MGM’s gigantic silent sci-fi extravaganza took three years to make, by which time the talkies arrived and everything went to pieces. Lionel Barrymore emotes (EMOTES!) in his early sound footage, and terrific effects take us to the bottom of the ocean where monsters and a race of Donald Duck creatures menace our heroic adventurers. And don’t forget a few sundry other elements: a Russian revolution, torture scenes, and cool steampunk nautical hardware. All this Life Aquatic lacks is Steve Zissou!
The Mysterious Island
The Warner Archive Collection
1929 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 93 min. / Street Date March 26, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 19.99
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Jane Daly (Jacqueline Gadsdon), Lloyd Hughes, Montagu Love, Harry Gribbon, Snitz Edwards, Gibson Gowland, Dolores Brinkman, Karl Dane, Robert Dudley, Sydney Jarvis, Bob Kortman, Angelo Rossitto.
Cinematography: Percy Hilburn
Film Editor: Carl L. Pierson
Technical Effects: James Basevi, Irving G. Ries, Louis H. Tolhurst
Original Music: Martin Broones, Arthur Lange
Written by Lucien Hubbard from the book by Jules Verne
Produced and special effects by J. Ernest Williamson
Directed by Lucien Hubbard (+ Benjamin Christensen & Maurice Tourneur)
Vampire Duck Men From The Abyss!
Back in 1976, the existence of a 1929 MGM The Mysterious Island meant no more to me than a couple of oddball stills seen in an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Then I was invited to a New Years’ Day party at director David Bradley’s house in the Hollywood Hills. Bradley was known for his extensive film collection and for being chummy with plenty of older Hollywood stars. That was the day I met, in quick succession, Ray Harryhausen & his wife and the cameraman Karl Struss, who I knew from descriptions of how he filmed the ’32 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Also present was an elderly singer who smiled a lot, Miliza Korjus. On Bradley’s back porch was something very strange, a metallic submarine model shaped like a guppy. It looked as if it had been painted several times. Bradley told me that it was an original miniature from — the 1929 Mysterious Island. It was about five feet long and looked very heavy.
The part-talkie The Mysterious Island has a sad history as an expensive epic that got ground up in the vagaries of studio politics during the transition to talking pictures. A very detailed rundown on its production history can be found at the worthy page ‘…and you call yourself a scientist.’ In short, a Maurice Tourneur Production funded by MGM floundered in script disputes, the equally high-toned Benjamin Christensen took over, and when little progress was made, writer-director Lucien Hubbard was brought in to kick the expensive project into shape. Somewhere along the line it was determined to re-shoot part of the movie with sound, so that slowed things up as well. After all that effort, the movie was a flop.
The story has almost zero to do with Jules Verne’s book Mysterious Island, in which a storm transports some Confederate prisoners to the South Seas in a runaway balloon, as in the 1961 Harryhausen version. Lucien Hubbard’s re-write is a mishmosh of odd themes. It is 1850 in the country of ‘Hetvia,’ where people have Russian-sounding names. An aspiring despot named Baron Falon (Montagu Love) seizes power through a revolution. With his hussars (?) Falon invades the island headquarters of Count Andre Dakkar, a scientist with a shipyard. Baron Falon’s idea is to use Dakkar’s two new experimental undersea craft to rule the world.
In a way, Hubbard’s Mysterious Island could be a prequel to 20,000 Leagues. In the first versions of the book Captain Nemo was originally a Polish nobleman, Count Dakkar. Verne later rewrote the book to make him an Indian prince rebelling against British rule.
Count Dakkar (Lionel Barrymore) supervises the completion of two amazing undersea craft. In a complicated set of serial-like developments, the brave engineer Nicolai Roget (Lloyd Hughes) takes ship #1 on a trial dive. While he’s absent, Falon invades and his men torture Dakkar and his sister Countess Sonia (Jacqueline Gadsdon, billed as Jane Daly). Nicolai uses diving suits to rescue Dakkar, but Falon manages to bombard ship #1, which sinks into the lower depths of the sea. Baron Falon excitedly takes command of ship #2, but the furious Sonia sabotages its compressor pump with a bomb, and it sinks as well. At the bottom of the ocean Dakkar and Nicolai encounter a giant spider, and then a race of Undersea Men. They fire torpedoes at an underwater dragon. Sonia talks Falon into taking an excursion to salvage the compressor pump from the presumed destroyed sub #1, which leads to an interesting situation on the ocean floor — a reunion of the sweethearts Sonia and Nicolai, and a confrontation between the now- sworn enemies Count Dakkar and Baron Falon.
Mysterious Island is a strange experience, and more a cinematic curio than a fully satisfying movie. Right at the top we’re given several minutes of sync sound scenes with stars Barrymore and Love. The rest of the film is a conventional silent with inter-titles, with only a few isolated dialogue lines in sync. The choppy continuity makes it look as if Lucien Hubbard’s key problem was to glue together pieces of film that had already been shot. Actor Gibson Gowland (from the silent Greed) serves for a while as Sonia’s protector, and has a full story arc. But comic relief Snitz Edwards is featured in only one dedicated moment, in which he and another of Dakkar’s shipyard workers mince across the screen, to mock the hated Baron Falon.
In his Russian fur hat Baron Falon is a standard-issue knave: almost as soon as we meet him he tells Dakkar that he wants to rule the world. Dakkar is a dreamy-eyed idealist through and through. He’s collected enough bones from the deep to assemble a part-skeleton of a mysterious Undersea Man. Dakkar envisions a vast undersea empire, and sure enough, his prediction is 100% dead on. He’s the kind of nut who doesn’t mind that he’s doomed. When he’s trapped and sinking into the murky depths, all he can talk about is the discovery he expects to make when the sub hits bottom:
“A world that has never known the sun, or warmth, or light. We may even reach the lower depths — and see the people of The Abyss!”
This all may sound exciting and the visuals are undeniably impressive, but Mysterious doesn’t muster much forward momentum. Falon’s hussars poke swords at people, sweaty shipyard workers swear their allegiance to Dakkar, and the submarines change hands at regular intervals. The featured method of torture is to bind the victim in a way that threatens to break their legs below the knee. This Mark of the Devil technique rates a big Fail, as it convinces nobody to talk.
In the brief talkie scenes that open the picture, the voices are recorded very clearly. Lionel Barrymore puts his all into what is likely one of his first talkie pictures. In the sync sound shots he goes a little nuts with his hands, gesticulating and touching his hair; at the time, stage actors surely needed trial and error to figure out how ‘big’ to project their talkie performances. Montague Love is an acceptable but not particularly dynamic villain. Jane Daly had played with Barrymore three times before, but under her name Jacqueline Gadsden. We wonder if she had a special relationship with him. The beautiful Gadsden is excellent in Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar, as perhaps Lon Chaney’s most abused female victim. She’s certainly okay here. Lloyd Hughes played reporter Ed Malone in the original hit movie The Lost World, which likely inspired the making of Mysterious Island in the first place.
The film’s special effects were state of the art for the day. Underwater specialist J. Ernest Williamson (the 1916 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) took his ‘photosphere’ diving bell camera housing to the Caribbean to film underwater, but delays kept any of his work from being used. Huge underwater sets and miniature settings establish a world of monsters in the handsomely designed ‘landscape’ on the ocean floor. Most of the underwater effects appear to be filmed dry-for-wet, with wavy glass distorting the image. Matte paintings and miniatures are combined with (often silhouetted) images of hundreds of scuttling ‘undersea men.’ The big-scale composite vistas are certainly fanciful, if not wholly convincing.
The undersea men are a real treat. With their round heads, bulging eyes and odd beaks, it looks as if someone cloned mecha- versions of Donald Duck’s nephews. Some angles show as many as a hundred of the things scuttling about; through the filters and distortion we can’t be sure that they’re not just dolls. Maybe they’re undersea cousins of Superman’s pals, the Mole Men. The IMDB credits assert that one duck man is a child and another is our favorite small person performer Angelo Rossito. We wonder if MGM’s talent files for this film and Freaks came in handy later on, when the time came to produce The Wizard of Oz.
The interaction between humans and undersea duck men is underdeveloped to say the least. Synopses say that the duck men are grateful when Dakkar kills the marauding alligator-dragon, but the little creeps then attack the humans anyway, using a horrid sea-slug (an octopus, actually). Somebody tell Jim Ursini and Alain Silver, as the duck men also turn out to be functional vampires. When Dakkar pierces a human enemy with a spear and ‘scarlet billows start to spread,’ the duck men swarm the victim like Martians in Mars Attacks! Since this is supposed to be happening way way down on the ocean floor, some of the duck men swoop in on wires swim in from above. Just so you know I’m not making this up, an inter-title informs us that the creatures are indeed driven crazy by human blood.
In this version the island isn’t particularly mysterious; it’s just a spit of land off the shore of ‘Hetvia’ where Dakkar has his advanced shipyard. There is no adventure on the high seas, as nobody really goes anywhere. Both subs are wrecked within sight of their base. To get to the fabulous undersea kingdom, one just needs to go about fifty feet offshore and a mile or two straight down.
The twin submarines are referred to only by number; neither is given a name. They look a little bulbous in design, and the unicorn-like spur up front seems odd until we realize that it’s a ram for sinking ships. The interior ship sets are terrific. The elaborate undersea suits almost seem practical — there are even two kinds, and Dakkar talks about the way they equalize the pressure thousands of feet below sea level. In one of the sinking sequences MGM’s effects men even try to visualize bulkheads buckling, etc., as the impossible pressure deforms the hull. (Which reminds us of rumors that James Cameron’s The Abyss may be on the way.)
The subs models aren’t photographed with half the finesse applied to Disney’s Nautilus. The conning tower with its serrated crest and globular viewing ports does remind us of Harper Goff’s superb design. Considering the year it’s understandable that some angles make the subs look like toys. The insensitive filmstock probably made it impractical to film at high frame rates, so to slow the submarines down some scenes are double-printed (and don’t look very good). As the subs don’t do much except sink, little feeling of fantastic wonder is communicated.
Despite the impressive undersea vistas, an overall lack of fun and wonder surely hurt The Mysterious Island. Disney’s Nautilus was once every kid’s dream submarine, and we also worshipped the wondrous Seaview of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and the aggressive Goten-go of Toho’s Atragon. Then again, none of those shows give us what Mysterious delivers: this silent epic has an exclusive on swarms of vampire duck men from The Abyss!
The Warner Archive Collection DVD of The Mysterious Island is a very good encoding of the B&W version that is shown on TCM from time to time. There are a few splices and I noticed one jump cut where a shot or an inter-title might have gone missing. But overall the transfer has excellent continuity. Variety says that most of the original movie was in Two-strip Technicolor, but the underwater scenes were in B&W (possibly tinted green). That makes sense, as the fancy camera work and opticals involved in the special effect scenes were surely beyond what could be accomplished wth a Two-Strip camera.
Part-talkie audio work takes some getting used to.
The soundtrack is a little soporific. In the couple of scenes with talkie audio the actors speak as if broadcasting on ancient radio, making their diction very clear. The music cues seldom follow the action — we’re told that fully-scored music sound tracks were still a couple of years away, with Max Steiner at RKO. The scattered synchronized sound effects are sometimes only vaguely appropriate, contributing to what is already a dream-like atmosphere. We hear doors close and machines turn on, but when people move their mouths no sound comes out. Variety’s original review described the movie as ‘Color 90%, Dialog 5%.’
I should think that in no time at all, full-sound talkies would render part-talkie presentations like Mysterious Island too primitive for movie audiences. Just the same, I have to say that the audio here is sophisticated when compared to the aural train wreck heard in Abel Gance’s La fin du monde, another epic sci-fi silent that was converted to sound.
When announcing the disc, the Warner Archive Collection was fully aware of a color version reported to be found in Czechoslovakia. Information on it is sketchy. Wikipedia offers:
“After the complete Technicolor print was discovered in Prague in December 2013, a new print of the film premiered at the 33rd Pordenone Silent Film Festival in October 2014.”
Perhaps somebody possessed of better online skills than I can find reports from this screening. As for the Warner Archive, their announcement suggests that this DVD is testing the waters to gauge interest in bringing the restoration to the U.S.. To me the diplomatic wording reveals a positive attitude:
“We are aware of the Czech print discovered a few years ago, but access to the material and any kind of restoration are theoretical at this point. We wanted to make the film available in its present state for DVD release, with the possibility of something more as a hope for the future.”
Given the difficulty in interesting media corporations in the restoration of films now deemed obscure, I think the WAC’s actions are good.
This still is from Eastman’s remnant of the 2-Strip Technicolor version, posted on Feb. 22, 2019 by All Darc. More are viewable at the website Nitrateville.
Any news on developments regarding the restored color version of The Mysterious Island would be appreciated!
Note, 5.04.19: Correspondent ‘Answerman’ has forwarded a link to a Pordenone Silent Film Festival page about The Mysterious Island, which has its own full article by James Layton about the film’s production. It’s in Italian but the Google translate function makes it legible enough. I’ve transcribed the part about the restoration:
“The final product, distributed in September 1929, featured a mix of Technicolor and tinted scenes, with the use in some shots of the spot colors of the Kelley Color process, as well as a pot-pourri of dumb and sound materials. The film was a potpourri of silent and sound material. The color was stressed in the advertising, which often omitted to say that only 80 of the film’s 96 minutes were in color. The reviewers were impressed by the effective use of color, noting that it improved the science fiction nature of history: Instead of the landscapes, flowers and rich costumes that are usually the fulcrum of color films, the Washington Post noted, Here we see the machinery and wonders of an inventor’s laboratory enhanced by color. The red, green and white flashing lights of the electric lights and luminous dials; the changing flashes of colored liquids in glass appliances; the red glow of the flames of the forge of the secret workshop where submarines are manufactured; the changing reflections on the shiny pistons and the flywheels, are combined to transforming what could have been a mere background into the vibrant and pulsating heart of the show.”
“For all practical purposes the original color version of The Mysterious Island was considered lost. After its first release, the film was not seen again until the late 1960s, when MGM made a B&W duplicate from a color copy preserved in the basement of the studio. This is the version that has circulated in the United States and been seen on television. The color copy presented at Pordenone’s 2014 Giornate was preserved in the 1970s by the Národní Filmový Archiv of Prague from an incomplete nitrate copy with Czech inter-titles. Although this is the silent edition for distribution abroad, it is basically the same as the sound version, having been printed from the same original material. Unfortunately, Prague’s 35mm copy is missing the final reel. For the Giornate screening we are able to fill the gap with a 16mm B&W copy with English captions preserved by the Cineteca del Friuli. — James Layton”
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Mysterious Island
Movie: Strange but Good
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 1, 2019
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson