The Mysterious Island (1929)
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This could easily have been a disaster for MGM. In their first two years the production costs of Ben-Hur and The Big Parade had the top brass worried. Fortunately both proved to be box office smashes and insured the survival of the studio. The Mysterious Island had that kind of ambition behind it and didn't do as well as those two classics, but by that time MGM's survival was guaranteed.
Apparently just as they were about to release it, sound was gaining more popularity and it was decided to add some dialog and sound effects. In a book about the Barrymore family Louis B. Mayer thanked whatever Gods he worshiped that the hero and villain of his film, Lionel Barrymore and Montagu Love were both theatrically trained players with marvelous speaking voices.
In fact one of the great things about the film is that the longest sequence with dialog is right at the beginning and it's between Barrymore and Love and it sets the stage for the whole film. In 1929 just about every film had overacting in it as players were getting used to sound. But there's not a trace of it in this sequence as both of these veterans by instinct knew how to handle the microphone.
MGM had a lot of shooting problems getting the special effects right, but for their time what came out was pretty darn good.
What they didn't do is use any part of Jules Verne's book other than the title. Barrymore is both a member of the nobility and a scientist who lives and works on his own island off the coast of some Balkan country. His island is a dead volcano the peasants all work for Barrymore in his experiments, but hardly in the same way they did for Dracula or Frankenstein. Montagu Love is another noble who has ambitions to take over the kingdom and would love to get his hands on the prototype deep sea submarine that Barrymore is constructing. He does of course and Barrymore gives chase down to the depths where they encounter a host of underwater marvels including giant sea creatures and a race of men who've developed just as man has in the deep ocean.
This early attempt at science fiction is a landmark film and deserves to be recognized as such. Though Jules Verne wouldn't have recognized his story, the film is still a good one and even the obvious grafting of sound and dialog on the film doesn't hamper it's entertainment value in the least.
SLIGHT SPOILERS COMING. Supposedly this 'Mysterious Island' is a film version of Jules Verne's novel, but the only story elements surviving the transition are an island, a submarine, and an embittered patrician who's also a scientific genius. Count Dakkar (Lionel Barrymore, more restrained than usual) is building his super-secret subs on an island off the coast of some Graustarkian nation. Meanwhile, he knows there's a race of weird aquatic creatures living on the ocean floor nearby. He knows this because at regular intervals another bone washes up on his island ... and Barrymore is putting these bones together, one at a time, to form a skeleton. I found this extremely contrived: how convenient that all the bones are in proportion (rather than some being adult specimens and others from children) and none of them are redundant (he doesn't find two right femurs, for instance). Each new piece of jetsam conveniently and neatly fits the specimen-in-progress. Still, it's eerie to see a weird inhuman anatomy slowly taking shape as Barrymore adds one more bone to the jigsaw skeleton.
Count Dakkar's rival is Baron Falon, who is probably annoyed at Dakkar because counts outrank barons. The pair of them (plus the romantic leads and some miscellaneous henchlings) end up in two super-subs on the ocean floor, which is inhabited by these weird little duckbilled aqua-men who look like upright platypuses. There's some splendid photography by Percy Hilburn, simulating the ocean floor. Far away, we see one tiny creature walking towards the camera. When he gets closer, he looks like dwarf actor Angelo Rossitto in a Donald Duck costume ... but the image on screen is still oddly compelling. Later, the aqua-men turn up in droves: some walking, others swimming. It turns out they like to drink human blood ... but how often do they get any? When Baron Falon's diving-helmet shatters, all the little platypuses start licking his blood. An astonishing scene.
There's some rather bad scene continuity. Jacqueline Gadsden (very pretty, but no actress) spends all her early scenes wearing an elaborate crinoline hoop-skirt. She even wears this thing when she gets aboard Barrymore's submarine. (How did she get it through the hatch?) Then, all at once, she's inside a deep-sea diving-suit. Did she cram the entire hoop-skirt and all those petticoats into the diving rig? We find out later that she'd changed into a boiler suit, which she's wearing inside the diving outfit ... but this should have been established in a transition shot.
The directors of part-talkies were usually careful to select WHICH scenes would use recorded dialogue. In 'Mysterious Island', the talkie sequences are quite arbitrary. Gadsden, as Countess Sonia, speaks all her dialogue in the form of silent-film intertitles. Late in the film, she's captured by Baron Falon, who conspires to mislead handsome idiot Nikolai (Lloyd Hughes) by enlisting a henchwoman to imitate Sonia's voice over a crude audio system. The camera shows Hughes reacting while a woman's voice (supposedly Countess Sonia's) emerges from a nearby loudspeaker. As we've never actually heard the real Sonia's voice in any previous scenes, we've no way of judging if the henchwoman's vocal impersonation is accurate.
In spite of its many faults (including a patchwork script), this movie is extremely enjoyable. I'll rate 'Mysterious Island' 7 out of 10. Those duck-men are amazing!
That is the main issue the movie struggles with, it barely resembles the original story at all and is instead a tale that takes pieces from it, it's predecessor and other random concepts pulled out of thin air.
Both a silent film with placards and a talkie, it's a very odd little film. One moment it's the oddly sped up over the top film you'd expect from the 20's and the next it looks ahead of it's time with the cast vocalizing their script.
If you can get past that muddle and the awful super loose adaptation you'll find there really isn't much else on display. It looks the part for a movie made in 1929 and when we have vocalized dialogue it sounds great, but the actual content itself is really quite bad.
The plot is confusing and very poorly paced, I went in assuming it would at least be better than the 1961 version but alas I was mistaken.
Simply not the Jules Verne tale in any shape or form.
Visual and audio is great for its time
Far too loose of an adaptation
Story is just a mess
Silent vs audio incorporation just doesn't work
Still, now that I've caught up with the film, I have to say that it didn't live up to my expectations: the biggest problem is that, for an adventure epic, it's rather dull perhaps the behind-the-scenes turmoil which saw the production go through three directors, as well as the addition of clumsily-integrated Sound sequences (not bad in themselves, particularly a lengthy conversation near the beginning between Lionel Barrymore and Montagu Love), diffused any momentum the picture might have had! Then again, the plot itself (which probably has little to do with Jules Verne's original) isn't exactly inspired: the Russian-style setting is a mistake and the love triangle/class struggle element really bogs down the proceedings.
What makes the film, therefore, are the submarine/underwater sequences even if the monster attacks themselves are somewhat lame (featuring nothing more imaginative than an alligator made-up to look like a dinosaur[!] and a rather small octopus). Leading lady Jane Daly whose last film this was is lovely but her role has no depth (besides, her ostensible propensity with the sub's gadgetry is hard to take); lamentable but, thankfully, brief injections of comedy are provided by the ubiquitous "Snitz" Edwards and a thinned-down Gibson Gowland (the imposing star of Erich von Stroheim's GREED ) appears as one of the sub's crew.
There may even be a plot lurking somewhere beneath all the pointless action and quirky sets. Something about an evil nobleman (Montague Love) using his cossacks to overthrow Dakkar's (Barrymore) peaceable kingdom where everybody is "equal". But he hasn't figured on guys in clunky diving suits who rescue an air compressor along with the girl. The end looks like an attempt to blow-up industrial society so everyone in the last scene can spend the day on Malibu beach, while the last nobleman goes to join the fishes. Looks like a good communist society to me.
What's really memorable are those fish-men. There are hordes of them crawling soundlessly across a bottom in some twilight world. Their dark undulating mass is far creepier than the phony monsters. I don't know how Hollywood did it, but I've seen nothing like it before or since. In my book, it's the stuff of bad dreams and worth the whole crazy 90 minutes. Now, I know special effects make this antique look like the stone age. But I'll bet once you've seen this campy version, it's the one you'll most remember.
If you want to know more about early talkies, check out this link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sound_film
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.
The Jazz Singer was released two years earlier. This is still mostly silent with a few scenes with sound. It's also an early colored film but I didn't see that print. The TCM showing looks black and white. It is loosely adapted from Jules Verne. It faced a long production as film technology started to change. The story is high adventure. There are miniatures, creatures, and midget sea people. It is the fun of simple thrills.
*** (out of 4)
I seemed to enjoy this one a tad bit more than Mario. The film tells the simple story of a scientist (Lionel Barrymore) who creates a submarine so that he can go to the bottom of the ocean to look for life. My main problem with the film is probably its historic nature in the fact that it was started as a silent film but production got pushed back so much that MGM decided to shoot some sound scenes and include them. The start of the film is sound and none of it worked for me. Like most early sound films, the dialogue was badly recorded and it really was boring and make me want to doze off. When the silent section, pretty much the rest of the film, started, I thought the film took off like a rocket. There was plenty of action from start to finish and I also enjoyed the underwater scenes. Hundreds of midgets were hired to play the sea creatures and I thought they looked pretty good. The alligator turned dinosaur was silly but the huge squid was nice. Barrymore, in the sound portion of the film, is all over the place but I thought his silent scenes were a lot better. I've always felt he was better in silents and to see him act here silent and sound was interesting to say the least.
Made on the cusp between silent and sound films, The Mysterious Island is caught somewhere in between; it is part talkie and part silent. Oddly there doesn't seem to be a dramatic or thematic rationale for deciding which scenes have sound and which don't. And why didn't the producers choose one format over the other for the entire movie? But they didn't, and this alone makes the film a novelty. Another reason to watch The Mysterious Island is the 1929-era special effects. They're a hoot. But even when these factors are taken in to account there is not much reason to invest the time in this movie.
Lionel Barrymore is Count Dakkar who lives on the Baltic Island of Hetia with his daughter Jacqueline Gadsden. He and his workmen are building two submarines with which he will explore the ocean depths for scientific reasons.
He is betrayed by his ambitious and treacherous friend, Montagu Love as Baron Falon or Felon or something. (Who carries the juice, a Count or a Baron?) He wants to use the submersibles as weapons of war with which to conquer the world. Love takes over one of the submarines, holding Gadsden as hostage, while Barrymore and a few of his subordinates dive in the other.
The two wind up at the bottom of the ocean where they encounter strange creatures such as a horde of hostile humanoids living in cities and a couple of baby alligators with fins glued to their backs. They barely escape with their lives.
Up to the surface again, where Love and his myrmidons are defeated by Barrymore and his workmen. Barrymore is dying. Before he does, he destroys the factory that built the devilish machines so that no one will be tempted to use them as weapons of war again. The audience is permitted a slight chuckle here.
It has a few tense moments. Barrymore and his daughter are both tortured by Love's hussars and they both project intolerable pain reasonably well.
I mentioned that the special effects are primitive by today's standards. I don't mean that I kwell at the sight of CGIs parading across the screen and munching on people. It's just that these effects, as modern as they once might have been, are so crude as to be distracting. It's hard to get into an action scene when you're reminded, every second, that you're looking at miniatures.
It carries a relevant anti-war message, which I thought was fine but which some viewers might find noisome. At any rate some might find it more entertaining than I did.
It's a hybrid, between a few poorly performed "talkie" sequences and sound grafted to a basically "silent" film, just when the transition to sound was making it necessary to doctor many a release and give it some talking scenes.
Ironically, the weakest, or worst part of the whole film comes during the first fifteen minutes of expository dialog between two distinguished actors--LIONEL BARRYMORE and MONTAGU LOVE.
Barrymore is the complete ham actor, mopping his brow and running his hand through his hair and avoiding eye contract with Montagu Love, presumably so that he can view the cue cards for all of his dialog. Love at least appears to be paying attention to Barrymore, but you have to wonder what he was thinking. Probably: "Boy, is he overacting all over the place!!" Things don't get much better when the plot about fish people beneath the sea and submarines devised to go below surface--this is Jules Verne remember--well, you have it. It's all comic book stuff ruined by the use of fake miniatures and primitive B&W photography. The only performer who seems to be playing his role with any sense of normalcy is LLOYD HUGHES as the romantic lead.
Summing up: A poor attempt to give this Jules Verne tale a proper transition to the screen--but unable to do so with a crazy blend of "silent" and "talkie" techniques that serve only to destroy all the possibilities of entertainment value. Definitely not a suitable project for anyone to undertake in 1929.