This week’s mystery movie was the 1940 RKO film “Swiss Family Robinson,” with Thomas Mitchell, Edna Best, Freddie Bartholomew, Terry Kilburn, Tim Holt and Baby (Barbara) Bobby Quillan.
Screenplay by Walter Ferris, Gene Towne and Graham Baker, from the novel by Johann David Wyss.
Musical setting conducted by Anthony Collins based on Franz Schubert’s Quartet in A Minor, Opus 29.
Associate producer Donald J Ehlers, photography by Nicholas Musuraca, special effects by Vernon L. Walker, montage by Douglas Travers.
Art direction by Van Nest Polglase and Perry Ferguson. Set decorations by Darrell Silvera, costumes by Edward Stevenson.
Recorded by John E. Tribby, edited by George Crone, assistant director Sam Ruman, technical advisor Maj. C.S. Ramsay-Hill.
Produced by Gene Towne and Graham Baker.
Directed by Edward Ludwig.
“Swiss Family Robinson” has never been commercially released on VHS or DVD. It is available for streaming on Disney Plus.
This week’s mystery movie is an unseen gem. Disney bought the film to avoid competition with its 1960 release with John Mills and Dorothy McGuire and buried it in a vault. The film surfaced occasionally on local TV but was otherwise unavailable. As the contemporary reviews noted, it is a movie without major names, but has a strong story and good acting. Well worth seeing, even in the somewhat murky dupe airing on Disney Plus.
(Bonus discovery: A 1958 version of “Swiss Family Robinson” with Walter Pidgeon, Laraine Day, Dennis Hopper and Patty Duke – wow).
This was the first effort by writers-turned-producers Gene Towne and Graham Baker and it was an expensive, lavish production for the time because of the elaborate setting needed for the island and a large number of animals (an ostrich, at least one Galapagos tortoise, etc.) Lillian Gish and Kay Francis were originally considered for the role eventually given to Edna Best.
Trivia notes: Terry Kilburn was borrowed from MGM for the film.
Gene Towne wanted to put the credits at the end of the film and received everyone’s permission to do so. But the Directors Guild insisted that Edward Ludwig’s name had to come below the producers’ names at the beginning of the movie.
Orson Welles was paid $25 for the narration, receiving his first screen credit. He donated the money to Los Angeles Orthopedic Hospital. Ever the prankster, Welles recorded an unauthorized narration for a private showing of the film, saying that Gene Towne was a fool for abandoning a profitable writing career to become a producer.
I picked the movie based on the review in Harrison’s Reports (Feb. 17, 1940):
Pretty good entertainment: it is an adventure story that should appeal particularly to youngsters. Adults, too, may enjoy it, especially those who have read the novel on which the picture is based, for it has been adapted with imagination and produced with skill. The musical score is excellent; it helps, for it heightens the dramatic effect, putting the spectator in the proper mood. Of course, the picture lacks strong box office names; the exhibitors will, therefore, have to depend mostly on the fame of the novel to attract patrons. The action takes place during Napoleon’s reign, but the story has been changed considerably.
A spectacular screen version of a story that has endured as a juvenile classic, this ambitious production is well off the beaten track and its novelty is one of its greatest assets. Gene Towne and Graham Baker, making their bows as producers, have not stinted in their praiseworthy endeavor to employ the resources of the camera in producing illusion and the setting for the action on the desert isle, with its huge trees, tropical foliage, its inlet to a turbulent sea, is certain to become a much talked-of feature of the film.
…. It must be sold as wholesome entertainment for the whole family; as a stunning screen revelation of one of the books which have fascinated readers. Here is opportunity to make the most of school cooperation as well as that of libraries and the book sellers. Atmospheric displays on the marquee and in lobby are a must. with the right selling along this atmospheric and novelty line, “Swiss Family Robinson” will prove a big attraction.
Writing in the New York Times Feb. 9, 1940), Frank S. Nugent said:
Having paraphrased Shakespeare in forming The Play’s the Thing Productions inc., Gene Towne and Graham Baker, two of Hollywood’s more irrepressible scriptwriters turned producers, naturally had no hesitation about rephrasing Johann David Wyss’ “Swiss Family Robinson.” It now appears, at the Music Hall, that Father Robinson (Thomas Mitchell, not Edward G.) hadn’t been happy at home. His sons weren’t turning out as he had hoped; his wife, Edna Best, was too busy being a social success; a soldier called Napoleon was threatening Europe with war. All that explains why Mr. Wyss’ Swiss took ship for the colonies, only to be marooned on a fully equipped desert island where the struggle for existence was of far less import than Father Robinson’s struggle to bring the family into a harmonious unit again.
….When it stays with the book, which was adventure plus instruction, the film is considerably better. The storm sequences — there are three of them — are properly noisy, drenching and spectacular…. They and the uniformly competent performance of the cast make it a moderately entertaining, if rather somnolently paced, storybook film.
For Monday, we have a mysterious young lady in a mystery library.
Update: This mystery actress is unidentified. I’m guessing that the opening titles were grafted onto the film when the Directors Guild insisted on putting the director’s and producers’ names before the movie.
For Tuesday, we have this mystery fellow.
Update: This fellow may be John Wray, but I’m not positive. There are a number of actors who appear in brief close-ups and this actor is one of them.
And also this mystery fellow.
Update: This is Herbert Rawlinson.
For “Hm Wednesday,” we have this mystery chap, who is puzzled about such goings-on.
Update: This is Christian Rub.
And we have a mystery toddler with mystery doggos.
Update: This is Barbara “Bobby” Quillan.
Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (mystery movie and Tuesday’s mystery guests).
For “Aha Thursday,” we have this mystery lad with a certain degree of “Aha.”
Update: This is Terry Kilburn.
And these two “Aha” mysterious young men.
Update: This is Tim Holt, left, and Freddie Bartholomew.
Brain Trust roll call: Mary Mallory (Wednesday’s mystery butler and mystery lad), Howard Mandelbaum (mystery movie, Tuesday’s mystery captain, Wednesday’s mystery butler and mystery lad) and Sheila (Wednesday’s mystery butler).
For Friday, we have our mystery leading lady…
Update: This is Edna Best.
…And our mystery leading man.
Update: This is Thomas Mitchell.
Brain Trust roll call: Floyd Thursby (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guests), Mary Mallory (Thursday’s mystery guests), Michael Ryerson (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery guests), Howard Mandelbaum (Thursday’s mystery guests), Goombah (Thursday’s mystery brother No. 3), Sheila (Thursday’s mystery brother No. 1), Blackwingjenny (mystery movie, Wednesday’s mystery servant and Thursday’s mystery guests), Benito (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery brothers No. 2 and 3), L.C. (mystery movie and mystery cast), Gary (mystery movie and Thursday’s mystery brother No. 2), Thom and Megan (mystery movie and Wednesday’s and Thursday’s mystery guests) and Sylvia E. (mystery movie, and Tuesday’s, Wednesday’s and Thursday’s mystery guests).