LC Information Bulletin, Vol. 55 No. 15 (Septeber 16, 1996)

Library Restores Rare Undersea Film

Brian Taves

A Pioneer Under the Sea:

Library Restores Rare Film Footage

On rare occasions, a valuable motion picture literally finds its way into an archives. Such was the case of “With Williamson Beneath the Sea” (1932), the filmed autobiography of the pioneer of undersea photography, J. Ernest Williamson.

In April 1992 the Library was sent Williamson material that had recently been loaned to the National Geographic Society for a new documentary. When the cans of Williamson film first arrived in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, their importance was immediately recognized by one of the staff who was familiar with the Wil-liamson films of several Jules Verne novels. Williamson’s daughter, Sylvia Munro, from whom the footage had been borrowed, was on her way to Washington from her home in the Bahamas and eager to find a home for her father’s film. During her visit, a deposit of the Williamson collection at the Library was arranged, and full restoration of “With Williamson Beneath the Sea” was made a preservation priority.

John Ernest Williamson (1881-1966) was active in motion pictures for nearly 50 years. His father was a sea captain who had invented a deep-sea tube, made of a series of concentric, interlocking iron rings that stretched like an accordion. Suspended from a specially outfitted ship, this shaft into the sea allowed easy communication and a plentiful supply of air down to depths of up to 250 feet. When attached to a diving apparatus,the tube could assist in underwater repair and salvage work.

In 1912 young Williamson, then a journalist, realized that his father’s mechanism could also be used to obtain undersea photographs. With a light hung from the mother ship to illuminate the sea in front of the tube, still photographs of the depths off Hampton Roads, Va., proved so successful that Williamson was urged to try motion pictures.

To facilitate the tube’s new purpose, “J.E.” (as he was known) designed a spherical observation chamber with a large funnel-shaped glass window, 5 feet in diameter and an inch-and-a-half thick. Williamson called this device a “photosphere,” and it was attached to the end of the tube. The equipment was taken to the Bahamas, where the sunlight reached down to a depth of 150 feet in the clear waters, enhancing photographic possibilities. A special barge was built to carry the tube and photosphere, and christened the Jules Verne in honor of Williamson’s inspiration.

The first production of the Submarine Film Corp. was made in the spring of 1914, a one-hour documentary ingeniously titled “Thirty Leagues Under the Sea.” The movie’s climax was J.E.’s fight with a shark, which he killed with a knife while remaining within the camera’s range. Although the film is now apparently lost, the Library has more than 40 stills submitted for the copyright of “Thirty Leagues Under the Sea.”

A fictional film was the logical next step, and Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was an obvious and potentially breathtaking subject. Production began in the Bahamas in the spring of 1916, facing many perils. A heavy sea would rock the barge from which the tube was suspended, or the waters might become cloudy with sediment, making photography from inside the photosphere impossible. As men in diving suits, portraying Captain Nemo’s crew, enacted the undersea funeral or a fight with the denizens of the deep, they were actually menaced by nearby barracudas. Upon its release, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” became a major popular success, enhanced by the public concern with submarine warfare during World War I.

When Walt Disney produced a remake of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” in 1954, the same locales were used that Williamson had found almost 40 years earlier. Williamson provided advice as the new crew faced the problems he had overcome in 1916.

For J.E.’s third movie, “The Submarine Eye” (1917), he wrote a scenario telling of the inventor of an inverted undersea periscope who discovers a lost treasure in the depths. Some 200 frame blowups documenting scenes from throughout “The Submarine Eye” were submitted for copyright and survive in the Library’s collection; otherwise the movie appears to be lost.

In search of authenticity, Williamson always took his camera to the ocean floor, never settling for the ease of shooting in a tank, a method increasingly used for supposed undersea scenes in Hollywood productions. J.E. was inherently involved with the scripting and directing of scenes that could be obtained with the photosphere. As a result, sunken treasure, sea monsters, mermaids and shipwrecks became motifs in his films, including “Girl of the Sea” (1920), “Wet Gold” (1921), “Wonders of the Sea” (1922) and his first color film, “The Uninvited Guest” (1924).

For three years in the late 1920s, Williamson worked on another Jules Verne adaptation, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s production of “The Mysterious Island.” The script was rewritten in Hollywood many times in a series of efforts to update Verne’s story, and Williamson shot scenes for several versions. When “The Mysterious Island” finally emerged from this process and was released in 1929, it bore no resemblance to what Williamson (or Verne) had conceived, and none of the Williamson footage was used.

The best result of the film’s troubled production, for Williamson, was meeting and falling in love with Lilah Freeland (1895-1992), whom he married in 1927. In 1929 their newborn daughter, Sylvia, “the little Captain,” could be seen in Williamson’s next project, the five-reel “Field Museum-Williamson Undersea Expedition to the Bahamas.” The saga of Sylvia, the first infant actually rocked to sleep in the cradle of the deep, quickly became a favorite of the press. (A second “undersea baby” was born to the Williamsons in 1934, Annecke Jans, nicknamed “Nikki.”)

Sylvia again starred in her father’s 1932 documentary on his work, “With Williamson Beneath the Sea,” released by Sol Lesser. In addition to demonstrating his filming techniques, the film also reveals the scientific uses of the photosphere in exploring the deep. From inside the photosphere, J.E., Lilah and even Sylvia study the life of the creatures of the bottom, making photographs, sketches and paintings of the fish and plants seen through the window. In addition to its instructive aspects, “With Williamson Beneath the Sea” is entertaining as well, incorporating scenes from earlier fictional Williamson movies that otherwise appear to be lost, giving the movie added interest from today’s perspective. It is an ideal example of a restoration that would only have been undertaken by an archives, since it was made independently and its value is not commercial, but as a historical artifact. Williamson also gained other distinctions. His popular lecture tours included the screening of underwater footage. In 1936 he wrote an autobiography, 20 Years Under the Sea, that became a best-seller and was translated into many languages. In connection with a 1939 expedition, the photosphere was turned into the world’s first undersea post office, and over the years Williamson devised a number of special philatelic commemoratives.

After Williamson shot scenes in Technicolor for Paramount’s “Bahamas Passage” in 1941, the photosphere was opened to visitors for the first time and finally brought ashore in the late 1940s. Williamson’s last film was a half- hour condensation of “With Williamson Beneath the Sea,” made in 1955 for the television series “I Search for Adventure.” Although using much of the earlier footage, the television film had entirely new on-camera interviews and narration by Williamson; Mrs. Munro’s deposit with the Library includes this version.

J.E. Williamson’s career is emblematic of a period in filmmaking, long past, when pioneers were part-scientist, part-showman and part-promoter on endeavors that involved as much adventure as technology. The international revivals of his “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and the Library’s restoration of his unique filmed autobiography, “With Williamson Beneath the Sea,” will allow the full extent of his achievements to be more readily appreciated.

Brian Taves (Ph.D., University of Southern California) is on the staff of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, where he has been involved with the restoration of “With Williamson Beneath the Sea.” He is the author of three books, most recently The Jules Verne Encyclopedia, and in 1995 visited the Bahamas Archive to research the Williamson family papers for a chapter in a forthcoming book on adaptations of Jules Verne in film and television.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
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