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Alexander Korda's 1936 epic of H.G. Wells' Things to Come isn't talked about very much nowadays. An isolated Science Fiction landmark from before the 50's boom that began with Destination Moon, it's often compared unfavorably with Fritz Lang's superficially similar Metropolis. Critics have branded Things a talky bore lacking dramatic conflict, sometimes criticizing its special effects (which were remarkable for 1936) and always harping on the 'decorative but awkward' direction of William Cameron Menzies. Famed art director Menzies will forever be remembered as the visual genius behind the silent The Thief of Bagdad, Gone with the Wind, Our Town, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Kings Row, and Duel in the Sun. What are often forgotten are the films he directed. All bear his unmistakable visual flair for complex, dramatically expressive compositions.
Savant feels the main problem with appreciating Things to Come is the state of available film prints and videos. Apparently dupe stocks of the 1930's weren't very good, for the import copies of many English films suffer greatly in America. It was not until seeing some original British prints of Alfred Hitchcock's 30's thrillers at the first Filmex festival in 1971 that I realized that Brit pictures were well photographed, with sound as clear as American films.
Well, Things to Come always looked wretched, on television or in the battered prints rented to show at UCLA in the '70's. Worse, the sound was unintelligible in passages where the characters speak in low tones, especially an early scene where John Cabal (Raymond Massey) and his wife speak fearfully of the fate of their children in the coming war. Even director/UCLA associate professor David Bradley's personal print was a not-too-spiffy 16mm with weak audio.
It was in the early 1980's when a special screening of Things was held in Los Angeles, at the LA County Museum, Savant believes ... The LA Times Calendar section carried a large article proclaiming it an imported 'complete and uncut' print, a rare item for film culture fans.
Savant couldn't attend the screening, and never found out more about the print. Curiosity was heightened when reliable reference books appeared that listed the 96-minute Things as originally having run 110 minutes. Savant tried to imagine what these minutes might consist of, and naturally imagined new sequences filling in the huge gap between 1970 and 2036. Even more enticing was a notice from the British Censors' website that the original submitted to them in 1936 was 117 minutes long. Now that's something we need to see.
When MGM acquired the Goldwyn Library in 1997, Savant had high hopes that the longer Things to Come could be resurrected. Inquiries led to a string of confusing explanations that always ended up with the same frustration: no access.
What has surfaced is a continuity script of the original cut of Things, which was published in book form not long after the release of the film. For those as curious as was Savant, the trimmed pieces of Things to Come are detailed here. No, there are no fabulous or amazing new sequences, just a number of trims that at first glance would seem to have come out simply to shorten the running time. The comparison was made with a tape from a 1994 TNT cable screening, a rather good copy bearing a superimposed copyright by London Film Productions.
1). At the end of reel one, Cabal (Raymond Massey) and his guests are listening to radio news that war has broken out. Cabal's last line is. "You've got your stimulant, Passworthy. Something great has got you. War has come." There follows a ragged cut to the beginning of the Air Raid montage scene. Instead the script indicates the previous scene was meant to continue, with Passworthy responding emotionally to Cabal with words of vengeance for the enemy that has attacked without a declaration of war. He vacillates between wondering if the news might be a mistake, and swearing that Everytown's retaliation will be an "extermination of dangerous vermin, a vermin hunt without pause or pity." (Note, 7.15.13: This scene has been restored in newest copies of the film.)
2). In the sequence set in 1970, Cabal, now an Airman for Wings Over the World, lands in Everytown and meets Doctor Harding on his way to see The Boss (Ralph Richardson). They stop at Harding's door, and a Guard objects: "Well, you've got to go with me. Orders are orders. The Boss first." Another ragged cut follows, to Roxana (Margueretta Scott) standing in the broken window of the Boss' headquarters. In the script, Cabal and Harding ignore the Guard and enter Harding's rundown laboratory. A bit of small talk tells us things we already know, that Harding is doctoring without medicines, and mechanic Gordon (Derrick de Marney) is the last engineer left in Everytown, a Jack-of All Trades. (Note, 7.15.13: This scene has been restored in newest copies of the film.)
3). A piece missing from an exchange between Roxana and The Boss: In the Jump Cut immediately after The Boss says, "I don't bully, I just handled the man," and Roxana's, "He's the first real aviator that has come this way in years," are eight lines of dialog between the two. Roxana harps at The Boss, criticizing his tactlessness, especially in openly coveting Gordon's wife Mary (Ann Todd). Her attack falls on deaf ears.
More unnecessary lines, perhaps, but it makes explicit Roxana's disaffection with The Boss, her superior grasp of the situation, and the Boss' amorous designs on Mary.
4). After the successful skirmish with the Hill People, The Boss argues with mechanic Gordon in the public square shouting, 'I want those planes!" Another awkward cut leads directly to Roxana descending some stairs, to visit the captive Cabal in his basement dungeon. What's missing is an entire scene in a banquet hall celebrating The Boss' victory. He makes a pompous, conservative speech encapsulating the petty values beneath his nationalistic pride. He describes Everytown as a 'Man's land ... a land for strength and courage." Defensively, he attacks those who say, "...it isn't what it used to be. We haven't got chemists. Well, who needs chemists?" He also puts down the need for books, and travel: "Well, isn't our land good enough for us?" (Note, 7.15.13: This scene has been restored in newest copies of the film.)
The loss of the speech creates an ugly hole in the continuity, which probably contributed to criticism of Menzies' direction.
5). Eleven dialog lines are missing from the middle of Roxana's interrogation of Cabal. Their removal not only robs Roxana of her motivation for being there, it creates a continuity error where both characters jump across the room and The Boss appears out of nowhere. It happens right after Cabal's line, "It has to vanish, like the Tyrannosaurus and the Saber-Toothed Tiger," and before The Boss' line: "Ah. So there you are." The cut material includes the revelation that she's strongly attracted to Cabal and what he represents, "a great eagle out of the air." Roxana obliquely offers to aid in an escape, but bridles at Cabal's reply that a communal 'We' would be grateful instead of a personal 'I'. Roxana: "Don't you see. I'm yours if you want me. I'm for you. Now will you let me help you?"
With this clip Roxana's character actually makes sense. It would give the film a lift to see her come on so directly to stone-faced Cabal.
6). Cabal and Gordon are repairing a tattered biplane at the airfield. A jagged cut leads straight to Roxana leaning out of Dr. Harding's lab, shouting, 'Look! It's your Gordon!" to Mary. What is missing in between is an entire dialog scene (24 lines) to explain why Everytown's First Lady is visiting commoner Mary in the first place. Roxana acknowledges that The Boss has set his eye on Mary, and asks Mary to explain the meaning of this new Wings Over The World aviator and his scientific socialism. There's some startling feminist talk in the description of the 'new world'. When Mary says women will work like the men do, Roxana denies that women want a part in this quest for "knowledge, civilization, and the good of mankind", preferring the glory of "being loved and desired, the glory of feeling and looking splendid". The world as Mary has described it would have no lovers, no warriors, no danger, and no adventure. Instead of helping men build a new world, as Mary proposes, Roxana decides the right thing to do is to let the airmen conquer the world, and then women can conquer them. At this impasse, Roxana notices the airplane flying above.
This is one of the most telling elisions. Roxana's character is established as the female equivalent of The Boss, the unregenerate primitive unwilling to submit to the dictates of progress. It is interesting, however, that Mary's alternative still places woman as a servant to male aspirations, 'helping them,' instead of their equal. This makes Roxana's devious mindset to dominate men, as she has The Boss, actually seem a viable choice. Despite his involvement with several feminist icons of the early 20th century, H.G. Wells' ideas about women had definite limitations.
7). The final word on Roxana's character was dropped as well. After the Gas Of Peace has harmlessly pacified the inhabitants of Everytown, Cabal pronounces The Boss "Dead, and his world dead with him." Then the music rises as the sleeping feudal serfs awaken into their new world of technological enlightenment. (Savant always expects them to pick up their guns and immediately start shooting Cabal's Airmen.) Missing are Cabal's words over the sleeping Roxana: "The eternal adventuress! You've pluck and charm, and brains for infinite mischief. Where power is you'll follow. You'll play your eyes at men 'til the end of time. Now that the bosses have gone the way of the moneygrubbers I suppose it will be our turn."
Savant will leave others to ponder whether this is flagrant misogyny or an accurate reading of the male-female struggle. Wells' fantasy that the world's attractive women will turn their favors away from he-men, and toward engineers and scientists is wish-fulfillment familiar to science fiction and can be seen in everything from Our Man Flint to Dilbert comic strips.
8). There are two missing cuts of dialog between the Grandfather and the Child in the porcelain apartment of 2036. The first jump comes as pops says, " ... there was no need to stick [houses] up ever so high into the air." A Jump Cut skips fifteen dialog lines, to the little girl answering, "They keep on inventing new things now, don't they, and making life lovelier and lovelier." In the missing dialog, gramps skates over several topics: the victory over disease, bad foods, and 'horrid times', apparently referring to the era of The Boss. A page later, after the Old Man says the Space Gun will shoot a capsule, "swish - right away from the Earth," the movie Jump Cuts to the little girl saying, "I wish I could fly 'round the moon." What's missing here are eleven more lines detailing the proposed moon shot, including references to previous attempts to send mice around the moon.
The scene with the old man and the girl is already an exposition-laden lead weight that seems far too long, so these cuts are missed a lot less than the earlier ones. Except for the accurate prediction of mice being used to test rockets, none of the discussion of the New World adds much to what we already have seen.
9). A curious cut occurs when Cabal is pondering the fact that his own daughter is eager to be the Space Gun's first human test pilot. Maurice Passworthy (Kenneth Villiers) says, " [your daughter] says you can't possibly send anybody's child but your own," and Cabal answers, 'I might have known." There follows yet another Jump Cut to master sculptor Theotocopulos (Cedric Hardwicke) entering the television chamber to make his anti-Space Gun speech. In the uncut script, Cabal continues on the subject of his daughter: "Funny I never thought of her as anything but a little girl. Quite out all of this. "Maurice: "She's eighteen."
It's interesting that even in Wells' Utopia of 2036 men are still omitting women from serious matters and their central quests. Interesting also that it was cut, because it can't have saved much screen time.
10). Ten lines are missing from Theotocopulos's television speech. They belong between "Progress is not living, it should only be the preparation for living," and, "They stage the old Greek tragedy again, and father offers up his daughter to his evil gods." Lost in the Jump Cut that results, are all of Theotocopulos' kind words for the New Order. He says the world has been 'tidied up marvelously,' and acknowledges the increase in knowledge. But he decries the sacrifice the common man must make for 'the species', and says it has led up to the ultimate sacrifice, human lives.
Poor Theotocopulos, stuck with the thankless role of opposing Wells' socialist-scientific philosophy. He isn't given much in the way of a convincing argument to sell, and the extra bit in the cut section doesn't help. It was probably dropped because it just seemed long-winded... One valid criticism of Things to Come is that its text is a succession of position speeches aimed directly at the viewer. In this it has an odd relation to The Fountainhead, another film with a philosophical agenda. The Fountainhead also stars Raymond Massey, who seems to have made a career out of powerfully pushing pretentious dialog. But since Things to Come is hardcore science fiction pretension, Savant can't get enough of it. So there.
11). A little later, Passworthy (Edward Chapman) pleads with Cabal not to let their son and daughter shoot themselves out into space. There are two cuts, right after Cabal's lines, "Children are born to be happy," and "Two hours ago", that result in more awkward Jump Cuts, with actors leaping across sets. In the eighteen missing lines, Cabal announces his intention to spend an hour with his daughter before the launch, and tells Passworthy he'll have plenty of time to be with his son because the launch isn't scheduled for four weeks yet. Passworthy tells Cabal that he thinks Theotocopulos is right, that the launch is human sacrifice.
Besides the redundancy, this dialog refers to the part of Theotocopulos' speech that was cut, and possibly was dropped so as not to conflict.
12) Deeper into their argument, with the children/astronauts present, Passworthy says, "I'm a broken man. I don't know where honor lies." There is a cut to Cabal: "You've got things wrong." Missing here is a mini-tirade by Cabal, proclaiming his love for his daughter but saying she is risking her life like all the others who do so for progress, whether "at the bottom of the sea, playing with gigantic physical forces, balancing on the rim of lakes of molten metal..." His final missing line is, "No, the world will never be safe for man - and there's no happiness in safety."
This speech draws out the debate, but it least it has some emotional interplay between Cabal and his daughter, In the final cut, she bops onstage as if fresh from a tennis game, and skips right out again to blast off, with just a goodbye peck for daddy.
That's it for the cuts. To Savant's disappointment, the continuity script showed nothing for a ragged point in the middle of the assault on the Space Gun, where the soundtrack undergoes a jarring Jump Cut. Most of the criticism of the direction of William Cameron Menzies focuses on the lack of continuity in the blocking of the actors. One thing cleared up by reviewing the original script is that these 'bad cuts' were not Menzies' doing.
It would be wonderful to see Things to Come reconstructed. Stills from the movie indicate that the film was an art-deco visual marvel. The earlier montages in war-threatened Everytown are a marvel of dynamic cutting, one of the few successful Eisenstein-patterned montages in commercial cinema. And Arthur Bliss' tempestuous music score can barely be heard in the distorted audio track of existing prints.
Massacred on DVD in a 'budget' release, Things to Come deserves something better. Word among film restorers is that the British Film Institute is presently in the process of restoring the original feature. This is good news; if such a restoration is happening, MGM/UA might have the theatrical rights to the result. Video and DVD rights are harder to pin down. The title has been public domain for a long time ... but not the uncut version which, it can be argued, was never exported. If Things to Come starts making the rounds of museums and repertory houses again, Savant will be one of the first to speak out.
P.S. By the way, can anyone explain a mystery Savant has found in the opening titles of Things to Come? Actress Margueretta Scott is listed as playing a double role, as Roxana, the Boss' 'adventure-loving' paramour, and also someone named Rowena. Who is Rowena? No character that could conceivably be a Rowena is hidden in either the film or the missing scenes delineated here.
"Her name in the credits is listed as Rowena Cabal. I believe she was the wife of Oswald Cabal in the future section. Some stills show them together. In a scene with her, Oswald Cabal calls her a "love-huntress" and wonders why they could not work together.
This from the "Things to Come" chapter from TWENTY ALL-TIME GREAT SCIENCE FICTION FILMS, 1982. Given the span of time since then, my memory may be faulty. - Ken Von Gunden"
Thanks to Ken for filling Savant in on this. His cast list, wherever he saw it, must add the 'Cabal' part to Rowena, because on the film proper she is simply billed as Roxana, Rowena.
This welcome note from Robert F. O'Connor:
"Thanks for a great expanded look at one of my favorite films.
However, on first reading the list of deleted scenes, item 4, the victory banquet speech seemed to be something I did remember from long-ago late night viewings of the film on my local public television station, KQED 9 in San Francisco. On a late Saturday night just a week ago, they happened to run the film again and yes, as I remembered, there is the banquet scene, "Sovereign State" and all. I don't recall the scene just before, but it does lead directly into Roxana's interrogation of Cabal. If I remember correctly, you see her leave the table as the drunken Boss is complimenting another lady at the table (Mary? I wasn't sure). The next scene is Roxana descending into Cabal's "cell". The rest of the cuts seem to be as described.
This is a copy of the film distributed by Janus, with their logo displayed at the end (and the beginning too, I think, but I missed the first half-hour or so of this showing).
So at least one of these scenes survived. We can only hope that some of the others may as well. -Robert F. O'Connor
July 15, 2001: SAVANT has been informed of another short web page on Things to Come, allied to the 625 Page. It's called Things to Come, an Incomplete Classic, and it clarifies the non - full length status of some UK releases and broadcasts, that claimed to be complete. Thanks to German Reader 'Jan' for the link. Vielen Dank!
You can read another SAVANT article on a Science Fiction film by William Cameron Menzies, The Ultimate INVADERS FROM MARS.
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Text © Copyright 1997 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1997-2002 Glenn Erickson