Before there was CGI

24 Sep

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, there were a number of movies made where most, or all, of the action took place underwater. I’m slightly puzzled as to why they were made, but this article from 1941 shows just how tricky they were to make. I suspect that Health and Safety would shoot down any attempt to do this nowadays.

Wonders of Underwater Movies

  • Firing a stove in undersea classroom. Dry ice is used to give a realistic effect in movies of smoke pouring from chimney.

DOWN on the ocean’s bottom a school for mermaids is in session. Each damsel sits at her desk, taking down with pencil and paper the lecture of the “teacher,” who illustrates the lesson with chalk on a blackboard.  Now one of the fair students raises her hand. “I’m cold, sir,” she complains. “Would you mind firing up the stove a bit?” Teacher pokes around in the stove, and a cloud of smoke pours up the chimney.

This scene from a recent underwater movie is realism to the nth degree. The players look so natural and comfortable you’d insist they were in their subsurface classroom 15 minutes or more.

  • This sketch shows the cameraman crouched in his floating tank, shooting movies through glass window.

For 12 years, Newton Perry has been acting, directing, and writing scrips for underwater films. Perry has made about 15 feature films and a score or more of news-reel shorts.

How are underwater movies filmed? The photographer goes down in a steel tank four feet square and seven feet deep. One section is glass and the top is open. The cameraman can shoot as deep as 20 feet, or tilt his camera to film the surface. Usually no special lighting is required, for the shots are made in sunlight.

  • Enjoying soft drinks at a submarine soda bar; stage “props” are weighted down to keep them in position.

Before each scene the actors are carefully rehearsed. If Perry is directing, he simply asks: “Ready all?” Cameraman nods, cast does likewise, they dive in and the “take” is made. Most scenes require 20 to 30 seconds; a few have taken twice as long. For instance, in the wedding scene of “Underwater Romance,” it took the preacher, the bride and groom and congregation a minute and 15 seconds to file through the underwater church doorway. Perry’s actors and actresses range in age from about 16 to 25. Three out of four are girls.

A good surface swimmer isn’t necessarily a competent underwater swimmer. Perry would rather start with an average swimmer and teach her his methods than try to train a girl who has had quite a bit of surface swimming and imagines she’s a topnotcher. Give him a good novice with sturdy heart and lungs, strong physique and a will to work and Perry is satisfied he can teach her the technique. A main requirement is that all the actors learn to hold their breath at least 45 seconds. With this in mind Perry teaches them to “bob“; that is, to take a mighty breath just before they submerge and then exhale vigorously. They’re all called upon to do this 100 times in succession. For two weeks prior to making a picture they bob at least an hour and a half each day.

Next they learn a special stroke Perry has developed for underwater high jinks, a variation of the crawl that utilizes a trudgen kick, or four beats and one scissors kick. All his girls learn to swim in unison as if they were ballet dancers. Each must learn to stay under water for at least a minute and swim under water at least 60 feet at a stretch. With a couple of weeks’ training they’re able to do this with considerable grace and ease. The training starts with surface dives, followed by underwater swims of 20 feet, gradually increased to 60 feet or more.


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