❉ Jon Dear examines a trio of silents ranging from science fiction and high adventure, to slapstick comedy and mistaken identity.
“Jules Verne would seem a logical choice for early cinema, high adventure and spectacle without the dystopian subtleties of someone like HG Wells. Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon… is the earliest example but Stuart Paton’s ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’, from 1916 is the first full blooded adaptation… and with it brings to the screen the enduring character of Captain Nemo.”
The second volume of Universal’s silents has less of an obvious linking theme than the first release (but I’m a film critic so that won’t stop me), here we have science fiction and high adventure, slapstick comedy and mistaken identity, all wrapped in ways of life that are not long for this world.
The double delight in watching silent cinema now is that you can still enjoy the stories at face value but also bask in a method of storytelling so utterly alien and yet, depending on the genre, surprisingly recognisable. You can witness how stories were told on film 100 years ago, what contemporary touchstones were used by film makers, and learn about early audience expectations.
Jules Verne would seem a logical choice for early cinema, high adventure and spectacle without the dystopian subtleties of someone like HG Wells. Georges Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), based very loosely on Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon is the earliest example but Stuart Paton’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, from 1916 is the first full blooded adaptation. Actually ‘adaptations’ as it combines Verne’s 1869 novel with its sequel Mysterious Island (1875), and with it brings to the screen the enduring character of Captain Nemo.
When one now thinks of characterisations of Nemo, one is usually drawn to James Mason in the Disney film of 1954 or to a lesser extent Herbert Lom in Mysterious Island (US. Cy Enfield, 1961) (and forget it, I’m not talking about The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen here or indeed, ever). Both of those portrayals are somewhat, uh, white. Paton’s film take time to establish Nemo (here played by Allen Holubar, and while the character may not be white but the actor sure as Hell is) as very much not Anglo Saxon, indeed a backstory shows him as an Indian Prince whose wife died by suicide rather than be raped by a British officer. Nemo now roams the seas, sinking anything that gets in the way of his wonder submarine, the Nautilus.
The timing isn’t a coincidence, a film that concerns a foreign power sinking US ships seen by American audiences in 1916 is going to be felt quite keenly. Woodrow Wilson may have scraped home in the Presidential election of that year on an anti-war ticket but the country was deeply divided, with German sentiment riding high since the sinking of the Lusitania the previous year. The situation would deteriorate with the destruction of the Black Tom munitions depot by German saboteurs on 30 July. Want to show the situation’s serious? Have the villain act like the Germans in endangering the lives of our American and French heroes. This makes Nemo’s decision to save the lives of Prof. Aronnax (Dan Hanlon) et al somewhat out of character and bizarre. But then it’s no more bizarre than rocking up on a, well, mysterious island and finding your long lost daughter and nemesis there too. Plot coherence is not what we’re here for.
While subsequent adaptations would make much of the Nautilus, here the focus of spectacle is almost entirely on the undersea sequences, both the faked scenes where the crew don diving equipment and explore the depths, encountering some cephalopodic colossi, and the actual underwater shooting, well sort of. From Barry Forshaw’s notes:
“Cinematographer Eugene Gaudio photographed these scenes in a capacious tank that had been built in a studio in Nassau. In order to give these underwater images a previously unseen clarity, the brothers J Ernest and George M Williamson advanced the art of cinematography by creating a special camera technique that involved a system of water-resistant tubes and mirrors that facilitated the shooting of reflected underwater images; the water was shallow and brightly lit with sunlight.”
The brothers are actually seen at the start of the film, as part of the title sequences, so you know that Universal wanted to show them off. Ultimately the film did not recoup its costs and Universal returned to more modest fayre but 20,000 Leagues is an early example of cinema’s potential for excitement and wonder.
Far from encountering breath taking new worlds, The Calgary Stampede seeks to preserve disappearing old ones. Director Herbert Blaché opens with footage of bison (I don’t care what the Americans call them, they’re bison) and intertitles telling us how the were hunted to near extinction by European settlers across North America. Our story starts on the Wainwright Natural Reservation in Canada, part of a long term effort to protect the species. The film is ostensibly a western but in tone and structure feels more like a morality play: a story of exile, disguise and redemption in three easily definable acts of approximately half and hour each.
Dan Malloy (Hoot Gibson) wants to marry Marie La Farge[i] (Virginia Browne Faire), but her father, Jean (Pierre Faunce) won’t allow it. He’s then murdered by Al Morton (Clark Comstock) and Dan is suspected, and framed by the silence Marie’s maid and Al’s lover Neenah (Ynez Seabury). Dan must flee for his life, but not before saving the Mountie chasing him from being trampled to death by stampeding BISON. The rest of the film concerns Dan’s time hiding out as a factotum on a ranch, followed by winning the decisive race at the Calgary Stampede and unmasking Al as the true villain.
There’s no real gun fights to speak of, chase sequences and stunts take their place (and check out the final stunt where Al falls to his death, no way would that be allowed now). Hard drinking is framed by its negativity and shown to be ultimately destructive, and throughout it all Gibson’s cowboy, a world away from the portrayals of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Malloy is a man who’s shown to be in touch with his feelings. Here in 1925 cowboys and the Old West are already starting to pass into legend and cliché, Gibson wants the younger viewers to have a hero they can live up to. And it isn’t just the obvious macho bravado of drinking and fighting, ranch owner Andrew Sellon (Charles Ragan) continually makes bets he can’t afford rather than be perceived weak. Against this overconfident, performative machismo, Gibson’s character shows a softer, kind, and frankly, better side. 1925 Westerns are not the obvious place to look for antidotes to toxic masculinity, but here we are.
The Calgary Stampede is a real-life event (still going to this day) and much of what we see is genuine footage, including a number of nasty crashes. Hoot Gibson (his real name’s Edmund by the way, Hoot apparently comes from owl hunting escapades of his youth, although there are a number of contrasting stories) was an actual rodeo champion and started his Hollywood career as an unofficial stuntman. In the largely action orientated plots of silent cinema he quickly graduated to leading man and by the time of The Calgary Stampede was second only to Tom Mix as the top Western box office draw. But silent films didn’t have too much longer to run, and with the talkies would come the advent of the singing cowboy and stars like Gene Autry. This change is well personified in the final moments of the film, where justice arrives via a car rather than a horse, indeed Malloy leaves the film in a car with his poor, emasculated horse tied to the back and trotting along behind.
This was director Herbert Blaché’s final film, and probably his most successful. It’s competently shot although he doesn’t make as much of the landscape as John Ford (but then who does?) and the footage of the stampede itself is of great historical interest. Blaché was married to Alice Guy, who was head of production with the French Gaumont film company. They set up in New York although later divorced. Guy was the first woman to direct a film and probably the only one for quite some time.
The commentary for The Calgary Stampede by film scholar Jason A. Ney is well worth your time, with fascinating information on Universal Picture founder Carl Laemmle, his setting up in California and his work for Jewish refugees.
The final film, What Happened to Jones? is from the team that brought you Skinner’s Dress Suit from the first volume of Early Universal (I was a fan). If that was a comedy that had much to say about the aspiring classes, things are rather more slapstick here. Director William A Seiter and star, Reginald Denny deliver relentless farce familiar in better known works like Charley’s Aunt, Planes, Trains and Automobiles or The Hangover. Once again, silent cinema shows there’s nothing new under the sun.
The night before he’s due to get married Tom Jones (Denny) becomes embroiled in illegal poker game, goes on the run from the police, hides out in a women only solarium, makes it home in drag and then has to try and pass himself off as a Bishop, only to learn he’s supposed to be officiating at his own wedding. It’s unsubtle, ridiculous and utterly hilarious. Not that the film is without subtext, Jones’ desperate dash accompanied by friend and sidekick Ebenezer Goodley[ii] (Otis Harlan) can be compared to the struggle for so many Americans to break from the Victorian values and prohibition. Jones represents a carefree, exciting future, while the older generation, personified by Jones’ future In-Laws, Mr and Mrs Bigbee (Melborne MacDowell and Francis Raymond) and Goodley’s sister (Emma Fitzroy) are stuffy, cold and suspicious. Even the love rival Henry Fuller (William Austin[iii]) is played as an upper class twist straight out of Wodehouse. The fact I’ve not mentioned the fiancée, Lucille Bigbee (Marian Nixon) should tell you all the need to know about her value to the plot.
The film started life as stage play and had been adapted for film, twice before, in 1915 and 1920. An interesting task to adapt a play – all talk and implied action – into a silent film – all action and imp-well, you get the idea.
Once again, the commentary, this time from writer David Kalat, is excellent. There’s lots of information about Reginald Denny’s incredible life, including his awful father, his time in the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, and why he isn’t better known now when compared to contemporaries like Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
Universal has chosen well with these three films, all wildly different yet all showcasing the power of cinema to innovate, entertain and record.
Brave new worlds and disappearing old ones.
[i] It’s unfortunate that today this character’s name suggests an amalgamation of Anglo-French fascism.
[ii] Surely not the inspiration for The Shamen’s hit single Ebeneezer Goode, released on 24 August 1992.
[iii] Both Austin and Deny would have notable roles in Batman films, Austin as Alfred in the original 1943 serial, Denny as Commodore Schmidlapp in the Batman: The Move (1966) with Adam West, and King Boris in two episodes of the serial version.
❉ ‘Early Universal Vol. 2’ was released on Blu-ray by Eureka Entertainment on 25 October 2021, RRP £20.99. Available to order from Eureka Store https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/early-universal-vol-2/
❉ Jon Dear is a writer and critic on TV and film. He has written for the BFI, Horrified Magazine, Curious British Television and Fortean Times. Jon is the co-host of the podcasts BERGCAST – The Nigel Kneale Podcast, and Due Signori in Giallo. Recent work includes a commentary for the long awaited Blu Ray/DVD release of Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale’s long-awaited adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Twitter: @AccordingtoJonD