One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley found something new at the movies:
When some great, new, startling thing is achieved, one wonders why somebody didn’t do it before. That’s what you think as you view what is doubtless the greatest undersea picture drama ever placed on the screen, this week at the Rialto, under the rather unobtrusive title, Below the Surface. It stars Hobart Bosworth and was written by Luther Reed. Irvin Willat directed.
The film is vivid, striking melodrama concerning deep-sea divers, and it would be great even though it had no novel setting, for the treatment of the theme is poignant and human. But the setting, with its dramatic undersea action, raised the production to a unique position; it pioneers in a new field…There are a dozen angles of striking dramatic appeal in the story, which I have no space to comment upon. Suffice it there is not a moment of its unrolling that you will even think of looking at the clock.
Students of film history probably know that she was wrong: J.E. Williamson pioneered undersea moving-picture photography in 1914. He invented something he called the “photosphere,” which was an iron tube that led to a windowed chamber under water. With this, he shot Thirty Leagues Under the Sea (aka Terrors of the Deep), which featured the murder of a real shark and a fight between a diver and a mechanical, but realistic-looking octopus. In 1916, he and his device were on the team that made the feature 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. You can learn more about Williamson on the Science Friday website.
Kingsley had visited the set for 20,000 Leagues in 1916, but it was the recreation of a Hindu City on the Universal lot, not the one in the Bahamas where they shot the underwater sequences. It seems like she’d forgotten about it four years later.
So in 1920, underwater photography was able to impress even jaded filmgoers like Kingsley. It was remarkably difficult to do. Director Irvin Willat and his director of photography J.O. Taylor didn’t steal the photosphere idea to make their film, they used a different piece of equipment to get to the sea bed, as described in an LA Times article:
It required a regular fleet to carry the apparatus to the particular spot selected as location off the Coast. There a diving bell had to be specially constructed, which served as the deep sea-going craft for the director and the cameraman, who had to take a camera to the bottom of the ocean and keep it there several hours at a time.
This required the building of a huge derrick on the deck of a boat. From this the diving bell was suspended over the water by means of heavy iron chains. In construction this bell followed the principle of an inverted tumbler on stilts, and was made of iron with portholes for the cameraman and director. On its being lowered the fresh air apparatus and telephonic communication were put in place. When it reached the bottom it rested on its stilts, being kept in place by enormous weights. The men wore their ordinary clothes, and complained of no discomfort after they got used to the terrific pressure.
The Times also mentioned that actors took risks, too:
The most dramatic episode occurs when the life line of one of the divers becomes entangled in the wreckage. The men above pull and find the rope taunt. The only way to save the unfortunate man is for some one to dive down and cut the ropes. That is where Hobart Bosworth made his sensational eighteen-foot dive, remaining under water long enough to cut the rope, all without a diver’s suit.
They didn’t have to only go through this once, as Motion Picture News reported in January:
It has been found necessary for the Irvin Willat-Hobart Bosworth-Ince Company to return to Catalina Island for the making of additional undersea scenes for Below the Surface. The company spent three weeks there, but because of heavy seas, it was found the films would practically all have to be retaken.
So it’s no wonder why Kingsley’s predication didn’t come true, that “Below the Surface will probably be the first of a big crop of undersea dramas. Why, indeed, hasn’t anybody done some great thing in this line before?” It was just too difficult. Happily, all of that hard work hasn’t been lost: Below the Surface survives at the Library of Congress and has been released on DVD. It’s also available from the EYE Filmmuseum, with Dutch intertitles. Fritzi Kramer summed it up as “one of the best silent dramas you’ve never heard of.”
Now undersea movies are much less rare, in fact, according to Den of Geek, The Abyss (1989) inspired a spate of underwater horror films.
This week, Kingsley helped promote an upcoming live show with an interview of two former teachers turned show girls (or maybe their photo did the job), and it shows just how badly teachers were paid in the 1910’s. Dolorez Suarez made $40 per month as a K-2 teacher in East Lake, Alabama, while Clara Lind was paid $45 per month “teaching sticky-faced children in Kansas.” They were both making $75 per week as part of the touring company of The Passing Show of 1918, which was about to debut in Los Angeles the following week. They recommended life in the chorus over school teaching. Suarez pointed out “I have plenty of time for myself. Here in the show all we do is dance and sing; all the rest of our time we can study as we chose. We can, can’t we Clara?” “We certainly can,” said Clara. “Why, I’ve learned more real knowledge in the chorus than I learned in six months of school teaching in Kansas!”
I bet it was educational! It’s too bad that the show girl option isn’t available to more teachers. I couldn’t find either of them in Ancestry, so I don’t know what happened to them next. They were probably using stage names.
By way of comparison, before she worked for the Times Kingsley herself had been the L.A. County School Superintendent’s secretary and in 1899 she made $60.00 a month (the L.A. Herald published all the county workers salaries annually).
“Actors Invade Deep,” Los Angeles Times, May 9, 1920.
“Jottings From the Coast,” Motion Picture News, January 10, 1920, p.666.