This Tuesday night, March 4, at 8 PM the Northwest Film Forum and The Sprocket Society join forces to bring an ultra-rare screening of The Mysterious Island (1929), the nearly-lost science fiction epic from the dawn of the sound era. Also playing is a rare early sound cartoon by the Fleischer brothers, Noah’s Lark, released the same year. The screening is part of NWFF’s quarterly Search and Rescue series, devoted to showing rare film prints from educational and private archives. The prints come from my personal collection, and I will be introducing the screening.
As extra temptation, libations will be served after the films and if you’re a member of NWFF (and you should be), admission is free.
The Mysterious Island is one of the great rarities of early science fiction film. For decades, serious fans have suffered taunting glimpses by way of jaw-dropping stills published in fan magazines like the late, great Famous Monsters of Filmland. These tantalizing images evinced art direction and effects so wondrous for their time that one nearly ached to see it. Well, now you can be one of the lucky few to see the whole shebang.
No sci-fi film fan should miss this show.
The 1929 version of The Mysterious Island was never released to home video, has never restored by the studio, and only a single reel of its original tinted and Technicolor glory is known survive (in the UCLA film archives, where it languishes in their fire-proof nitrate film vaults, not far from possibly the only surviving set of its Vitaphone discs). Today, only a small handful of black-and-white prints are known to survive, probably only on 16mm and mainly in the hands of private collectors. Every couple years or so, TCM airs it for a single showing at inconvenient times, like Sunday at 11:30 PM. Bootleg copies of these cablecasts now circulate on BitTorrent and DVD-Rs from grey-market video dealers…but it is almost never actually projected in anything resembling a theater.
The Mysterious Island was intended to be MGM’s high-budget answer to First National’s hit The Lost World (1925) and UFA’s Metropolis (1926). It was originally budgeted at a million dollars, shot in the early two-strip Technicolor process that debuted with Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (1925), and was to feature extended sequences of cutting-edge undersea cinematography by J. Ernest Williamson, who provided such astonishing work for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1919). But the production was seemingly cursed — churning through countless rewrites that led it ever further from its source material, three different directors, and no less than three hurricanes that thoroughly destroyed the expensive underwater sets in the Bahamas. As it limped to completion, the advent of sound changed everything and necessitated a cast change and still more rewrites and reshooting.
It finally premiered as a part-talkie in October 1929 — three years late, a reported $3 million over budget (what is it with the threes?), and minus much of Williamson’s artistry — just a few weeks before the stock market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. Despite positive reviews in the popular and industry press (including the NY Times and Variety), The Mysterious Island bombed at the box office and earned back only a tiny fraction of its production costs. The whole affair was so notorious that no major studio would touch science fiction again for years and film itself, in a kind of punishment, vanished into the vaults to rot.
As a result, film fans and scholars were largely denied the opportunity to see The Mysterious Island. 16mm prints were reportedly struck sometime during the 1950s for TV distribution; tonight’s print is said to have been struck ca. 1977, but almost certainly came from the same master elements used 30 years earlier.
In recent years, the 1929 Mysterious Island has garnered a reputation as MST3K fodder but, while hardly the acme of filmmaking art and suffering from a somewhat tortured plot betraying its tenure in rewrite hell, the film is much better than the wags would have it. It is elevated by no small measure by the still-amazing art direction of Cedric Gibbons (who later helped realize the classic The Wizard of Oz), which reaches its peak in the final reels of the film. Picture if you will: retro-futurist brass diving suits like something out of Alien, armies of diminutive mer-men looking like undersea Martians, giant sea monster, and other visual wonderments hard to describe.
The accompanying cartoon, Noah’s Lark, was released by competing studio Paramount the very same month. It is the first Paramount “Talkartoon” ever released by the Fleischer brothers, but it is hardly their first foray into sound animation. Indeed, by that late date they were already veterans in the emergent technology. Beginning in 1924 (three years before The Jazz Singer), the already-successful Fleischers produced more than 30 sound animated shorts for Lee DeForests’ Phonofilm company. Most of those were sing-along films that originated the famous “bouncing ball.” Noah’s Lark followed the Fleischer tradition of unscripted visual improvisation, with animation by Al Eugster.
This is a screening not to be missed by fans of science fiction, and/or early sound film.