The Mysterious Island (1929)

Mysterious_Island_(1929)‘We may even reopen the lower depths and see the people of the abyss…’

Scientist and inventor Count Dahkar works at his island fortress on a new deep sea submarine. Unfortunately, one of his friends is a ruthless politician who sees the invention as the perfect means to take control of the government.

Filming on this high profile, big budget production from MGM began in 1926. It had precious little to do with Jules Verne, with the only similarities to his novel being the presence of a sophisticated submarine and the title. Lionel Barrymore, one of the biggest stars of the era, top lined as the heroic Count and the film was shot in colour, a rare and expensive process at the time. In all aspects, the considerable financial weight of the studio was behind it.

Unfortunately, things went badly wrong toward the end of filming. The blame didn’t rest on original director Lucien Hubbard, or his technical crew. It was outside their control completely. Sound had arrived. Audiences were queueing around the world to see Al Jolson speak in ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927), and MGM blinked first. Unhappy with the prospects of losing their shirts on a silent picture, they ordered reshoots with sound. The technology was brand new, and there were inevitable delays as the filmmakers struggled to get to grips with it. Then the studio decided that they weren’t happy with the underwater model work and SFX, so they ordered everything redone. The shoot dragged on…and on. Costs spiralled out of control.

Eventually, the film crawled out onto screens more than 3 years after filming had begun, an unprecedented length of time for the era when it was made. Studio executives held their breath. And it flopped. Massively. So great was the financial disaster that the major studios stayed away from Science Fiction for years afterwards, believing it to be box office poison.

So exactly how bad is it? Well, not that bad at all, really. Sure, it’s no classic, but, as early Science Fiction goes it’s fairly decent, and the studio’s decision to retool the SFX was perhaps justifiable, given the more than acceptable results. These include a visit to the ‘depths of the abyss’ where our heroes tangle with an underwater dragon and a strange race of small humanoids. These sequences are the best in the film, and provide a good level of action and entertainment. Back on land, however, things are a little soggier with character interactions completely predictable and the inevitable half-baked romance between the Count’s daughter and the brave, but low born, chief engineer. The villain has designs on her as well, of course.

The Mysterious Island (1929)

‘It’s a sign!’

The addition of the dialogue sequences into the picture is a little clumsy and it does make for a strange viewing experience today. It would undoubtedly have been better to leave the film completely silent or reshoot it all with sound. But, to be fair to the studio, this piecemeal approach hadn’t harmed the box office of Jolson’s triumph and, with sound pictures still a somewhat unknown quantity, it’s an understandable decision.

For many years it was thought that only slightly incomplete black and white prints of the film had survived, and indeed that was the version that I saw. However, a colour print surfaced recently in Eastern Europe and it can be hoped that this more accurate vision of the filmmaker’s intentions will be made available for general viewing in the future.

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