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33 2 Searching for a Popular Approach, 1925–1945 The 1916 silent film Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea had been recognized during its time as a milestone for presenting an elaborate production of a Verne science fiction novel. The absurdity of many of its plot elements did not diminish audiences’ fascination when movie cameras descended beneath the waves to tell a blockbuster fictional story.1 The interest in this camerawork as a scientific advance, culturally as well as cinematically, was evidenced by Grosset & Dunlap issuing a “Special Submarine Edition” of the novel illustrated with scenes from the movie and containing a special foreword; some copies showed a roly‑poly submarine on the cover. Variations of this publication, with scenes from the movie on the dust jacket, continued to be published well into the 1930s, nearly two decades after Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea was produced—indicating the depth of its impression on public consciousness.2 The process of underwater photography had been developed by two brothers, George Williamson and John Ernest Williamson, retooling an invention of their sea captain father, Charles Williamson: the deep-sea tube. This tube was composed of concentric, interlocking iron rings that stretched, flattened, and swayed like an accordion, suspended from a specially outfitted ship, allowing easy communication and plentiful air, whose pressure could be equalized through pumps. At the bottom of the tube was a five‑foot spherical observation chamber, the photosphere, 34 Hollywood Presents Jules Verne with the whole mechanism raised or lowered by chains attached to the ship. In 1912, J. E. Williamson realized that the mechanism could be used not only for salvage, but also for photography. Depending on depth and location, a special light could be suspended from the mother ship, sufficiently illuminating the area. After newspapers published their photographs of the depths of Hampton Roads, Virginia, Williamson relocated to the Bahamas, where the clearer waters would suit motion pictures. The result was Thirty Leagues under the Sea in 1914, climaxed by J. E.’s fight with a shark, which he killed with a knife while remaining within the camera’s range. The brothers quickly realized that fictional films could be an even more popular and lucrative outlet for their endeavors, and as Verne enthusiasts, they took the next obvious step; two years later Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea would be completed in partnership with Universal. Undersea action was staged in front of the photosphere’s window, allowing scenes of pictorial beauty ranging from coral to a hunting expedition to a battle with an artificial octopus. However, a heavy sea rocking the barge from which the tube was suspended would make photography impossible, and nearby barracudas menaced the divers pretending to encounter sharks and other monsters of the deep. Submarines were impossible to obtain during wartime, so J. E. built a full‑size facsimile of the Nautilus and piloted it; it carried actors, had an underwater airlock, and could submerge to a depth of thirty feet and surface again. After Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, J. E. Williamson carried on his undersea filmmaking, usually from his own scenarios, refining his techniques and beginning to film in color. In 1925, these developments led MGM to tap him as the studio planned The Mysterious Island. This time hurricanes plagued Williamson’s Bahamas shooting , while in Hollywood the production was matched by a tornado of changing scripts, directors, and cast. MGM’s producer, Irving Thalberg, lacked any comprehension of how to handle science fiction, suggesting fights with ray guns and failing to grasp the fundamental coherence and likelihood on which a Verne narrative depended.3 The Mysterious Island opens as oppression generates unrest in the eastern European kingdom of Hetvia, where Baron Hubert Falon is Searching for a Popular Approach 35 planning a coup. Offshore lies Mysterious Island, formed by the shell of a submerged volcano (à la Facing the Flag, another Verne submarine novel, published in 1896). The reclusive Count Dakkar (Lionel Barrymore ) is the enlightened ruler of Mysterious Island, and his scientific workshops are a virtual utopia where all men are equal. The new spirit of science, represented by Dakkar in a plain smock, his hair rumpled, is contrasted with the old, aristocratic injustice meted out by the dapper Falon. Dakkar naively fails to recognize his fellow nobleman’s intentions and tells Falon of the upcoming launching of his submarine. Falon instantly recognizes its potential as a warship, a thought utterly foreign to Dakkar. His ambition is to journey...


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