20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ 

(5/10) In a nutshell: Impressive early underwater photography and great props and sets don’t make up for a messy script that tries too hard break out of the linear storytelling style. Decent actors who unfortunately don’t get to do much with their roles. 

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 1916, USA. Written and directed by Stuart Paton. Underwater and submarine scenes directed by Ernest Williamson (credited as “underwater photographer”). Starring: Allen Holubar, Matt Moore, Jane Gail, William Welsh. Produced by Carl Laemmle for Universal. IMDb score: 7.1

Allen Holubar as blackface Nemo.

Allen Holubar as blackface Nemo.

Like H.G. Wells, French author Jules Verne has been a staple of film in general, and science fiction film in particular, since the birth of the medium, from Georges Méliès‘ 1902 A Trip to the Moon to the 2012 film The Mysterious Island by Supernatural director Mark Sheppard. This 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea actually isn’t the first lengthy adaptation of the book – a nearly 30 minutes long film was made by Méliès in 1907 – although he didn’t much care for the overall story, but was more interested in in creating sea monsters and mermaids. Unfortunately only a fragment of that film remains, hence it is not included in this movie blog. A little know American film, 18 minutes long, also seems to have been made in 1905, directed by Wallace McCutcheon. That film is presumably lost, neither IMDb nor any other apparent scource have much information on it.

As a matter of fact, this film, written and directed by American Stuart Paton, is a cross between 20,000 Leagues… and The Mysterious Island – which is logical in a sense, since both Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus play a significant part in the latter book. The film follows the basic story of the former book fairly well (apart from the ending), and adds some freely adapted bits from the second.

For those not familiar with the storyline – here it goes (in the film, not the books): Our three heroes, the Aronnaxes, (including a female whose role consists of being a female, played by Edna Pendleton) are called out to the seas to kill a monster that has been destroying ships all over the world. This monster is naturally the submarine Nautilus, piloted by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. The heroes’ ship is nudged by the Nautilus, our heroes fall overboard and are taken into the submarine, where Nemo tells them they are his prisoners. We are also told several times through inter-titles that Nemo is a vengeful and ruthless man. In spite of this we never see him killing anyone, save for in the finale, and he seems to go out of his way to help anyone in trouble.

Original posters for the film.

Original posters for the film.

Around the same time escaped American soldiers crash their balloon on a mysterious island, where they find a wild girl (a child of nature, we are told), dressed, how else, in leopard skin (Jane Gail). Nemo takes the prisoners out for a (long) underwater stroll in revolutionary diving suits (We can stay under water indefinitely!) to show them his world. Later he stumbles across the yacht of the nemesis he has been looking for all these years – Denver – and destroys his ship with him in it. The wild girl turns out to be his long lost daughter – Nemo is in fact an Indian prince whose wife was killed by his enemy, we are told in a long flashback scene at the end of the movie. Such is the strain of this retelling of the story that he expires of pure emotion.
The film does weigh heavily on Nemo’s preparations for war, no doubt reflecting WWI, which was raging in Europe at the time of its making. Nevertheless, it leaves out the Captain’s radical views on pacifism by intimidation, a sort of one-sided terror (im)balance, so eloquently presented by Verne in the books. Thus Nemo’s drive merely comes from the lust for vengeance, and we never get an explanation as to why he sails around attacking ships at random.

The film is both brilliant and awful at the same time, making it hard to rate. The brilliant bits include: 1) impressive designs – we get to see the submarine in full scale floating in the water, with actors walking on it, and the interiors are not bad either, 2) underwater photography (for the first time in a movie) directed by J. Ernest Williamson, 3) decent acting, especially from the tall and gaunt Allen Holubar as Nemo, and Matt Moore as one of the heroes. and 4) Occasionally very striking camera work and direction both in and out of water.

Getting ready to plunge in.

Getting ready to plunge in.

It should be noted that this is indeed the first film where underwater photography has been used. A considerable feat, since there were no underwater film cameras at the time. The filming was accomplished using a combination of transparent plastic tubes, mirrors, and a diving bell. In fact, it must be pointed out that the credit for all this should not go to Stuart Paton, but to brothers Ernest and George Williamson, who developed the first equipment to film under water. J. Ernest Williamson describes it as sort of a diving bell made out of steel, and with the help of mirrors and watertight tubing he and his brother managed to film at a depth of 25 metres. Williamson also commissioned the building of his own steerable submarine, when he couldn’t get a hold of one of the old scrapped submarines used by the US navy – probably because of the raging war. This was actually used to film all the scenes involving the Nautilus as seen from the outside. It was Williamson, not Paton, who directed all these scenes, with his brother filming.
Unfortunately the studio (or Paton) was so proud of the underwater scenes that we get minute after minute of fairly uninteresting seabed, without much life aquatic, as well as long stretches of the actors walking around in murky water doing nothing in particular. There are a few shots of some sharks swimming by, and one quite exciting scene with a rubber octopus, though.

(A sidenote here on the supposed prophetism of Jules Verne: both the submarine or the diving suits with airtanks were actually existing realities when Verne wrote the book, he just turned them up to 11.)

The impressive submarine designed by Ernest Williamson.

The impressive submarine designed by Ernest Williamson.

Stuart Patton seems to have made a whole bunch of feature films for Universal, both as a writer and a director, none of which seem to have been very successful, apart from this one, which was well liked by the audience – not enough to cover production costs, though. The submarine element drew large crowds, as it came out just after a German sub had penetrated American defence lines.

When this film was made, Universal was still a small independent company, and its founder Carl Laemmle saw fit to grant Paton (who co-produced) the mind boggling budget of around 200 000 dollars (estimated) – a sum which it had very little chance of bringing in. For that money, Laemmle as producer could have demanded a better script. As it is, the script is jumbled, jumpy and inconsistent. The crashing party of soldiers have no bearing whatsoever on the plot, other than finding the wild girl/princess on the island. None of their scenes are very interesting, either, even though Matt Moore in the lead does a good job with his fairly nondescript role. As a matter of fact, the heroes on the Nautilus, the Aronnaxes, don’t really bring much in plot worth to the table either. The women in the script play absolutely no other roles than being the objects of the male leads’ affections. The male lead on the island dresses up the wild girl in modern clothing and parades her in front of his mates as some kind of a trophy he found, and all but keeps her as a prisoner. It is also unclear what her skin colour is. When we first see her, she is completely white, but later in the film her body is painted almost black. The question of female characters has been the bane of movie makers for a hundred years, since Verne seldom included women in any significant roles in his books, especially not his Fantastic Voyages.

1916_20000_leagues_001

Jane Gail as the child of nature.

American caucasian Allen Holubar also plays Indian Nemo with blackface (or grey, at least). And the film’s last 15 minutes are all a long flashback – Nemo sits our heroes around his chair like at story time and tells the tale of how the villain Denver killed his wife and kidnapped his daughter in India, suddenly turning the film into a completely unwarranted Oriental costume drama (yes, this sort of follows in the storyline of The Mysterious Island, but bejeezus, you don’t end a film with a bloody flashback).

It does seem like Stuart Paton was trying to play around with the new non-linear story telling technique that was being tested in a number of films, as well as cross cutting different story lines. Unfortunately he doesn’t seem to have possessed the chops for the job, and the film might have been a lot more satisfying, had he not tried to fiddle around with it so much.

All in all – a fairly impressive film from a technical and sometimes artistic point of view, with a decent group of actors, who don’t really get to make much of their roles. It has a murky and jumbled script, and incomplete characterisations. Kudos, though, for retaining Nemo’s Indian origin, a feature absent from most later adaptations, that turned him European. A middle ground five out of ten stars.

Out of the six leads in the film, four were fairly successful studio actors during the silent era. The ”wild girl” was played by Jane Gail, who was something of a minor poster child for many of Universal’s early short films. She gained international fame with her role as Dr Jekyll’s fiancée in the 1913 adaptation of Robert Louis Stephenson’s novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (review). Here she acted opposite one of the film industries first major leading men, King Baggot (”The King of Cinema”). Despite his dramatic performance as Nemo, Allen Holubar never eachieved much fame as an actor, although he did direct, produce and write a few fairly successful films, including a WWI propaganda starring Erich von Stroheim and a comedy with screen legend Lon Chaney. He’s also known as the first man to coordinate a movie shoot using radio in the 1922 film Hurricane’s Gal. He died in 1923, just 35 years old. Matt Moore as the hero of the crashed soldiers was the most successful. Among his most prominent roles were one of the three in the 1925 silent version of The Unholy Three – one of the other three was played by Lon Chaney. The film was directed by Tod Browning, later of Dracula and Freaks fame. He also acted opposite screen diva Mary Pickford (his sister-in-law) in the smash hit Coquette in 1929, one of the first talkies. He was one of the lucky actors that survived the transition to talking movies, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The film also features a bit part by the huge African-American actor and producer Noble Johnson. Johnson was a pioneering producer of films with black actors aimed at the African-American market, and head of his own movie company. He would often play bit parts in other studios’ movies, and used his salary to produce his own films. 

After this film the Williamson brothers almost immediately started working on another rehash of 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Seas, this time with MGM. Incidentally, that film was called The Mysterious Island, but is basically a story written by director Lucien Hubbard to serve as sort of a prequel to 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Seas. The film wasn’t released until 1929 and had to be partly re-shot because of the introduction of sound – read more about the disastrous production in the review.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 1916, USA. Written and directed by Stuart Paton. Underwater and submarine scenes directed by Ernest Williamson (credited as “underwater photographer”). Starring: Allen Holubar, Matt Moore, Jane Gail, William Welsh, Edna Pendleton, Dan Hanlon, Curtis Benton, Noble Johnson. Produced by Carl Laemmle and Stuart Paton for Universal. Cinematography: Eugene Gaudio. Underwater photography: Ernest and George Williamson. 

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