Sunday, December 20, 2015

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Universal, 1916)

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

Charles and I had just returned from his home where we’d watched another silent movie I’d taped from TCM earlier: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the 1916 version from Universal — which I’d first heard about over 20 years ago from S. J. Perelman’s wicked spoof of it in his “Cloudland Revisited” series of articles collected in his book The Road to Miltown. It’s interesting that, despite the success of this version (it’s one of those movies that, like The Wizard of Oz on its initial release, was popular at the box office but had cost so much to make it was not a major profit winner for the studio), no one attempted to remake this story in the sound era until Walt Disney had a go at it with Kirk Douglas and James Mason in 1954. The surviving print lists none of the cast members — “much as if all the actors in the picture had been slain on its completion and all references to them expunged,” Perelman rather macabrely joked. Clive Hirschhorn’s book The Universal Story at least identifies some of the actors — Captain Nemo was played by Allen Holubar, who later went on to become a Universal director himself; and other people in the film included Jane Gail, Dan Hanlon, Edna Pendleton and William Welsh — not exactly names that resonate through the history of the cinema.

At least the print Perelman saw did identify Stuart Paton as the director — and while neither source indicates any writers for this film, its incredibly incoherent plot line (jumbled together, in Perelman’s words, from “three unrelated plots — 20,000 Leagues, The Mysterious Island, and Five Weeks in a Balloon — as well as a sanguinary tale of betrayal and murder in a native Indian state that must have fallen into the developing fluid by mistake”) led Perelman to say, “I daresay that if Stuart Paton … were functioning today (i.e., 1952), the votaries of the Surrealist film who sibilate around the Little Carnegie and the Fifth Avenue Playhouse would be weaving garlands for his hair. That man could make a cryptogram out of Mother Goose.” And I would add that if Paton were functioning today, in 1998, he’d be getting great reviews and the critics would consider him on the level of Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch as a master of post-modern storytelling. Actually, the parts of the film that actually tell the story of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are surprisingly good — aided no end by the superb underwater photography system developed by Ernest and George Williamson, who gain an accolade no technical people in movies would even dream of today: they not only get screen credit, they actually appear — as themselves — in a prologue sequence (as, courtesy of an old photograph, does Jules Verne). The underwater sequences — especially the ones featuring sharks in their natural habitat — are impressive even now and must have wowed them back in 1916 when no one had ever shot film like this before (indeed, these scenes are so good that when the men of Nemo’s crew kill a patently fake octopus on the ocean floor to rescue one of the castaways from Mysterious Island it’s a major disappointment by comparison — though at least their mechanical octopus, unlike Ed Wood’s in Bride of the Monster, actually moved). The problem is that Paton (and whatever writers may have worked on the film) decided to cram so many plot lines into the film that it rapidly gets confusing, with plenty of intertitles beginning with words like, “About this time … ” or “Meantime … ” or “Meanwhile … ” (“‘Meanwhile’ to what?” Charles, thoroughly exasperated, asked at one particularly confounding juncture). “Everything in 20,000 Leagues happens in the meantime,” Perelman joked; “the characters don’t even sneeze consecutively.”

The variegated dramatis personae of 20,000 Leagues include the characters from Verne’s story we all know and love; a quartet of U.S. balloonists who drift off-course and end up, not in Oz, but on Mysterious Island; a mysterious “leopard girl” who already lives there and has grown up “wild” since childhood (and with whom one of the balloonists falls genuinely in love while another one attempts to rape her); and a trader named Charles Denver who used to be in the employ of an Indian maharajah named Prince Daaker until he attempted to rape Daaker’s wife, she committed suicide rather than submit to him, and he kidnapped Daaker’s eight-year-old daughter (“possibly finding the furniture too heavy,” Perelman joked) and ran off with her, though not without first fomenting a peasant revolution (this part of the plot line begins to sound like The Emperor Jones) and blaming Prince Daaker for starting the rebellion against himself as a means of reconquering his kingdom from the British. Eventually all these disparate plot lines do blend together: the “leopard girl” turns out to be Prince Daaker’s daughter, growing up on Mysterious Island after Charles Denver abandoned her there; and Nemo turns out to be Prince Daaker himself, though we’re not given any clue about how an Indian prince who’d just lost his throne and all his money was able to turn himself into a high-tech submarine captain — instead we’re given a splendiferously produced flashback showing Prince Daaker’s palace, which has an air of ultra-extravagance that suggests someone at Universal had just seen the Babylon sequence in D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance and wanted a set that would compete in sheer size and impressiveness. What’s more, to add to the overkill, the flashback scenes in the Indian kingdom (one of them narrated by Denver; the other by Nemo, which, to quote Perelman again, “culminates with his demise and a strong suspicion to the onlooker that he has talked himself to death” — the title introducing Nemo’s flashback is at least honest enough to admit that it contains “the story never told by Jules Verne”!) are the only scenes in the film that are in pure black-and-white; everything else in the movie is color-tinted, sometimes spectacularly so (the orange stock used for sunrises and sunsets is dramatic and convincing), sometimes oppressively so (the brown tones used for the interior of Nemo’s submarine — except when they’re looking through the sub window at the ocean, in which case the tint becomes green) and the blue used for all the exteriors at sea get pretty old after a while. Still, for the time, 20,000 Leagues is an impressively produced movie (timing out at 108 minutes, which is especially surprising given that it was made only two years after the first U.S.-produced films of feature length!) and a quite good one, though with a more coherent plot line it could have been even better. — 6/15/98


Last night’s entry in the series of “Vintage Sci-Fi” film screenings in Golden Hill was the fascinating 1916 silent version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, produced by Universal Film Manufacturing Corporation (that was its official name then!) under Carl Laemmle’s personal management, written and directed by Stuart Paton and photographed by Eugene Gaudio (younger brother of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Tony Gaudio). I first heard of this movie in the early 1970’s, when a friend of mine at College of Marin lent me a copy of S. J. Perelman’s 1957 essay collection The Road to Miltown: Or, Under the Spreading Atrophy. (“Miltown,” for those of you not up on pharmaceutical industry, was one of the first prescription tranquilizers approved by the Food and Drug Administration.) Among the essays in this book were a series called “Cloudland Revisited,” in which Perelman went to the New York Museum of Modern Art (the history of that institution and its founding film curator, Iris Barry, in establishing that films were works of art that deserved to be preserved cannot be overestimated!) and re-watched silent movies that had particularly impressed him in his childhood or youth, and wrote mocking and often acerbic commentaries about them. (If you’ve never read anything by Perelman, the best way to explain him is he was a lifelong friend of Groucho Marx and worked on the scripts for two Marx Brothers films, Monkey Business and Horse Feathers. That will give you an idea of his sense of humor.) Perelman wrote a piece on the 1916 20,000 Leagues called “Roll On, Thou Deep and Dark Scenario, Roll,” in which he described his own failed attempt at deep-sea diving as a child, inspired by his first viewing of the film, and noted that, rather than simply do a straightforward adaptation of Verne’s novel, Paton’s script “more than equaled the all-time stowage record set by D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, managing to combine in one picture three unrelated plots — 20,000 Leagues, The Mysterious Island and Five Weeks in a Balloon — and a sanguinary tale of betrayal and murder in a native Indian state that must have fallen into the developing fluid by mistake.” The only people credited on-screen were Paton, Gaudio and the special-effects technicians George M. and J. Earnest Williamson, who invented the incredible camera equipment with which the underwater scenes were filmed and got probably the ultimate accolade for effects workers: not only were they given credit, they were actually shown on screen in the film’s prologue. None of the cast members were given screen credit — “much as if all the actors in the picture had been slain on its completion and all references to them expunged,” Perelman rather grimly joked — though the actor who played Captain Nemo, Allen Holubar, graduated from acting to directing within a year and made The Heart of Humanity, one of those World War I melodramas in which Erich von Stroheim played the dastardly Hun so well Universal’s publicists started promoting him as “The Man You Love to Hate.”

Charles and I had seen this once before, in a VHS tape I’d made off TCM of the Kino on Video edition — which was considerably better; it was digitally restored and contained the original tinting and toning effects (quite a few silent movies were tinted to give the effect of color even though the images themselves were black-and-white, and when the Kino version reverted to plain black-and-white after an orgy of green, blue and brown tints for the flashback sequence to that “sanguinary tale of betrayal and murder in a native Indian state” late in the film, it was a shock). The print shown last night was from Alpha Video and was of an old, beat-up copy (especially unnerving in the spectacular underwater sequences), while the music was spliced together from the first, third and fourth movements of Dvorák’s New World Symphony (presumably not the second, because the famous English horn theme which later got turned into a faux-spiritual called “Goin’ Home” — though some Afro-centric music critics thought and wrote it was the other way around — would have been too recognizable), with various bits repeated to fill out the length of a feature film. I hadn’t realized before last night how much 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea owes to Intolerance, not merely in the blending of four different, barely related plot lines (in Griffith’s near-masterpiece it was the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Christs, the massacre of the Protestant Huguenots in Renaissance France and a modern-dress tale of an innocent young man about to be executed for murder when he’s reprieved and the pardon reaches the prison in a thrilling last-minute rescue sequence) but in the sheer splendiferousness of the sets representing the Indian kingdom in the flashback sequences, as if Carl Laemmle wanted not only to build the most technologically advanced and elaborate movie studio to his time but wanted everybody in the film world to know what he’d done. The opening of 20,000 Leagues presents what’s roughly Verne’s story (which I haven’t read since I was a kid), at least the way it opens: various captains and crew members of oceangoing vessels sight what they think is a sea monster emerging from the deeps and threatening — and eventually damaging — their ships. The U.S. Department of Marine (nobody apparently told Jules Verne that the official title of the Cabinet department dealing with naval affairs in the U.S. government was the Department of the Navy) sends out a ship, a schooner called the Abraham Lincoln (a name which oddly seems to have been used for quite a few fictional U.S. navy vessels long before it was assigned to a real one — Verne published his novel in 1870, when Lincoln had been dead for just five years), to investigate —and the mysterious “sea monster” crashes into the Lincoln, rendering it inoperative.

Of course it turns out to be the submarine Nautilus, helmed by Captain Nemo, who in this rendition is dark-skinned (for reasons not explained until the end of the movie) and has a scraggly beard that makes him look like an (East) Indian Santa Claus. He captures the Lincoln’s crew — Professor Aronnax of France (Dan Hanlon), who in Verne’s book narrates the story (of course a French author would make the principal voice of reason a Frenchman!); his daughter (Edna Pendelton) and Ned Land, Prince of Harpooners (Curtis Benson, a surprisingly hunky guy for a movie male lead in 1916) — the capitalizations are in the title introducing him — and at first keeps them prisoners in the Nautilus’s brig but then decides he’d rather have them as guests. “Most submarine captains, as a rule, busy themselves checking gauges and twiddling the periscope,” wrote Perelman, “but Nemo spends all his time smiting his forehead and vowing revenge, though on whom it is not made clear” — not until much later in the movie, anyway. “About this time,” announces a title, “Lieutenant Bond (Matt Moore) and four Union Army scouts, frustrated in an attempt to destroy their balloon, are carried out to sea.” This brings in the Mysterious Island elements of this disjointed movie’s story, as one of the scouts hangs on to the balloon until he’s forced by the elements to let go, whereupon he’s spotted by one of Nemo’s crew members. The other four land on the island, which for a supposedly deserted island turns out to be quite a popular place. Also present there is a lost beachcomber who thinks he’s alone on the place, sort of like Robinson Crusoe pre-Friday; a woman who’s identified only as a “child of nature” (Jane Gail, considerably heftier than we’d expect her to be given that she’s supposedly spent most of her life subsisting on whatever food she could gather from the island, but then in 1916 we were at the tail end of the era in which zaftig women were considered the epitome of sexiness before the 1920’s brought forth the flapper, with her short hair, boyish figure and overall hoydenish rambunctiousness); and Charles Denver (William Welch), who’s been drinking himself into a guilt-ridden stupor since years before, when he was a trader negotiating with Prince Daaker, a maharajah of a nominally independent Indian state.

Unfortunately, he also got the hots for Daaker’s wife, and when she killed herself rather than yield to being raped by him, he fled and kidnapped Daaker’s daughter (Lois Alexander) — “possibly finding the furniture too heavy,” Perelman snottily commented. Along the way he consulted the British authorities (at least we assume they were British, since this was still the era in which the U.K. ran India, but their costumes are pure Ruritainian ceremonial) and got Prince Daaker arrested for murder, but in the meantime (“Everything in 20,000 Leagues happens in the meantime,” Perelman wrote; “the characters don’t even sneeze consecutively”) the natives of Daaker’s state respond to his arrest by starting a revolution, and in the confusion Daaker escapes and flees the country. In case you were wondering how all these plot lines linked up, once Daaker escaped he built the Nautilus and renamed himself Captain Nemo (in the immortal words of Anna Russell, “I’m not making this up, you know!”). Just how he financed this undertaking is a bit of a mystery, unless we’re supposed to believe that during his days as a maharajah he funneled most of the national wealth into Swiss bank accounts (well, it’s worked for more recent tyrants!), but in any case Nemo, with his high-tech undersea watercraft built with technologies no one else had ever dreamed of (one of the many things we’re never told is how the Nautilus propels itself), has spent years variously hunting for fish undersea (he’s also invented SCUBA gear, which Jules Verne apparently thought of decades before anyone actually made the concept work) and trolling the seas looking for Charles Denver, the man he wants his much-ballyhooed revenge on. Eventually the Nautilus fires a torpedo at Denver’s yacht, blowing it up, and the survivors listen to Nemo narrate a lengthy flashback depicting all the events that happened when he was still the Indian maharajah Prince Daaker. The scene, wrote Perelman, “culminates with his demise and a strong suspicion to this onlooker that he has talked himself to death.” It all ends with Ned Land and Aronnax fille in each other’s arms after the crew members return from an underwater excursion in which, unable to dig an undersea grave for Nemo because the ocean currents fill up the sand as quickly as they uncover it, they leave Nemo’s coffin at the bottom of the sea among the undersea plants.

The film is historically important as the first science-fiction movie ever made by Universal, and though lists a version of 20,000 Leagues (presumably a one-reeler) as early as 1907, this 1916 film was the only feature made from this story until Walt Disney took it on in 1954. Its glories are the superb underwater photography by the Williamson brothers — according to some trivia notes on, in order to have clear enough waters to use their gizmos (which apparently were not actual submersible cameras, but ordinary movie cameras shooting through an elaborate periscope system, and the waters needed to transmit enough light to expose the film properly) the crew went to a particularly clear stretch of sea off Bermuda … and the makers of Disney’s 1954 version picked the exact same location for their underwater scenes! Perelman rather pettishly describes these scenes as looking like “what anybody might who has quaffed too much sacramental wine and is peering into a home aquarium,” but in fact the footage — including some surprisingly close-in shots of sharks — is not only convincing but quite beautiful, though the realism of the actual underwater creatures makes the fake octopus dragged into one scene just to add menace to the proceedings look all the sillier. 20,000 Leagues isn’t especially well acted — Allen Holubar is appealingly quirky as Nemo but no one is going to mistake him for James Mason — but then in 1916 we don’t really expect it to be (Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin were delivering naturalistic screen performances that early, but virtually nobody else was), and for its time it’s quite well staged even though the forced attempts to integrate so many disparate storylines into one movie (a far cry from the all too typical modern-day action “thrill rides” whose directors and writers seem to regard any amount of plot as a necessary distraction to get us from one action set-piece to another!) creates so much disorientation and confusion that I remember Charles asking, the first time we watched this together, after one title reading, “Meanwhile,” “Meanwhile to what?” — 12/20/15