20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

In search of a lost epic – whatever happened to Wallace McCutcheon’s ambitious first ever adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? The American 1905 answer to Georges Méliès’ fantastic voyages has been lost in time – as if it was never even made.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 1905, USA. Written, directed and produced by Wallace McCutcheoon for Biograph. (According to an entry in Biograph’s catalogue.) IMDb score: N/A. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

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Jules Verne.

French author Jules Verne was experiencing something of a revival in the early 20th century, partly thanks to his stories’ popularity among both filmmakers and audiences alike. The person he may mostly have to thank for this is French film pioneer Georges Méliès, whose 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon (review), loosely based on both Verne’s and H.G. Wells’ work, became the most successful film of the young industry, and quickly spawned numerous imitations. The popularity of his stories grew further with his passing in 1905.

1905 was also the year that – according to some sources – gave us one of the lesser known adaptations of his works, the first cinematic version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, a film which – again, according to some sources, was also known as Amid the Wonders of the Deep. This would have been one of the very few American science fiction films produced in the first 25 years of cinema – a genre seemingly reserved for European filmmakers – primarily French – at the time. One inspiration for the film may have been the fact that a very popular attraction based on the Verne novel opened at the amusement park on Coney Island, New York in 1904. It would have been familiar to almost all American filmmakers, as the industry was largely concentrated to New York and New Jersey at the time.

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Opening of the attraction 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at Luna Park, Coney Island, in 1904.

However, almost nothing is known about this supposed film. We do know that there is a record of it in the catalogue for American Mutoscope & Biograph (Biograph for short), and that it was put down as having been directed by Wallace McCutcheon Sr. The odd thing is that according to Biograph’s archives the film was a full 18 minutes long (exactly two reels), and would presumably have been a both costly and much-advertised film, but it is never mentioned in any of the online biographies on McCutcheon. In fact even Wikipedia, which has a long and detailed article on the director omits it from his selected filmography. Not even a still from the film seems to exist. The only thing we have is a plot outline provided by Biograph:

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A Biograph movie theatre in the early 20th century.

“The story begins in 1866, a mysterious sea monster is sighted by ships of several nations; an ocean liner is also damaged by the creature. The United States government finally assembles an expedition in New York City to track down and destroy the menace. Professor Pierre Aronnax is a noted French marine biologist and narrator of the story happens to be in New York at the time and is a recognized expert in his field, he is issued a last-minute invitation to join the expedition, and he accepts. Canadian master harpoonist Ned Land and Aronnax’s faithful assistant Conseil are also brought on board. The expedition sets sail from Brooklyn aboard a naval ship, the Abraham Lincoln, which travels down around the tip of South America and into the Pacific Ocean. After much fruitless searching, the monster is found, and the ship charges into battle. During the fight, the ship’s steering is damaged, and the three are thrown overboard. They find themselves stranded on the “hide” of the creature, only to discover to their surprise that it is a large metal construct. They are quickly captured and brought inside the vessel, where they meet its enigmatic creator and commander, Captain Nemo. The rest of the story follows the adventures of the men aboard the submarine, the Nautilus, which was built in secrecy and now roams the seas free of any land-based government.”

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An excerpt from one of the many books where McCutcheon’s film is listed.

Now, anyone who has read the original novel will realise that this is the – exact – setup for Verne’s novel, down to names, dates, and even the path of the ocean liner. However it does not quite sound like the sort of blurb that a film company would produce either to market their film or describe it for the archive. And considering the way that films at this time tended to be simplified and rearranged, it would be mighty surprising to find a film from 1905 which followed Verne’s novel this closely.

My conclusion is that this film was never made. To further argument this conclusion, let’s have a brief look at Wallace McCutcheon’s career. McCutcheon, known as “Old Man” McCutcheon in the business, was one of the veterans in the American film business, having transferred from the stage in 1897 to the fledgling Biograph company, where he very quickly learned the trade and rose in the ranks until he was appointed head of production. He became known as a master at setting up shots and directing actors, but also had a surprisingly good grasp on editing, drama and cinematography. He quickly became one of the pioneers of the narrative film in the US, experimenting with multiple scene films and westerns around the same time as the much better remembered innovator Edwin S. Porter at the Edison Company. So impressed was Porter with McCutcheon’s work, that when McCutcheon was passed over for a raise at Biograph, Porter saw his chance and snatched him to Edison. McCutcheon soon became a frequent collaborator with Porter, and together they directed some of Edison’s most successful and innovative films of the latter 1900’s.

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A detail from Alphonse de Neuville’s original drawings for Jules Verne’s novel from 1867.

What’s especially interesting here is that McCutcheon’s transfer from Biograph to Edison came in 1905, the same year that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is supposed to have been released. My theory is that the film was planned to go into production – had perhaps already gone into production – when McCutcheon jumped ship. It was probably logged into Biograph’s files as a planned 2-reeler (18 minutes), accompanied by a broad outline for the novel, maybe for advance PR or pitch. Of course it is possible that the film was actually made and has just sunk into oblivion since. But it just seems highly unlikely, since McCutcheon was more or less at the peak of his career here, and most of his major films from 1905 have been preserved, many of them are quite widely documented, and most are available online. However, none of them come even near the scope of what this proposed Jules Verne adaptation would have been, had it been 18 minutes long and actually followed the plot outline provided by Biograph. At the very least it should have gone down in history as a hugely embarrassing flop, if indeed it wasn’t otherwise memorable.

So, while I love the idea of this forgotten American Jules Verne epic, beating Georges Méliès to the punch in 1905, none of the logic adds up. There is just no way that this movie would have been made in 1905 by one of America’s most important filmmakers just to disappear without a single trace. Until anyone can bring forth any proof of the existence (or should we say past existence) of this film, I’m going to assume that it just didn’t happen Which means that despite what many websites and even books on Jules Verne claim, Georges Méliès was in fact the first person to adapt 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea into a film in 1907. Render unto Caesar, etc…

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Still from Edwin S. Porter’s and Wallace McCutcheon’s film Dream of a Rarebit Fiend.

Wallace McCutcheon did go on to co-direct a number of great films with Edwin S. Porter, though, including all of Porter’s best known movies of that time, such as The Night Before Christmas (1905), the brilliant visual effects reel Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1905) and The “Teddy” Bears (1907). On his own he also directed The Black Hand (1906), which is considered the first gangster film.

With McCutcheon’s departure in 1905 Biograph went into total tail spin, the artistic quality of the company’s films plummeted, as did sales. So in the end of 1907 Biograph lured McCutcheon back, and he agreed, partly because of artistic differences with Porter. He never quite achieved the same greatness as his previous work, but did manage to put out a number of good movies, and helped revive Biograph’s fortunes. Unfortunately he fell ill in 1908, and unable to work, Biograph replaced him with his son, Wallace McCutcheon Jr. When he had recovered, he was then courted by Gaston Méliès, brother of Georges Méliès, who ran the New York office of Méliès’ company Star-Film.

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The Méliès Star Film Ranch in San Antonio, Texas, where the trail of Wallace McCutcheon ends.

After Thomas Edison had created his infamous film industry trust in 1907, partly to stem the influx of the hugely popular French films into the US, Gaston relocated Star Film’s studio to Texas in 1910, to get away from Edison’s influence. Many other small companies and independent filmmakers also fled Edison’s monopoly in New York, and went south, eventually creating Hollywood. But if McCutcheon made it there, at least there is no record of it. History completely loses track of him in Texas in 1910. The theory is that he either never quite recovered from his illness, and died shortly after arriving in Texas, or he just quietly retired, as did so many of the old school pioneers of film with the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers, led by one D.W. Griffith – whom McCutcheon actually hired as an actor during his second stint at Biograph. Griffith would, as we know, eventually turn to directing, and made Biograph one of the most successful film studios in the world.

Janne Wass

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. 1905, USA. Written, directed and produced by Wallace McCutcheoon for Biograph. (According to an entry in Biograph’s catalogue.)

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