Posted by morlockjeff on March 24, 2007
At some point in 1961, a double feature aimed at children was being distributed in selected U.S. regions. If you saw the titles on a theatre marquee, you might think they were Walt Disney releases – BIMBO THE GREAT and THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE. But anyone who ventured inside the theatre immediately realized that these films were NOT made in Hollywood. And in the case of THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE, it didn’t even look like the film was made in this century!
But first let’s get BIMBO THE GREAT out of the way.
This was actually the poorly dubbed English language version of Rivalen der Manege which was originally released in Germany in 1958. It was a circus film but despite the title Bimbo was not an elephant or some other animal star attraction. He was a trapeze artist whose wife/partner is killed in a rigged accident intended for Bimbo by his jealous half brother. Bimbo becomes an alcoholic, loses custody of his young daughter and….except for a climatic fire and the garish Eastmancolor, this was not something to hold the interest of a pre-teen audience.
But the companion feature was something else entirely. THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE, also known as The Deadly Invention, was from Czechoslovakia and also originally released in 1958 under its original title of Vynalez Zhazy. The American release version was English dubbed of course but also the credits were Americanized and an unnecessary introduction by TV announcer Hugh Downs was added. The posters also touted it as ”The first Motion Picture Produced in the Magic-Image Miracle of Mystimation.”
Directed by Karel Zeman, a former window dresser and poster designer, this movie looked like it had arrived from another world…well, Czech cinema WAS another world compared to the Hollywood product we’d been fed. Here was live action combined with 19th century wood engravings, miniatures, glass paintings, animated paper cut-outs and odd bric-a-brac – all of it occasionally intermingling at the same time causing your eyeballs to pop out of your skull. Obviously the visual look of the movie would have had great resonance for European audiences raised on Jules Verne. For me, whose familiarity with Verne was based on Classics Illustrated comics, Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the Pat Boone fantasy-adventure Journey to the Center of the Earth, this was WEIRD, but in a good way. Zeman’s art direction had a 3-D feel to it with various types of animation occuring in the foreground against incredibly detailed and layered backgrounds and vice versa. The plot had something to do with a professor and his assistant kidnapped by pirates and held captive in a laboratory inside a volcano. What I remember most about the film were the underwater scenes, particularly a shark attack and a fantastic looking submarine. There was also an escape in a giant hot air balloon. The film was supposedly based on Verne’s “Face au Drapeau” but was more of a visual recreation of his fantasy world which was like an Old World storybook come to life.
THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE was distributed by Joseph E. Levine who had previously made a pile of money bringing HERCULES starring Steve Reeves to the U.S. but he didn’t have the same luck here because this was too much of a bizarre art object. Yet it started me on a lifetime search for more movies by Zeman. Unfortunately it was nearly impossible to see any of Zeman’s work here unless you happened to live in a major city like New York where his movies might show at a repertory cinema or museum. Audio Brandon, a now extinct 16mm distributor, carried two of his films – THE FABULOUS BARON MUNCHAUSEN (1962) and WAR OF THE FOOLS (1964) but it wasn’t until the early 90s when I finally saw another Zeman feature – ON THE COMET based on Jules Verne’s sci-fi novel. Facets Multimedia rented it on VHS to members. That’s how I also got to see Zeman’s BARON MUNCHAUSEN. Of course now I can clearly see the influence of Georges Melies (Le Voyage dans la lune, 1902) on Zeman’s work and in turn he obviously influenced Terry Gilliam. The real pity of it all is that Zeman’s films have yet to receive a Criterion like presentation on DVD…unless I’m mistaken. I long to return to THE FABULOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE and see if the remarkable imagery is as wonderful as I remember it.
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