EARLY UNIVERSAL VOL. 2 (1916-1926)
Eureka re-issues three Universal Pictures features from 1916 to 1926: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Calgary Stampede, and What Happened to Jones.
Reaching back a decade earlier than Eureka’s first Early Universal Blu-ray collection, this Vol.2 set again highlights the sophistication of the movies being made in Hollywood in the 10 years or so before sound arrived. The earliest of them (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) is the most ambitious and still the most effective, even if it does betray its age with the histrionic acting style imported from the stage. But the film’s best moments of underwater photography and atmosphere are grabbing.
The other two movies in the set could hardly be more different. The Calgary Stampede is a fairly routine western, but interesting for its wilderness footage, its presentation of what would become persistent Canadian tropes in Hollywood, and the presence of Hoot Gibson, now barely remembered except among silent-movie aficionados but a big name in his day. What Happened to Jones, meanwhile, is a bit of fluffy nonsense but an undeniably fun one.
All three films demonstrate the increasing sophistication of the cinema between the mid-1910s and mid-1920s, particularly in the handling of narrative through editing; ties to the traditions of the proscenium arch were becoming weaker and weaker. The 4K and 2K restorations serve them well, as do the newly commissioned original scores, and if anything the set as a whole outdoes the first Early Universal volume.
A “sea monster” threatening shipping around the world turns out to be the Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s personal submarine; meanwhile, events on Mysterious Island will bring both enemies and loved ones from Nemo’s past back into his life.
Extending to modern feature-length (105 minutes) in one released cut, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was the smash hit of the US box office in 1916, and no surprise—it was the equivalent of a Steven Spielberg or James Cameron VFX extravaganza today, based on a popular novel that hadn’t been adapted before. (The 1907 short Under the Seas echoed the Jules Verne title, but that humorous film by Georges Méliès had little to do with his novel.)
Audiences might have been a little taken aback to find how far it departs from the Verne, and indeed the plot owes more to its other source—the same novelist’s Mysterious Island. But the key elements of Captain Nemo, his submarine the Nautilus, and the wonders of the undersea world are all there, even if they’re shoehorned into a complicated and often baffling plot involving a lot of business on Mysterious Island, a savage girl, a group of ballooning soldiers, further scenes set in “a distant land, sometime before the preceding events”, and so forth.
As a result of this attempt to blend the plots of the two books, Nemo himself (Allen Holubar) has been reinvented as an extraordinary brown-faced, white-eyed figure with a gravity-defying moustache, a bandanna eventually replaced by a turban, and a trimmed jacket that gives him the air of a dissolute Oriental Father Christmas.
All the film’s slightly ludicrous aspects fade away, though, besides the power of the many ocean sequences, both above and below the waves. “The first submarine photoplay ever filmed”, 20,000 Leagues benefited from the clear seas around the Bahamas where sunlight could penetrate the deep; the Williamson Submarine Tube and Photosphere, invented by brothers Ernest and George Williamson, was an ingenious contraption allowing scenes to be shot below the surface without having to immerse cameras in the water. (Indeed, 20,000 Leagues opens with a brief clip of the brothers as well as a still of Verne.)
The submarine exterior is convincing and must have seemed remarkably modern and high-tech to 1916 audiences, even if its interior is rather more drawing-room than utilitarian vessel. Most striking, though, are the beautiful extended shots of sea life (especially fish surrounding the timber carcass of a boat on the ocean floor). Nemo’s sea bed funeral is haunting and almost moving (despite some of the period diving suits giving their wearers the appearance of Despicable Me’s Minions), as is the sinking of the abandoned Nautilus at the end.
More conventional filmic techniques are not ignored either. Clever editing allows quite sophisticated storytelling for long passages without intertitles—we really don’t miss dialogue in these—and there are a couple of great, energy-filled overhead shots of the wild island girl surrounded by drummers. Repeated iris effects may be intended to suggest telescopes, appropriately nautical.
20,000 Leagues really doesn’t need the Mysterious Island digressions, and as a result, it can feel a little over-extended, but the best of the sections at sea—and particularly under the sea—are so compelling and magical it remains a terrific movie more than a hundred years later. For this reissue, Orlando Perez Rosso contributes a perfectly matched score, romantic with slightly minimalist touches and some especially nice fish music.
The quality of the restoration is mixed; where it’s good it’s very good, but some submarine interiors are much scratchier than the crisp, strongly contrasted exteriors.
USA | 1916 | 86 MINUTES | 1.33:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH (SILENT)
An American cowboy in Canada is unjustly accused of shooting his fiancée’s father and must flee the Mounties.
Rodeo champion Hoot Gibson (also featured recently in Eureka’s reissue of the early John Ford Straight Shooting) was a significant cowboy-movie star by the time of The Calgary Stampede in 1925, and big enough to get his name above the title. So attempts to build him up beyond that probably account for the time spent here on rather tedious subplots, romantic and otherwise.
As it is, though, he’s too nice and too one-note to be interesting; far more watchable are Pierre Faunce as Jean La Farge, the cartoonish French Canadian who Gibson’s Dan Malloy is wrongly accused of shooting, and Ynez Seabury as Nennah, the Native Canadian girlfriend of the dastardly perpetrator.
Faunce never appeared in anything else, and it’s tempting to wonder whether he was a real-life Canadian backwoodsman. The Calgary Stampede was made on location in Alberta, and indeed it’s the setting rather than the story that provides the most effective sections—extensive footage of buffalo and elk in what seems to be Buffalo National Park (misnamed “Wainright Park” by an intertitle) at the beginning, and then the famous Calgary rodeo itself, “last stand of the old, reckless west”, shown fairly briefly at the end.
Equally striking, from a historical point of view, is the way that the conception of Canada which Hollywood would purvey over the coming decades is already so well-established. Gibson’s Malloy is an American who goes north for adventure (perhaps in the expectation that US audiences wouldn’t identify with a Canadian protagonist); the country is characterised by wilderness, exotically rough-hewn characters (La Farge’s intertitled French accent is all over the place but his foreignness is clearly being emphasised) and, of course, the upstanding Mountie Harkness (W.T McCulley), whose pursuit of Malloy ties the film together.
Narratively, it doesn’t quite work, in part because of Gibson and in part because of a large and unnecessarily complicated cast introduced at the Bar O ranch where Malloy—on the run—seeks employment. The film can drag. But it has its moments, most impactful among them a scene which cross-cuts from an approaching buffalo stampede to Malloy and an injured Harkness, time running out as the beasts thunder toward them. There is real tension too in a quieter scene where Malloy is almost recognised at the Bar O, heightened by deft editing and misdirection, and as you’d expect from a Gibson movie there’s much exciting and well-photographed horse riding.
Chris Tin contributes an excellent, often melodic score (best in the Stampede section) with touches of Copland and Hollywood western convention, as well as occasional hints of John Williams—one of the composer’s earliest jobs was transcribing Williams film music. Image quality is patchier than that of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and unlike that film, The Calgary Stampede alternates between blue and sepia tones. However, at least some of the quality issues must be down to the extensive use of exterior long shots on locations where lighting could not be controlled. The restoration here is 2K, as well, while the other films in this set are 4K.
USA | 1925 | 91 MINUTES | 1.33:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH (SILENT)
Trying to escape the police after his poker game is raided on the eve of his wedding night, a young man resorts to disguise and subterfuge.
George Broadhurst’s successful stage farce What Happened to Jones was already nearly 30 years old and had been filmed twice before director William A. Seiter’s version, starring his frequent collaborator Reginald Denny. But despite drawing most of its laughs from standard comedic situations of social embarrassment (and from men dressed in women’s clothes), What Happened to Jones is done with such good humour and pace that the creaky plot machinations pass by unnoticed, once it’s picked up after a slow start.
The comedy isn’t quite slapstick, but it’s often physical, and Seiter’s skill behind the camera is such that it never feels statically stagey; one chase sequence is brought to life with the creative use of fire escapes and ladders, for example.
All the usual escapades are there—an awkward situation hiding in a ladies’ steam bath, an escape in a horse-drawn milk van, Keystone Cops-like pursuits (Seiter had started out at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios), polite ladies entertaining the bishop when things go terribly wrong, and a smile-raising twist. Many of the performers exaggerate their characters to droll effect; ZaSu Pitts, who starred in Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), appears in a small part.
It’s a slight film, certainly without the ambition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the visual scale of The Calgary Stampede, but a delightful one. Anthony Willis’s score is appropriately genteel, with imaginative use of the organ for scenes involving the clergy and the climactic wedding. The restoration, toned in yellowish sepia, blue and grey, is high-quality.
USA | 1926 | 70 MINUTES | 1.33:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH (SILENT)
directors: Stuart Paton (Leagues) • Herbert Blaché (Calgary) • William A. Seiter (Jones)
writers: Stuart Paton, based on the novel by Jules Verne (Leagues) • Richard Schayer & Donald W. Lee (Calgary) • Melville W. Brown, based on the play by George Broadhurst (Jones)
starring: Allen Holubar, Dan Hanlon & Edna Pendleton (Leagues) • Hoot Gibson, Virginia Brown Faire & Pierre Faunce (Calgary) • Reginald Denny, Marian Nixon & Melbourne MacDowell (Jones)