(6/10) Britain’s first sci-fi feature film from 1913 is a variation on Dicken’s Christmas Carol, with a Martian instead of spirits. Visually dull and unambitious, but a rather entertaining little comedy based on a stage play.
A Message from Mars. 1913, UK. Written & directed by Wallett Waller. Based on a play by Richard Ganthony. Starring: Charles Hawtrey, E. Holman Clarke, Crissie Bell, Hubert Willis, Produced by Nicholas Ormsby-Scott.
A Message from Mars has the distinction of being Britain’s first science fiction feature film, with a running time of one hour. The story would have been familiar to most, as it was based on one of the most popular comedy plays in the country, nay, the English-speaking world, at the turn of the century. It had even been filmed before, as A Message from Mars (review) in 1903, as a short film in New Zealand, making it that country’s first sci-fi movie, and the first science fiction movie not made in Europe or the US. The play was written by Richard Ganthony, an otherwise rather anonymous playwright.
After a few important contributions to narrative editing around 1900, the British film industry had been left behind the progress happening in countries like France, Italy, USA, Denmark and Germany. It wasn’t just a lack of strong studios (many were foreign-owned) or resources, but mainly a lack of talent within the film community. Many of the early pioneers of British film were more technicians than artists, capable of making decent short films, but failing when the feature film came along with new demands on narrative and dramatic direction. But around 1910 there was a push within the industry, most notably by producer/directors Cecil Hepworth and G.H. Cricks, to make longer and better pictures, and British cinema made up for some lost ground the following years. Perhaps more than in, for instance the US, stage directors started taking to the movies. This was on the one hand good news for narrative feature-length films, but on the other hand contributed to the often rather stiff and stagy feel of UK films.
One of the stage greats that had a certain interest in film was comedy star, writer, director and producer Charles Hawtrey, who had massive successes with the stage version of A Message from Mars in the early 20th century. By 1913 the famous play wasn’t on display on the stage any longer, but perhaps feeling that film could prolong his success with the story, he decided to make the movie happen.
The play A Message from Mars: A Comedy in Three Acts was written by British-born American playwright Richard Ganthony in 1892, and he tried in vain to get it performed in the US. Finally he took it to his old home country, where it caught the eye of Hawtrey, who was by then in the peak of his career. Hawtrey first rejected the script, but took it after a further re-write.
It was first performed in London in 1899, with Hawtrey in the lead role as the dissipated Earth-man Horace Parker being visited by a man from Mars, who takes him on a journey of redemption through London. Horace Parker is an utterly selfish and self-centered rich man, who is scarcely liked even by his closest friends. In order to learn him humility, the Martian emissary Ramiel shows him the harsh life of the poor, and strips him of his wealth in order to learn that those who have the least are often the most generous, while the rich in their secluded luxury tend to be the most cold-hearted. Through hardship and friendship with the down-trodden, a new, kind, caring and happy Parker emerges.
Although British 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, according to one witness in the court, had not done much else than introduce what were known as “Hawtrese” exclamations, often of rather strong language, such as “You silly ass!”
The play, however, became a huge success, and performed both on Broadway and in the English colonies of Australasia, where Hawtrey’s brother William performed the lead. 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.
The New York Times gave it glowing reviews in 1901, 1902 and 1903, as it took the United States by storm. So popular was it, that it that other comedians started riffing on, such as the famous comedy team Weber & Fields, who in 1902 turned it into a musical burlesque, a year before Franklyn Barrett filmed it i New Zealand.
And so in 1913, when the buzz from the success of the play had died out, Charles Hawtrey decided to re-ignite the flame through the movies. Since Hawtrey knew nothing about making movies, he hired writer/director Wallett Waller (real name Ernest John Waller) to re-write it for the silent screen, as well as direct it. Waller added to the script a first scene, absent in the play, where we see a Martian ruler (R. Crompton) and a retinue, all acting in very broad theatrical manner, declaring that the Martian Ramiel (E. Holman Clarke) has broken one of the laws of Mars, and as punishment he must be sent to Earth to redeem himself by turning a selfish man into a generous man.
This man is of course none other than Horace Parker (Hawtrey), a man who refuses to pay after watching a Punch and Judy show, who angrily turns away a tramp (Hubert Willis) asking for a chance to work for food, and who even feigns illness after he’s promised to take his fiancée Minnie (Crissie Bell) to the dance, because he just couldn’t be bothered. This is the last straw for Minnie, who returns his engagement ring, at which Parker can’t even muster up enough caring to really get mad. And after Minnie’s left for the dance with Parker’s friend, who even shows up to drive them door-to-door, Ramiel interferes.
Dragging Parker out on the streets, Ramiel tries to give him a chance to help the poor and unfortunate, but manages to get Parker to give alms only when he’s forced to. Radical measures are needed, Ramiel figures, and decides to give Parker at taste of his own medicine, by turning him into a tramp himself. And who should turn up, if not the tramp that Parker pushed away earlier. Together they beg for money, and in a cruel twist of fate, Parker ends up asking for pocket change from the guests of the very party he snubbed earlier in the evening. Unsuccessful, the two then ask for work at a rich lady’s house, but are brushed off. Just as Parker has struck up a friendship with the other tramp, his friend collapses from hunger. Distraught, Parker pleas for passersby’s help, but in vain. Here, Ramiel feels that Parker has gone through a genuine change, and asks him to look in his pocket. Parker finds a sovereign, and tells his friend he will split it with him. Satisfied, Ramiel changes Parker back into his old, rich self, and disappears to Mars.
But the story doesn’t end here …
However, I’m not going to reveal how it all plays out. Instead, let’s have a look at the film itself. The movie is to a large extent filmed outdoors, however, the chosen locations are among the most dreary ever seen on film, as we get endless shots of walls, fences and staircases against which the actors play out their scenes to a static camera, very much as if they were performing for a live audience. There’s a few encouraging shots early on in the movie, where Waller films the Punch & Judy show, showing Parker and other audience members in close-up, giving nice shots of the crowd, etc. But it is as if he then forgets that he is making a movie, and for the next 40 minutes there’s nothing really interesting going on visually. The last 15 minutes does give some respite from this, thanks to some decent practical effects.
Considering it’s a film dealing with an all-powerful Martian, there’s very little on display in terms of visual effects. There’s a couple of sudden appearances and disappearances of the Martian, utilising stop tricks, a poorly executed split-screen effect and a few under-cranked sped-up moments. Apart from this, the movie might just as well have been performed on stage. Waller doesn’t quite let the camera roll without edits for entire scenes, but the shots are long and static without much more editing than is minimally required to follow Parker and the other characters from one place to another.
Not much information is available on director Wallet Waller on the web. From what I can glean from snippets and footnotes of books and websites, John Ernest Waller was a stage actor and later director active during the four first decades of the 20th century. He seems to have caught an interest in movie-making in 1912, making a couple of films for small independent production companies before setting up his own company Cunard in 1914, which folded the next year during WWI. And with that, and half a dozen of films, Waller’s movie career was over.
The star of the movie, Charles Hawtrey, does a nice job with his role. He’s been accused of being overly theatrical, and sure, he isn’t exactly subtle. But seeing as almost all film acting was overly theatrical at the time, I don’t think Hawtrey sins any more than most other movie actors in 1913, especially considering this was a comedy, and as such was meant to be over the top. Another thing is that the Martians do the whole “express your feelings with your movements” thing to absurd length, but that, I would propose, is on purpose. But I do feel that Hawtrey captures the almost child-like egocentrism and backwardness of Parker well. Another thing completely is that at 55 years old, Hawtrey was a bit past his prime for the role of the unchained bachelor, especially since Crissie Bell could well be his daughter, rather than his fiancée.
Hawtrey’s illustrious career on stage is too long and successful to do credit here, but let’s just say that he was an actor, director, manager, producer and writer based in London, and was considered the leading British stage comedian of his time. Thanks to the longevity of his career, he had the chance to get first crack at plays by both Oscar Wilde and W. Somerset Maugham. A generous but colourful character, Maugham, who edited his posthumously released memoirs, revealed that he was also a notorious gambler: “He was by passion a racing man and only by necessity an actor. I think that he forgot the names of half the characters he played, but never that of a horse he backed. The haphazard manner on which he went on stage, and his desultory training, are astonishing, considering he was the most finished comedian of his generation.”
Hawtrey only did two more films in his career. He should not be confused with the later comedic actor Charles Hawtrey, known for the Carry On comedy films. Despite the name, the two were not even related.
The rest of the cast is similarly made up of stage actors, who, with one exception, would have very little else to do with film. E. Holman Clark does a stolid Martian emissary, with little more to do in the film than wave his arms around and look grim. Clark was most famous for his recurring Captian Hook in the famous annual Christmas performances of Peter Pan. Young Crissie Bell is actually rather natural and feels at home on the screen, even if she doesn’t get much to do. This was her only film, but she seems to have made a decent career, at least on stage, even if not much information on her is available. Her looks made her a popular photo model for post cards and cigarette cards, and The Burr McIntosh Weekly in 1908 wrote wrote about her: “One of London’s show girls, Crissie is also a noted beauty. She created a sensation in the beauty contest recently held there to determine who should be called the most beautiful woman in England.”
The only actor in the film who got seriously bitten by the movie bug was Hubert Willis, who plays the tramp. Willis has a rugged charisma and a natural air about him, which makes him suitable for films. Willis did around a dozen films between 1913 and 1917, but it was in 1920 he got the role he would be remebered for, that of Dr. Watson in Oswald Stoll’s series of short films based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books about Sherlock Holmes. Willis ended up playing Watson in 45 short films and a feature-length The Hound of Baskervilles (1921) opposite Eille Norwood between 1920 and 1923. Doyle himself was very fond of the Stoll films, and thought Norwood’s Holmes was the one that closest resembled his character from the books.
As far as film adaptation of stage plays go, A Message from Mars is no masterpiece. Obviously Waller has felt compelled to remove all subtleties as well as any indication of passing time (although this may be a fault with the original play). But as movie critic Ken Strong points out, the films is “a clinic on how to create plot holes”. For example, why must Parker suddenly beg on the streets just because his clothes are in rags and the Martian says that he is a tramp? Did his house also disappear? And his money in the bank? Even so, Parker didn’t seem hungry and desperate a few hours earlier, why all of a sudden this urge to be begging? And so on and so forth. Sure, it’s always difficult to tell a story without dialogue, but a few explanatory inter-titles would have done the trick.
The Martian costumes used in the beginning of the film look rather silly, but no more so than other alien costumes in hundreds of films to come. In fact, compared to many later efforts, these actually have some finesse and thought put in to them. In all probability they were made by the costume department of whatever theatre Hawtrey was working with at the time.
As expected, the film was popular with audiences and received good reviews. Later film scholars and reviewers, like Luke McKernan, have called it “plodding in style and performance”, and MgConlan (sic!) of Movie Magg writes that “there is virtually no cinematic technique — the scenes are staged in mid-distance tableaux and the actors, some of whom were also in stage productions of Ganthoney’s plays, act pretty much as they would on stage”. On the other hand, the anonymous “crane operator” at Those Awful Reviews gives the film a big thumbs up, and states that “The picture was well composed and the editing was tight — I never felt that any scene was beginning to drag”. While I can’t quite agree with the assessment that “the editing was tight”, I agree that despite the long takes and the boring backdrops, the film never feels too long or stretched, as it moves at a fair pace and is dramatic enough to keep the viewer engaged.
For decades the film only existed in two separate, incomplete copies. However, in 2014 the British Film Institute took on the painstaking job of merging these to copies into one, hopefully complete film, and reproduced the original tinting as well. The restoration is remarkably well done, but for some reason BFI chose to re-release the film with a singularly odd, brooding electronic soundtrack, more at home in some avantgarde horror film from the eighties than in this burlesque comedy from 1913. A more suitable soundtrack might have further enhanced the viewing experience, now you just want to mute the damn thing and put on some piano music in the background while you watch it.
Such popularity was held by the story that it was adapted into a third film in 1921, this time in the US. The film draws on both Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the classic riches-to-rags trope, as seen for example in Shakespeare’s King Lear. Since these are stories so ingrained in our culture, it is difficult to say to what extent A Message from Mars inspired say, the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life or Mel Brooks’ Life Stinks! One could perhaps assume that the literary classics were more inspirational, but anyway, the basic story has been repeated numerous times, sometimes even with science fiction premises (isn’t ET really the ghost of Christmas future, teaching people the value of kindness and love?).
A Message from Mars. 1913, UK. Written & directed by Wallett Waller. Based on a play by Richard Ganthony. Starring: Charles Hawtrey, E. Holman Clarke, Crissie Bell, Frank Hector, Hubert Willis, Kate Tyndale, Evelyn Beaumont, Eileen Temple, R. Crompton, B. Stanmore, Tonie Reith. Produced by Nicholas Ormsby-Scott for United Kingdom Photoplays.