The Sunday Intertitle: A Series of Tubes

The skeletal remains of Angelo Rossitto, still sadly on display to this day.

THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND! So mysterious, nobody making it knew quite what they were doing. Jules Verne’s novel casts away its characters on an uncharted island which is inherently a bit mysterious. The island in the 1929 MGM movie is populated, and the story is told from the viewpoint of the people who live there. Who then get in a submarine and go somewhere actually mysterious, one of those undersea kingdoms you hear about.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it’s a mysterious-LOOKING island.

This silent movie was reportedly begun by Maurice Tourneur, who walked off when he saw his first production supervisor, continued by Benjamin Christensen, then turned into a part-talkie by its screenwriter, Lucien Hubbard, who ended up with sole credit. 10% talking! 0% dancing! 100% hokum! Sounds like my kind of movie.

Even with strong directorial personalities like the first two, it’s not easy to tell who did what, though the torture scenes might be more Christensen than Tourneur. The vaguely Russian look connects it to Christensen’s Lon Chaney vehicle MOCKERY, but that wasn’t a particularly personal work either.

The other thing that seems Christensenesque, and certainly has no obvious relationship to Tourneur père’s career, is underwater monster costumery as worn by little Angelo Rossitto and his diminutive cohort, connect the film to the amazing full-body make-ups of the demons in HAXAN (may I remind you that nobody seems to have any clue who was responsible for those, and if you told me Christensen personally raised and had photographed actual demons I should be compelled to believe you).

The production design (credited to Cedric Gibbons and, true, the aquatic Fortress of Solitude has a deco look) is ace: the sub controls have the pleasing chunkiness of Fritz Lang’s rocket gadgetry. Visual effects vary from beautifully unconvincing glass paintings, through tiny models, a crocodile with glued-on fins, an enlarged octopus, and an army of aquafellows, all jigging about behind a rippling “underwater” optical effect. Plus lots of interesting compositing.

The transitions from sound to silent are weird and distracting as usual. Unintentional bathos: Lionel “Always leave them asking for less” Barrymore is tortured, but it’s in the silent part of the movie, so he won’t talk. The action scenes have lots of rhubarbing dubbed over them, and slightly inadequate thumpings to simulate gunfire, explosions, pretty much everything else. But it’s an ambitious and detailed soundscape (of thumping and rhubarbing) for 1929.

I had to see this, not only because I’m a Snitz Edwards completist, but because of my too-long-neglected oath to see every film illustrated in Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of the Horror Movie, a quest entitled See Reptilicus and Die.


Starring Grigori Rasputin, Ted ‘Rip-roaring’ Riley, the Masterblaster, Lord Marshmorton, Florine Papillon and McTeague.


9 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: A Series of Tubes”

  1. Wasn’t the female supporting lead in David’s cited version above Beth Rogan the mistress of gangster British gangster Billy Hill? If so, the limited acting abilities could change David C’s sub-title to “A Series of Boobs”? Yes, I know –

  2. Randy Cook Says:

    Oh dear. Jennifer Puckle a gangster’s moll? Hadn’t heard that. I did hear that she was the model for the principal character in DARLING, however.

  3. First time I saw the little critters from “The Mysterious Island”, I guessed that they were loose inspirations for animator Sally Cruikshank’s Quasi and friends. But just now looked up one of her first films, “Fun on Mars”, and it opens with fuzzy stills of strange duck-billed costumes. Did she take some liberties with TMI stills, or is there ANOTHER lunatic scifi epic out there?

  4. Curious… it looks Mysterious Islandish, but not quite. Also kind of airbrushed, like it might have started off as MI but then been retouched?

  5. MORE Angelo Rositto? Fab! I would love to know the details of what’s behind “walked off when he saw his first production supervisor” if you have them.

  6. Matthew Clark Says:

    This is a real submarine movie where characters get in diving suits and go in and out of different submarines. Instead of everything just happening in only one submarine, like in John Ford’s Men Without Women. This film also has an exciting finale, when one of the evil divers, while confronting the little aquatic creatures, is run through by a spear. His warm blood spills out of his suit into the cold deep water and drives the little creatures mad with blood lust. And, they then start attacking all the surface dwellers wanting to drink more hot blood.
    It’s story is not from the original novel, but there may have been a pretty good film in the script to begin with? Unfortunately, it was produced right in the middle of that odd transition period between silent and sound films. It probably would have been a more conherant film if it had come a couple of years later, when sound features were more well established or even earlier as just a straight silent film? Would love to see someone like Guy Maddon do a remake. Still, we do have the work of Karel Zeman.

  7. revelator60 Says:

    James Layton and David Pierce’s book “The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915–1935” has a detailed production history of “The Mysterious Island” that might be helpful to summarize here.

    Begun in 1926, the original production was split between two units.
    John Ernest Williamson was to direct the portions with undersea photography in the Bahamas, using his “Photosphere,” a glass-fronted submersible, while Maurice Tourneur would direct the dramatic parts in the studio and in Hawaii.

    By the time the shooting script was prepared the project was already costing more money than expected. The script included a new prologue, not found in Verne, set in Russia and dealing with Nero’s [later Dakkar’s] origins.

    Williamson began shooting in the Bahamas in September 1926, but work was slowed by the complications of heat on two-color Technicolor film (negatives had to be air-mailed to Hollywood for color printing) and by a series of autumn hurricanes that damaged the sets and production camp.

    Tourneur had started studio work on the prologue in July but stormed off after a week, having disagreed with producer Hunt Stromberg about the tone of the project. His replacement, Benjamin Christensen, disagreed with Tourneur’s work and reshot the prologue, using low-key lighting and shadows to give it a more macabre, gothic look. He completed the four-reel prologue and then started work on interior shots for the island sequences, including Dakkar’s underground palace, love scenes between Sally O’Neil and Conrad Nagel, and Dakkar’s final confrontation with Falon.

    Before the crew could move to Honululu, the production was shut down. Christensen’s rewrites had led to production delays and overruns, and the script changes meant much of the underwater footage couldn’t be used. The hurricanes had caused $200,000 of damage and re-shoots would have been too costly.

    MGM tried reviving the project several times, since Irving Thalberg felt it was something “he had to get rid of for his own reputation.” He hired Lucien Hubbard, who’d rescued “Rose-Marie” (another shut-down/revived production). Hubbard had strict budget limitations and had to rework the existing footage into a new story augmented by new scenes shot entirely in MGM’s Culver City lot. Hubbard expanded the Russian prologue, threw out what little remained of Verne’s story, added more “underseas” spectacle, and devised the idea of an underseas race of aquatic beings.Hubbard cast James Murray as the new male lead, but when he failed to show up Lloyd Hughes replaced him.

    All but two shots of Williamson’s underseas footage was junked. Instead the sea floor was constructed in the studio. Hubbard rounded up dwarves and midgets from the Filipino, Hawaiian, and Polynesian communities, made special suits for them, and swung them through the air, shooting them through cheap window glass to simulate “underwater scenes.” To save money, those scenes were shot in black and white and tinted green.

    The film’s final cumulative budget was $1.13 million. Worldwide retails were an impressive $726,000 but MGM lost $878,000 and considered the film a flop.

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