Monday, April 20, 2015

A Message from Mars (United Kingdom Photoplays, 1913)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The 1913 British film A Message from Mars is based on a play by Richard Ganthoney (who, despite his very British-sounding name, was actually an American, at least according to a notoriously unreliable contributor to that was first produced in 1899, a year after H. G. Wells published his novel The War of the Worlds about Earth being subjected to an invasion by relentless Martians intent on conquering us, who are vanquished only by Earth germs to which the Martians’ immune systems offered no resistance. Ganthoney’s Martians, however, couldn’t be more different from Wells’; instead of being out to conquer Earth they — or at least one of them, Ramiel (E. Holman Clark) — are morally superior and when they come to Earth it’s to show us the error of our ways. In the opening scene, the Martians — shown as looking exactly like Earth people except for being dressed in robes and wearing giant pendants of the Egyptian ankh symbol — are meeting in solemn counsel. Ramiel has committed some (unspecified) transgression against Martian law, and so the “God of Mars” (R. Crompton) — that’s what the Martians call their ruler — exiles him to Earth and tells him not to come back until he’s made an Earthling do a good deed. (I joked that Ramiel would be going, “Earth? Not Earth! Their air has way too much oxygen and their gravity is so heavy you can barely walk!”) The Earthling that Ramiel has to redeem in order to go home is vicious capitalist Horace Parker (Charles Hawtrey), and it doesn’t take long for the viewer to realize that Ganthoney’s play (adapted for the screen by him and director Wallett Waller) is essentially a rehash of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with a Martian instead of three spirits of Christmas. At that, Parker isn’t quite as much a total recluse as Scrooge — indeed, he even has a sort-of girlfriend, Minnie (Crissie Bell), though she returns his engagement ring when it dawns on her what a creep he is.

Horace shows his true colors by refusing the entreaties of a down-on-his-luck tramp (Hubert Willis) who brought along a letter from a relative of Parker’s asking him to give the tramp a job. At one point, in sheer desperation, Ramiel takes away Parker’s money and forces him to live hand-to-mouth in a plot twist that anticipates Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels and Mel Brooks’ quasi-remake, Life Stinks — especially when he’s forced to rely for advice on how to survive on the street from the tramp he rejected a couple of reels earlier. There’s also a dance to which Parker was supposed to bring Minnie, so instead she goes with rival suitor Arthur Dicey (Frank Hector), who ends up with Bella (Evelyn Beaumont), while Parker and Minnie reconcile once the lesson of the Messenger from Mars “takes” and Parker takes in the tramp and helps him out. The film was impeccably restored by the British Film Archive in 2006 but was given a rather dire and not especially evocative soundtrack — instead of a piano, theatre organ or small ensemble, they used an entirely electronically generated musical palette that added a rather dark, dreary note to a film that could use all the help it could get from its soundtrack. A Message from Mars isn’t a bad movie for the period, but there is virtually no cinematic technique — the scenes are staged in mid-distance tableaux and the actors, some of whom were also in stage productions of Ganthoney’s plays, act pretty much as they would on stage — though that’s faulting it for not having had someone with D. W. Griffith’s imagination as director. Still, it’s an interesting story, and on his return to Mars Ramiel gets his ankh back the way Clarence the angel finally got his wings at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life (just as the removal of it from around his neck in the first place couldn’t help but remind me of the sequence of Chuck Connors getting his medals ripped off at the start of his short-lived TV show Branded, a Western in which he played a U.S. army officer who was unjustly convicted of cowardice and drummed out of the service).