Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Guide to Early Science Fiction Films (1920-1929)

The following essay serves as part 3 of my series on the history of science fiction films. Please take a moment to check out part 1 and part 2 if you haven't done so already.

I've also made a video version of those articles, which you can watch here and here.

In the 1920s, science fiction movies began to be a bit more common. In 1920, there were two.

One was a German film titled Algol: Tragedy of Power. It was directed by Hans Werckmeister and starred Emil Jannings, who later became to the first person to receive an Academy Award.

The plot centers around an alien that gives a coal miner a machine that could allow him to rule the world. Algol features sets by Walter Reimann, who was a designer on the famous German horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Algol was thought to be lost for many years until it was recently rediscovered.

Also in 1920, there was a 15-episode serial released called The Invisible Ray (dir: Harry A. Pollard). It's about scientists discovering a ray with special powers and using it for a criminal scheme. Ruth Clifford and Jack Sherrill were the stars.

Unfortunately, it is currently considered lost and not much information is readily available online about it.

In 1921, a sci-fi flick called L'uomo meccanico, or The Mechanical Man was released, directed by Andre Reed. It's delightful cheesiness makes it one of my favorites from the era. This is mostly due to the awesome, goofy design of the titular robot.

It was originally around 80 minutes, but only 26 minutes survive. A scientist creates a robot that can be controlled remotely and has super-human strength. However, a group of criminals kills the scientists and use the robot to commit crimes.

In 1922, magician Harry Houdini starred in a film called The Man from Beyond, directed by Burton L. King. It involved a man being brought back to life after being frozen in arctic ice for 100 years. He then meets the reincarnation of his former lover and must convince her that they are soulmates.

The year after that in 1923 we have a movie called Black Oxen, directed by Frank Lloyd. It starred Clara Bow, Corinne Griffith, and Conway Tearle and was based on a 1922 novel by Gertrude Atherton. It's about a woman who is 58 years old, but keeps her youthful appearance fantastical treatments and surgeries.

In 1924, there were three films released with sci-fi themes. The first I will mention is a Soviet film called Aelita, directed by Yakov Protazanov.

One of the earliest feature films containing space travel, it's about a man who travels to Mars and leads a rebellion against a group called the Elders. The title comes from the character Queen Aelita who had fallen in love with the protagonist through a telescope.

Aelita was influential partly due to its striking sets, which were influenced by the Constructivist movement. They made have been an influence on the Fritz Lang sci-fi epics from later in the decade, Metropolis, and Woman in the Moon.

Next, we have an American film that was a bit lighter than many of the science fiction films of the era, The Last Man on Earth.

The movie is set in the futuristic year of 1960 and a disease known as "male-itis" has killed every fertile male over the age of 12, with all boys younger than that having received a vaccine. Women take over the world, and one even becomes President of the United States. However, a surviving man is found in the middle of the Ozark mountains, and of course, all the women of the world start to fight over him.

As you can imagine, this is a comedy, so it could easily be the first feature-length sci-fi comedic film. The Last Man on Earth was directed by John G. Blystone and starred Earle Foxe and Grace Cunard.

It was loosely based on a Mary Shelley novel from 1826 called The Last Man, and was remade in 1933 as a musical titled It's Great to Be Alive.

In 1924, there was also a french film released called L'Inhumaine, or The Inhuman Woman. It was directed by avant-garde filmmaker Marcel L'Herbier, whose career ended up continuing into the 1970s.

The film featured many experimental techniques and was a collaboration among many leading figures in various artistic fields. For example, French cubist painter Fernand Léger created the set of the mechanical laboratory. The noted French architect Robert Mallet-Stevens designed some houses.

L'Inhumaine was also notable for the controversy it created. After the first public screenings in November of 1924, critics and audiences alike had very negative reactions to it.

A cast member gave a rather disturbing description of the audiences in Paris:

"At each screening, spectators insulted each other, and there were as many frenzied partisans of the film as there were furious opponents. It was amid genuine uproar that, at every performance, there passed across the screen the multicoloured and syncopated images with which the film ends. Women, with hats askew, demanded their money back; men, with their faces screwed up, tumbled out on to the pavement where sometimes fist-fights continued."

1925 featured three science fiction flicks, and the most significant was probably The Lost World, based on based on the novel of the same name by Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. 

Like the novel, the movie version featured dinosaurs; this appears to be the first major film that centered on dinosaurs.

The Lost World is the most famous film by director Harry O. Hoyt. Also, it featured special effects stop-motion work by Willis O' Brien, who later gained fame for his work in the 1933 film King Kong. O'Brien combined animated dinosaurs with live-action footage using a split screen technique. According to Wikipedia, "this was the first feature-length film made in the United States, possibly the world, to feature model animation as the primary special effect, or stop motion animation in general."

Next, I'll a mention a Russian film called Luch Smerti, directed by Lev Kuleshov, a highly influential figure in cinema history. He was a leading thinker in Soviet Montage theory and taught Sergei Eisenstien. He is also remembered for the Kuleshov effect, which shows how editing can affect the audience's perception of what they see.

Luch Smerti is commonly referred to as The Death Ray in English. Unfortunately, only the middle section of the film survives.

1925 also featured a short sci-fi movie from France called Paris Qui Dort, which translates as "Paris which sleeps".  It was also released as Le rayon de la mort, and was known in English as The Crazy Ray, as well as Paris Asleep.

The plot involves a crazy doctor that uses a ray gun to freeze the people of Paris.

It was directed by a significant filmmaker by the name of René Clair. He started out making films in France, but eventually worked in the US. Some of his more famous works are Under the Roofs of Paris and I Married  a Witch. I highly recommend checking out his avant-garde short film Entr'acte, which featured music by Erik Satie as well as cameos by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp.

Skipping forward to 1927, we come to what is easily the most influential science fiction film of the decade as well as one of the most important films in cinematic history. It is possibly the most influential sci-fi movie of the silent era, definitely up there with A Trip to the Moon.

Of course, I am referring to the Fritz Lang classic Metropolis. This is definitely his most well-known film, but he made other significant works as well, including M, and the 1929 science fiction film Woman in the Moon. He also wrote the screenplay with his wife Thea von Harbou. The cast included  Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge.

The film was incredibly ambitious. The budget was originally over a million reichsmarks, but it ended up costing over 5 million, making it the most expensive movie ever made at the time. It also took a year to shoot.

Set in a dystopian future, Metropolis featured complicated special effects and elaborate, visually striking sets that were strongly influenced by German Expressionism and Art Deco.

At the time, the film did not get a good reception, but over the years it has gained a reputation as one of the best science fiction movies ever. It currently has a stellar 99% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes as well as an 8.3 out of 10 user rating on IMDB.

Moving on, in 1928 we have yet another version of the Alraune legend. The silent German film was directed by Henrik Galeen and featured Brigitte Helm, who starred in Metropolis.

The morbid plot involves a prostitute being inseminated with the semen of a hanged  man. A plot point unique to this version is that the prostitute kills all men who fall in love with her.

This one is generally considered better than the earlier versions of the myth.

In the final year of the decade, there were three notable sci-fi flicks released. The first I'll mention is an American film called The Mysterious Island. It was produced by MGM and directed by Lucien Hubbard, who won one of the first Academy Awards for producing the 1927 film Wings.

The movie was based on a novel of the same name by Jules Verne, who also wrote Around the World in Eighty Days, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

In 1929, there was also a sci-fi flick called High Treason, which shows clear influence from Metropolis. The director was Maurice Elvey, and the cast included James Carew, Humberstone Wright, and Benita Hume.

Based on a play, the movie is set in 1940 and features a conflict between the "Empire of the Atlantic States" and the "United States of Europe".

Finally, we have another silent film from the legendary German director Fritz Lang, Woman in the Moon (Frau im Mond in German). The source material was a novel written by Lang's wife Thea von Harbou.

Woman in the Moon is about a rocket that travels through space to the Earth's moon. This was one of the first big movies about rocket travel, and is possibly the first example of a countdown to zero that precedes a rocket launch.

The film currently sits at a 7.4 out of 10 rating on IMDB. I'd agree with the rating as it's a solid, influential film that has some minor flaws.

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