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The Mysterious Island

The Mysterious Island(1929)

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Talking pictures didn't arrive overnight. Due to the varying resources of the different movie studios and varying degrees of enthusiasm for sound films, there was a period in the late 1920s when silents, talkies, and part-talkies all co-existed. Some silent films which were finished but unreleased when Warners' The Jazz Singer (1927) became a hit were quickly injected with new sound scenes, a process known as a "goat gland job" (after a popular health fad of the time - extract of goat gland). The Mysterious Island (1929) received a goat gland job, though in truth the sound revolution was only one of the problems that plagued this picture on its long road to the silver screen.

The Mysterious Island is drawn from Jules Verne's novel of the same name, but it bears only a slight resemblance to that source and actually uses elements from several Verne stories. The novel was published in 1874 as a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and it concerned Civil War soldiers who balloon to the strange island home of Captain Nemo, who has invented a submarine. The movie dispenses with any allusions to the Civil War, following Lionel Barrymore as Count Dakkar (Nemo's real name, as Verne himself established) as he builds two submarines which are able to dive to the bottom of the sea. On the ocean's floor is an underground city populated by strange creatures as well as a dragon and giant octopus.

MGM devised the movie as an effects-laden extravaganza filmed mostly in 2-strip Technicolor, a new and time-consuming process. Only the spectacular underwater sequences were shot in black-and-white. (Sadly, no color prints are known to exist.) The director was Maurice Tourneur (father of future director Jacques). Tourneur had arrived in Hollywood from France in 1914 and set up his own production company. He became one of the top filmmaking stylists of his time, though he is barely remembered today. When MGM production chief Irving Thalberg demanded that Tourneur pay heed to a producer on The Mysterious Island, the individualist director was outraged. He soon left not only the set, but he left Hollywood and returned to France. Lucien Hubbard completed the film and received sole directing credit, though Benjamin Christensen also directed some scenes.

Then came The Jazz Singer. MGM continued to treat sound simply as a fad for quite some time, but eventually new dialogue and sound effects scenes were ordered for The Mysterious Island. As Variety's review stated in its headline: "COLOR, 90%. DIALOG, 5%" The movie wound up being hugely expensive, at over $1 million. It received great notices, with The New York Times declaring it "just the sort of thing that will fill children with mingled feelings of awe and delight. A fantastic undersea melodrama." Variety praised its "wealth of special sets, costumes, mechanical devices and elaborate miniatures. Its impressiveness and unusualness are unquestioned, and therein rest its box office possibilities." The reality was quite different. The film grossed only $55,000 and proved such a financial shock to the entire industry that it effectively killed the sci-fi genre for many years.

The Mysterious Island was Lionel Barrymore's last predominantly silent film, though he does speak a little in it. Barrymore made the transition from silents rather well, as he was one Hollywood actor who had theater (i.e. dialogue) experience. Further, his voice had texture and power. Many in Hollywood were disdainful of talkies, but Barrymore had a more practical attitude. He told worried 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." Irving Thalberg liked this confidence and soon Barrymore found himself in a director's chair. He worked as a full-fledged MGM director for almost a year, directing seven films in that span.

The Mysterious Island has been popular with filmmakers over the years, with further adaptations released in 1941 (a Soviet version), 1951 (serial), 1961 (with special effects by Ray Harryhausen), 1963 (French TV movie), 1972 (French miniseries also condensed into a 1973 movie), 1975 (Australian TV animation), 1995 (Canadian TV series) and 2001 (French TV movie). It even inspired a 1972 Brady Bunch TV special.

The novel still continues to fascinate. A new American TV miniseries of The Mysterious Island, starring Patrick Stewart as Capt. Nemo, is set to air on the Hallmark Channel in July, 2005.

Producer: J. Ernest Williamson
Director: Lucien Hubbard, Benjamin Christensen (uncredited), Maurice Tourneur (uncredited)
Screenplay: Lucien Hubbard, based on the novel by Jules Verne
Cinematography: Percy Hilburn
Editing: Carl Pierson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cast: Lionel Barrymore (Count Andre Dakkar), Jacqueline Gadsden (Countess Sonia Dakkar), Lloyd Hughes (Nikolai Roget), Montagu Love (Baron Hubert Falon), Harry Gribbon (Mikhail), Gibson Gowland (Dmitry), Snitz Edwards (Anton).

by Jeremy Arnold

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