A Message from Mars

No rating: lost film

New Zealand’s first science fiction film is also the first ever film involving a Martian and an alien visitation to Earth. The 1903 movie was based on a popular stage play, which was successively filmed again in 1913 and 1921. 

A Message from Mars. 1903, New Zealand. Written, produced directed and filmed by Franklyn Barrett. Based on Richard Ganthony’s play A Message from Mars, in turn inspired by Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. IMDb score: N/A. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1903_message_from_mars_001_franklyn_barrett_1917

Franklyn Barrett

One of the things I love about writing this blog is that sometimes I stumble across information that overturns everything I thought I know about the early sci-fi film history. For years I lived in the belief that the 1910 film A Trip to Mars (review) was the first movie involving a Martian, and that the 1920 movie Algol first featured an alien visitation. Then something like this emerges from the mists of history.

The first film about a visitor from outer space came from New Zealand, of all places. The 1903 one-reeler is an adaptation of a stage play, in turn inspired by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, telling of a a Martian who visits a man in his dream.

While Australasia is often overlooked in the history of early cinema, it had a virile movie industry early on: it is sometimes forgotten that Australia produced what is sometimes called the the first actual feature film, The Ned Kelly Gang in 1906. To my surprise I found while digging about that the first film about a visitor from Mars (or space in general) came out of New Zealand. It was directed by Walter Franklyn Barrett, who sometimes went by the alias W.F. Brown, which has caused some confusion in crediting his films, in 1903, and was a one-reeler, whatever that meant in New Zealand in 1903. We can probably surmise that it was no more than 8 minutes in length, since anything longer would have made it an exceptionally long film at the time. The film is presumed lost, and we have no other information about it than what can be gleaned from the stage play that it was based in.

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A still from the 1913 remake of A Message to Mars, starring Charles Hawtrey.

The play A Message from Mars: A Comedy in Three Acts was first performed in London in 1899, with renowned comedian and stage manager Charles Hawtrey in the lead role as the dissipated Earth-man being visited by in his dream by men from Mars, who take him on walks around London. Although British-born American playwright Richard Ganthony denied having ever read A Christmas Carol, it is clear that A Message from Mars is heavily influenced by Charles Dickens’ famous story in which three ghost visit the mean old Scrooge in the night before Christmas to turn him into a kinder, happier man. The similarities were even brought up in court when Ganthony in 1899 sued The Daily Express for calling Hawtrey “co-writer” of the play. Ganthony won the case, as Hawtrey had not done much else than introduce what were known as “Hawtrese” exclamations, often of rather strong language, such as “You silly ass!”

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Poster for the 1921 version of the film.

The play, however, became a huge success, and performed both on Broadway and in the English colonies of Australasia, which is where Franklyn Barrett would have seen it in 1903. The Otago Daily Times called it “The Greatest Theatrical Success of All Time!, and The Southland Times wrote that “Of all the plays in the repertoire of the Hawtrey Company there is none which stand out so prominently as Ganthony’s comedy-drama A Message from Mars“. The Southland Times made a case of pointing out that no less than six bishops all had seen the play in Australia, and they all lauded its moral message. According to Steve Joyce in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913–1929, it was Charles Hawtrey’s brother William who played the lead in this touring production, as Charles was busy performing the play on Broadway at the time.

Charles Hawtrey himself starred in a British film adaptation of the film in 1913, and Wikipedia describes the plot like this:

“Horace Parker (Hawtrey) is a wealthy young man who is exceedingly selfish and self-centered. Not only is he a miser, but he also expects his friends (and everyone else) to conduct their lives according to his personal convenience. Parker is engaged to Minnie Templer (Bell), but Minnie has discovered Parker’s selfishness and she is on the brink of calling off the engagement. However, on Christmas Eve, a messenger from Mars comes to Earth to show Parker the error of his ways. The two of them become invisible and eavesdrop on all the terrible—and true—things Parker’s friends and family are saying about him.”

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Jack Gavin and Franklyn Barrett in 1916.

However, we unfortunately do not have any information on the 1903 film, other than the fact that it was one of Barrett’s early films: he started experimenting with movies in 1900 while touring with theatre orchestras as a violin player. It was not only New Zealand’s first science fiction film, it also seems to have been the country’s first narrative fiction film.

Barrett was better known, however, as a documentary filmer, and became renowned for getting spectacular footage of animals and natural phenomena while putting himself in considerable danger. He once built a special platform attached to a boat in order to film a famous dolphin, and another time hired a small launch to film a volcanic eruption on an island. Barrett survived the upheaval of the film industry around 1915 that took down so many of the pioneers of cinema who weren’t able to adapt to feature films, and in fact became a renowned cameraman and director of features, until his company folded in 1922 and he became a cinema manager.

He worked for some years as a PR man and exhibition tour manager for Paramount i New Zealand, and became renowned for his shrewd marketing and his extravagant pre-screening program. Best known is perhaps his 1925 tour with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923), for which he put on a grand theatrical prologue with painted backdrops and live actors in costume before the screening, Jeanette Delamoir of NFSA writes:

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A scene from Barrett’s 1925 prologue to the screening of DeMille’s film The Ten Commandments,

“He travelled on behalf of Paramount, showing Cecil B DeMille’s 1923 silent film and lugging 11 tons of scenery and costumes. In each town, he presented the film and a live ‘atmospheric Egyptian prelude’ that involved slave-girls dancing and the Pharaoh mourning the death of his child. Accompanying the prologue were live music, atmospheric coloured lighting, the exotic smell of incense and explosive special effects.”

Barrett never made any other science fiction films, but he did become of of the more respected directors och New Zealand in the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, with his best known movie being A Girl of the Bush (1921). His 1921 film The Breaking of the Drought caused a controversy, as authorities felt its depiction of the drought in the south part of the country could hurt New Zealand’s image abroad. The film led to a tightening of the country’s censorship.

Janne Wass

A Message from Mars. 1903, New Zealand. Written, produced directed and filmed by Franklyn Barrett. Based on Richard Ganthony’s play A Message from Mars, in turn inspired by Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol.

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