Eureka are wasting little time in following up September’s Early Universal Vol. 1 Blu-ray set, with Volume 2 hitting shelves a little over a month later. Having very much enjoyed the first set, I jumped at the chance of watching another collection of forgotten crowdpleasers from the silent era.
Volume 2 contains the films 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Calgary Stampede and What Happened to Jones? My brief thoughts on the individual titles follow, as well as notes on the package itself.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Director: Stuart Paton
Screenplay by: Stuart Paton (uncredited)
Based on Novels by: Jules Verne
Starring: Allen Holubar, Dan Hanlon, Edna Pendleton, Curtis Benton, Matt Moore, Jane Gail, Howard Crampton, William Welsh
Running Time: 86 min
In 1916, Universal Film Manufacturing Company (before they became Universal Pictures) put a large amount of money into making the first feature-length film adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It was probably too expensive for its own good, failing to recoup its costs on release. However, the film was quite groundbreaking, not only in putting Verne’s vision on screen, but in its wonderful underwater photography, which I’ll get to later.
The screenplay actually combines elements of 20,000 Leagues with those of Verne’s The Mysterious Island. It begins very much like the former, with a US Naval mission sent out to stop what they believe is a sea monster that has been causing havoc in the oceans. Professor Pierre Aronnax (Dan Hanlon) and his daughter (Edna Pendleton) join the expedition but their ship is soon destroyed by the ‘monster’, which is in fact a submarine helmed by Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar, unfortunately playing in ‘blackface’ to display the character’s Indian background).
Nemo takes Aronnax, his daughter and two other survivors captive. He says they will be his prisoners indefinitely, but at least lets them treat his craft as their home after a short while. Nemo shows them the vast wonders that can be found under the ocean but, whilst his ‘guests’ grow more comfortable in their surroundings, they still want to get back home.
Meanwhile, a group of soldiers riding on a balloon become marooned on a nearby island. They’re sent a handy chest of provisions and tools by Nemo (unbeknownst to them) and come across a seemingly ‘native’ woman (Jane Gail, also made up to look Indian) who falls for one of the soldiers and vice versa.
Also running concurrently to all of this, we meet Charles Denver (William Welsh), a former British colonial officer working in India. He is haunted by memories of when he assaulted the wife of a local princess, resulting in her death. He had also taken the princess’ daughter away and left her on a desert island so she couldn’t reveal his secret. His recent pangs of guilt cause him to head back to the island though and, you guessed it, we discover the daughter was in fact the island’s ‘native girl’ we’ve met already.
All three strands eventually combine and we discover some more secrets from the past whilst facing off against some new villains.
On release, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’s biggest selling point was its underwater photography. Interestingly, it used an ingenious reverse periscope and mirror system rather than underwater housing for the camera. The results are spectacular for the time. Granted, a lot is lost when shooting colourful coral reefs in black and white, but audiences must have been blown away back in 1916.
The undersea sequences don’t just show fish and such either, you’ve got actors down there in elaborate diving gear acting out scenes, which must have been quite a feat. Attractive locations are used for the beach scenes too and real-life submarines some of the exteriors of the Nautilus.
Knowing these watery scenes would pack in the crowds, the film spends a fair amount of time on them, slowing down the pace when they arrive, but it’s hard to argue when they really are quite special to see.
Also affecting the pace a touch for me was the storytelling. With the separate narrative strands not truly intertwining until quite late on, the intercutting between them seems quite disparate and episodic for a while. So, although a lot is going on, things feel like they’re moving slowly overall as you’re jumping back and forth between stories without letting them flow more naturally.
When the various pennies finally drop in the final act though, the film comes alive and there’s some very effective intercutting between the dramatic action on screen. There are some thrilling scenes on the island and at sea before a lavish, extended flashback brings the film to a close.
So, though a little disjointed and crowded, as it stuffs a few stories together into one, Stuart Paton’s adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea remains a solid piece of entertainment from the era. The undersea sequences and location footage must have been very exotic back then and the genuine way they’re acquired helps make the film seem timeless (away from the offensive black-face aspects, of course).
The Calgary Stampede
Director: Herbert Blaché
Story and Screenplay by: Richard Schayer, Donald W. Lee
Starring: Hoot Gibson, Virginia Brown Faire, Pierre Faunce, Clark Comstock, Ynez Seabury, Jim Corey, Philo McCullough, W.T. McCulley
Running Time: 92 min
Hoot Gibson was a real-life rodeo rider, a big name on the circuit, before he moved into acting. He started as a stuntman in Hollywood but soon scored leading roles and eventually became a big star. During the silent era, he was one of the biggest names in the western genre in fact, just behind Tom Mix (another name largely lost to time). The Calgary Stampede is a fine example of Gibson’s work back then.
The film sees the actor play Dan Malloy, a champion ‘Roman’ horse racer who’s moved to Canada to seek adventure. Instead, he finds love in the shape of Marie LaFarge (Virginia Brown Faire). Unfortunately, Marie’s father Jean (Pierre Faunce) isn’t too keen on the pairing, likely due to Malloy’s Irish heritage, and forbids them from seeing each other.
When Jean is killed by Fred Burgess (Jim Corey), a vengeful convict who was put away due to a charge made by Jean, all fingers instead point to Malloy, who was arguing with his sweetheart’s father at the time of his murder. Unable to clear his name, particularly after Burgess’ girlfriend Nennah (Ynez Seabury) claims she saw Malloy do it, the rider is forced to run away and take on an assumed identity.
Moving forward a couple of years, Malloy is working as a farmhand, posing as a dimwit with no experience with horses. A travelling mountie (Philo McCullough) arrives one day though and is suspicious of Malloy, causing him trouble. His cover is further put under strain when he watches on whilst his new employer Andrew Regan (Charles Sellon) bets everything on a Roman race with an inexperienced rider. Malloy is desperate to ride for Regan but is worried about being discovered.
I’m a big western fan, so I’ll always be an easy sell on a title like The Calgary Stampede, but I enjoyed it a lot. It’s a straightforward tale that has been told in similar forms many times before, but it’s expertly put together so works a treat.
The balance of drama, romance and excitement is particularly well handled, with a film that holds your interest from start to finish, despite its age. A strong cast helps sell it too, with Gibson proving a charismatic lead and some minor players adding colour elsewhere. The romantic driving force of the film is effectively portrayed too. There’s a particularly powerful scene when Marie is asked to identify Malloy to a mountie that relies purely on emotionally charged glances between the central pair.
There isn’t much gun-toting or horse-riding action, particularly in the mid-section, but the story and characters are enough to keep you hooked and when Gibson does jump on his horse, we’re treated to some impressive riding with the camera doing a fantastic job of tracking the horses as they rocket along at quite a pace. The Roman racing is particularly thrilling as it sees riders mount two horses at once, one for each foot, as they stand atop them both and ride at terrific speeds.
Overall then, it’s an engrossing classic oater with enough thrills, drama and romance to remain a thoroughly enjoyable watch after close to 100 years.
What Happened to Jones?
Director: William A. Seiter
Screenplay: Melville W. Brown
Based on a Play by: George Broadhurst
Starring: Reginald Denny, Otis Harlan, Marian Nixon, Melbourne MacDowell, Frances Raymond, Emily Fitzroy, Margaret Quimby, Ben Hendricks Jr, William Austin, Zasu Pitts
Running Time: 71 min
Much like Hoot Gibson, Reginald Denny was a huge star back in the silent era but is largely forgotten now. Denny’s 1926 film What Happened to Jones? was even one of Universal’s ‘Jewel’ productions (i.e. a more lavish film with a bigger budget than usual) and was to be the inaugural film of their self-proclaimed “laugh year”.
What Happened to Jones? sees Denny play Tom Jones, a once-playboy who’s now settled down with Lucille Bigbee (Marian Nixon), daughter of the wealthy Mr. Bigbee (Melbourne MacDowell). The pair are due to marry, despite Lucille’s father not being convinced with the match. He prefers the stuck-up Henry Fuller (William Austin) and warns Jones that “one misstep and you’ll answer to me”.
This misstep is not long coming either, as, on the night before the wedding, Jones is roped into a poker game with his pals and the police raid it. Jones and fellow player Ebenezer Goodly (Otis Harlan) manage to escape the apartment but the police are hot on their heals, causing the pair to have to hide out in a ‘reducing parlour’ (better known as a health spa these days) where they dress up as women to avoid detection.
This kickstarts an ever-escalating series of problems Jones and Goodly must face, to avoid getting caught by both the police and their partners. Jones faces his greatest catastrophe when the police tell Lucille of the incident, causing her to switch fiances for the ceremony, giving Fuller the honour, much to the delight of Mr. Bigbee.
I must admit, I wasn’t a massive fan of Skinner’s Dress Suit, the Denny film in Early Universal Vol. 1, but that was largely due to the light nature of the comedy in that title not suiting my tastes. What Happened to Jones, however, is much more farcical, which is safely in my comedy ballpark. As such, I had a lot of fun with it.
Denny and Harlan are much to do with the film’s success as they’re superb at reacting to the ridiculous situations they’re placed in, perfectly depicting the exasperation and quick-thinking nature of their characters, without resorting to exaggerated pantomime expressions or lazy slapstick pratfalls.
It’s a genuinely laugh-out-loud funny film from start to finish and the gags are well built along with the narrative. Just when I thought the central pair’s antics in the reducing parlour couldn’t be topped we get Jones having to pretend to be Goodly’s bishop brother, even being asked to officiate his own wedding!
It all moves along swiftly and smoothly too, so you never have time to grow tired of the simple premise.
So, What Happened to Jones is a hugely enjoyable farce that acts as a wonderful example of the joys of silent comedy. Like other greats from the era, it remains very funny nearly a century later and it deserves to be much better known.
Early Universal Vol. 2 is out on 25th September on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea looks remarkably good, with a sharp and detailed picture showing only light wear, considering the age of the film. The Calgary Stampede doesn’t look quite as sharp but it still shapes up well, all things considered, with minimal damage and natural contrast. What Happened to Jones? has a couple of soft shots but is largely crisp and detailed.
I enjoyed the scores on the three films too, with the first two titles backed by particularly effective orchestral tracks.
The 2-disc Blu-ray set includes:
– Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase [First Print Run of 2000 Copies Only]
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from restorations undertaken by Universal Pictures (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and What Happened to Jones? restored in 4K, The Calgary Stampede restored in 2K)
– 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea– score by Orlando Perez Rosso
– The Calgary Stampede– score by Chris Tin
– What Happened to Jones?– score by Anthony Willis
– 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – New video appreciation by author/critic Kim Newman
– The Calgary Stampede – Brand new audio commentary by professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney
– What Happened to Jones? – New audio commentary by film historian and writer David Kalat
– PLUS: A Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing on the films included in this set
Kim Newman’s appreciation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea provides a solid background to the film and where it sits in the array of Verne adaptations. He believes it’s an important title that was quietly influential.
Jason A. Ney’s commentary on The Calgary Stampede provides a dense history of the lives and work of the principles as well as of Universal at the time. It’s a lot to take in but makes for a fascinating listen.
David Kalat is one of the best commentators around and his track on What Happened to Jones? doesn’t disappoint. Kalat provides some fascinating insight into the life and work of the film’s principles as well as thoughts on why Denny’s name isn’t as revered as silent comedy contemporaries like Chaplin and Keaton. He also has a fascinating story to tell about how Denny created the first remote-controlled drones for the air force but wasn’t given due credit.
The booklet contains illuminating essays on each of the films in the set. There’s a little crossover with the interview and commentaries but it’s still a valuable resource and recommended reading for anyone who picks up the set.
Overall, it’s another fantastic release from Eureka. Those who might be hesitant to buy a collection of silent films should give either set a shot, as both contain a fun selection of titles that are short and easy to watch. Hopefully, they can help create some more silent movie fans to preserve the legacy of the era that created the building blocks of modern cinema.
Here’s hoping Volume 3 is in the works.