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20,000  LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1916) was one of the very first silent films I bought on 8mm in my teens.

As I watched in silence on my bedroom wall I found myself wondering how audiences reacted to it when it was first shown. More on that later.

This absolutely superb restoration comes with only one extra. That is a commentary by film historian Anthony Slide who does not mince words. The film is a stinker.

Perhaps wisely none of the cast were listed originally nor in the ads (they probably wanted to make sure they could continue working). As Slide remarks there are few, if any even capable performances.

20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA is a title that fires up the imagination of any who have read the Jules Verne novel.

Add to that fire the absolutely spot on Disney version and what we get is, well, a lot less than we anticipate.

Nonetheless, this is a film you will want to own.

By chance in the 1970s I stumbled a collection of writings by the great S. J. Perleman     who, as it happens, saw the film in his youth. It very nearly cost him his life:

CLOUDLAND REVISITED:  Roll On, Thou Deep and Dark Scenario, Roll


ONE AUGUST MORNING during the third summer of the First World War, Manuel Da Costa, a Portuguese eel fisherman at Bullock’s Cove, near Narragansett Bay, was calking a dory drawn up beside his shack when he witnessed a remarkable exploit. From around a nearby boathouse appeared a bumpkin named Piggy Westervelt, with a head indistinguishable from an Edam cheese, lugging a bicycle pump and a coil of rubber hose. Behind him, with dragging footsteps, because of the quantities of scrap iron stuffed into his boots, came another stripling, indistinguishable from the present writer at the age of twelve, encased in a diving helmet that was improvised from a metal lard pail. As Da Costa watched with fascinated attention, Piggy ceremoniously conducted me to the water’s edge, helped me kneel, and started securing the hose to my casque.

“Can you breathe in there all right?” he called out anxiously. There was some basis for his concern, since, in the zeal of creation, we had neglected to supply a hinge for my visor, and between lack of oxygen and the reek of hot lard my eyes were beginning to extrude like muscat grapes. I signaled Piggy to hurry up and start pumping, but he became unaccountably angry. “How many hands do you think I got?” he bawled. “If you don’t like the way I’m doing it, get somebody else!” Realizing my life hung on a lunatic’s caprice, I adopted the only rational attitude, that of the sacrificial ox, and shallowed my breathing. Finally, just as the old mitral valve was about to close forever, a few puffs of fetid air straggled through the tube and I shakily prepared to submerge. My objective was an ancient weedy hull thirty feet offshore, where the infamous Edward Teach, popularly known as Blackbeard, was reputed to have foundered with a cargo of bullion and plate. Neither of us had the remotest idea what bullion and plate were, but they sounded eminently useful. I was also to keep a sharp lookout for ambergris, lumps of which were constantly being picked up by wide-awake boys and found to be worth forty thousand dollars. The prospects, viewed from whatever angle, were pretty rosy.

They began to dim the second I disappeared below the surf ace, By that time, the hose had sprung half a dozen leaks, and Piggy, in a frenzy of misdirected co-operation, had pumped my helmet full of water. Had I not been awash in the pail, I might have been able to squirm out of my boots, but as it was, I was firmly anchored in the ooze and a definite candidate for Davy Jones’s locker when an unexpected savior turned up in the person of Manuel Da Costa. Quickly sculling overhead, he captured the hose with a boat hook, dragged me inboard, and pounded the water out of my lungs. The first sight I saw, as I lay gasping in the scuppers, was Manuel towering over me like the Colossus of Rhodes, arms compressed and lips akimbo. His salutation finished me forever as an undersea explorer. “Who the hell do you think you are?” he demanded,, outraged. “Captain Nemo?”
That a Rhode Island fisherman should invoke anyone so recherché as the hero of Jules Verne’s submarine saga may seem extraordinary, but actually there was every justification for it. All through the preceding fortnight, a movie version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea had been playing to packed houses at a local peepshow, engendering almost as much excitement as the Black Tom explosion. Everyone who saw it was dumbfounded—less, I suspect, by its subaqueous marvels than by its hallucinatory plot and characters–but nobody besides Piggy and me, fortunately, was barmy enough to emulate it. In general, I experienced no untoward effects from my adventure. It did, however, prejudice me unreasonably against salt water, and for years I never mentioned the ocean floor save with a sneer.

Some weeks ago, rummaging through the film library of the Museum of Modern Art, I discovered among its goodies a print of the very production of Twenty Thousand Leagues that had mesmerized me in 1916, and, by ceaseless nagging, bedeviled the indulgent custodians into screening it for me. Within twenty minutes, I realized that I was watching one of the really great cinema nightmares, a cauchemar beside which King Kong, The Tiger Man, and The Cat People were as staid as so many quilting bees. True, it did not have the sublime irrelevance of The Sex Maniac, a masterpiece of Krafft-Ebing symbolism I saw in Los Angeles whose laboratory monkeyshines climaxed in a scene where two Picassoesque giantesses, armed with baseball bats, beat each other to pulp in a cellar. On the other hand, it more than equaled the all-time stowage record set by D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance, managing to combine in one picture three unrelated plots—Twenty Thousand Leagues, The Mysterious Island, and Five Weeks in a Balloon—and a sanguinary tale of betrayal and murder in a native Indian state that must have fallen into the developing fluid by mistake. To make the whole thing even more perplexing, not one member of the cast was identified–much as if all the actors in the picture had been slain on its completion and all references to them expunged. I daresay that if Stuart Paton, its director, were functioning today, the votaries of the Surrealist film who sibilate around the Little Carnegie and the Fifth Avenue Playhouse would be weaving garlands for his hair. That man could make a cryptogram out of Mother Goose.

The premise of Twenty Thousand Leagues, in a series of quick nutshells, is that the Navy, dismayed by reports of a gigantic sea serpent preying on our merchant marine, dispatches an expedition to exterminate it. Included in the party are Professor Aronnax, a French scientist with luxuriant crepe hair and heavy eye makeup who looks like a phrenologist out of the funny papers; his daughter, a kittenish ingenue all corks crew curls and maidenly simpers; and the latter’s heartbeat, a broth of a boy identified as Ned Land, Prince of Harpooners. Their quarry proves, of course, to be the submarine Nautilus, commanded by the redoubtable Captain Nemo, which sinks their vessel and takes them prisoner. Nemo is Melville’s Captain Ahab with French dressing, as bizarre a mariner as ever trod on a weevil. He has a profile like Garibaldi’s, set off by a white goatee; wears a Santa Claus suit and a turban made out of a huck towel; and smokes a churchwarden pipe. Most submarine commanders, as a rule, busy themselves checking gauges and twiddling the periscope, but Nemo spends all his time smiting his forehead and vowing revenge, though on whom it is not made clear. The decor of the Nautilus, obviously inspired by a Turkish cozy corner, is pure early Matisse; Oriental rugs, hassocks, and mother-of-pearl taborets abound, and in one shot I thought I detected a parlor floor lamp with a fringed shade, which must have been a problem in dirty weather. In all justice, however, Paton’s conception of a submarine interior was no more florid than Jules Verne’s. Among the ship’s accouterments,  find on consulting the great romancer, he lists a library containing twelve thousand volumes, a dining room with oak sideboards, and a thirty-foot drawing room full of Old Masters, tapestry, and sculpture.

Apparently, the front office figured that so straightforward a narrative would never be credible, because complications now really begin piling up. “About this time,” a subtitle announces, “Lieutenant Bond and four Union Army scouts, frustrated in an attempt to destroy their balloon, are carried out to sea.” A long and murky sequence full of lightning, falling sandbags, and disheveled character actors Occupies the next few minutes, the upshot being that the cloud-borne quintet is stranded on a remote key called Mysterious Island. One of its more mysterious aspects is an unchaperoned young person in a leopard- skin sarong, who dwells in the trees and mutters gibberish to herself. The castaways find this tropical Ophelia in a pit they have dug to ward off prowling beasts, and Lieutenant Bond, who obviously has been out of touch with women since he was weaned, loses his heart to her. To achieve greater obscurity, the foregoing is intercut with limitless footage of Captain Nemo and his hostages goggling at the wonders of the deep through a window in the side of the submarine. What they see is approximately what anybody might who has quaffed too much sacramental wine and is peering into a home aquarium, but, after all, tedium is a relative matter. When you come right down to it, a closeup of scup feeding around a coral arch is no more static than one of Robert Taylor.

At this juncture, a completely new element enters the plot to further befuddle it, in the form of one Charles Denver, “a retired ocean trader in a distant land.” Twelve years earlier, a flashback reveals, Denver had got a skinful of lager and tried to ravish an Indian maharani called Princess Daaker. The lady had thereupon plunged a dagger into her thorax, and Denver, possibly finding the furniture too heavy, had stolen her eight- year-old daughter. We see him now in a mood of remorse approaching that of Macbeth, drunkenly clawing his collar and reviling the phantoms who plague him—one of them, by the way, a rather engaging Mephistopheles of the sort depicted in advertisements for quick-drying varnish. To avoid losing his mind, the trader boards his yacht and sets off for Mysterious Island, a very peculiar choice indeed, for if ever there was a convocation of loonies anywhere, it is there. Captain Nemo is fluthering around in the lagoon, wrestling with an inflated rubber octopus; Lieutenant Bond and the leopard girl (who, it presently emerges, is Princess Daaker’s daughter, left there to die) are spooning on the cliffs; and, just to enliven things, one of Bond’s scouts is planning to supplant him as leader and abduct the maiden.
Arriving at the island, Denver puts on a pippin of a costume, consisting of a deerstalker cap, a Prince Albert coat, and hip boots, and goes ashore to seek the girl he marooned. He has just vanished into the saw grass, declaiming away like Dion Boucicault, when the screen suddenly blacks out, or at least it did the day I saw the picture. I sprang up buoyantly, hoping that perhaps the film had caught fire and provided a solution for everybody’s dilemma, but it had merely slipped off the sprocket. By the time it was readjusted, I, too, had slipped off, consumed a flagon or two, and was back in my chair waiting alertly for the payoff. I soon realized my blunder. I should have stayed in the rathskeller and had the projectionist phone it to me.

Denver becomes lost in the jungle very shortly, and when he fails to return to the yacht, two of the crew go in search of him. They meet Lieutenant Bond’s scout, who has meanwhile made indecent overtures to the leopard girl and been declared a pariah by his fellows. The trio rescue Denver, but, for reasons that defy analysis, get plastered and plot to seize the yacht and sail away with the girl.

During all this katzenjammer, .divers from the Nautilus have been reconnoitering around the craft to learn the identity of its Owner, which presumably is emblazoned on its keel, inasmuch as one of them hastens to Nemo at top speed to announce with a flourish, ‘I have the honor to report that the yacht is owned by Charles Denver.” The Captain forthwith stages a display of vindictive triumph that would have left Boris Thomashefsky, the great Yiddish tragedian, sick with envy; Denver, he apprises his companions is the man against whom he has sworn undying vengeance. In the meantime (everything in Twenty Thousand Leagues happens in the meantime; the characters don’t even sneeze consecutively), the villains kidnap the girl, are pursued to the yacht by Bond, and engage him in a fight to the death. At the psychological moment, a torpedo from the Nautilus blows up the whole shebang, extraneous characters are eliminated, and, as the couple are hauled aboard the submarine, the big dramatic twist unfolds: Nemo is Prince Daaker and the girl his daughter. Any moviemaker with elementary decency would have recognized this as the saturation point and quit, but not the producer of Twenty Thousand Leagues. The picture bumbles on into a fantastically long-winded flashback of Nemo reviewing the whole Indian episode and relentlessly chewing the scenery to bits, and culminates with his demise and a strong suspicion in the onlooker that he has talked himself to death. His undersea burial, it must be admitted, has an authentic grisly charm. The efforts of the funeral party, clad in sober diving habit, to dig a grave in the Ocean bed finally meet with defeat, and, pettishly tossing the coffin into a clump of sea anemones, they stagger off. It seemed to me a bit disrespectful not to blow “Taps” over the deceased, but I suppose nobody had a watertight bugle.

An hour after quitting the Museum, I was convalescing on a bench in Central Park when a brandy-nosed individual approached me with a remarkable tale of woe. He was, he declared a by-blow of Prince Felix Youssoupoff the assassin of
Rasputin, and had been reared by Transylyanian gypsies. Successively a circus aerialist a mosaic worker a diamond cutter, and a gigolo, he had fought (or at least argued) with Wingate’s Raiders, crossed Outer Mongolia on foot, spent two years in a Buddhist monastery, helped organize the Indonesian resistance, and become One of the financial titans of Lombard Street. A woman, he confided huskily had been his undoing–a woman so illustrious that the mere mention of her name made Cabinets totter. His present financial embarrassment however was a purely temporary phase. Seversky had imported him to the States to design a new helicopter, and if I could advance him a dime to phone the designer that he had arrived, I would be amply reimbursed As he vanished into oblivion cheeringly  jingling my two nickels, the old lady sharing my bench put down her knitting with a snort.

“Tommyrot!” she snapped. “Hunh, you must be a simpleton That’s the most preposterous balderdash I ever heard of.”

I am a simpleton Madam,” I returned with dignity “but you don’t know beans about balderdash Let me tell you a movie I just saw.” No sooner had I started to recapitulate it than her face turned ashen, and without a word of explanation she bolted into the shrubbery An old screwbox obviously. Oh, well, you can’t account for anything nowadays. Some of the stuff that goes on, it’s right out of a novel by Jules Verne.

–S. J. Perelman.

Seen in the light of Perelman 20,000 LEAGUES is a wonderful hoot of a movie.–Reg Hartt 2020–07–29.

25th September 1928: American comic actor Buster Keaton (1895 – 1966) wearing a baseball strip and boots. (Photo by John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)



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