Journal of Film Preservation, Volume XXV No. 52 (April 1996)

Brian Taves

With Williamson Beneath the Sea

On rare occasions, a valuable motion picture literally finds its own way into an archive. Such was the case on With Williamson beneath the Sea (1932), the filmed autobiography of the pioneer of undersea photography, J. Ernest Williamson. In April of 1992, the Library of Congress was forwarded Williamson material that had recently been loaned to the National Geographic Society for their production, Cameramen who Dared Williamson’s daughter, Sylvia Munro, from whom the footage had been borrowed, was to visit Washington, D.C. shortly, and was eager to find a home for her father’s film.

When the assorted Williamson cans first arrived in the Division, their importance was immediately recognized by one of the staff who was familiar with Williamson’s films of several Jules Verne novels. During Mrs. Munro’s visit, arrangements were made for a deposit of the Williamson collection at the Library of Congress. David Francis, chief of the Motion Picture/Broadcasting/Recorded Sound Division, made full restoration of With Williamson Beneath the Sea a preservation priority.

John Ernest Williamson (1881-1966) was active in motion pictures for nearly fifty years. His father was a sea captain, Charles Williamson of Norfolk, who had invented a deep-sea tube, made of a series of concentric, interlocking iron rings, which stretched like an accordion. Suspended from a specially outfitted ship, this shaft into the sea facilitated easy communcation and plentiful air down to depths of up to 250 feet. When attached to a diving-bell type apparatus, the tube could be used for 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 or even motion pictures. With a light hung from the mother ship to illuminate the sea in front of the tube, still photographs of the depths of Hampton Roads, Virginia, 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 special observation chamber with a large funnel-shaped glass window, five feet in diameter and an inch-and-a-half thick. Williamson called this device the “photosphere,” and it was attached to the end of the tube. The equipment was taken to the Bahamas, where the sunlight reached up to a depth of 150 feet in the clear waters, facilitating photography. A specially built barge (the first of three such craft) was built to carry the tube and photosphere, and named the Jules Verne in honor of Williamson’s inspiration. The barge would be towed to whatever location in the islands was to be photographed.

With his brother George, J.E. formed the Submarine Film Corporation, and in the spring of 1914 shot their first one-hour feature, known as the Williamson Expeditionary Picture and ingeniously titled Thirty Leagues under the Sea. The documentary showed how the photosphere functioned and the manner in which the Bahamas depended on the life in the sea. Thirty Leagues under the Sea was climaxed by 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 over forty stills submitted for copyright deposit.

The Williamson brothers quickly realized that fictional films could be an even more popular and lucrative outlet for their endeavors, and Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was an obvious and potentially breathtaking subject. Carl Laemmle was sold on the idea, and in partnership with Universal Pictures the Williamsons returned to the Bahamas in the spring of 1916 for location filming. The hazards were many. A heavy sea would rock the barge from which the tube was suspended, making photography from inside the photosphere impossible, and the waters might become cloudy with sediment. As actors in diving suits, portraying Captain Nemo’s crew, enact an undersea funeral or a fight with the denizens of the deep, they were actually menaced by nearby barracudas. Submarines were impossible to obtain during wartime, so a full-size facsimile of the Nautilus was built, able to carry thirty actors who could exit through an underwater airlock.

Ironically, although the underwater scenes of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea were the star of the picture, and won critical paise and audience interest, Universal kept the Williamson footage to a minimum in the final cut. Instead, emphasis was placed on a convoluted narrative that combined the title story with Verne’s other Nemo novel, The Mysterious Island. Subsequently, Universal tried to claim rights to all future use of the photosphere, and the Williamsons had to sue the studio for the Submarine Film Corporation to continue production.

Henceforth, while always willing to work for the majors, J.E. was ready to proceed with his own vision of the best way to make undersea pictures, producing independently whenever sufficient backing was obtainable. This was the path the brothers took for their next production, The Submarine Eye. J. Winthrop Kelley directed a scenario by J.E. that more effectively utilized the potential of undersea photography. The story told of the inventor of an inverted undersea periscope who discovers an apparently lost treasure undersea. While trying to retrieve it, he is trapped underwater, and must be saved by a native diver. By early 1917, both The Submarine Eye and A Deep-Sea Tragedy (originally titled A Submarine Tragedy), a short made simultaneously, were released. Some 200 frame blow-ups documenting scenes from throughout the film were submitted for copyright, and survive in the Library’s collection; otherwise the movie appears to be lost.

The Williamsons had just begun shooting their next project, an undersea espionage story entitled Houdini and the Miracle, which would have been the first film to star the famous magician, when the start of American involvement in World War I halted the production. Shortly thereafter, the Williamson brothers ended their partnership, and J.E. took over the Submarine Film Corporation.

By this time, the novelty of undersea photography had spawned its own genre. Maurice Tourneur was one of the filmmakers who became interested in undersea stories, and learned diving to direct the underwater scenes himself. He used the Williamson device in filming the climax to The White Heather (1919), in which two divers struggle at the bottom of the deep for a document aboard a sunken ship.

J.E. returned to independent production in 1920 with Girl of the Sea, a story of a shipwrecked girl who grows to adulthood on a desert island before she is found. J.E. supervised, while J. Winthrop Kelley again directed. The cameramen were Jay Rescher and Harold Sintzenich; Rescher was to photograph Williamson’s next three films. Sintzenich had already shot The Submarine Eye, A Deep-Sea Tragedy, and portions of the The White Heather, and the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress holds his diaries.

In 1921, Williamson made one of his triumphs, Wet Gold (originally titled Fathoms Deep), distributed by Goldwyn. Ralph Ince directed and played the lead. Williamson wrote the scenario of the search for treasure lost in a sunken ship, with modern-day pirates using a submarine, ending in an undersea struggle between the hero and his rival. Advertising claimed that Wet Gold “rivals Jules Verne.” The picture deeply impressed many of those who saw it, winning praise from such figures as submarine pioneer Simon Lake and cinematographer Lee Garmes. The picture was also endorsed by such notables as President Warren Harding and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

Throughout his career, J.E. found that the potential of submarine stories was often undercut by the conventions of major Hollywood productions, and he preferred his Bahamian locations to the lure of the industry capitol. He was inherently always involved with the scripting and directing of scenes that could be obtained with the photosphere, and as a result, sunken treasure, sea monsters, mermaids, and shipwrecks became motifs in his films. In search of authenticity, Williamson always strove to take his camera to the actual ocean floor, never settling for the ease of shooting in a tank, a method increasingly used for supposed undersea scenes in Hollywood films.

In 1922, Williamson took over all aspects of his next film, writing, directing, producing, and even portraying himself. The result was Wonders of the Sea, a combination fiction and non-fiction film about Williamson’s search, using the photosphere, for a sea monster in the West Indies. The movie included actual footage shot that same year of Alexander Graham Bell descending in the photosphere on a visit just months before his death.

With the development of technicolor, Williamson and his Submarine Film Corporation undertook to photograph the bottom of the sea in the new process. For his first such attempt, he reunited with director Ralph Ince in a story of a shipwrecked heiress, The uninvited Guest (1924). The use of color both above and below the sea, including the first such views any audience ever had of the ocean bottom, was successful and popular.

Metro distributed The Uninvited Guest for the Submarine Film Corporation, and its popularity convinced the newly merged Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to contract with Williamson to co-direct a new movie, The Mysterious Island. Like Williamson’s association with Universal on Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, this new Jules Verne film would again combine Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas and The Mysterious Island. However, the new movie was to be over three hours long, entirely in color, and have the benefit of major stars and a million dollar budget. Maurice Tourneur, with whom Williamson had collaborated on The White Heather, would helm the studio portions in Hollywood, while Williamson shot the underwater scenes in the Bahamas.

From the outset, however, the production of The Mysterious Island was complicated when the studio attempted to update Verne’s appeal with a new story, and months of delay and budget negotiations ensued. When Williamson was finally dispatched to Nassau in July 1926, the best weather had passed. Williamson overcame the difficulties caused by three hurricanes, along with additional weeks of shooting when a new script arrived. However, upon its completion, his footage was shelved during yet another rewrite of The Mysterious Island. By then, Tourneur had quit the picture, and ultimately, Lucien Hubbard wrote and directed the version of The Mysterious Island that was completed in 1929 with the addition of sound sequences. What finally emerged bore no resemblance to what Williamson (or Verne) had conceived, and none of his footage was used. In production for four years and far exceeding its budget, The Mysterious Island was one of the most troubled movie endeavors of the era, and elicited little interest from audiences when it was released.

For Williamson, the best result of his work at M-G-M was meeting and falling in love with Lilah Freeland (1895-1992), sister of director Thornton Freeland, 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. Sylvia was taken down into the photosphere when she was only a few months old, while her parents did their scientific research beside her. The saga of the first child to visit the fish in their own home quickly became a favorite of the press. Sylvia again starred when her father resumed independent production in 1932 with a documentary on his work, With Williamson beneath the Sea.

A second “undersea baby” was born to the Williamsons in 1934, Annecke Jans, and Mary Pickford became the godmother to young “Nikki.” Pickford was to star in a combination animated and live-action film of Charles Kingsley’s novel, The Water Babies, a project on which Williamson expended years of effort but which remained unproduced. M-G-M’s hoped-for technicolor remake of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was often under discussion during the 1930s, but never came to fruition.

Meanwhile, Williamson gained distinction in new areas. The popularity of his lecture tours, which included the screening of underwater footage, led to the publication of his autobiography, 20 Years Under the Sea, in 1936. The book became a best-seller, reprinted on four occasions during the next eight years, and was translated into many languages, including Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Swedish. In collaboration with Frances Jenkins Olcott, J.E. wrote Child of the Deep, a book telling of Sylvia’s underwater adventures for young readers.

In connection with a 1939 undersea 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. A Williamson photograph of the sea gardens of Nassau was featured on a 1938 Bahamian stamp, and his achievements would later be celebrated on stamps issued by Monaco (in 1962) and the Bahamas (in 1965). Williamson also appeared in some segments of Fox Movietone News.

After shooting 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. For the Bahamian government, he shot a color record of a trip around the lighthouses of the islands aboard the ship Firebird during the 1940s.

Williamson’s last film was a half-hour version of With Williamson beneath the Sea in 1955 for the syndicated television series, I Search for Adventure. Although using much of the earlier footage, the television version was given entirely new on-camera interviews and narration by Williamson. (Mrs. Munro’s deposit with the Library of Congress included a 16 mm. composite print of the I Search for Adventure version.)

The importance of Williamson’s achievements is in providing the impetus for undersea photography, rather than developing the technology that would eventually prove most practicable. His photosphere always provided a very dry, insulated way to view the deep, and Williamson retained his faith in the photosphere’s basic separation of man and water, never approaching the idea of actually taking cameras into the sea. Ironically, when Walt Disney used the new method to remake Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, he shot in the same locales as Williamson had used almost forty years earlier. Disney considered using the photosphere, and Williamson provided advice as the new crew faced the same practical problems he had overcome so many years before.

Sadly, Williamson lost all of his original movie negatives in a hurricane that struck the area where they were stored in Florida. Only his original material onWith Williamson beneath the Sea survived, which had been kept in the Bahamas. Fortunately, the studios had retained their prints of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. Because Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea had been released on a states rights basis, a number of prints went into the hands of private collectors. The movie became a popular part of the Blackhawk home movie catalog, and is widely available on video today. The fact that the primary interest in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea was in the undersea scenes is reflected in the fact that these portions are badly worn and scratched in most surviving original prints, while the studio and exterior sequences are comparatively well preserved. Of Williamson’s other films, roughly half of Girl of the Sea survives at the British Film Institute and has been preserved. Other archives may also have Williamson footage.

The restoration of With Williamson beneath the Sea was coordinated by James Cozart of the Library’s Motion Picture Conservation Center, in Dayton, Ohio. The preservation was complicated by the fact that Williamson, while on the same Hollywood trip when he utilized portions of With Williamson beneath the Sea for I Search for Adventure, had also edited his preprint material for a planned theatrical reissue. In addition, this material was not even as Williamson had left it. As a favor to his family, some members of the crew of Jaws: The Revenge, shooting in the Bahamas in 1987, had cleaned and repackaged the reels, discarding some footage that appeared badly deteriorated.

The materials which arrived at the Library included an incomplete optical track of the film, a negative, a workprint, and release prints (one nitrate and several safety), along with a separate musical track and assorted trims and outtakes. Some of the safety prints was cut into hundreds of rolls, probably for Williamson’s use in lectures. The arrival of the safety was fortuitous, because it would probably have been impossible to salvage had vinegar syndrome proceeded much further. An original nitrate print at George Eastman House was also obtained for the Library’s restoration, and actually proved to be in better condition than much of the safety film stored so many years in the warm, humid climate of the Bahamas. In an interesting twist on the usual cliche, the nitrate waited, but the safety did not.

None of these prints were complete, and various pieces from each had to be patched together, using as the foundation the two nitrate prints that did not suffer from decomposition. The script originally submitted for copyright, together with the print from Eastman House, provided a comparison for what should have been in the original release. The Eastman House print did not include the later cuts that Williamson had made on his own copies, and also had a better copy of reel five than Williamson’s material. Later, a nitrate master ofWith Williamson beneath the Sea , that was probably the source of Williamson’s safety negative, turned up in the Hollywood Museum material at the UCLA archive, and provided a bit of missing track. Additional footage that Mrs. Munro had previously deposited with the Bahamas Archives was also secured.

An unusual aspect of the restoration was thatWith Williamson beneath the Sea included a silent, minute-long two-color insert in the second reel of some of the earliest undersea technicolor scenes that Williamson had shot. The insert was probably a test or an outtake from The Uninvited Guest or an unproduced film, and even reissue prints ofWith Williamson beneath the Sea were still using the two-color process. This insert was missing or in varying condition in most of the copies.

As an independently made production (released by Sol Lesser’s Principal Pictures, presented by Lesser and Frank R. Wilson, and produced by J.E.), With Williamson beneath the Sea provides an ideal example of a restoration that would only have been undertaken by an archive. Despite its historical interest, the movie had none of the commercial possibilities that often intrigue major studios. Although several archives had material on the film, none had undertaken any preservation in the sixty years since the picture’s original release. Inter-archival cooperation, along with the availability of the Williamson family’s material, made possible the restoration of With Williamson beneath the Sea . As a result of the Library’s efforts, some eleven minutes have been restored to the shortened versions, for a total of 57 minutes.

With Williamson beneath the Sea is important from scientific and technical standpoints, as well as demonstrating the development of a whole strain of motion picture filming. The movie shows the operation of Williamson’s photosphere along with the unusual way in which his wife and child (despite her tender age) became an integral part of the undersea work. Like Wonders of the Sea, With Williamson beneath the Sea incorporates both previously-filmed footage along with new material. This fact makes it all the more interesting, since many of the scenes are from Williamson productions that otherwise may be lost. For instance, the two concluding reels feature a series of incidents between divers in the deep, and used some of the highlights from such films as The Submarine Eye, A Deep-Sea Tragedy, The White Heather, the quicksand scene from Wet Gold, and the battle with the moray from Wonders of the Sea. As well, With Williamson beneath the Sea heightens its impact by presenting the undersea footage in a concentrated fashion, without the interjection of a distracting melodramatic plotline which marred so many of his fictional features.

In addition to demonstrating how his filming was done, Williamson also reveals the scientific uses of the photosphere in exploring the deep. Some of the footage was taken from his Field Museum- Williamson Undersea Expedition to the Bahamas, particularly the gathering of coral specimens. From inside the photosphere, J.E. and his wife patiently study the life of the creatures of the bottom, making photographs, sketches, and paintings of the fish and plants seen through the window. With the photosphere slowly pulled along along by the mother ship, the Williamsons watched for the best examples of sea fans and coral formations to be brought to the surface and transported to museums for exhibits. Apparently, Williamson also cut some portions of With Williamson beneath the Sea and Field Museum- Williamson Undersea Expedition to the Bahamas for use in the five reels of undersea footage shown in his many lectures in England and the United States.

With Williamson beneath the Sea was not only instructive, but entertainment as well. The undersea family was a popular element, showing Sylvia, daughter of the “submarine sweethearts,” actually rocked to sleep in the cradle of the deep. The movie was described in advertising as “Adventure among the mysteries and monsters of the deep,” and announced with the banner headline, “a lost world fathoms below recovered in savage splendor.” After screen documentaries from the jungles, the tropics, and the poles in the early 1930s, it was the turn for cameras to visit the new marine realm. The pressbook urged tie-ins with undersea attractions, aquariums, and readers of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. With Williamson beneath the Sea was regarded as particularly appealing in the mid-west, where the states rights distribution system which Lesser used still had its greatest vitality.

With Williamson beneath the Sea 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. They managed to convey to wide audiences their enthusiasm for the distant, exotic, and little known regions of the world. With Williamson beneath the Sea provided a unique motion picture testament, and was widely seen and continued to be shown in theaters around the world into the 1950s. Whereas Williamson has been primarily known in recent decades through the brief underwater scenes in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, now that With Williamson beneath the Sea has been restored, the full extent of Williamson’s achievements will be more readily appreciated.

Acknowledgements are due to Sylvia Munro and James Cozart for their contributions to this article.

Copyright © Zvi Har’El
$Date: 2007/12/26 17:46:09 $