Universal Spontoon Picture Corporation
The Golden Age of Spontoon Cinema
by Antonia T. Tiger
The 1933 movie King Kong was the film that changed cinema in the Spontoon Archipelago. It showed everyone how much money there was in the setting, and it showed how little need there was to go out to the islands. Its special effects made it an expensive movie, but location shooting was very nearly as expensive. A team of people who knew the real world had shown it could be affordably faked.
There were still advantages to a Spontoon location shoot, including a large pool of native women for whom modesty was an alien concept. But on the 1st July, 1934. the Production Code of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association was fully enforced, and the movie business changed.
The Production Code is often known as the Hays Code, after the original head of the MPPDA, but Will H. Hays may not have foreseen what his successors did. The Production Code was intended to forestall censorship laws, and to counter the various religious groups pushing agendas of “decency”. Joseph I. Breen was appointed head of the Production Code Administration in 1934, and gained the power to control the making of any Hollywood film. Without his approval, often involving detailed rewriting of the script, a film project was dead.
Despite a clause in the code requiring that the people and history of other nations were to be presented "fairly", the total prohibition of “nudity” and “suggestive dancing”, together with a ban on any portrayal of miscegenation, would have killed many pre-code Spontoonie movies. A few movies were made in dual versions, one for the USA and one for elsewhere, but Breen threatened to refuse approval should a studio attempt to bypass the Code in this way.
The murder of Frank Zizzbaum, and the subsequent collapse of the Perfecto-Zizzbaum Motion Picture Corporation was a potentially embarrassing Hollywood scandal. It is widely believed that the company was backed by the Mob, and the collapse of the market for Spontoonie movies left Zizzbaum with no useful assets. The assets, and company name, were bought by a Mr. Jacob Z. Schnellenhamer, who seems to have been a typical Hollywood executive, in that he never seems to have had anyone killed.
The resulting vacuum was filled by a consortium of Spontoonie and other Pacific-Rim businessmen, supported by the Althing, who set up the Universal Spontoon Picture Corporation. With remarkable speed, the company hired Miss Mary-Ann Marten as the CEO. It is known that she was Frank Zizzbaum's secretary, and without her the original Perfecto-Zizzbaum company would have never made a film.
Miss Hedy Lemur, in her autobiography, recorded that, Many of us were approached by the Spontoonie production company, but Joe Breen had let everyone know that anyone who performed for “that black bitch” would never work in Hollywood again. Well, he'd never liked me, not after the movies I'd made in Europe, and I was tempted, but I was already under contract. I had a few contacts with the Spontoonies, and the Rain Island people, and if Breen was even half right she was better off working out there. She'd gotten out of the South to Hollywood, and then the South got into Hollywood.
Miss Marten freely admitted that she was half-Cherokee, but much of her life is frustratingly unrecorded.
The shortage of Euro acting talent was hardly a problem. There was already a processing lab on the islands, and the basic camera and lighting equipment was obtained from various sources. Extant on-set photographs show that German lenses were being used, and the Agfacolor Neu color process was used for some publicity material. The short movie Racing the Sun is a color documentary shot around the 1936 Speed Week, including some footage shot by a camera mounted on the float of a racing seaplane.
The first full production was a 13-part adventure serial, Rocket Girl, intended to cash in on the success of the American Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. The star was Freya Bjorksdottir, who played a hula-dancing graduate of a lightly fictionalised Songmark Academy, leading a rocket-ship expedition to the jungle-planet of Venus. It is very apparent that much of the shooting was arranged to allow easy alteration of the sound track, to allow foreign language versions. Remarkably, there were two Russian versions, and so the serial was shown in both Vostok and the Soviet Union. In both versions the Rocket Girl makes a passionate speech urging South Venusian slaves to strive for a better future, and declaring that great leaders, forged by adversity, deserve great loyalty. The German version is similar, but the Italian version urges the South Venusians to recover the glories of their past.
While a model was used for the North Venusian city of Mekhonos, many shots supposedly within the city are locations around Casino and Eastern islands. “Star City”, from which the rocket ship is launched, was set up on the Rain Island airfield, with several scenery flats using forced perspective, hiding some buildings from the camera and adding others. At the end of the series, the rocket-ship crash-lands somewhere in the Nimitz Sea, and the crew are rescued by the RINS.
Although this serial was not released in the USA, the sequel Hula From Mars was officially banned, and one copy was seized by the US Customs Service.
These serials brought in substantial income, which gave the company the cash to start feature-film production. In the turmoil of the late Thirties, a pool of Euro film crew came out to the islands, on teaching contracts, but, as all students of modern history know, this Golden Age would be short.
Post-war Hollywood changed, with the studio control of cinemas ending, and eventually the abandonment of the Production Code. Today, the original Rocket Girl and Hula from Mars are available on DVD, with several of the original crew participating on the commentary track. Freya Bjorksdottir died a few months after the recording sessions, surrounded by her numerous family. At her funeral, a message of condolence, from the cosmonauts of the International Space Station, was read by her great grandson, a newly qualified NPADC pilot.
But who today remembers Joe Breen?
Antonia T. Tiger is a noted Spontoon Island Cinema Historian from the United Kingdom,
and a fan of "Universal Spontoonie" movies.