Early Universal vol. 2

Their second dip into the archives of Universal sees Eureka hunting deep for pearls with Stuart Paton’s 1916 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, produced under the banner of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, Herbert Blaché’s 1925 Western The Calgary Stampede and William A Seiter’s 1926 comedy What Happened to Jones?

Billed as “the first submarine photoplay ever filmed based on Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” which pushes “the limit of imagination and impossibility” with special credit given to George and Ernest Williamson for their underwater photography, despite the established premise, undoubted ambition and significant cost, the budget of the time listed at half a million dollars, it is a disappointing and tedious affair.

Merging the narratives of both 1870’s Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas) and its 1875 semi-sequel L’Île mystérieuse (The Mysterious Island), the plot is hopelessly vague and difficult to follow, hoping to sell itself on the then-unseen magical realms beneath the surface which still mesmerise but do little to move the narrative forward.

Starring Dan Hanlon as Professor Aronnax, Curtis Benton as Ned Land, “prince of harpooners” and Allen Holubar as Captain Nemo, astonishingly only in his mid-twenties when the film was made and fake tanned to the point of seeming to be an Oompa Loompa dressed as Santa Claus, in keeping with Verne’s own revelations he is later confirmed to be the disenfranchised Prince Dakkar of India.

Haphazardly mixed with this is the adventure of Lieutenant Bond (Matt Moore) and his associates, adrift in a hot air balloon which lands upon an island where they find a wild “child of nature” (Jane Gail) who captures their attention but is pursued by the British military officer who caused the death of her mother and stranded her

Accompanied by an interview with Kim Newman who provides an overview of Verne’s contributions to literature and genre fiction, despite the 4K restoration the century old film cannot help but show its age, and while impressive for the time the battle scenes are static, told as much by the shocked expressions of onlookers pointing offscreen as by what is shown.

Firmly landlocked is The Calgary Stampede, a tale of love, heartbreak, revenge, betrayal, big hats and bison, starring Hoot Gibson as Dan Malloy and Virginia Browne Faire as Marie La Farge, her father shot in the back by ex-convict poacher Fred Burgess (Jim Corey) and Malloy taking the blame with the only witness Burgess’ duplicitous sweetheart, the half-breed Neenah (Ynez Seabury).

A melodrama of pride and manly men, horse-whipping and shooting, the actual stampede of the title is brief and the second half of the film takes place a year later at the Calgary Rodeo where there are yet more horses, Malloy now living under an assumed identity to avoid the attentions of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police but unable to remain apart from his love of equestrian events where he is compelled to demonstrate his skills.

The characters stereotypes who reflect the attitudes of the time, the villains sporting ostentatious moustaches and Gibson’s oversized hat almost engulfing his head, the intertitles sparse and the interactions between the principals relying on maudlin expressions between the endless footage of horses, sometimes tinted blue to convey scenes which take place at night.

Closing the package is the unpromising romantic comedy of cards, cads and cross-dressing which dares to ask the question What Happened to Jones? in reference to the handsome but unfavoured Tom Jones (Reginald Denny), suitor to Lucille Bigbee (Marian Nixon) whose parents are pushing her in the direction of the Henry Fuller (William Austin), twenty years her senior.

The desirable factors of society manners, good breeding and position the initial factors in play, the night unspools with the police arriving to break up an evening of gambling, Jones’ departure via fire escape placing him in a ladies’ spa where he is forced to escape in drag before stealing a milk wagon then presenting himself as the visiting Bishop of Ballarat.

Jones eventually charged with “gambling, assault and masquerading as a woman,” accusations for which the only defence is the extenuating circumstances of outrageous fortune, the events what happened become more lively and entertaining as they go along and were presumably deemed sufficient to finally satisfy audiences, this being the third filmed version in eleven years of George Broadhurst’s 1897 play of the same name, and so far the final.

Early Universal vol. 2 is available on Blu-ray from Eureka now



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