Historical Video: ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ Resurfaces

December 14, 2010

Almost a century old, film footage of Bermuda shot for a silent-era mermaid fantasy has resurfaced in an Australian movie archive.

Long considered a lost film, the 71-minute movie about a mermaid who falls in love with the surface-dwelling king.was shot on location in Bermuda in 1913 and made an overnight star out of Annette Kellerman, an Australian-born swimming champion, when it was released the following year.

But US film historian Mary Anne Cade recently tracked down material at Screensound Australia from “Neptune’s Daughter”.

“The footage of Ms. Kellerman in “Neptune’s Daughter”  is quite interesting,” said Ms Code. “The surviving footage I received runs about 20 minutes in length and shows what a great film this was when it was originally released in 1914. The attention to details; lavish sets and swimming scenes all are proof of the film’s quality.”

“Neptune’s Daughter”, a romantic fantasy which cost Universal Studios a then-unprecedented $30,000, was filmed on locations around the island. The clips below were filmed 97 years ago in the grotto at Crystal Caves and along the South Shore:

When she was filming a fight scene with the movie’s director — stunt-doubling for the film’s principal villain – in one of the glass-fronted fish tanks of the old aquarium on Agar’s Island, disaster struck in an incident which made front page new around the world.

“While giving a peformance in the Bermuda aquarium this afternoon, Annette Kellerman, the Australian swimmer, and Herbert Brenon sustained serious injuries owing to the bursting of a glass tank containing eight thousand gallons of water,” said one contemporary news service report. “In one of the scenes, the pressure became too great and the glass front gave way with a crash. The tremendous rush of water sucked the occupants across the jagged edges of the glass. Miss Kellerman was badly lacerated on the left side, while Brenon was gashed seriously in the arms and legs.

“Brenon was removed to a hospital and Miss Kellerman was taken to the hotel where she was staying.”

The director looked as if someone had “chopped him all over with a hatchet”, Miss Kellerman later recalled. One wound alone, running from his armpit to his wrist, required 46 stitches.

The near-fatal accident was recreated in 1952′s “Million Dollar Mermaid”, a lavish MGM Techicolor biopic of Miss Kellerman starring Esther Williams although the location was switched from Bermuda to a Hollywood sound stage.

1annettekellermanBased on Miss Kellerman’s own original concept for “a water fantasy movie with beautiful mermaids in King Neptune’s garden together with a good love story,” the movie casts her as the daughter of King Neptune himself (hence the title!). Her chief antagonist is the Witch of the Sea, who has the power to grant and take away immortality. She must also contend with a conniving villain who hopes to steal Kellerman’s sweetheart away from her. Technically a mermaid, Kellerman occasionally forays onto dry land, a fairytale kingdom her beloved rules where she wears medieval costuming (her “outfit” as Neptune’s Daughter — seen at left in a hand-coloured still of her posing on the Bermuda coast –consisted of nothing but a body stocking and a flowing wig, giving the impression of total nudity). By film’s end, she is back under the sea, where the minions of the Sea Witch do battle against the forces of Neptune.

“Not only did director Brenon oversee some of the most elaborate sets ever constructed, but he also reportedly had the seacoast of Bermuda (where the film was shot) re-designed to suit his purposes,” noted one reviewer.

The film was one of the biggest box office sensations of its day. Contemporary reviewers and audiences were every bit as impressed by the exoticism and beauty of the-then unfamiliar Bermuda backgrounds as they were with Miss Kellerman’s charms.

1annette-kellermann-neptunes-daughter-movie-poster-reprint“The scenes are all posed in Bermuda amid the coral reefs and grottoes,” said one critic. “Universal Pictures must believe they have uttered the last word in photoplay art. The wondrous beauty of the story, by Captain Leslie Peacock, the enchanting scenes afforded by the Bermuda Islands with their coral reefs … semi-tropic verdure and the vast expanse of wide Atlantic: the company of over 200 actors headed by Miss Kellerman who, aside from marvellous aquatic feats which she has many opportunities to display in this drama, proves that she is also a splendid actress, a graceful dancer, an expert swordswoman and mistress of a hundred arts which contribute to the success of the production: the masterly staging of the drama by Herbert Brenon — all these are factors which help to make Neptune’s Daughter a production to be watched with delight and never forgotten.”

“Neptune’s Daughter” was simply “the most marvellous photoplay ever produced” raved a New Zealand critic.

“Not a mere drama produced in studio walls with a cast of from 25 to 50 people, but a magnificent romance with a cast of over 1000 people, and to make which 200 actors and actresses were transported by special ocean liner from America to the Bermuda Islands. The cost of most photoplays must be reckoned in hundreds of pounds but ‘Neptune’s Daughter’ must be calculated in thousands.”

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