In my last column I listed a bunch of “must have” genre films I feel every fan should have in their film library and briefly described those of particular note. Needless to say, I left many worthy films out. I think I will go back over the same period and describe some of the more obscure films I find especially interesting for one reason or another. If you are a film aficionado you may already be familiar with all of them, but if you are much younger than I it may be they will be new to you, in which case I envy your upcoming experience of seeing them for the first time if and when you are able to track them down. Believe me, they are worth the effort.
(1916) – TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.
This is the first full length motion picture to feature underwater photography, and what photography! The Williamson brothers designed a manned camera bell suspended from a barge, the bell hovering above Bahaman reefs and white sand in sea water phenomenally clear. Many effective shots of divers trudging about the ocean floor with quite startling views of sharks emerging from distant murky water and passing overhead or even heading straight at the viewer. There’s a battle with a giant octopus featuring a diver within operating its spring-loaded arms which many critics found utterly convincing to the point of believing it was real.
The Nautilus itself is rather trim and narrow, a bit small, but reasonably convincing. The plot, having to do with Nemo’s daughter marooned on an island, not so much, but it is good enough to sit back and enjoy. One shot of this wild child dancing atop a hill surrounded by a flock of birds wheeling about her is quite stunningly beautiful. At one point in the film a yacht is blown up. They achieved this effect by blowing up a yacht. Special effects so much simpler back in the day. All you needed was dynamite. What makes it memorable is that Haddon-Smith, the Governor of the Bahamas, was coming dangerously close in his yacht to see what was going on and the filmmakers, not wanting to delay filming, blew their yacht on cue and hoped the Governor’s yacht wasn’t included in the frame. It wasn’t, but he was some annoyed at being pelted by debris. Anyway, a remarkable film for the era.
( 1917) – HIMMELSKIBET, THE SKYSHIP.
Denmark’s first science fiction film. It’s been at least ten years since I saw this, but I remember it as being quite interesting in a hippy dippy sort of way. But then, you have to remember the world was in the later stages of the hell World War One had become, and that this film offered a kind of vision of heaven as an alternative worth seeking.
A Professor Planetarios invents a spaceship and sends his son to Mars along with, if I remember correctly, some malcontents who object to the length of the trip, half a year or so. Mars turns out to be inhabited by beautiful people in beautiful white robes whose idea of a good time is to crowd together to perform the “Dance of Chastity.” They be pure folks, you betcha, though they panic when the son shoots a goose and then throws a grenade at them. Turns out the Martians used to have wars till someone pointed out people kept getting hurt so they decided to put a stop to it. This is such a novel idea that the son flies back to Earth along with the lovely daughter of the Martian ruler and the sight of her pristine purity draped in flowers puts an end to war forever. One last act of violence though. I seem to recall the leader of the evil war set gets lynched, or shot, or something, and then joy reigns supreme. Must have seemed like a darn good idea in 1917.
The spaceship is very cute, a sort of streamlined sausage with bi-plane wings on top and a propeller at the rear, and the name “Excelsior” written on the fuselage in large letters. No wonder it took them so long to fly to mars. Not really science fiction of course, so much as a pleasant fantasy (influenced by the Bohemian movement I suspect) amounting to wishful thinking during desperate times. Think Isadora Duncan dancing in a rock quarry and you’ll get the general idea of the visual impact. No doubt a refreshing change from the newsreels of the period. I found the social context fascinating.
(1924) – AELITA: THE REVOLT OF THE ROBOTS.
I really like this Soviet film. When Forrest J Ackerman (of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” fame) attended a showing years later he remarked it wasn’t anywhere near as good as his SF favourite “Metropolis.” I agree “Metropolis” is more impressive but consider “Aelita” superior in terms of outrageous energy and oddity of plot.
The “hero” is a mad scientist who murders his wife and decides to flee to Mars aboard a spaceship he invented. The real hero is the soviet ideal, a happy-go-lucky uneducated peasant by name of Batalov who is freshly arrived in Moscow after killing who knows how many anti-Bolshevik counter-revolutionaries in the countryside. A police detective hot on the trail of the inventor stows aboard. Unusual to see an agent of the Communist paradise depicted as a weaselly incompetent fool. Stalin was not fond of the film. Also unusual to see street scenes with capitalist bill boards all over the place and capitalists in top hats gathering for dinner parties. The film, based on a book by Alexei Tolstoy, was made at a time when Lenin permitted a temporary revival of capitalism in order to jumpstart the economy during the ongoing civil war. This was soon reversed, quickly dating the film and making it politically suspect. Didn’t stop it from being wildly popular on first release though.
The Martians are responsible, or rather the designers from the Kamerny Theatre company who created cubist abstract costumes and sets for the Martians like nothing ever seen on film before. I mean, heck, the characters in “Metropolis” mostly wore 1920s clothing. In Aelita everybody and everything on Mars is totally visually weird, not least the unfortunate workers who live and work underground, their heads encased in some kind of remote control helmets that render them drone-like in appearance. The Queen of Mars, Aelita, allowed to reign but not rule, is the real star of the film, a robot in her own right (I call her that because the film made a real effort to depict Martian poses and physical actions quite different from the way people normally hold themselves and move about) who comes across as exotically sexy. Lots of baby girls named Aelita born that year in the USSR, allegedly.
Batalov doesn’t hold with Tsars and considers the Martian King decidedly unSoviet. Finding out the plight of the workers pushes him over the edge of politeness and he leads a wild, crowbar swinging revolution against the Imperial Guards who are armed with light beams. He is aided by Aelita who is rather bored with her dull life on Mars and, having fallen in love with the wife-murdering scientist, wants to flee to Earth to become a progressive Soviet woman. Fortunately for all concerned the entire trip turned out to be a dream and the mad scientist joyfully reunites with his still living wife to live happily ever after in the workers paradise. If he has any brains he won’t tell her about his dream.
What I like about the film is the visual impact of the futuristic Martian civilization plus the sheer exuberance of the action. Soviet propaganda, of course, but mostly overwhelmed by imagination and originality. So, of course Stalin hated it. Despite this, those involved apparently managed successful careers in the Soviet film industry. I assume they learned to cater to his taste once he took power. Be that as it may, I like this film quite a bit. I consider it very entertaining.
(1929) – MYSTERIOUS ISLAND.
This is a splendid, disjointed and confusing film. Not surprising, since it took 4.5 years to make. The wonderful Williamson brothers having parted ways, the one brother Earnie Williamson outdid himself with excellent underwater footage again filmed in the Bahamas, in technicolour no less. The entire film was shot in technicolour. Test released in February of 1928, MGM fully expected to quickly earn back the 1.5 million dollars it cost to make, and then some. Nope. “The Jazz Singer,” the first sound film, opened at the same time. Financial disaster loomed.
Why did “Mysterious Island” take so long and cost so much? The wonderful sets and the location underwater shooting, not to mention the expense of technicolour film, was part of the reason. But the primary reason was that their Bahaman studio set-up (barges and equipment, plus film processing camp ashore) was destroyed three times by hurricanes. They had to rebuild from scratch every time.
Anyway, the “test film” version was recalled and a music score and dubbed dialogue was quickly added. Some of the dialogue was distinctly odd, in that the people speaking had their backs to the camera, but this had the advantage of being easier to dub. No need to match lip movements. But since the film was very much a silent era production with exaggerated acting to match, what dialogue does correspond to lip movement seems curiously in contrast to the emoting going on. The film flopped, which is a great pity, because the undersea sequences are extremely cool.
Lionel Barrymore is the star, playing Count Dakkar, ruler of Hetvia, who is at odds with evil Cossacks. At one point he is tortured by wooden vises crushing his legs and he screams and howls to jarring effect—almost seems to be enjoying it, actually, as if relishing the chance to really cut loose. He wasn’t known as the King of Ham for nothing. But, like Bela Lugosi, he’s always fun to watch.
The undersea sequence is what makes the film. Dakkar has two submarines, one of which is captured by an undersea civilization of little fish people, and droll little creatures they are. As we see from numerous wrecks, they are in the habit of salvaging sunken ships and finding an intact submarine with critters inside pleases them no end. They attach tow ropes and drag it like a dirigible across the ocean floor to their undersea city in order to break it apart. The second submarine arrives to rescue the crew of the first and much underwater conflict erupts, only getting worse as first an undersea dragon joins the fray and then a truly gigantic octopus. The latter is a living creature superimposed on the scene to surprisingly good effect. Forrest J Ackerman remembers being quite stunned by the scene when he first saw the film at the impressionable age of thirteen. Hence his delight decades later in featuring the film on the cover of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” issue #68 in August 1970.
I first saw the film on the Turner Movie channel. I believe it was in black and white, as I am under the impression the technicolour print has been lost. Could be my memory is faulty. I’d love to stand corrected. Or even sit corrected. Anyway, the film is loads of fun.
(1932) – THE MASK OF FU MANCHU.
This film is a real hoot to watch. Boris Karloff plays the evil Doctor with positive glee. Christopher Lee was good in his interpretation of Fu Manchu for Hammer films but doesn’t even come close to Karloff’s performance. The film is often described as “camp” before the invention of “camp” (in one scene Karloff appears to be wearing a Ming Tree on his head) but what was actually intended by the director and the actors was a kind of tongue-in-cheek homage to Freudian theory. Myrna Loy, who plays Manchu’s sexually perverse daughter, recalled in an interview that Freudian theory was freely discussed on the set. Freudian themes lend an ambience to the deliberately silly film that is probably not what Sax Rohmer, the author of the book series, originally had in mind. To put this in context, the film was made at the tail end of an era when books by and about Freudian theory were considered progressive and liberating, to the point where one of the games of one-upmanship played at “sophisticated” parties consisted of guests psycho-analyzing each other, no doubt to hilarious effect.
In short, the film is a sprightly comedy (a perverse, dark comedy) aimed at knowing contemporary audiences familiar with the pop-cult phenomena of Freudian theory. That said, as an over-the-top weird adventure quest for the Sword of Genghis Khan the film is wonderfully satisfying even if you know nothing about Freud but can appreciate subtle and not-so-subtle sexual innuendo and off-beat threats of violence. This is the best Fu Manchu film. The Hammer films were pedestrian in comparison. Previous films, featuring Warner Oland among others, I have not seen but I suspect they were routine melodramas. Karloff’s version has that “extra edge” which puts it in a class all by itself. If you only watch one Fu Manchu film, this is the one.
It is now 4:00 AM on deadline day and I need to get to bed. So I’ll end here and carry on with other lesser-known films in my next column.
Remember, time spent watching a fun film is time well wasted.