The Mysterious Island

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(4/10) 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 film is just as equally horrible in many ways, with toy submarines and 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, Lloyd Hughes, Montagu Love. Produced by J. Ernest Williamson. IMDb score: 6.1 Tomatometer: N Metascore: N/A.

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Poster

The jury still seems to be out on this film, judging from the few reviews on the interwebz. Many professional reviewers seem to like it, while amateur writers seem to 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 the script and the acting, as well as the 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.

In order to comprehend the peculiarities of the film one must remember that the first sound film, The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927 and 1928 saw the first talkies. And in 1930 most films were talkies, at least in the United States. Filming on The Mysterious Island was started in 1926, and the film was released in 1929, so the production spanned the whole era of the most revolutionary transition period in film history. Some directors immediately commanded this new feature. German Hollywood expat F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise is one example of this. Other directors, like Charlie Chaplin, refused to make talkies until they were forced to do so by the proverbial gunpoint. A number of filmmakers sort of tried to take the best of what they could from both worlds, and waited to see which way the coin dropped. This film is an example of that – although probably more out of necessity than choice.

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Illustration from Jules Verne’s novel.

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, if one is generous.

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 (the story unfolds around the year 1850). Dakkar 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. When Dakkar refuses, Falon tortures both Dakkar and Sonia – although he is in love with Sonia, who is in turn in love with the engineer Nicolai. And just like any proper hero Nicolai comes the the rescue of both Dakkar and Sonia in another submarine, only to be chased to the bottom of the sea by Falon. Here 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.

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A scene in which we see the sub attacked by underwater creatures in decidedly non-underwater footage.

Sci-fi and fantasy were not popular genres in the States in the early decades of cinema, although they were all the rage in Europe. But then  in 1925 First International Pictures had a huge success with the dinosaur epic The Lost World (review), and rivalling MGM decided to produce an even more impressive epic. The Lost World had been based on a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, and it was in fact probably the first adaptation of one of his science fiction novels, even though there had at this point been made, even if over one hundred Sherlock Holmes movies had hit the screen, if short films are included.

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Jules Verne.

But one early sci-fi author (if we want to call him that) whose novels had been very popular fodder for film adaptations was Frenchman Jules Verne, who wrote his ouvre between 1865 and his death in 1905. Verne combined the popular adventure stories of Alexandre Dumas and James Fenimore Cooper with rigorous scientific background research and his own marvellous imagination. He was also a playwright, and many of his books were adapted for the stage in France, in particular in the hugely popular Féerie genre, and often at the huge and glamorous Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. Some of these shows were fairly straightforward adaptations of his work, others were amalgamations, more inspired by his books than actual re-tellings. One filmmaker who often borrowed his ideas from the Theatre du Chatelet productions was the legendary pioneer Georges Méliès, the king of international cinema during the first decade of the 20th century.

Méliès, a stage magician, theatre owner, director, special effects specialist, set designer and film pioneer, became the unrivalled superstar of the silver screen with his 1902 film A Trip to the Moon (1902, review), based on a play by Theatre du Chatelet, in turn loosely based on Jules Verne’s novels From the Earth to the Moon (1865), and Around the Moon (1866), as well as H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1901) and other, older moon romances. Méliès made a string of films loosely based on Verne’s novels of fantastical voyages, or rather inspired by them, and other filmmakers, predominantly in France, the biggest film producer at the time, alongside Denmark. These were what would be considered short films today, but some of them were as long as 45 minutes, taking into account the preferred projection speed of 12-14 frames per second at the time.

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The ice giant eating the expedition in Georges Méliès Conquest of the Pole (1913).

However, by the 1910s, Méliès’ theatrical, stage-based style of féerie films was out of vogue, as movie-goers demanded more involved plots and more realistic visuals. Films like the British low-budget short aviation movies The Aerial Submarine (1910, review) and The Pirates of 1920 (1911, review), as well as the Italian sci-fi adventure comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913, review) tried to combine the best of the two worlds, but the rise of the Italian historical epics, the French urban crime drama and the Hollywood western heralded a new style of filmmaking. Méliés did make one last attempt at win back the audience in 1912 with his overblown mini-epic The Conquest of the Pole (review), which featured his most elaborate prop yet — an ice giant, several meters tall, with individually puppeteered eyes, mouth, head, arms, hands, even ears, that took six people inside and behind to animate, and at one point started eating a group of explorers. But despite the tremendous craftsmanship, it still looked like a giant puppet, and audiences were not impressed.

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Lobby card for The Mysterious Island.

The 1910s heralded the end of films featuring incredible flying machines, underwater fantasies with giant squids, submarines and mermaids, cars riding on the rings of Saturn, beds shooting over rooftops, rockets piercing the eye of the man in the moon, fire-breathing dragons, giants and Lilliputians. But times went by. New film techniques were developed, cameras grew smaller and lighter, movies grew longer, which meant ticket prices went up. Actors, previously anonymous performers, became movie stars, not least thanks to the perceived glamour of the rapidly growing Hollywood. Films were beginning to be taken seriously, production periods longer and budgets bigger. Directors like Cecil B. DeMille, D.W. Griffith, Fred Niblo and Fritz Lang started making lavish, expensive epics like The Ten Commandments (1923), Faust (1924), Ben-Hur (1925) and not least Metropolis (1927, review), with gigantic sets shot in huge studios, employing thousands of extras with cutting edge special and visual effects. Their budgets, surpassing one million dollars, were mind-boggling at a time when a normal decent-sized drama seldom cost more than 100,000 dollars to make.

New special effects techniques like puppet animation, travelling mattes, bipack process and the Schüfftan process suddenly allowed for astoundingly realistic imagery of things like dinosaurs interacting with humans in The Lost World (1925, review), weightlessness in space in Our Heavenly Bodies (1925, review) and live actors acting against miles of sprawling futuristic cities or robots morphing into humans in Metropolis. So in the second half of the 1920s, epic fantasy and science fiction was back on the menu — but genre pictures were still risky business. It was much safer to stick to legendary romance with swords and sandals and vaguely biblical backdrops. But now, at least, there was a chance to once again do Jules Verne justice.

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Underwater footage from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916).

In the time between 1913 and 1929 there had been one anomaly: the American 1916 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a film that, like most adaptations of Verne’s 1871 novel, adds on the ending of the 1874 novel The Mysterious Island, in which Captain Nemo, on his death bed, reveals the secret of his background and life story. That film, despite its flaws, was hugely popular, partly due to Allan Holubar’s strong performance as Nemo, but mainly because of the groundbreaking underwater photography by brothers George and J. Ernest Williamson. (To be clear: there were a lot of Verne adaptations made, primarily in France, Germany and Italy, in the interim, but not of his sci-fi novels. Most popular was Michel Strogoff [1876], generally considered his best book, but much less known in the English-speaking world.) This film was important for the 1929 version of The Mysterious Island, as MGM decided to hire the Williamsons to shoot the underwater sequences – and even made Ernest producer.

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A demonstration of the Williamson brothers’ diving bell.

As with many of these kinds of films, the problem was whether to modernise or stay true to the book – or books. Jules Verne’s books were often interconnected. The Baltimore Gun Club, featured in From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon also showed up in The Purchase of the North Pole (1889). Verne’s second-to-last novel The Master of the World (1904) was a belated sequel to Robur the Conqueror (1886), and The Mysterious Island provided answers to questions raised in the end of both In Search of the Castaways (1868) and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And as films in those days didn’t generally end in cliffhangers, scriptwriters often had to get out the scissors and glue and borrow a bit from here and a bit from there.

In 1927 the scripting process for the film dragged and dragged, and J. Ernest 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.

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Montagu Love, Lloyd Hughes, Jacqueline Gadsden and Lionel Barrymore directed by Lucien Hubbard.

Another problem was French director Maurice Tourneur, who directed the studio-bound scenes. He also dragged his feet 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 pseudo-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 movie. But this presented further complications. The actor who had played Baron Falon was Warner Oland, a Swedish immigrant with a background on broadway. Despite his previous work in theatre, the film’s producers deemed his Swedish accent too heavy, and decided he had to be replaced. This didn’t hamper Oland’s movie career in the slightest, as he rose to fame in 1929 thanks to playing the title role in The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, and in 1931 he got cast as the legendary movie sleuth Charlie Chan, which he went on to portray in dozens of films.

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That’s when the mescaline kicked in.

But for The Mysterious Island this meant that not only the parts where Falon was talking had to be reshot, but all of the scenes including the villain 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 “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, then the film gradually becomes silent, 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.

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Jacqueline Gadsden.

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 got rid of 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.

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Lionel, Ethel and John Barrymore.

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 bar 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.

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Jacqueline Gadsden with Lon Chaney in East of Zanzibar (1928).

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 after 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). 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).

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Left: Gadsden getting suited up. Right and middle: more looks at the diving suit.

The film starts off slow with the afore-mentioned spoken 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.

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Some of the model work on display.

The 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 romanticised social commentary do keep this one afloat (pardon the pun), but just barely. Nevertheless, Mordaunt Hall at the New York Times gave the film a positive review, calling it “strikingly ingenious and effectively directed”. He also praised the underwater photography and wrote that “there’s no end to the sights in this film”, and even heaped praise on the fake “dragon of the deep”. His only criticism of The Mysterious Island was that it was “perhaps a trifle too long”.

Later reviewers have not been as kind. Richard Scheib of Moria notes that the melodrama is standard fare for the time, and that the underwater sequences don’t have the quality of the 1916 movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, ultimately calling the movie “a disappointment”. Dennis Schwarz at Ozus’ World concludes that the film “remains interesting only as a curio”. Marco at molodezhnaja notes that the film is fairly entertaining as a piece of nostalgia, but that even at the time, there had been several fantasy and science fiction films made that were infinitely better than The Mysterious Island.

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Title card.

The Mysterious Island is a curious time capsule from the time of movies in a time of transition. But the jumbled script, the odd mix of sound and silent and the at times rather shoddy effects meant that the film had no chance of covering its costs. It came at a potential turning point when both audiences and producers were interested in science fiction, the latter hoping to make sci-fi films the new moneymakers after a decade and a half of pseudo-biblical epics. Alas, like most of the other sci-fi epics made at the back end of the twenties and the early thirties, The Mysterious Island suffered from both costly production problems and distributors and audiences who didn’t quite understand what the filmmakers were getting at.

Unfortunately this film once again discouraged Hollywood from putting its money on large sci-fi productions, not counting big apes.

Janne Wass

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.

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