(4/10) In a nutshell: Borrowing the name of Jules Verne’s bestseller, this problem-ridden 1926-1929 production features good acting, some remarkable special effects and a solid-ish script, but alas, the schizophrenic semi-talkie-semi-silent financial disaster is just as equally horrible in many ways, with toy submarines, crocodiles substituting for dinos.
The Mysterious Island. Directed by Lucien Hubbard, Maurice Tourneur, Benjamin Christensen. Written by Lucien Hubbard, Carl Piersen. Loosely based on several novels by Jules Verne (but not The Mysterious Island). Starring: Lionel Barrymore Jacqueline Gadsden (as Jane Daly), Lloyd Hughes, Montagu Love. Produced by J. Ernest Williamson (uncredited) for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. IMDb score: 6.1
The jury still seems to be out on this film, judging from the few reviews on the interwebz. Many pro reviewers seem to like it, while more amateur writers find it dull and clumsy. When it was released in 1929 critics heaped praise on it, while the audience failed to show the same enthusiasm. And in truth, it is a hard one to appraise. On one hand there are clear qualities in both script, acting, special effects and sets – indeed it was a very expensive film that took over two years to film. But on the other hand this very very loose adaptation of a mix of Jules Verne books had monstrous production problems that are equally obvious, and simply cannot be forgiven.
To understand the film one must remember that in 1927 the first sound film, The Jazz Singer, was released, and 1928 saw the first talkies. In 1930 most films were talkies. The filming of The Mysterious Island was begun in 1926, and the film was released in 1929, so the production spanned the whole era of the most revolutionary transition of film history. In the early stages of sound pictures, some directors immediately commanded this new feature. German Hollywood expat F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise is one example of this. Other directors refused to make talkies until they were forced to do so by the proverbial gunpoint. Others sort of tried to make the best of what they could from both worlds, and waited to see which way the coin dropped. This film is one of those – although probably more out of necessity than a real desire to do so.
Before we go into the technicalities of it all, let’s have a very brief look at the plot. The film actually hasn’t got anything to do with Jules Verne’s book The Mysterious Island, apart from the fact the the protagonist is called Count Dakkar (Lionel Barrymore) – which was the real name of Captain Nemo, and there is a volcanic island and two submarines featured. It can be read as a prequel to 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. The short version is this: Count Dakkar has put up a scientific community based on equality on an island, and devotes his life to underwater exploration in his two submarines. He is aided in this by his trusty engineer Nicolai (Lloyd Hughes) and spurred on by his lovely sister Sonia (Jacqueline Gadsden). In reality though he is a citizen of Hetvia (a disguised Russia), a land in turmoil because of a brewing worker’s revolt (this is supposed to be in around 1850). He is visited by the evil Baron Falon (Montagu Love, you’ve gotta love that name), who wants to use his submarines as a weapon to suppress the workers and rule the world. Dakkar refuses. This leads to Falon seizing one of the subs, while demanding the secret plans to manouvre them – and for this he tortures both Dakkar and Sonia – although he is in love with Sonia, who is in turn in love with the engineer Nicolai. Nicolai himself is on the bottom of the sea with the other sub, and manages to rescue both Dakkar and Sonia. They are then chased to the bottom of the sea by Falon, where they discover a secret underwater society and are attacked first by strange bipedal creatures that look like a mix between oompah-loompas, Donald Duck and gremlins, then a dinosaur and a giant octopus. Falon is ultimately destroyed, the young couple embrace and Dakkar is buried at sea.
Then to the problems. Sci-fi and fantasy was, as I have pointed out elsewhere, not popular genres in the States in the early decades of cinema, although it was all the rage in Europe. But in 1925 First International Pictures had a huge success with the dinosaur epic The Lost World (review), and MGM decided that they would make an even more impressive epic. The Lost World had been based on a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, and there was something of a success story of short and longer films based on the works of popular and respected authors such as Jules Verne, perhaps most notably the 1916 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Seas (review). That film had been a huge success much thanks to the innovative genius of underwater filming brothers George and J. Ernest Williamson. MGM hired the boys on the spot – even made Ernest producer, and decided to go with the same concept as the earlier successful Verne film. But.
As with many of these kinds of films, the problem was whether to modernise or stay true to the book – or books. Since Jules Verne’s books were often interconnected, scripts tended to borrow a bit here and there. The scripting process dragged and dragged, and Williamson, rolling his thumbs, saw the best window for underwater filming in the Bahamas coming to an end. By the time some sort of script was finished, it was hurricane season. But the Williamsons soldiered on despite their revolutionary equipment breaking three times. But when the film was finally released, it was with a radically different script, and only a fragment of what they had filmed remained in the picture.
The other problem was French director Maurice Tourneur, who directed the studio-bound scenes. He also dragged and re-shot and took huge amounts of time to do fairly simple scenes because of his perfectionism. Seeing him go over schedule and budget, the studio ultimately let him go, and replaced him with Danish Benjamin Christensen, best known for his documentary masterpiece The Witch (Häxan, 1922) and Seven Fooprints to Satan (1929). Unfortunately for MGM, he turned out to be as bad as, if not worse, than Tourneur. So he was also let go, and replaced by Lucien Hubbard – a loyal MGM boy who had a reputation for doing as he was told.
And then came sound. MGM realised they had to go with sound if they were to have any hope of having a blockbuster on their hands. The only problem was that the film was already shot. So it was back to the studio to re-shoot large chunks of the film. Now there was another problem. The actor who played Baron Falon, Warner Oland, had a heavy accent and was deemed as unusable – which meant that not only had the parts where he was talking to be reshot, but all of them had to be reshot with a new actor. The strange approach of partly re-shooting the film led to it being partly a talkie, partly silent and partly silent, but with sound effects. The script that was finally laid down, partly written by Hubbard, was a mishmash of new ideas, some ideas from 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Seas, some elements from The Mysterious Island, some themes from other Verne books, like Robur the Conqueror and Master of the World, and the Russian element from his novel Michel Strogoff. What we get is 15 minutes of long and stilted expositional talkie scenes in the beginning, and slowly the film descends into silent film, but is interjected here and there with talking parts. The sound effects are often very clumsily done, and sound very much like a cheap radio play would sound. We get some background noise here and there from the subs – then gunshots, footsteps and screams, but no other background sounds. Some commentators have pointed out that to an audience used to silent cinema, this may not have seemed as strange as it does today – and it surely wouldn’t have done so in 1927, but in 1929 some very accomplished sound films had already been made, and audiences were getting used to good quality in sound.
The special effects and sets are also a mixed bag. The strange sea creatures, all played by a whole horde of actors of short stature, are very effective in their sheer mass and strangeness. The interior of the sub is effective without being impressive, and the deep sea diving suits are very cool. The land based sets are all impressive studio and location shots. The submarine itself unfortunately looks like a toy in an aquarium. The underwater dinosaur is a crocodile with a glued on horn and back crest – most definitely walking on dry land. Many of the supposed underwater scenes are also obviously shot on a dry set, rather than in the sea.
What does work, though, is the drama, some of the action and especially the acting. Lionel Barrymore as Dakkar is splendid, as always – charismatic, natural, commanding and emotional – although some of his talking scenes are stiff because he has to stand close to a microphone and still hadn’t been able to scale away the silent style over-acting. Jacqueline Gadsden as Sonia is impressive – one reason is that she portrays an unusually active and independent female character for the time. No swooning and crouching behind the leading man here – on the contrary, in many ways she is the hero of the story, as she does not crack under torture to tell the secret of where she has hidden the important plans. She also takes great interest in all the workings of the submarine, and seems to be quite capable of handling one, if push comes to shove. Montagu Love relishes in playing the evil baron, even if the role is very stereotypical and one-dimensional. Lloyd Hughes had made something of a name for himself as the male lead in The Lost World, and here continues to impress with a very balanced portrayal of Nicolai.
Lionel Barrymore was one of the lucky actors who had an extensive background in theatre and thus had no problem in transitioning from silent to sound film – just like his siblings Ethel Barrymore and John Barrymore. According to Turner Classic Movies, he told the MGM executives: ”Sound won’t make quite as much difference as you fearfully expect. Action will remain the chief ingredient of these little cultural dramas of ours. The main difference will be that the titles from now on will be uttered – hopefully in something approximating English”. Later he wholeheartedly embraced talkies, as he felt that sound gave bigger opportunities for more experienced character actors. Both Ethel and Lionel won Oscars, but surprisingly not John, despite being one of the most revered actors of his age. This was mostly due to him being a freelancer – and in those days the studios tended to barr the freelancers from the nomination process. John was also grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore. For more on the Barrymores, read my review of the 1920 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, where John played the title roles.
Gadsden played this role under the pseudonym of Jane Daly. She retired after this film, and had no other outings in sci-fi, neither did Lionel Barrymore or Montagu Love. Love did, though, play supporting characters in a whole host of Hollywood blockbusters, maybe best known from historical and fantastical epics like The Son of the Sheik, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Don Juan and The Mark of Zorro. The film also features Danish-American actor Carl Dane, a very popular comedian during the silent era, whose fortunes unfortunately declined after the advent of sound. Because of his thick accent he got no acting jobs, and not even a vaudeville tour with his popular duo Arthur & Dane paid by Paramount improved his fortunes. He shot himself in the head in 1933 efter numerous failed odd jobs and financial ventures. Snitz Edwards was a very sought-after Hungarian character actor who appeared alongside most of Hollywood’s greatest stars in smaller supporting and bit parts – largely because of his ”homely” features, his ”rubber face” and comedic talents. He is perhaps best remembered for his roles in the silent versions of The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Lucien Hubbard worked primarily as a writer and producer. There’s a small part played by short actor Angelo Rossitto, who was one of the most recognisable little people in Hollywood, and would go on to appear in a number of sci-fi films, and is best known for his portrayal of The Master in the MasterBlaster combo in Mad Max: Beyond the Thunderdome (1985).
The film starts off slow with the aforementioned talked exposition, and then sort of doesn’t take off into another dull stretch as the filmmakers want to show off their not too impressive submarine interiors in a long collage filled with screeching sound effects. Because sound. It then sort of doesn’t really take off as Nicolai and Dakkar again show off their submarine, but now to Falon, and this time with words. It picks up speed and drama with the kidnapping/torture/escape scenes, and pretty well keeps up suspension as the underwater world comes into view. It is not horribly well filmed, as Lucien Hubbard really wasn’t a director, and most of the framing and filming is flat and uninspired. The underwater world and the inside of the submarine world of the actors never really collide, and it is all too obvious that the actors are in a nice comfy studio, and that most of the sea creatures are actually also in a nice comfy studio, but at a completely different time. The whole film must have seemed very quaint when it came out, as it is set in 19th century Russia and hinges on a sort of dated melodrama, but introduces futuristic technology and campy underwater fantasy monsters. The whole thing is basically filmed as a silent with sound sort of superimposed on top. The actors, the personal drama and the light romantizised social commentary do keep this one afloat (pardon the pun), but just barely. It is a curious time capsule from the time of movies in a time of transition, though. Unfortunately this film once again discouraged Hollywood from putting its money on large sci-fi productions, not counting big apes.
The Mysterious Island. Directed by Lucien Hubbard, Maurice Tourneur, Benjamin Christensen. Written by Lucien Hubbard, Carl Pierson. Loosely based on several novels by Jules Verne (but not The Mysterious Island). Starring: Lionel Barrymore Jacqueline Gadsden (as Jane Gale), Lloyd Hughes, Montagu Love, Harry Gribbon, Snitz Edwards, Gibson Gowland, Dolores Brinkman. Cinematography: Percy Hillburn, Carl Dane. Editing: Carl Pierson. Art direction: Cedric Gibbons. Sound: Douglas Shearer. Special Effects: J. Ernest Williamson. Underwater photography: J. Ernest Williamson, George Williamson. Produced by J. Ernest Williamson (uncredited) for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Note: the YouTube video below lacks the first 20 minutes for some reason.