leg or crutch, was on top of him next moment, and had twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body. From my place of ambush, I could hear him pant aloud as he struck the blows.

Death of Tom: by Frank Godwin, Louis Rhead -- Rhead worked in black and white, then colored a few pages for the publisher. Both B/w and color versions may be seen in the edition ; Mervyn Peake

Death of Tom: by Frank Godwin; Louis Rhead — Rhead worked in black and white, then colored a few pages for the publisher. Both b/w and color versions may be seen in the edition ; Mervyn Peake.

Jim falls into a swoon and lies senseless, overwhelmed by the sight. And, when I read this part, I lost any liking whatsoever for Long John Silver. But you may differ. After all, there were many folks who found Ted Bundy charming. And I do not intend this as an off-hand comparison. It seems to me that Stevenson has created a character who is a model sociopath — not that Stevenson knew the term — charming, manipulative, ruthless, and completely without remorse. I can visualize Silver ruling a gang or a prison block. Stevenson has described a particular kind of villain that now has a label.

Now the situation is: the pirates have taken the ship, Captain Smollett, Doctor Livesey, Squire Trelawney, and three loyal men are barricaded in an old stockade. Jim runs into Ben Gunn, marooned for three years and dreaming of cheese, toasted mostly, who guides him to the stockade and asks for a meeting later with someone of that party. Jim delivers his message to the stockade and the Doctor says he will speak with Ben Gunn. In the book, he mentions that he has a piece of Parmesan cheese in his snuffbox, “very nutritious”, and will give it to old Ben. But first the pirates attack the stockade with the ship’s cannon.

Ben Gunn by Ralph Steadman.

Ben Gunn by Ralph Steadman.

The cannonade failing, Long John Silver arrives under a flag of truce. Captain Smollett refuses to treat with him, offering instead to take back any pirate who surrenders to a fair trial in England. Their parley finished, no one offers a hand to help Silver up. In the movie, we can see Jim feeling sorry for Silver, but not in the book.

The pirates attack the stockade in earnest. There is fierce fighting and, when it is over, the Captain’s party has five men left (one wounded), the pirates, eight. So the odds have improved, but the situation is desperate. In the movie, Doctor Livesey gives Jim the map and tells him to buy his life with it if necessary. In the book, this comes later.

Attack on the Stockade. Top: N.C.Wyeth; Abraham Gray kills the big boatswain, by Bohuslav Mikes (Czech edition, 1967). Gray left the pirates to join Jim's party. He makes it back to England; Mervyn Peake. Bottom: Ralph Steadman

Attack on the Stockade. Top: N.C.Wyeth; Abraham Gray kills the big boatswain, by Bohuslav Mikes (Czech edition, 1967). Gray left the pirates to join Jim’s party. He makes it back to England; Mervyn Peake. Bottom: Ralph Steadman.

That night, the Doctor leaves to meet with Ben Gunn and Jim goes on his own excursion. Jim knows that if he can cut the Hispaniola free from her anchorage, she will drift into the beach. He determines to bring this about. He does not ask permission or advise anyone of his plan, he just leaves. At the end of the novel, Captain Smollett tells Jim that he won’t sail with him again. “You’re too much of the born favorite for me,” he says, which is an interesting observation. In the book, Jim grabs a brace of pistols from the common armory as he leaves; in the movie, he has the weapon given him by John Silver.

Jim boards the Hispaniola: Edmond Dulac;George Varian; Lyle Justis

Jim boards the Hispaniola: Edmond Dulac; George Varian; Lyle Justis

Jim locates Ben Gunn’s goat-skin coracle and paddles out to the Hispaniola. He cuts the hawser and climbs up a rope while the coracle is demolished by the larger vessel. Along the way, he witnesses a fight to the death between Israel Hands and another pirate. Hands, who is injured and drunk, staggers topside and collapses by the rail. Jim surveys the fallen pirate, then sets to steering the Hispaniola so that it grounds on the beach. Meanwhile, Israel Hands recovers and tries to get Jim to help him. But it is a ruse! Hands tries to grab Jim. In the book, Jim pulls out a pistol and pulls the trigger, but the powder is wet and Jim clambers aloft to recharge his pistols. In the movie, he simply climbs the rigging. Hands follows, knife in teeth, and here is a great scene in both book and movie. “One more step, Mister Hands, and I’ll blow your brains out!” Hands throws a knife that catches Jim in the shoulder as he fires his pistol(s). Hands falls to the deck. Now Jim can chalk up a killing to his credit.

“One more step, Mister Hands, and I’ll blow your brains out.” Left to Right: Frank Merril; Bobby Driscoll in the Disney version; Frank Godwin; Bohuslav Mikes.

Jim contemplates the two corpses in the water, by Zdenek Burian from a Polish edition of 1947. These deaths take a toll on Jim, in the book.

Jim contemplates the two corpses in the water, by Zdenek Burian from a Polish edition of 1947. These deaths take a toll on Jim, in the book.

The ship is beached and Jim makes his way ashore. He struggles through the jungle to the stockade where he collapses on the floor and discovers that the place has been taken over by pirates! In the book, Doctor Livesey wants to get away from the stockade, which is located in a malarial swamp, and he knows that the treasure has been moved to Ben Gunn’s cave, so he wants to go there to protect it. The Doctor later explains that it bothered him to leave Jim, but “I did what I thought best for those who had stood by their duty; and if you were not one of these, whose fault was it?” The movie is not so clear on why the stockade is given over to the pirates.

Long John Silver takes him in hand and says that the minute he spied the Hispaniola on the beach, he knew the game was up. Now he wants Jim to help keep him from hanging and, in return, he’ll keep the pirates from murdering Jim. Jim also discovers, in the book, that Doctor Livesey has given Silver the treasure map along with the stockade, something that neither Jim nor Silver understand. “There’s something under that,” says Silver, “Something, surely, under that, Jim — bad or good.” In the movie, Silver finds the map in Jim’s shirt when he tends to him.

Doctor Livesey comes to the stockade next day to tend the wounded. Jim gives his promise not to attempt escape and, when he has the opportunity to bolt, doesn’t take it. In the movie, Jim bites on a musket ball as the doctor does something unseen but painful to his knife wound. I can’t tell you how much that impressed me when I first saw the film. The doctor leaves and the pirates confer amongst themselves, finally giving Silver the Black Spot. There is a wonderful bit when Silver sees that the paper has been cut from a Bible.  He shakes his head; the pirates have brought disaster on their heads with that blasphemy.  Then he uses the treasure map to regain leadership of  the gang. This is where the treasure lies, he says, and the pirates examine the map and pronounce it genuine. The other thing is, Jim Hawkins is a hostage to prevent treachery from Smollett’s group. So, the Black Spot is rescinded and Jim will live yet a while.

“I had a line about my waist, and followed obediently after the sea-cook, who held the loose end of the rope, now in his free hand, now between his powerful teeth. For all the world, I was led like a dancing bear.” Jim complains about his indignity. A chapter later, he is afraid: “Now and again I stumbled; and it was then that Silver plucked so roughly at the rope and launched at me his murderous glances.” Left to Right: Frank Merrill, Louis Rhead, Mervyn Peake.

The pirates — only six left now — set out to get the treasure. Jim is tied up and dragged along by Silver. “It’s only for show,” Silver says in the movie, but in the book, as they get closer to the treasure, Jim senses that Silver is switching sides again and may knife him the instant he is of no value as a hostage.

They locate the spot where the treasure is supposed to be and it’s gone! Now, once again, George Merry tries to take leadership from Silver. Long John, meanwhile, has backed away from the pirates and is on the other side of the empty treasure pit when Merry threatens him. Then shots ring out from the trees! One pirate drops dead, George Merry is wounded and Silver takes the opportunity to kill him. “‘George’, said he, ‘I reckon I’ve settled you.'”

Finding the treasure: magazine illustration by Douglas Crockwell. Silver settles with George Merry, Michael Foreman, from an edition still in print

Finding the treasure: magazine illustration by Douglass Crockwell. Silver settles with George Merry: Michael Foreman, from an edition still in print

It transpires that Ben Gunn has removed all the treasure (except the bar silver) to his cave. Captain Smollett’s party, six men including Ben Gunn, seven counting the captive Long John Silver, use the only unwrecked boat to transfer wealth to the Hispaniola. There are still three pirates (besides Silver) on the island, but they seem unable to concoct a plan. Now, book and movie become very different.

In the film, Silver seizes an opportunity to grab Jim’s pistol — the one he had given the boy — forcing the others to leave him with the boat. He rows, and Jim is supposed to steer, but the boy purposely runs the boat aground. Silver jumps out to shove the craft free. He asks Jim for help, and, when that isn’t given, points a gun at his head. But Silver hasn’t the will to shoot Jim and he lowers the pistol. He tries desperately, on his one leg, to free the craft. The Doctor leads a party that is closing in. Earlier, Silver had made a little speech about giving Captain Flint to Jim as a trinket, because creatures don’t take well to prison. Now Jim jumps up and pushes the boat free. Silver waves good-bye, raises a sail, and is away. The Doctor lays a hand on Jim’s shoulder and admits to some liking for Long John Silver himself. End of movie.

In the book, the skeleton crew of the Doctor, the Squire, Jim, Abraham Gray (the only seaman to survive, he came over from the pirates), Ben Gunn, Silver, and Captain Smollett (who is wounded and unable to do anything heavy) maroon the three surviving pirates, then sail the Hispaniola to the nearest port in Spanish America and there pick up a crew. While in port, Ben Gunn helps Silver to escape so that he cannot disturb their homeward voyage, Silver has stolen a sack of gold worth perhaps £400. Everyone thinks that is a cheap price to pay for getting rid of the old pirate. Jim fills us in on what happens to some of the others: Ben Gunn runs through a thousand pounds in less than three weeks, but finds a place; Captain Smollett retires from the sea; Abraham Gray buys his own ship and becomes a master; nothing is said of the Squire or the Doctor. Nothing is known of Silver’s fate. (Nor the marooned pirates, one of whom has malaria.) As for Jim:

The bar silver and the arms still lie, for all that I know, where Flint buried them; and certainly they shall lie there for me. Oxen and wain-ropes would not bring me again to that accursed island; and the worst dreams that ever I have are when I hear the surf booming about its coasts, or start upright in bed, with the sharp voice of Captain Flint ringing in my ears: “Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!”

Stevenson was criticized for the violence in Treasure Island, but I think he is honest about its effects. Just as he is honest about every character in the book: the upright Doctor who would abandon Jim in favor of those who had done their duty; the gasbag Squire who happens to be the best shot of the party and does some damage to the pirates; the wicked Long John Silver who would only slit your throat if it meant profit to him; and Jim Hawkins, who would disobey any order if he took a notion, who saved the expedition, and who now finds his dreams haunted.

None of this is to disdain the movie. Disney, too, was criticized for too much violence and bowdlerized this film when it was released to television in the 1970s. (The DVD has been restored.) The Disney narrative is a bit different, what with the father/son overtones instead of the boy’s brush with psychopaths, but it is still a great movie.

And a great book. Stevenson was a straight-forward storyteller, but he always understood the ramifications of his narrative and the personalities of his characters. And look at the details! The map. The description of the island (it has rattlesnakes). The careful consideration of 18th Century sailing. The wonderful names: Israel Hands, Benjamin Gunn, George Merry — every one of them sings out England! An England of yeomen and sailors, a vanished vision perhaps, but still… Vladimir Nabokov was one critic who recognized Stevenson’s genius and wrote/lectured about Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde in his Lectures on Literature. Enough. You get it or you don’t.

More On The Movie:

Disney had money tied up in Britain, where post-WWII currency restrictions meant that he couldn’t remove it. So he decided to film this, his first movie not to include animation, in England, where the money he was owed could go into production. He had been thinking about an animated version of Stevenson’s book and had the rights so it seemed a natural project.

Young Bobby Driscoll had starred in Song Of The South and So Dear To My Heart, films that combined animation with live action. He received a special juvenile Oscar for his work in So Dear To My Heart. But, in England, legal problems arose with Disney using a foreign juvenile lead. Disney’s lawyers managed a one-month delay in court proceedings, which Disney used to film all of Driscoll’s parts, then shipped him back to America. The English courts were not amused and Disney paid a modest fine. But Driscoll could no longer work in England.

Some filming was done around England, some on a set with painted backdrops, and some on the ship. The Hispaniola was a re-fitted cargo ship (used to transport coal) that was a hundred years old. After the Disney movie, it was moored as a tourist attraction, then used again as a set for the 1956 production of Moby Dick.

Robert Newton returned in Long John Silver, directed by Byron Haskin in 1954. He had a few other movies but died from alcohol-related problems in 1956 at the age of 50.

Bobby Driscoll was slated to play in other Disney films, but there were problems. Disney could not clear the rights to Tom Sawyer, which was to star Driscoll, for instance, and a role in Robin Hood was axed because he could not work in England. He did the voice of Peter Pan for Disney and also served as reference model for Peter’s facial expressions in that movie. As puberty set in, Disney could not find a role for Driscoll. The young man had acne which was covered over with heavy makeup. The teen-ager turned to drugs, and did a stint in prison in 1961. In 1965, he cleaned up and went to New York where he became involved with an arty crowd, including Andy Warhol. He got back into heroin and OD’d in 1967 or ’68. His body was not identified for a year and a half until his parents, who had been searching for him, sent his fingerprints to the New York police. He was a fine actor who deserved better.

The DVD released in 2002 is serviceable, but do not try to load the player software on the disc. I could not play the DVD in DVI or Microsoft Media Player, but James River Media Player did okay. Technicolor is saturated and rich. Particularly in the opening sections at the Admiral Benbow Inn, everything has a sheen, as though some kind of weird dew was falling everywhere. If it doesn’t look that way on your TV, then adjust that machine!

The Book:

The 1911 Scribner’s edition of Treasure Island illustrated by N.C. Wyeth is the one to get if you are looking to buy a copy. Scribner’s re-photographed the Wyeth paintings and the illustrations are first rate. I cannot tell if Scribner’s is still reprinting this book or not, but copies of this edition are available. You can also read the Scribner’s edition with thumbnail versions of Wyeth’s paintings on the Net.

A better internet version is that of 1915 illustrated by Louis Rhead. (The credits state Rhead and Frank Schoonover, but Schoonover only did the 1922 dust jacket/frontispiece.) Or you can read the one illustrated by John Cameron. An edition made for Spanish-speaking people with troublesome English terms linked to their definition includes illustrations by George Roux (the original illustrator), Milo Winter, Wyeth, and Rhead, as well as  pictures of other 18th Century maritime objects.  The 1924 edition illustrated by Frank Godwin is available on-line if you are a Questia or Playster member.

Although nineteen illustrators (plus Robert Crumb) have been referenced in this post, that only scratches the surface. Early illustrations by George Roux and Frank Merrill may be seen here. The University of Minnesota has 450 illustrated editions collected by Lionel Johnson as of the year 2000. And there is a partial list at the Robert Louis Stevenson Archive. Possibly no book except Alice In Wonderland has had more good illustrators work on it, and this is still happening. In 2015 the V & A Award for book illustration went to Sterling Hundley for the Folio Society edition of Treasure Island. (None of those illos are reproduced here.) Most of the illustrated editions mentioned in the post are out of print. I have avoided more recent English illustrated editions — Michael Foreman’s 2009 version is, I think, the only exception. In-print editions besides the Hundley and Michael Foreman’s include those of Mervyn Peake, John Lawrence, Matthew Cruikshank, Robert Ingpen, and many others. Condensed or edited editions abound and are to be avoided.

Non-illustrated editions of interest include the 1905 “Biographical” edition with essays by Stevenson and his wife, and a 1909 annotated edition.

Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring

When I was fourteen, I got a stereo record player for Christmas. It was portable, so-called because it had a handle and wasn’t a piece of furniture. The lid came off and served as one speaker, the other was in the phonograph itself. It was cool. A little while after, I got a special record from Columbia that included samples of a bunch of Columbia stereo recordings and a set of noises that you could use to balance your speakers — there was a booklet explaining how to do this. So I balanced my speakers, cranked up the volume, and listened to the sampled music which was pretty humdrum until, suddenly, I was assaulted with a barrage of orchestral music, intensely rhythmic, heavy on percussion. I listened to the piece again. And again. Up to this point in my life, Little Richard had made the most exciting music I had heard but now I was listening to an excerpt from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring by Leonard Bernstein conducting the N.Y. Philharmonic and it blew everything else I had ever listened to out of the water. Years after, I still find it exciting music, but that’s partly because now I know the story behind it.

In the early 20th Century, ballet had fallen into disuse in Europe, except in Russia, where a few composers and a state-supported performance system kept turning out interesting work. But a new group of composers had come on the scene after Tchaikovsky — Mussorgsky, Borodin, Rimsky-Korsakoff, and his pupil, Stravinsky. These composers were very self-consciously Russian and they played up an aspect of Russia stereotyped by outsiders that is now called Orientalism.

Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Stravinsky. Photo by Nijinsky's sister, circa 1911

Diaghilev, Nijinsky, Stravinsky. Photo by Nijinsky’s sister, circa 1911

Serge Diaghilev, showman and impresario, bundled together a number of Russian dancers, musicians, and artists and took them to Paris as the Ballets Russes in 1909. The dancers included Vaslav Nijinsky and, for a time, Anna Pavlova. The chief designer was Leon Bakst, who often worked with local artists, including Picasso. The Ballets Russes were a huge hit but Diaghilev soon became faced with the problem of topping his last performance.

Igor Stravinsky composed The Firebird and Petrushka for the Ballets Russes but, in 1912, began work on a very new, very iconoclastic piece about the birth of music itself. Stravinsky’s vision was informed by a Ballets Russes designer, Nicolai Roerich, a mystic artist who was inspired by the findings of archaeologists that were very recent. Roerich had worked out a notion of prehistoric ritual that he explained to Stravinsky.

Roerich, "The Great Sacrifice", 1912

Roerich, “The Great Sacrifice”, 1912

The idea was that, in the Spring, the Earth had to be served so that it would allow the generation of new life; the service was one of human sacrifice. Stravinsky was taken with this notion and began to compose the score for a ballet that would feature dancers conducting the ritual that would culminate in the sacrifice of the Chosen One, a girl who would — this being ballet — dance herself to death.

Nijinsky photographed by Stravinsky in 1911

Nijinsky photographed by Stravinsky in 1911

Meanwhile, in Paris, Diaghilev was in a sexual relationship with Nijinsky, but the affair seemed to be reaching a crisis point — possibly because Nijinsky was tired of being Diaghilev’s possession, possibly because of Diaghilev’s desire for variety. This was not a long-term relationship.

Nijinsky was the star of the Ballets Russes, the first male dancer to achieve the kind of fame later accorded Nureyev and Baryshnikov. He had begun to choreograph some of the Ballets Russes numbers, not always successfully. Meanwhile, he performed in costumes that were either over-the-top Oriental or hardly there at all. His Afternoon of A Faun shocked some people with its sexuality — but, then, the Parisian taste-making class wanted to be shocked and Diaghilev wanted them to buy tickets, so Nijinsky kept pushing at the boundaries of acceptability.

Things were mounting toward a crisis point. Nijinsky’s version of a new work by Debussy, Jeux, received a few catcalls and boos at its premiere, but there was no great scandal yet, just the sense of one waiting to happen.

Stravinsky at the piano, drawing by Jean Cocteau

Stravinsky at the piano, drawing by Jean Cocteau

When Stravinsky first played some of the Rite for Diaghilev he chose a part where the same chord is pounded over and over. According to Stravinsky’s recollection (and, let it be said now, Stravinsky is a most unreliable rememberer), Diaghilev asked, “When does it end?” He was trying to be polite, Stravinsky said later, but he snapped a reply, “When it’s over!” According to Stravinsky, the chastened Diaghilev sat quietly through the repetition of the piece.

Costume study by Roerich.

Costume study by Roerich.

It is difficult to imagine Diaghilev being chastened by anything and, soon as he could, he began talking up the new work that the Ballets Russes was going to perform: composed by Stravinsky, conducted by Pierre Monteux, choreographed by Nijinsky, set and costume designs by Nicolai Roerich. So it was that, May 29, 1913, The Rite of Spring was first performed at Gabriel Astruc’s brand-new Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

There are many eye-witness accounts of what happened that evening and not one of them can be trusted. It is not simply that they contradict each other, it’s that the witnesses contradict themselves in the telling and re-telling of the tale. Many more people claim to have been there than the theatre could hold — was Picasso there? Probably not. Were Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas? Or did they, perhaps, see a later performance? No one now can say: this was a pre-video event.

Costumes from  The Rite of Spring  on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Costumes from The Rite of Spring on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

According to some accounts, there was a disturbance when the first notes of the piece played in the darkened theatre — a bassoon, playing in its upper register. (“Wouldn’t a saxophone be better, Mr. Stravinsky?” “I know the difference between a saxophone and a bassoon, and I want a bassoon!”) Other accounts say that the uproar began when the curtain rose on the dancers, clad in flannel dresses with long pigtails. The dancing was pigeon-toed stamping to the insistent rhythms of the orchestra. And those rhythms played off one another and against each other in groupings of notes that did not harmonize. There was no melody.

"Get a Dentist!"

“Get a Dentist!”

The women dancers struck poses discovered by Roerich’s archaeological research. When they cocked their heads against their hands, someone yelled, “Get a dentist!” and someone else yelled back, “Get two dentists!”

Lauren Stringer from her children's book,  When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky

Lauren Stringer from her children’s book, When Stravinsky Met Nijinsky

So it went. The cacophony from the audience grew and grew. Conductor Pierre Monteux had been told, “Keep on, no matter what!” And he did. When the dancers could not hear the music over the audience noise, Nijinsky stood on a chair in the wings shouting out the count in Russian. Stravinsky abandoned his seat and said something to the people around him, perhaps “Go to Hell!”. He remembered it in different ways. He went backstage where he may have held Nijinsky’s coattails as the choreographer leaned out over the stage shouting his directions. Someone, perhaps Diaghilev, perhaps Astruc, the theatre owner, flicked the houselights on, then off, several times to try to quiet things down. Some say that objects were hurled at the dancers, at the orchestra, at spectators. Others say that fistfights broke out. Some accounts have mass arrests of forty or more people, though this does not show up in the official police records. In other words, as my great aunt used to say, “A good time was had by all.”

Allan Moore (words) and Melinda Gebbie (art) from their pornographic work,  Lost Girls

Allan Moore (words) and Melinda Gebbie (art) from their pornographic work, Lost Girls

Afterwards, Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Stravinsky, and Jean Cocteau went out on the town. They wound up in the Bois de Boulogne, in the early hours, with Diaghilev weeping and reciting Pushkin at the top of his lungs. Or so Cocteau said. Stravinsky denied the story. He claimed that he, Diaghilev, and Nijinsky went to a restaurant where Diaghilev claimed that the evening was “exactly what he wanted”. There are a lot of stories about the events of that evening that I doubt. Did Saint-Saens really say, when he heard the opening notes, “If that’s a bassoon, then I’m a baboon.” I suppose he spoke in French, “basson” and “babouine” just don’t have that rhyme that the story requires. But I could be wrong. Stravinsky says that neither Saint-Saens nor Cocteau attended the premiere, but he could be misremembering.

Diaghilev and Stravinsky

Diaghilev and Stravinsky

Diaghilev may have been the genius behind the great scandal. He gave away tickets to young modernists, those who disdained the upper classes (who paid double price for their tickets) and, some say, he hired certain provocateurs to create a riot. Whether or not that is true, he was certainly pleased with the night’s events which guaranteed sellouts of the next five French performances and the four English ones that followed. This was not enough to make the event solvent — there were fifty or so dancers, ninety-nine or a hundred orchestra members (there was scarcely enough room to squeeze them into the pit) — and Astruc was paying double fee to the Ballets Russes. He went bankrupt. Ah well, c’est dommage!

The Ballets Russes now embarked on a voyage to South America to astonish the citizenry there — all except Diaghilev who claimed he was afraid of ocean voyages, though others say that he wanted an Italian vacation to check out the pretty boys. Anyway, on the trans-Atlantic voyage, Nijinsky proposed marriage to Romola de Pulzsky, a Hungarian woman who had been stalking him for more than a year. They did not share a language, so an intermediary was called in to translate. Romola, who had been warned by Marie Rambert, Nijinsky’s under-choreographer, that the man was gay, went ahead with the marriage. It was some time before it was consummated, but when that event was accomplished, Romola became pregnant. Back in Europe, Diaghilev was furious and fired Nijinsky from the Ballets Russes.

Romola and Nijinsky wedding, Buenos Aires, 1913.

Romola and Nijinsky wedding, Buenos Aires, 1913.

Nijinsky tried working with his own company, headed by himself, his sister, and her husband — the last two very accomplished dancers. But Nijinsky had no head for business or organization and things were not working out when, in August, 1914, the First World War put an end to all that. Nijinsky was in Vienna at the time and, as a Russian citizen, he was incarcerated as an enemy alien. But what goes around, comes around, and Diaghilev managed to spring him free. For a couple of years they tried to work together, but somehow the world was not so interested in ballet at that particular moment.

In 1919, in Switzerland, Nijinsky gave his last performance to a group of upper-crust types who attended him at his hotel. Nijinsky sat for a half hour staring unblinking into the eyes of his audience who dared not respond. Then he unrolled two great strips of cloth, overlaid them in a cross, and said, “Now I will dance you the war…. The war which you did not prevent.” He danced. They left. That morning, Nijinsky had begun a journal full of odd writings and his own drawings. The drawings are mainly of eyes, single staring eyes. Some have been gone over and over again so that the paper has worn away under his pen strokes. Over the next two years, his behavior became more and more erratic — he tried to drive his carriage into others, for instance, and he pushed or threw Romola down a flight of stairs. Finally, in 1919, he was committed to an asylum, diagnosed with dementia praecox, or as his doctor, Eugen Bleuler, later termed it, schizophrenia.

Nijinsky painting of an eye, 1920

Nijinsky painting of an eye, 1920

The war was not kind to anyone and the Russian Revolution wrecked any hopes that members of the Ballets Russes might have of going home: they were now bourgeois entertainment and not to be tolerated. Still, ballet lived on in Russia and, eventually, Stravinsky’s music was rehabilitated by Khruschev.

Diaghilev died from diabetic complications in Italy in 1929 and was buried on the island of San Michele near Venice. Nicolas Roerich continued to sail on into the mystic and settled in India where he died in 1947. The Roerich Pact of 1935 resulted from his work in trying to protect the world’s cultural heritage.

Roerich toward the end of his life. [Wikimedia Commons]

Roerich toward the end of his life. [Wikimedia Commons]

In 1920, The Rite of Spring was re-choreographed by Diaghilev’s new lover, Leonid Massine, and performed several times. In 1930, it came to America. The Pittsburgh performance was preceded by a work by Schoenberg, who requires a whole ‘nother level of appreciation. The lead dancer in the US performance was Martha Graham.

Roerich backdrop used in the American production.

Roerich backdrop used in the American production.

Stravinsky emigrated to the US in 1940. He drifted to Hollywood where he made contact with the vast group of European refugees already there.  Walt Disney, under the influence of Leopold Stokowski, was trying to put together a film of animated classical music. He had a notion of a prehistoric earth, dinosaurs battling, volcanoes raging, that sort of thing, but he could not find the proper music. Someone suggested The Rite of Spring. Disney got into it. He and Stravinsky talked for a while — both parties have given very different renditions of the discussion — and Stravinsky’s work got the nod.

Later, Stravinsky said that Disney had threatened him (or implied the threat) that he could do what he wanted since The Rite of Spring was not  protected any longer by copyright, the Bolsheviks having given up all that bourgeois claptrap. So, take it or leave it. Stravinsky took it — the amount of cash involved differs from one account to another. Those present at the actual events say that Stravinsky was pleased, but who knows.

Disney and Stravinsky studying drawings of dinosaurs in 1940. Does Igor look happy?

Disney and Stravinsky studying drawings of dinosaurs in 1940. Does Igor look happy?

Fantasia did not do well at the box office and Disney decided never to go highbrow again. Years later, when Disney re-issued the film they ran into a problem: an outfit named Boosey & Hawkes had obtained the copyright to The Rite of Spring in 1947.  In 1993 when Fantasia was scheduled for release as a video, Boosey sued, saying that Disney had only purchased theatrical rights from Stravinsky, not video rights. Disney settled for $3 Million. Of course, this is amusing to anyone who knows about the history of copyright and the manner in which Disney has extended it. For a little while, the Rite was in public domain but in 2012, a century after it was written, the piece went back under copyright. Right now, under the current rules, The Rite of Spring will not be copyright free until 2041.

In 1939, Nijinsky had improved somewhat, possibly as a result of insulin shock treatment (which, to me, sounds so barbaric that I can’t credit it), and went home, or to Romola’s home, in Hungary. He almost never spoke and hardly related to anyone — his daughter recollected him taking a bouquet that she offered him and clutching it silently to his bosom. In 1945, he heard Russian soldiers playing folk music near his house and went out to them and began to dance for the first time in a quarter-century. He died in 1950 in London.

Nijinsky and Romola post-War. []

Nijinsky and Romola post-War. []

Stravinsky kept on in the US. I recall seeing his Noah and the Flood on television in the ’60s. All that I remember was the depiction of the Heavenly Host, angels eternally singing to God, who were (I thought) made up to look like mechanistic puppets. He died in 1971 and, like Diaghilev, was buried on San Michele.

Marie Rambert was fired from the Ballets Russes at the same time as Nijinsky. Diaghilev suspected her of loving Nijinsky — which, perhaps, she did. She went on to become a major force in ballet, particularly in England. She died in 1982.

Joffrey reconstruction in 1987.

Joffrey reconstruction in 1987.

In 1979, Rambert assisted Millicent Hodson in an attempt to restore Nijinsky’s choreography for The Rite of Spring. After close examination of Nijinsky’s notes and other documentation, Hodson was able to reconstruct the original ballet, which the Joffrey Ballet performed in 1987. You can see a version here.

Many orchestral performances of The Rite can be accessed on line. There is a version by Pierre Monteux (who scoffed at the piece whenever anyone asked about it), Pierre Boulez, Stravinsky himself, and several versions by Leonard Bernstein as well as many national orchestras. There are also: an electronic version, an 8-bit version, several jazz versions, a couple by high school marching bands, mashups, and versions by groups such as Birdsongs of the Mesozoic. There are also several performances of the work for four hands and two pianos, though the original performance by Stravinsky and Debussy of that arrangement was not recorded, so far as I know.

A very good documentary on the music and listening to it is from Michael Tilson-Thomas’ Keeping Score. There are also videos available on the bassoon part (and how to play it), master classes in conducting the piece, and so on.

Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles, June, 2013. [photo: Herbert Migdoll for The Joffrey Ballet]

Joffrey Ballet in Los Angeles, June, 2013. [photo: Herbert Migdoll for The Joffrey Ballet]

I am reliably told on the internet (so it must be true) that more than two hundred ballet versions have been staged. Boosey & Hawkes say that they have authorized a hundred and fifty.  Some follow, as best they know how, the original; some have very odd costumes; some have no costumes, completely or partially nude; some have a young man as the sacrificial victim; one Russian version has the victim’s lover exacting revenge on the tribal elders after the fact, an atheistic Communist political corrective; there is a native American version, an Australian aboriginal version, a Punk version (what?); a Japanese butoh version; and one where there are no dancers at all, just clouds of bone dust floating over the stage. Just do a search for “Rite of Spring” on YouTube and you will find versions to both thrill and appall you.

All of this would make Diaghilev smile, especially if he could get a cut of the box office. Nijinsky would be horrified; he believed in his version. Stravinsky, who became an American citizen in 1945 and lived in the States until his death, would just shrug it off, or make up a story about it all.

The BBC’s Riot at the Rite is a movie that retells the story of May 29. It has a somewhat hetero Nijinsky who sacrifices himself to Art, just as the Rite‘s dancer sacrifices herself to the Earth. There are other movies about the Rite and Nijinsky and even a play about Stravinsky and Disney.

Still, after all these years, The Rite of Spring is powerful music. Leonard Bernstein said that it was the most important orchestral work of the 20th Century. Stravinsky was one of the artists who created Modernism , the 2oth Century’s new take on Art. After World War I, younger artists imbued their work with a cynical, disillusioned edge, but for a long while, it was still the same Modernist patch being plowed. Now, of course, we are all Post-Modern and this stuff doesn’t mean so much: we can be all ironic about it. But, I want to say, The Rite of Spring still hammers my consciousness the same way that it did a half-century ago.

Celebrity Plonk

Looking for a hobby? Got a few millions to spend? Why not buy a vineyard and bottle your own wine. You might make a profit, even better, you might turn out something good. Now I’m not talking about just licensing your name to somebody so they can put your image on a jug of swill and triple the price. I’m talking celebrities who actually like wine and have a bit of taste and, maybe, some business acumen.

The worst kind of celebrity plonk. Malcolm Young doesn't drink any more and Angus never did. Bon Scott of course... Still, I might try that Highway to Hell Cabernet someday.

The worst kind of celebrity plonk. Malcolm Young doesn’t drink any more and Angus never did. Bon Scott of course… Still, I might try that Highway to Hell Cabernet someday.

Surprisingly few celebrity chefs dabble in wine production. Mario Batali works with his business partner, Joe Bastianich (son of celebrity chef Lidia), who is a recognized authority on Italian wines, but that’s about it. Perhaps the chefs are concerned that a poor vintage might cause people to doubt their culinary skills or the restaurants they own. Or maybe it’s because these chefs already have sweetheart deals with wineries. Possibly I should mention Martha Stewart here who has partnered with Gallo to lend her name to wines sold through K-Mart. Or possibly not. Oh, and maybe there’s Guy Fieri, if he survives the awful reviews of his restaurant.

One of the few wines in this post that I've actually tasted. It was very good. Thanks, Jason Priestly. [more on Black Hills]

One of the few wines in this post that I’ve actually tasted. It was very good. Thanks, Jason Priestly. [more on Black Hills]

There are plenty of actors who have taken up vinting — Lorraine Bracco, Kyle McLachlan, Jason Priestly, Emilio Estevez , Sam Neill, Gérard Depardieu, all own some or all of a vineyard and and a label. Raymond Burr bought a vineyard but died before its first vintages were ready — the label is still run by his partner, Robert Benevides. Fess Parker started the winery and resort that bears his name, which was featured in Sideways.

Sideways wine-tasting at Fess Parker's place.

Sideways wine-tasting at Fess Parker’s place.

Some actors are concerned that their personae may affect the reception of their wine:

Originally the winery was called Smothers Brothers, but I changed the name to Remick Ridge because when people heard Smothers Brothers wine, they thought something like Milton Berle Fine Wine or Larry, Curly and Mo Vineyards,” Tom explains.

On the other hand, Francis Ford Coppola has turned his estate into a movie museum where you can suck down some Black Label Claret while you look at Godfather mementoes.

Drew Barrymore's Pinot Grigio which is supposed to be pretty good.

Drew Barrymore’s Pinot Grigio which is supposed to be pretty good.

Dan Aykroyd isn’t afraid to market his own products and put his name on the label. “They asked me if I’d like to have my own wines…how good is that?” Aykroyd got heavilly involved in the selling of Crystal Head vodka (distilled in Newfoundland) and was dismayed when the Liquor Control Board of Ontario refused to carry it because the bottle was too pretty or something. Aykroyd finally won that fight and his vodka is on sale beside the Pátron tequila that he imports into Canada and his own line of Niagara wines. Aykroyd also has a surprising factoid about wine and celebrities:

Every hockey player I know has an excellent nose and an excellent tongue. Kirk Muller, for instance, has excellent taste. Dave Ellett – he called his dog Caymus [after the famous Napa Valley cabernet] Dougie Gilmour loves to have the big, full red wines. Wendel Clark and John Erskine, too. I’ve had some good wine parties with those guys.

Wow! Wait’ll Don Cherry hears about hockey wine snobs! And I really, really want to try some Wendel Clark In-Your-Face red — but it has to be made from Saskatchewan grapes. Or saskatoons or something. Meanwhile, maybe I’ll sample some of The Great Ones’ No.99 wines, especially since it’s now legal to transport wine across the border into B.C.

Cellar of Valeri Bure's Bure Family cellars. Note the hockey stick in the eagle's talons. Bure says he learned about wine in Montreal.

Cellar of Valeri Bure’s family winery. Note the hockey stick in the eagle’s talons. Bure says he learned about wine in Montreal.

There are a whole lot of athletes that have gone into the wine business — Tom Seaver, Mike Weir, Mario Andretti, Charles Woodson (who is not allowed to promote his product so long as he is active in the NFL) — just to name check four major sports besides hockey. Peggy Fleming had a winery but it seems to have closed.  And let’s not forget David Beckham who gave his wife a vinyard for her birthday. (I so hope they produce a wine called Posh Spice.) Hmm, no basketball wine. Well, Larry Bird has put his name on a few bottles (“surprisingly good for a white”) but he’s not really involved so far as I can see.


But aside from a few rockers like Vince Neil, the best celebrity wines are produced by actors. Richard Gere has teamed with a major Italian producer to put out what I hear are outstanding wines. And, of course, there’s Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt who are the latest celebrities to buy Miraval, a French château that has seen more than its share of celebrities. Sting (yes, he makes wine, too) recorded there as did Pink Floyd, who recorded much of The Wall at a studio constructed in the basement by jazz pianist Jacques Loussier. In fact, a reportedly excellent rosé from Miraval was named Pink Floyd by Pitt. Pitt and Jolie are to be married at Miraval and then will market their co-produced wines as Jolie-Pitt. They should be very very good.

Good Movies: The Sunshine Makers (1935)

The Sunshine Makers is a seven-and-a-half minute animated feature produced by the famous Van Beuren Studios and distributed by RKO in 1935. You can watch it all on YouTube. I’m going to do a synopsis so you can watch first, read after, or vice-versa or whatever. I’m not telling you what to do. That’s one of the lessons here. More on that later.


The cartoon opens on a dwarf village at dawn. The smiling dwarves (and they are always smiling) rise and greet the sun. In fact, they hail the sun and sing: “Hail your majesty, Hail your majesty, Hail your majesty the Sun!” (I will not parse the facisto-monarchism here.)


So these are sun-worshippers? Not exactly. They never get naked and sun-bathe, for instance, (though that would have been a Real Classic Cartoon). These dwarves are sun-product manufacturers. They suck the sunlight out of the sky, bottle it, and then consume the resulting concoction. This, it seems, makes them happy and installs a permanent grin on their faces.


So, one of the sunshine delivery dwarves is going along his merry way singing: “Sunshine! Sunshine! How I like the dear old golden…” when Zing! a top-hatted creature shoots an arrow at him. The quick witted dwarf hurls a bottle of sunshine at the dark creature who runs away, trailing light from a sunny flesh wound to his coat.


Now we see a village of top-hatted, blue clad beings. They are singing: “We’re happy when we’re sad. We’re always feeling bad.” Right away we get the dichotomy here. Now you get to choose sides.


The guy who has been hit by light runs into the village where everyone runs from him in terror as he flashes sunlight from his coat. They lock themselves away and shun him. Finally, the lit-up guy sheds his stained/sunned coat and buries it to hide the sunlight. Then he sounds the tocsin! The Sad guys mobilize!


The Sad guys come running out of their houses. They load insecticide sprayers from a nasty dark swamp and charge out against the Happy dwarves. They spray bleak gases before them that darken the earth and shrivel plants.


But the Happy dwarves fight back! They launch sunshine artillery and drop sunlight bombs on their foe, smiling all the while. When the Sad guys are hit they revert to infancy, giggling and babbling — but they are now Happy!


Finally, the dwarf assault reaches the Sad guys’ village. Now they grab the Sad guys and dunk them in sunshine. (I will not parse the baptismal element here.)  “I don’t want to be happy!” says one heroic Blue guy, “I want to be sad!” No way, say the dwarves, and they force-feed him sunshine which lights up his gloomy innards.


At the end of the cartoon, the Happy dwarves dance with the Blue, formerly Sad, guys who are now glowing with inner Sun. “The End. This entertainment brought to you by Borden’s” says the final credit. Borden’s? Yes, a dairy company commissioned this cartoon which shows sunlight being stored in milk bottles and delivered door-to-door like milk used to be (ask your grandmother).


The Sunshine Makers was made by Ted Eshbaugh, an animation pioneer and the guy who first put color in cartoons. Eshbaugh had his own company, based in New York, which was apparently hired by the Van Beuren organization, the executive producers of the cartoon, to handle the Borden’s contract — at least, that’s the way I piece it together.

Ted Eshbaugh, 1932, from aModern Mechanix article

Ted Eshbaugh, 1932, from a Modern Mechanix article.

Interpretations of this film differ even among people who like it. In the IMDB reviews I see someone cheering, “Yes! Because nobody wants to be sad.” This is a Happy person response. And there is a review that says, “This is all corporate brain-washing meant to get kids to drink milk!” That is a Sad person. Then there are folks who wonder just what was in those milk bottles. Ambien, perhaps? So, ’60s fans of this film might go “Sunshine, eh?” Nudge nudge, wink wink. And other folks might think of Soma in Huxley’s Brave New World or the Mood Organ in P.K.Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (no, not BladefuckingRunner, I’ll rant about that another day). In other words, does society have the right to demand correct emotional responses from its members, or is that a soul-crushing concept? Of course, right now, children as young as three years of age are being given drugs to make them more agreeable.

from Aaron Quinn's The Sunshine Makers

from Aaron Quinn’s The Sunshine Makers. Talk about your Prozac Nation!

There’s a cartoon homage by Aaron Quinn to Ted Eshbaugh’s work, also called The Sunshine Makers that inadvertantly (I think) makes this point with smiling robotic workers going to their shift in the Sunshine Factory, emblazoned with a big smiley face logo.

But, of course,  by saying “Let people be sad if they want”, I’ve put myself into the Sad camp. People are going to say things like, “I bet you think Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful is a big crock of steaming kitsch!” And I respond, “Well, it’s not as bad as Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried, but it comes out of the same crock, yes.” Sometimes being Happy is just Wrong. But, hey! Take whatever message you want from this marvelous cartoon.

Here’s a final word on Happy as what psychiatrists call Inappropriate Affect:

Click to make much much bigger. [ "Let's Be Happy" by Steve Stiles from Snarf #5, © Denis Kitchen, 1974]

Click to make much much bigger. [ “Let’s Be Happy” by Steve Stiles from Snarf #5, © Denis Kitchen, 1974]

Murat Palta and Persian Miniatures

A little while ago, I posted on Andrey Kuznetsov and his using the Lubok form to show contemporary stories. Now here’s Murat Palta who has used Ottoman miniatures in the same way. Here’s Alien for instance:

And, so you can compare, here is a scene from Terminator 2 that was also done by Kuznetsov in Lubok form:

Why is this stuff interesting? Because it uses ancient techniques to show modern stories. We are able to get a glimpse of our ancestors telling these Hollywood tales. Story is eternal, and all humans tell stories. Neither Alien nor Terminator are narratives beyond the imagination of our ancestors, barring a few technology shifts. Here’s Star Wars:

The Godfather. “Baba”, I love it!

 Murat Palta’s site is here where you can see more, including details from the paintings. 

[via Metafilter]

Andrey Kuznetsov and the Lubok

Andrey Kuznetsov is a Russian artist best known for his animated films but he also does other work, often in traditional lubok style.

“The Mice Bury the Cat”, c. 1730. Possibly a commentary on the funeral of Peter the Great (d.1725).

The lubok (pl. lubki) first appeared in Russia in the 17th Century as hand-colored woodblock prints that often had a satiric message. The word “lubok” google translates as “splint”. Lubki do have something to do with pieces of wood but there is no real agreement on where the term originates.

“Live to Ride”

The traditional lubok is cheery in form and oblique in message, something to be expected in a time and place where you could be hanged for insulting the wrong person. Lubki circulated amongst the poor and the peasantry and commented on items of popular interest. Kuznetsov has done lubok-style illustrations for magazine articles, children’s books, and CD covers but also uses the internet to publish lubki based on popular movies.

“War of the Worlds”

Harry Potter



“Lord of the Rings”


“The Matrix”

“The Terminator”


“Star Wars”


Other Russian artists have played with the lubok form, but Kuznetsov is generally considered the best. [More of his work here.] [Kuznetsov’s LiveJournal] [Article in Spanish citing a story that ran in Gentlemen’s Quarterly about King Juan Carlos killing a tame bear, illustrated lubok-style by Vladimir Zmaev.]