Wednesday, 22 October 2014

So much monkey business… The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913)

Marcel Fabre
Back to Italy, Turin to be precise (sadly not Pordenone… next year!) and more pre-war Italian comedy following on from my evening at the IIC – a familiar face too in the form of Marcel Perez aka Marcel Fabre who played the fool in general and more specifically Tweedledum/Robinet. Here he is both lead actor and director, presiding over a mad mash-up of Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and George Méliès: Around the Bend in 80 Minutes!

Nilde Baracchi and Marcel Fabre
As Herr Graf Ferdinand Von Galitzien has pointed out, the film is based on an 1879 novel from Albert Robida The Very Extraordinary Voyages of Saturnin Farandoul in the World's Five or Six Continents, and in all the Countries Known - and Even Unkown - to Monsieur Jules Verene (Voyage Très Extraordinaires De Saturnin Farandoul Dans Les 5 ou 6 Parties Du Monde Et Dans Tous Les Pays Connus Et Même Inconnus De M. Jules Verne) which, er, almost, says it all for this proto-steampunk photoplay that you watch with an incredulous smile through each audacious leap of logic to the next.

You can see Marcel’s elevator pitch: baby survives disaster at sea and is brought up by monkeys, leaving their island after growing up without a tail he makes his way in adventurous society with his simian skills and outrageous fortune! Who wouldn’t buy that? Certainly not the studio bosses in Turin…

A city for beavers... deep-sea diving troops
There are two versions doing the rounds, one at 58 minutes which is slightly more surreal than the more lengthy expositions of the 77 minute version restored to something like the original length. It is possible that this was a serial and the apparent missing footage along with the distinct episodes might well support that. In any event what remains has a compelling comic chemistry of its own and really shows the diversity of a period known mostly for its epics…

Hang onto your blog-reading hats for a plot summation that is itself a high-wire act combining supposition, badly-translated Italian and guess-work.

Look, no tail!
Oceana:  Saturnino Farandola is a baby thrown free of a sinking ship with nothing but a scribbled note revealing his true identity and a box to float in. All perish save for the tiny mite who floats with extreme good fortune towards an island ruled by kindly apes.  As primates go they make a fine bunch of monkeys, varying in size and agility all possessing tails and an uncontrollable urge to turn cartwheels and leap at every opportunity.

They raise Farandola as one of their own until, fully grown they cast him out for his lack of tail. Harsh perhaps but they’re understandably feeling short-changed after devoting the best years of their lives to his upbringing.  Distraught the man-child makes a raft and rows away from the island being eventually picked up by the crew of a passing ship, the Bella Leocadia.

The new captain
Carry on Jack: The sailors are confused by Farandola’s simian ways but he is eventually brought down to earth and their captain, opening the locket round his neck, discovers the explanatory note, raising his eyes to the sky in a miss-judged moment of acted recognition.

Faranadola begins an extraordinary sequence of adjustments to his new society. Pirates attack the ship taking the men as prisoners onto land where, at their leader’s instruction, they have an “orgy” (more like a booze-up but I’m not really an expert). Farandola frees himself and leads the counter-attack, defeating the drunken sailors and ending up getting himself appointed as captain.

The Wizard of Aus: The next episode hoves into view with Farandola and his new love, Mysora (Nilde Baracchi) deep-sea diving. They explore a Méliès-ian underwater world of giant-sized gold fish, random shrimps and a large paper mache whale that proceeds to swallow Mysora whole.  Distraught, Farandola tries to row after the whale but it easily evades capture…

A press report reveals that the whale has run aground and been captured by an Australian scientist. Now, I’m not so sure how qualified this man is because when Farandola’s shipmate is expelled from the whales mouth and climbs out of the tank, the aquatic academic thinks she might be a new species and resolves to keep her for examination.

The mad professor fights to keep his prize exhibit...
Farandola rushes to the rescue and declares war as the mad professor refuses to give up his new specimen. Things escalate rather alarmingly as Farandola has to enlist an army of his old money chums to storm the scientist’s remarkably well-defended laboratory. Overwhelmed the boffin blows up his own lab, but our hero manages to escape with Mysora in hand.

The famous Amazons of old Siam...
Amazons of Asia: The two enjoy a leisurely cruise to their next destination, old Siam in pursuit of a legendary white elephant (are there any other kinds?) which has been stolen from the King. They are greeted by Siamese Amazons (?!) who are trooping their colours or rather stripes...

Mysora becomes the prisoner of an evil advisor and Farandola and his men get captured after their attempt to find the precious pachyderm is uncovered. They escape only to be re-captured and stuck in barrels. But, through judicious mix of feminine wiles and opium (!?), Mysora manages to get them released and they float their way to safety… returning the elephant to the king who is mightily impressed gifting them with gold coins.

Death on the Nile: Off next to Africa where a hunting trip to the Nile is disturbed by the sight of two women being held captive by nasty natives.  Rather ingeniously, Farandola shoots two bears (who must have wandered a little too far south) and uses their skins to disguise himself and Mysora as they storm the camp and rescue the girls. After evading the rest of the angry tribe, Farandola puts on a spiked hunting suit to wrestle a lion to the death and then rescues the three women from kidnap by gorillas… He speaks their language you see…

We're not really bears at all!
Way out West: Farandola take the two girls back home but there isn’t time to tarry as he has to sail along the coast of North America… Here he somehow gets entangled in the late-running Civil War and, siding with “Milligan North”, gets captured by native Americans working with “Milligan South”. He is saved by yet another young woman who obviously likes his more feminist approach to adventuring.

The bad Americans are being led by one Phileas Fogg and as the conflict escalates, Farandola is made the good American’s leader and proceeds to lead his men ion an unorthodox campaign involving chloroform bombs and vacuum chutes.

Mild spoilers... The splendid climax involves a balloon battle high amongst the clouds… an impressively-bleak vision of the War to come.  Fogg has taken Mysora and Farandola has to fight through the skies to save her… Will he win the day and return to introduce his wife to his real family on their strange island in the sea…?

The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola is great value and whilst any missing the missing footage would make things a little clearer the story is pretty easy to follow… well certainly the second time round!

It’s packed full of invention and energy and co-director Luigi Maggi deserves great credit for not just holding Fabre’s imagination under control but making narrative sense of the frenetic adventures. There are many great shots from cinematographer Ottavio De Matteis and, considering how close this film is to the “tableau” era, it shows how free Turino cinema could be in support of a more pastoral photoplay.

A whale and a horse.
The film plays regularly on European art channels (merci to Andre for loaning me his copy) but I don’t think there’s a DVD currently available. Which is a shame: this is indeed an interesting film that adds more balance to my view of the output from the Cradle of Italian Cinema…

Albert Robida's book is available from Amazon and contains even more twists and turns than the above film: conquering Australia with Captain Nemo and traveling to Saturn for starters!

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