It’s the Fourth Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and dedicated to the most famous dynasty of actors in the history of 20th century cinema.
So please direct your browsers to the above link and check out a wealth of posts about some well known and some more obscure movies featuring the Barrymores.
And then come back here, because we will take a look to a strange little thing called The Mysterious Island.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The Mysterious Island is a novel written by Jules Verne. It was published in 1874, and it is a sequel of sorts to 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea, seeing a return of Captain Nemo. If you are interested, you can find a free ebook version in English here thanks to Project Gutenberg.
The plot in a nutshell: during the American Civil War, five prisoners escape from a Confederate camp by stealing a hot air balloon. A storm drags them off towards the Pacific, and they find themselves somewhere off the coast of New Zealand, on a Mysterious Island. Many scientific adventures ensue, until the island is revealed to be the secret volcano base of Captain Nemo, a.k.a. Prince Dakkar. More adventures ensue.
A ripping yarn, if a bit preachy at times. The novel was filmed a number of times, and we will now take a look at the 1929 version, featuring Lionel Barrymore as Count Dakkar, and directed by Lucien Hubbard.
Because you see, this is one of those movies that really had a complicated history.
Production began in 1926. The movie was planned as a silent film directed by Maurice Tourneur and Benjamin Christensen. The production met a number of problems – from bad weather on location to the sudden “fad” of the talkies.
Filming dragged, and in the end a whole new film was shot, with Hubbard at the helm, but incorporating material previously filmed by the other directors.
The end result was a part-talkie in full technicolor – but actually the underwater footage was shot in black and white, and then tinted green with a filter.
Black and white prints were also distributed, and for a long time were thought to be the only surviving copies.
But what about the plot?
Well, first of all, check out the thumbnail plot of the novel posted above, and then forget about it.
The movie opens with a sequence showing us the revolution in the kingdom of Hetvia.
While Hetvia burns in the firs of the revolution, we move to the Mysterious Island where Count Dakkar, an illuminaterd Hetvian aristocrat, is busy building his submarine…
What the heck happened to the balloon blown by the storm, and the five castaways, and all the rest Verne wrote about?
Apparently Lucien Hubbard – that wrote the screenplay and directed the film – decided to jettison most of the plot, and he built his story on a very small portion of the original novel: the bit in which we are told how Prince Dakkar, having fought for Indian Independence during the Sepoy Mutiny, retreated to an island and built his Nautilus.
There – that was what Hubbard wanted to tell us.
The story of an Indian prince and freedom fighter that builds a submarine.
How India morphed into Hetvia (that looks distinctively Eastern-European), how Dakkar became a Count instead of a Prince, how he did not in fact fight for the freedom of his country against the British… all this is left to the reader as an exercise in speculation.
So, back to the plot.
While revolution rages in Hetvia, Dakkar (Barrymore), his daughter Sonia (Jacqueline Gadsden) and Sonia’s fiance, the engineer Nicolai (Lloyd Hughes) build a submarine. Then the dictator of Hetvia invades the island. Dakkar and Co. Escape on the Nautilus, but are followed by the evil traitorous Falon (Montague Love). The underwater chase leads them to a sunken kingdom peopled with strange creatures.
It’s a little more complicated than that, but basically a completely different story, with very little to do with Verne’s work.
Is there anything good about this 94-minutes movie?
Well, for starters, the photography is beautiful, and a good deployment of matte paintings creates some suggestive shots.
The underwater filming is impressive considering the time of the filming, and was much touted during the launch of the movie:
Actually filmed at the bottom of the ocean off the Bahamas, imperiled by hurricane and storm.
Bad weather had caused no end of problems during filming, but now was co-opted for advertising purposes.
The players are quite good: Lionel Barrymore is believable as the aristocrat/scientist, and his scenes with Montague Love are probably the best. Love, as the bad guy, mugs with dark glee through all of his scenes. Barrymore also gets a big death scene, and a good final monologue.
Jacqueline Gadsden, that also worked under the name of Jane Daly is attractive and up to the part.
The technology is also cool – and if the submarine-building scenes are probably overlong, a lot of the technology shown in the movie is at the same time fascinating, uncanny and convincing.
The “undersea people” are vaguely Lovecraftian, and the big let-down/laugh piece is the monstrous underwater dragon, a sad alligator overloaded with unlikely prosthetic improvements (and shown below in a blurry frame).
A decent black and white copy of the film can be found on YouTube, and the movie is probably worth a look if you are interested in some very early science fiction, or if you ever wondered how Captain Nemo would have handled a Bolshevik uprising.
A weird movie, and yet it’s very hard not to find it likeable.