Early Universal Vol. 2: 20,000 League Under the Sea [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (18th November 2021).
The Film

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Stuart Paton, 1916): As reports of naval ships being destroyed across the globe by a "sea monster", the US government mounts an expedition to find and destroy the beast. The European representative is Professor Aronnax (Dan Hanlon) who is accompanied by his daughter (Edna Pendleton) on the voyage of the American vessel Abraham Lincoln. Little do they realize that the "demon of the deep" is the submarine vessel of Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar) who has taken to the water to avenge himself of the wrongdoings against him. Traveling to the last sighting of the creature, they encounter it themselves, but its hide proves impenetrable to harpooner Ned Land (Curtis Benton), and the Abraham Lincoln is destroyed, leaving Aronnax, his daughter, and Land clinging to driftwood; until, that is, Captain Nemo takes pity on them and rescues them. They soon learn that they are his prisoners; however, his faithful crew plead leniency for them and Nemo allows them freedom to move about the ship if they promise not to try to escape. He shows them the previously undreamt of wonders of the deep from sea creatures to pearl harvests. The trio have reason to question his benevolence, however, when they witness him destroy another ship to keep his vessel a secret.

When a sabotaged air balloon crashes into the sea near the "Mysterious Island", Nemo rescues the four men and leaves them unconscious on the shore with supplies. One of the men, Lieutenant Bond (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' Matt Moore), discovers the island inhabited by a "child of nature" (Jane Gail ), a beautiful young woman whose last memory of civilization was being ripped away from her dying mother by the man who tried to force himself upon her. On the other side of the world, former British colonial officer Charles Denver (Queen of the Jungle's William Welsh) has become an alcoholic in his old age. Haunted by the wife of Prince Daakar, who chose suicide over violation, Denver takes to the sea in a yacht, landing near the Mysterious Island hoping to discover if Daakar's daughter survived after he cast her away to insure her silence. When one of Bond's compatriots attempts to force himself upon the island maiden, he is made an outcast. Upon being found by Denver's crew, the outcast decides to take control of the yacht and abduct the maiden for himself. Nemo, however, has other plans for the yacht when he learns that it is owned by his greatest enemy.

Helmed by Stuart Paton for Universal back when it was still the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, this first feature-length screen adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – preceded by Wallace McCutcheon's 1905 short for former Thomas Edison partner William Kennedy Dickson's American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and Georges Méliès' 1907 short – takes a number of liberties with its source (as well as incorporating some material from Verne's follow-up novel "The Mysterious Island") often to lesser effect. Aronnax is given a daughter who seems as though she may become a love interest to Ned Land, but the trio of Abraham Lincoln survivors are soon shuffled to the background along with Nemo for the action on the island which includes a love story between Bond and the "child of nature" that really gives the protagonists of the source novel literally nothing to do but watch. When Nemo's backstory does finally coincide with that of Denver and the island maid, it takes the form of an flashback that extends the film beyond the exciting climax seemingly for the sole purpose of throwing in some more exoticism on an epic scale (with the Hindu Nemo swearing vengeance in the name of Allah!) Although Nemo has been popularly regarded as a villain or antihero since then, the film is actually quite surprising in revealing right away that he possesses a great degree of human compassion in spite of his bitterness and destructiveness, and the film's stressing of Nemo's ethnicity (subsequently downplayed) is not only to the critique of colonialism in the Verne novel but is an early instance of celebrating the creativity and intelligence of "exotic" characters in an age of "foreign devil" characters whose inventions were of sadistic ingenuity or purposed for world domination.

In spite of the plotting and pacing issues of this epic scope (but not epic-length) adaptation, it certainly delivers for the audience. With underwater photography the likes of Buster Keaton's The Navigator a little under a decade away, the film realized its photography of the deep with reverse periscope camera attachments created by Williamson Submarine Film Corporation who had created the "photosphere" for shooting underwater from a submarine (in relatively shallow water since it was dependent on lighting from the surface). The full-size octopus puppet (also built by the Williamson brothers) is laughable now – and it may be patronizing to suggest it probably was not back then – but the underwater photography is stunning within technical limitations and the pyrotechnical effects modest but get the job done. Truly, the film's triumph is the photography of Eugene Gaudio who largely foregoes epic scope for Academy compositions that make effective use of vertical lines to create enclosing spaces from the submarine and yacht interiors to the island maid's lair and her later "love nest" with Bond that give several of the compositions the feel of "environmental portraiture". Although if feels more like a heavily-condensed version of a serial than a concise literary adaptation, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a significant work in terms of the filmographies of Verne adaptations and the establishment of Universal (and their later tiers of film productions).

The Calgary Stampede (Herbert Blaché, 1925): American cowboy Dan Malloy (The Painted Stallion's Hoot Gibson) travels up to Alberta in search of adventure and quickly falls in love with rancher's daughter Marie La Farge (West of the Divide's Virginia Brown Faire) to the dismay of her anti-Irish father Jean La Farge (Pierre Faunce). Malloy wistfully tells Mountie Bill Harkness (The Ramblin' Kid's W.T. McCulley) that he means to have Marie whether her father likes it or not. His visit to the La Farge ranch to convince Marie to run away with him coincides with the return to the area of poacher Fred Burgess (Jim Corey) who has escaped from prison vowing vengeance on La Farge. He happens upon an argument between Malloy and La Farge and shoots the older man. Malloy gives chase but is unable to identify or apprehend him. In love with Burgess, Marie's Native American maid Nennah (The Invisible Ray's Ynez Seabury) claims to both Marie and Harkness to have only seen Malloy riding away from the ranch in a hurry. In spite of Malloy's protests, Harkness arrests him; however, Burgess hopes to kill the only witness to his crime by setting loose a herd of buffalo on the pair. Harkness is thrown from his horse and knocked unconscious. Malloy rescues him before going on the run. A year later, Malloy has been working as a half-witted ranch hand at the Big O ranch of Andrew Regan (The Painted Desert's Charles Sellon) and his daughter Trixie (The Desert Flower's Ena Gregory). He manages to evade the suspicion of Mountie Sergeant Callahan (Chamber of Horrors' Philo McCullough) when a nevertheless shocked Marie claims not to recognize him as her father's murderer. Malloy has a harder time, however, containing his expertise in horseracing when Regan not only chooses arrogant Ed Corbett (Pat Patterson) to compete in the annual Calgary Stampede but also bets his entire ranch against rival Al Morton (Prisoners of the Storm's Clark Comstock). The event brings everyone concerned together – including recently recovered Harkness – and Malloy may have to expose his identity to save Regan from ruin.

One of Universal's Jewel "prestige" pictures starring one of the studio's then-current box office draws Gibson – who had moved up from two-reel shorts and supporting roles like the secondary romantic lead in the Harry Carey vehicle Straight Shooting to features just a couple years before – The Calgary Stampede not only popularized the real-life event with shooting during the 1925 rodeo but also commemorated Gibson's own win at the Steer Roping Championship at the event back in 1912 (Gibson also served as Parade Marshal for the event while the film was in-production) . While director Herbert Blaché in his penultimate film does not possess the eye for landscape and composition of John Ford, he delivers the story's dramatics and action capably enough to keep the film moving even when Malloy is at his most passive (rather than spending the year hunting La Farge's murderer, he has been wandering and working as a ranch hand while hoping something would happen to prove his innocence). As dull as the characters are, apart from Nennah – who comes across fiery even though she "speaks" the stereotypical "Indian" broken English and is portrayed as generally craven until scorned – the film delivers in its action set-pieces from the early stampede to the Roman Racing event in which Gibson himself stands on the saddles of two horses. The race is so excitingly depicted in terms of dizzying camerawork and cutaways to the spectators – including Marie, the Mounties, the Regans, as well as a young, uncredited Walter Brennan (Red River) and prolific Universal western uncredited bit player Hank Bell – that the final chase scene between Malloy and Burgess cannot compare. The formulaic ending should serve as an indicator that the Universal's Jewel picture prestige status is more a matter of scope than creative ambitions in the likes of Jewel contemporaries like The Phantom of the Opera from Universal's horror draw Lon Chaney.

What Happened to Jones? (William A. Seiter, 1926): Nothing like his namesake, Tom Jones (Skinner's Dress Suit's Reginald Denny) is getting married in the morning and is wary about putting a foot wrong in front of the Bigbees (Nomads of the North's Melbourne MacDowell and Stage Kisses' Frances Raymond), the parents of his fiancée Lucille (Captain Calamity's Marian Nixon) who would prefer that she marry stuffy Henry Fuller (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' William Austin). Planning to turn in early at his lodge, he is dragged by his friends into a late night poker game. When the police raid the game, Tom flees down a fire escape in the company of the Bigbees' friend Ebenezer Goodly (Show Boat's Otis Harlan). After hiding from the police in a reducing salon and disguising themselves in women's clothing, they steal a milk wagon and hide out at the Goodlys. When Goodly gives Tom his Bishop brother's clothes to wear, Goodly's wife (The Bat's Emily Fitzroy) mistakes him for the Bishop who is supposed to officiate the wedding of their friends the Bigbees' daughter Lucillee who Tom has learned has agreed to marry Fuller rather than embarrass her parents socially. Trying to evade the investigating police, Bigbee's attempts to expose his true identity, and being caught in the same room with the real Bishop Goodly (Only the Brave's John Elliott), Tom may wind up officiating his fiancée's wedding to another man before he can convince her to take him back.

Adapted from the George Broadhurst Broadway play by future comedy director Melville W. Brown (Buck Privates) and helmed by William A. Seiter – who took over directing Denny vehicles when the actor had enough of the "low comedy" of previous house director Harry A. PollardWhat Happened to Jones? is a classic star vehicle for Denny who gets much mileage out of being the straight man thrown into unusual circumstances. First conjectured as being a disreputable sort by Fuller and the Bigbees – his "out of town" status is a obviously one of differing social class – and trying to remain pleasant while obviously bristling with indignation, Jones has the decency to avert the gaze of his "social superior" Goodly when they are hiding in the steam room with women, and soon gets some of his own back while playing the Bishop and undermining both Bigbee and Fuller. The ending anticipates The Graduate without the ambiguous final shot. Zasu Pitts (Greed) provides additional comic relief as the Goodlys' maid.


Deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress in 2016, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea first underwent a restoration by David Shepard in 1991, the source of which was utilized for Image Entertainment's 1998 DVD. A newer print made the repertory rounds circa 2010, but Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen Blu-ray – as well as Kino Lorber's US edition from lasty year – are derived from Universal's recent restoration utilizing a 35mm nitrate preservation print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The bulk of the film is startling in its monochrome clarity and fluid motion with the litany of light surface scratches only evident in darker areas of the frame. The graininess and haziness of the photosphere underwater shots is too be expected, and the only egregious mark of the element's age are a handful of shots that have succumbed to nitrate decomposition.

Difficult to see after its theatrical release apart from poor-quality gray market dupes of 16mm materials, The Calgary Stampede does indeed appear to only survive in 16mm print belonging to the Packard Humanities Institute and restored by Universal. The 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer is carefully tinted so as not to totally obliterate what is left of the image, the sharpness of which varies between long shots and close-ups, and the cleanup work could not completely obliterate all of the damage with some splice lines rarely dipping into the frame rather than cropping for image stabilization.

From a new 4K restoration of 35mm materials belonging to the UCLA Film and Television Archive, What Happened to Jones? – released stateside last year by Kino Lorber in the Reginald Denny Collection – is not quite as pristine as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but generally in better shape than The Calgary Stampede, with amber tinting for night interiors, blue for night exteriors, and a subtle violet for the daytime interiors of the Goodly residence. Close-ups are effective in conveying Denny's emotive face in all its uncomfortable awkwardness (and sweatiness in the Turkish Bath scene), but sharpness varies in wide and long shots but the tinting may have been responsible for the loss of some detail even in this 4K scan.


No complaints about the technical quality of the LPCM 2.0 stereo track since the score is newly-recorded, and the chamber orchestra score of Orlando Perez Rosso is one of the best recent silent film scores, accompanying the action and emotions of the film without ever overwhelming it. The Calgary Stampede's LPCM 2.0 stereo score features a newly-recorded score by Chris Tin that does not have the instrumental breadth of Rosso's score above but suits its up north setting in not sounding so typically "western". The Anthony Willis score of What Happened to Jones? is unobtrusive, underlining the visual humor rather than highlighting it. The intertitles of all three films appear to be the same.


While the Kino Lorber Blu-ray of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea featured an audio commentary by film historian Anthony Slide, Eureka's edition features only a video appreciation by author/critic Kim Newman (22:26) who discusses the differences in the approaches to science fiction of Verne and H.G. Wells – with Verne inspired by developing technology and extrapolating then-fantastical inventions – the problematic original plot in which Nemo's enemies were the Russians (changed to the British navy in the final form), as well as the creative liberties taken with the plot while also the film's attempts to be progressive even though its foreign genius is realized in blackface.

The Calgary Stampede is accompanied by an audio commentary by professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney who notes that the film is indeed a western despite its atypical setting – both the locations up north and setting it in the present day – the career of Hoot Gibson (as well as Hispanic actress Seabury who hosted and became a favorite of Native American peoples when they visited Hollywood to work as extras), the film's interethnic conflicts, background on the Calgary Stampede and Gibson's involvement, as well as Universal's mindset at the time with regard to production and exhibition. The Anthony Slide commentary on the Kino Lorber edition of Whatever Happened to Jones? is replaced here by an audio commentary by film historian and writer David Kalat – note that a menu flub cites the track as being for The Shakedown from Early Universal Vol. 1 but it is indeed the correct track (the track for the former film was by Nick Pinkerton) – and serves as a companion piece to his track on the aforementioned set's Denny comedy Skinner's Dress Suit, discussing the source play and the changes made to the screenplay, Denny's disdain for low comedy which lead to Pollard being replaced in the Denny production unit by Seiter for Universal's "laugh year" of 1926, as well as how the audience perception of British Denny changed from American everyman with the advent of sound and his turn towards supporting and character roles.


Packaged with the discs in a limited edition O-card slipcover included in the first pressing of 2,000 copies is a 27-page collector's booklet in which Barry Forshaw proves background on Verne as the founding father of French science fiction, details on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and "The Mysterious Island", the figure of Captain Nemo, and the film in contrast to other cinematic adaptations. Of The Calgary Stampede, Forshaw ponders why Gibson is not as well remembered as his western genre contemporaries considering that Universal devoted an entire production arm to his vehicles – of which a number were Jewel-tier pictures – Gibson's Universal years and his latter days, as well as director Blaché's brush with the Blacklist. Richard Combs provides an essay on Whatever Happened to Jones? in which he discusses Denny's career, the film's farcical elements, and how the film provides a depicts "a period where the more Victorian values of the old country were being battered away by the burgeoning Hollywood glamour of the inviting unknown."


Although a mixed bag like the previous set, Early Universal Vol. 2 provides valuable insight into the studio's early days and their strategies for competing with the other majors.


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