Mysterious Island

Mysterious Island--titles
Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1951. Starring Richard Crane, Marshall Reed, Karen Randle, Ralph Hodges, Hugh Prosser, Bernard Hamilton, Terry Frost, Gene Roth, Rusty Wescoatt, Leonard Penn.

During the War Between the States, Union captain Cyrus Harding (Richard Crane), a prisoner in Richmond, leads four other Northerners–his servant Neb (Bernard Hamilton), war correspondent Gideon Spillett (Hugh Prosser), and stranded sailors Jack Pencroft (Marshall Reed) and Bert Brown (Ralph Hodges)–in an escape attempt. The five men successfully hijack a Confederate observation balloon, but are then blown off course by a storm; after drifting through the air for many days, the escapees are finally cast on the uncharted shores of a Mysterious Island somewhere in the Pacific. They soon discover that the island is a dangerous place; it possesses an active volcano, is a supply depot for the pirate Captain Shard (Gene Roth), and is inhabited both by a ferocious tribe of volcano-worshipping natives and by the deranged Ayrton (Terry Frost), a marooned ex-member of Shard’s crew. To make matters even worse for the castaways, the ruthless Rulu (Karen Randle)–an emissary from the planet Mercury–is secretly mining uranium within the island’s caves, as the first step in a plan for conquering the Earth. Harding and his friends must battle this weird assortment of enemies, while trying to find a way of leaving the island; they receive valuable aid from a mystery man who eventually proves to be the famous Captain Nemo (Leonard Penn).

Jules Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island is often referred to as a “sequel” to his famous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but the two books have little in common save the character of Captain Nemo. Leagues is a science-fictional fantasy, while Island is a down-to-earth adventure story in the Swiss Family Robinson vein; though Nemo and his submarine the Nautilus figure in the latter book, they remain almost completely off-stage, with Nemo providing covert help for Island’s protagonists whenever they need it. Despite the relative realism of Island, Hollywood producers have repeatedly injected additional sci-fi elements into their screen adaptations of the book; Sam Katzman was no exception to this rule. His chapterplay version of Mysterious Island follows the book quite closely–until the characters arrive on the island; after that, Verne’s novel is almost completely abandoned in favor of an anemic and absurd storyline that would have had the imaginative but logically-minded author shaking his head.

Mysterious Island--balloon
Above: The heroes’ balloon drifts through storm clouds towards the mysterious island.

One can’t blame the serial’s writers–George Plympton, Lewis Clay, and Royal Cole–for adding hostile natives to Verne’s story, or for assigning a far larger role to the pirate crew (which doesn’t enter the book until its final third); such changes were necessary, in order to provide the conflicts needed for the serial format. However, there was no need to make the natives the ridiculously-costumed survivors of a supposed lost civilization, or to add uranium-hunting Mercurian invaders to the plot; the latter addition is so evocative of the 1950s (as is Spillett’s blasé immediate identification of the invaders as extraterrestrials) that it immediately destroys any lingering 19th-century atmosphere that the adaptation might have retained. The presence of the Mercurians and the Volcano Men (who look just as much like space aliens as the Mercurians do) also makes the diving-suited Captain Nemo seem quite unextraordinary; he should be the most strange and imposing inhabitant of the island, but instead comes off as simply one more oddball on an isle already overstocked with oddballs.

Mysterious Island--Nemo Mysterious Island--Rulu
Above left: An impressive shot of Leonard Penn’s Nemo in his diving suit, looming over the island. Above right: A less impressive but sillier shot of Karen Randle’s Rulu with her ray-gun.

The jarring, unnecessarily bizarre additions to Island’s original story might have proved forgivable had they been incorporated into an interesting new plot, but the serial’s narrative consists of little more than an endless series of clashes that become tiresomely repetitious, despite the multiplicity of characters involved. Instead of painstakingly endeavoring to build a strong island settlement (as in the book), the castaway protagonists spend practically the entire serial engaged in inconclusive skirmishes with the Volcano Men, the pirates, the Mercurians, or Ayrton–periodically arranging a truce with one enemy or another, but usually getting double-crossed by their temporary associates later on; when not bedeviling the heroes, these assorted antagonists tangle with each other, while Nemo lurks around the peripheries of the action, before finally coming forward in Chapter Fourteen to enlist both the heroes and the pirates in an attempt to stop the Mercurians’ world-conquest scheme.

 Mysterious Island---two fires 1 Mysterious Island--two fires 2
Above: A typical day on Katzman’s mysterious island; Harding and his friends are forced backwards by hostile Volcano Men–directly towards pirates waiting to shoot them in the back.

This change of plotting direction at first seems as if it might make Island’s climactic action fairly satisfying–but the writers still manage to make their finale seem unbelievably perfunctory and unsatisfying. With about three minutes left to go in Chapter Fifteen, the volcano suddenly sinks the island, while the heroes rush off in a ship that abruptly appears from nowhere–and refrain from making even a passing comment on the fate of the native and pirate allies that they seemingly abandon. We’re left to assume that both buccaneers and Volcano Men perished when the island went down, though we never actually see what becomes of them; the fate of the Mercurians is likewise left up in the air. It’s as if the writers suddenly realized that they had only a tiny bit of running time left, and decided to wrap things up as quickly as possible–instead of going back and cutting some of the tediously repetitive action out of earlier chapters, which would have provided more space for the alleged climax. As it is, the arbitrary hastiness with which the serial concludes–along with the randomness of the battling in the preceding episodes and the bizarrely eclectic assortment of contending forces–makes Island’s story feel more like a backyard children’s game than anything else.

The serial’s tediousness is accentuated by the innumerable scenes of characters slowly walking through the “island” landscape, as they search for or shadow each other; Chapter Nine in particular is almost entirely filled with this ambulatory padding. The serial’s equally frequent running scenes are a little livelier than the walking ones, but are too often flattened by the mechanically repetitious way in which they’re filmed: to provide producer Katzman with yet more visual padding, director Spencer Bennet continually has the pursued parties run across a stretch of landscape, and then follows their flight with near-identical footage of the pursuers jogging across the same scenery, duplicating the movement of their quarry–and then repeats the cycle on another piece of land; the heroes’ flight from the Volcano Men in Chapter One provides the first of many examples of this excessively routinized chase-filming style.

Mysterious Island--chase 1 Mysterious Island--chase 2
Above: The heroes (left) flee the Volcano Men (right).

Bennet gives the serial’s fight scenes more flair than the chases, assisted by his actors and by stuntmen Wally West and George Robotham–who incorporate some fine flips and leaps into Island’s periodic brawls. The Chapter Seven cave fight is energetic and tough-looking, while the Chapter Ten hut fight between undoubled actors Terry Frost and Rusty Wescoatt is even livelier; the Chapter Fifteen cave fight, the Chapter Seven fight aboard the pirate ship, and the Chapter Five fight in the rocks are all quite respectable too. The other fights scattered throughout the serial maintain a similar level of competency; the too-brief spear duel on the lake-side in Chapter Three is also well-done. The serial’s only protracted gunfight–the battle at the cabin in Chapter Six–starts well but becomes too static and dragged-out, with the characters squatting behind cover and firing fruitlessly at each other for a seemingly interminable amount of time.

Mysterious Island--spear fight Mysterious Island--fistfight
Above left: Ralph Hodges takes on a Volcano Man in the Chapter Three spear fight. Above right: Richard Crane pummels a pirate as Bernard Hamilton watches during the Chapter Seven cave fistfight.

Though Columbia’s backlot and sound-stages provide the houses and streets of Richmond in the first chapter, the pirate-ship’s sides and deck (the same set later featured in Great Adventures of Captain Kidd), and the artificial rock formation by which the good guys sometimes make camp, most of Island’s action is filmed at the scenic Corriganville movie ranch–on its slopes, in its forests, on its lake-shore, and at one of its cabins. Though he undoubtedly saved himself a lot of rental fees by this extensive off-lot shooting, Katzman cuts additional corners in the exteriors and properties department; we’re never even shown a single establishing shot of the Volcano Men’s alleged village, our view of their home territory being restricted to a hut interior. Even more noticeable is the disappointing but money-saving omission of Captain Nemo’s Nautilus; for the first and probably the last time in the character’s screen history, he appears without his famous submarine and is reduced to living in a cave laboratory furnished with a few sci-fi props. The Mercurians also house themselves and their gadgets in a cave, but at least are given an imposing means of transportation–the flying “Time Top” from Katzman’s earlier serial Brick Bradford, which appears via airborne footage from Bradford and some stationary new shots of a life-size mock-up (which, unfortunately, doesn’t really look like the contraption seen in the stock shots). More stock footage is evident in the recurring shots of the island’s rumbling volcano; oddly enough, these visuals are borrowed from a Republic serial, Hawk of the Wilderness.

Mysterious Island--Corriganville walking 1 Mysterious Island--Corriganville walking 2
Above: Bernard Hamilton and Hugh Prosser (right-hand picture) and Ralph Hodges (left-hand picture) ramble through the Corriganville wilds.

Cliffhangers in Island are frequently too abrupt, particularly the Chapter One rockfall, the Chapter Two cliffhanger (which has the Volcano Men suddenly tossing explosive powder at the good guys), and the Chapter Five electrical-spark blast that engulfs the heroes. The endings of Chapter Eight (in which the heroes are forced towards pirate gunfire by native spears) and Chapter Twelve (which has Harding and Pencroft cornered in a cave by the Mercurians and blasted by their ray-guns) also suffer from abruptness, but are both dramatically shot. The Chapter Eleven pirate-ship explosion (undoubtedly stock footage from some feature-film) is impressive, but is brought about by an illogical and utterly inexplicable act on Ayrton’s part. The Chapter Thirteen deadfall cliffhanger is carefully set up and effectively executed; the Chapter Three sacrificial submersion of Harding by the Volcano Men and the Chapter Eleven burning-shack cliffhanger also come off well.

Mysterious Island--suspension cliffhanger Mysterious Island--cave-sparks cliffhanger
Above left: Richard Crane (almost certainly doubled by a stuntman) is dangled over a lake by the Volcano Men towards the end of Chapter Three. Above right: Electrical sparks suddenly shoot from a cave wall to threaten Crane, Marshall Reed, and Ralph Hodges.

Though Mysterious Island’s five central protagonists are a varied and potentially interesting group, the capable actors who play them are kept so busy with skirmishing that they’re not allowed much of a chance to give their characters the touches of personality that their counterparts in Verne’s novel possessed. As Captain Harding, Richard Crane is a much more engaging hero here than in his other Columbia serial, the aforementioned Great Adventures of Captain Kidd; there, he was so scowlingly serious that he often came off as pompous, but in Island he balances gravity, military authoritativeness, and quiet cheerfulness in skillful and likable fashion.

Mysterious Island--Richard Crane
Above: An introductory shot of Richard Crane as Captain Harding.

Marshall Reed as Pencroft makes a self-assured assistant hero–and sometimes manages to give a wryly humorous tone to his lines, when reacting with surprise or disbelief to the island’s wild events. Young Ralph Hodges, as the outspoken and impetuous Bert, lends energy to several scenes and provides a good contrast to the more self-possessed Crane and Reed. Hugh Prosser maintains a thoughtful, sober, and unflappably dignified air as newspaperman Gideon Spillett, but has much less to do than his younger co-stars. Bernard Hamilton is congenial, albeit rather subdued, as the dependable Neb; he’s given a good dramatic moment when he mourns Harding’s apparent death in Chapter One (a scene taken directly from the book)–but, like Prosser, is mostly confined to the background.

Mysterious Island--Prosser, Hodges, Reed, Hamilton
Above, left to right: Hugh Prosser, Ralph Hodges, Marshall Reed, and Bernard Hamilton.

Karen Randle as Rulu is the closest thing to a principal heavy that Island’s haphazard plot structure offers–but her flat performance is the weakest one in the serial; she’s unable to convey any of the cunning, sneering arrogance, or fierce ruthlessness one expects from a chapterplay villain. The best she has to offer in the way of menace is a sort of emotionless harshness that seems unpleasant but not especially threatening; her attempts to appear sinister are not helped by her ridiculous Elizabethan page-boy outfit. Her two henchmen are unidentifiable, since they talk very little and wear face-concealing Spider’s Web masks throughout the serial, along with outfits left over from the Flash Gordon serials; one pictures Katzman’s agents rummaging frantically through the racks at Western Costume (which supplied multiple movie studios) in search of anything sufficiently odd-looking to pass as space-alien garb.

Mysterious Island--Mercurians
Above: Karen Randle and her masked followers tinker with their gadgets.

Gene Roth is entertaining as the laid-back but tough and crafty pirate captain Shard, alternately displaying irritable gruffness and cynical humor when confronting the heroes or his often mutinous crewmen; Rusty Wescoatt is the leader of said crewmen, and conducts himself in a colorfully boisterous and bullying manner. Terry Frost, usually a matter-of-fact henchman, seems to enjoy himself in the atypically quirky role of the marooned Ayrton–a character who was sympathetic and heroic in Verne’s book, but is here made to behave so incomprehensibly and destructively–basically doing whatever is needed to move the plot along–that he comes off as completely unhinged. Frost plays this apparent nut with gusto, glaring, grimacing, and screeching ferociously when attacking people, but becoming pathetically panicky and comically obsequious when the heroes, the pirates, or the natives have him at a disadvantage.

Mysterious Island--Roth and Westcoatt Mysterious Island--Terry Frost
Above left: Gene Roth (far left) and Rusty Wescoatt (far right) confer. Above right: Terry Frost prepares to spring.

Leonard Penn, though given prominent billing, has very little screen time as Captain Nemo; by keeping him offstage, the writers are actually following the book for a change–but, since they alter it in so many other respects, one is left wondering why they didn’t give a famous character like Nemo more to do; this further alteration could actually have benefited the serial, since Penn delivers a fine performance in his few scenes–convincingly explaining quasi-scientific gadgetry with suave dignity, and delivering orders with resoundingly stern authority. Though the chapterplay’s version of the Captain is a rather avuncular one (unlike Verne’s noble but sinister and tragic Nemo), Penn still manages to seem aloof, commanding, and even slightly haunted and regretful–and thus keeps the character from deteriorating into a typically unintimidating serial scientist.

Mysterious Island--Leonard Penn
Above: Leonard Penn as Captain Nemo.

The actors who play the Volcano Men are an unfamiliar and exotic-looking group, most of them decidedly Hawaiian in appearance; the portrayer of the tribe’s chief has a fair share of dialogue but (like his more silent followers) is uncredited. However, he and his cohorts are saddled with such embarrassing costumes that they were probably happy to remain anonymous; instead of normal and respectable sarongs or loin-cloths, they’re dressed in rubber skullcaps and black sweat-suits, and wear light-colored towels around their waists in skirt-like fashion; they’re also forced to carry impractical-looking lightning-bolt-shaped spears.

Mysterious Island--Volcano Men
Above: The Volcano Men, such as they are.

Frank Ellis has several scenes as a pirate, while William Fawcett plays a small character role as a crusty Virginia civilian–whose dog Top winds up joining Harding’s party in their adventures. “Top” himself (the canine actor is uncredited) is an endearingly cute and peppy animal, but far too small to take any active part in the action. Stanley Blystone and Howard Negley pop up as Confederate officers, Zon Murray is a Richmond street tough, and former serial hero Tom Tyler makes a very brief appearance as a Union army messenger in the first chapter; it’s rather sad to see one of the chapterplay genre’s best-known stars reduced to a bit so small that it doesn’t even warrant a closeup.

Overall, Mysterious Island is one of the weakest serials from Sam Katzman’s 1948-1953 period. The action, plotting, and acting in many of the chapterplays from this era of Columbia serial-making were strong enough to compensate for Katzman’s typically uneven production values, but Island’s storyline is so unfocused, dully repetitious, and ridiculously jumbled that neither its cast nor its action scenes are enough to keep it interesting–or enough to keep bored viewers from noticing the many production flaws that would have been much easier to forgive or ignore in a more gripping chapterplay.

 Mysterious Island--last 1 Mysterious Island--last 2
Above: Hugh Prosser’s Gideon Spillett surprises his friends by tossing his written account of their adventures overboard at the end, declaring that it’s too unbelievable to be published. The writers of the serial should have taken a similarly critical attitude towards their script.

5 thoughts on “Mysterious Island

  1. The Katzman serials from 1948 to 1952 I have seen range for the most part from okay to good, but this one was flat and backs up the negative view some have of his productions, but which I don’t share. *1/2 out of *****

    • I think part of the reason for the frequent blanket condemnation of Katzman’s serials is that many of the best serials from his outfit’s 1948–1952 period–Roar of the Iron Horse, Son of Geronimo, Pirates of the High Seas–have had much less exposure than some of the weaker or more uneven ones like Captain Video, Mysterious Island, or Batman and Robin, which get more attention due to their superhero/sci-fi elements but aren’t nearly as good as the less gimmicky efforts. The Superman serials, which I’d rank with Katzman’s better outings (mainly due to the unusually strong characterizations), do enjoy plenty of exposure–but seem to evoke violently divided reactions from fans, a lot of whom are bothered by the cartoon flying scenes or are else too enamored of the George Reeves TV show to accept another version of the character from roughly the same period.

  2. I do not think that ever at age 11 I enjoyed this track meet of a serial. This was a run, sprint, walk and chase serial that did not even try to pretend they were on an island. It went downhill after chapter one. The sinking of the island in the last chapter was the hit of the serial. Sam’s serials never yielded to logic, but this one has so many “why did they do that” moments it receives first prize. My favorite however is planting a bomb next to the space ship rather than just locking the door! I still watched every chapter.
    On the bright side, people are still making bad films.

  3. One of my all-time favorite adventure stories when I was young, and one of my least favorite serials. A horrible mishmash that is totally missing the excitement, suspense and variety of action contained in the book. Katzman occasionally made interesting chapter plays but this definitely wasn’t one of them.

    • Correct. I looked at it as more a track and field event or “who is chasing who” this chapter? Sam had a rather blais attitude about killing a village of people on the island – people we never saw.

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