3/10
straddling eras, awkwardly
22 June 2010
Mysterious island? Well, yes, kind of. There is an island, but it's off the coast of "Hetvia," the kind of make-believe kingdom in which quaint old operettas take place, plus elements of Czarist Russia but with the look of Southern California. A title card informs us that the people are "oppressed"; we then learn that a sort of palace revolution is being prepared by the wicked Baron Falon (Montagu Love), who includes in his power strategy a scheme to seize the island from its resident Count (Lionel Barrymore), an eccentric scientist who has developed a ship that can sail underwater (these were the days when the word "submarine" had yet to become common) to explore the depths of the sea where he believes there is a race of human-like creatures that have evolved parallel to terrestrial homo sapiens; in fact, he has been collecting and assembling their bleached bones for years as they wash up onto the shore.

The Baron finds all of this amusing enough but is most intrigued by the vessel's war-making potential, a usage which the peace-loving Count opposes. Thrown into the mix is the Count's beautiful sister (Jane Daly, who resembles the later and much better known Merle Oberon), dressed and coiffed like a 19th century lady of the manor but perfectly at home in her brother's milieu of hardware and gadgets, and well versed in the nuts and bolts of his scientific enterprises. She is in love with Nikolai (Lloyd Hughes), one of the Count's assistants, much to the displeasure of the Baron who covets her for himself.

While Nikolai is out to sea in a test run of the submarine, the Baron's forces occupy the island and try to torture the Count and his sister into revealing their scientific secrets. They heroically resist. When the submarine resurfaces and encounters gunfire, the crew realizes what's going on and re-submerges so that a small party in underwater suits can sneak into the castle via underground passageways that link to the ocean and rescue the prisoners. They do so, but are pursued underwater by a second, identical submarine that has been commandeered by the wicked Baron.

At the bottom of the sea the adversaries encounter the race of semi-humans who look like black-and-white versions of the proverbial little green men of science fiction. They are photographed through a wavy distorting lens that gives the impression of underwater movement as they hop around the sea floor making swimming motions with their finned arms and swarm around the ships in the manner of the Lilliputians of "Gulliver's Travels." The ships themselves look like bathtub replicas of tuna fish with little propellers on one end. Crawling around on the sea floor is a large reptile that looks like a cross between a beetle and a stegosaurus. And later we are introduced to an octopus that is laboriously combined with shots of the humanoids either fleeing or pursuing it. At one point the tentacles of the octopus reach into one of the submarines and wrap around Lionel Barrymore in a scene so poorly staged that it could well have come from Ed Wood's "Bride of the Monster" with Bela Lugosi.

The décor features the kind of radio era mechanical devices one might find in Universal's "Frankenstein" lab or the factory in "Metropolis" next to clocks with Roman numerals, next to electric lights flashing on control panels; also toy miniatures of boats in a water tank that look exactly like toys in a water tank, and unconvincing painted backdrops standing in for actual mountains and cities.

Nothing of the above is very interesting in itself. But the juxtaposition of elements of the 19th and 20th centuries gives this film a meta-content that it never had in its own time and never knew it could have. We are looking at the baby steps of what would become a full-blown motion picture genre--the science fiction epic adventure with social commentary thrown in, but in this case adding nothing but more footage to increase the running time. We are also straddling two cinematic eras: silent and talkie. So at certain moments dialogue suddenly becomes audible. In the longest talking scene Barrymore gets very hammy, even for him, constantly running his hands through his hair and over his face as he speaks.
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