(…His Name is John Fleming Wilson)
Although Uncharted Seas (released 1921; filmed at Metro Studios, late 1920) is truly a lost film, with absolutely no footage surviving, there is a great deal of fascinating history surrounding what would be the first film Rudolph Valentino made after completing his breakout role in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (See my previous post on that film here.)
In a postcard written from Palm Springs, California on November 13, 1920 to his sister Maria in Italy, Valentino told her that he had finished work on The Four Horsemen.
By December he was back at work on Uncharted Seas
Emily Leider in her biography Dark Lover remarks that Valentino was “shoved into a supporting part in a standard-issue production.” (page 127) To be realistic about it, Valentino was a contract player at the time and the studio had taken a huge risk with him in the expensive Four Horsemen, which had taken 6 months to complete. While the film and Valentino were getting a lot of buzz in the industry, the fact is the public would not see the film until late March of 1921. The studio was not going to elevate him to superstar status just yet. And Uncharted Seas wasn’t meant to be a bottom of the barrel production just because it was a “standard-issue production.” The director was Wesley Ruggles, who already had wide directing experience and who would later win the Oscar for Best Director in 1931 for Cimarron, and John Seitz, who was the favorite cameraman of The Four Horsemen’s director Rex Ingram, was on board to shoot the film. And, any film, unless there had been another blockbuster suited to Valentino available to start filming, would have been a step down at that point from the The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! Furthermore, Uncharted Seas was based on a short story by a writer whose work had already been turned into plays and films.
Meet John Fleming Wilson
John Fleming Wilson was born in 1877 in Erie, Pennsylvania and passed away in Venice, California in 1922. He was a prolific writer of short stories and adventure novels, some which take place in the Pacific Northwest and the California desert. Even with very little biographical information available, one can get a sense of who he was was from the dedications and forewards from a few of his books. (Many of his books and a short story are available for free download at The Internet Archive at archive.org. Just search the author’s name.)
For example, in Across the Latitudes (1911), a seafaring story, he dedicates the book “To My Friends of the S.S. Hanalei.” The Land Claimers, also published in 1911, is dedicated “To United States Senator George E. Chamberlain of Oregon” and includes a loving “Foreward: To My Wife”(below). Then, in his dedication to one of his best known works, The Man Who Came Back (1912), he muses about his sailing adventures and “the Unknown Woman.” The Man Who Came Back was adapted as a Broadway play which, according to IMDB “was considered a smash hit by the standards of pre-WWI Broadway…Filmed by Fox Film Corp. twice, The Man Who Came Back (1924) starring George O’Brien and as The Man Who Came Back (1931), starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.”
The Master Key, one of Fleming’s best known books, is set in the California desert:
Here’s a tidbit…Robert Leonard, who starred in the film of The Master Key (now lost) would marry Mae Murray, Rudolph Valentino’s long time friend/sometime lover (?) in 1918. She would divorce him in 1925 to marry fortune hunter (Prince?) David Mdivani with Valentino in attendance as best man. Leonard would move on to directing and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
John Wilson Fleming earned some notice in Moving Picture Magazine in October 1920 (“John Fleming Wilson Enters the Moving Picture Field”) and October 1921 (October 1 1921, pg. 560, “John Fleming Wilson Has Signed with Ince”). Thomas H. Ince revolutionized the movie industry and was the first film mogul to build his own studio…read about him here. It is not clear what John Wilson Fleming’s role working for Ince would have been. Perhaps he would have done his own adaptations of his stories or would have started writing original scripts. However, John Wilson Fleming died only a few months later in March 1922…but at least he saw his short story, The Uncharted Sea, produced for the screen by Metro in late 1920.
The story was printed in Munsey’s Magazine, Volume 70, June to September, 1920 and is available at Google Books. The entire text of The Uncharted Sea is free to read or download. Just scroll down to page 607 if reading online. If you prefer to read a synopsis of the story, visit Strictly Vintage Hollywood for a fun read!
Here are the illustrations from the story as they appeared in Munsey’s Magazine:
The first thing you will notice if you read the full story is that the name of the hero has been changed from Ralph Underwood to Frank Underwood in the film. Wise move…can you imagine Rudolph Valentino being named “Ralph” let alone “Frank”? From the 3rd and last illustration you can also see that the “Frank” character has a very chiseled, all-American look. Now, there are some stills which depict rugged action and some images in which Rudolph has “natural” hair and looks fairly “chiseled”…but, then there are the stills where he looks almost angelic. That juxtaposition is emblematic of the “mystique of Valentino”!
Follow the slideshow to see the on location action, the All-American Rudolph, and the angelic Rudolph:
Where did all the snow come from? According to Strictly Vintage Hollywood, the film was “filmed on the Metro Pictures Corporation lot located on Cahuenga Blvd. and also on location in the Northern California town of Truckee for some of the exterior snow scenes.” (NOTE: Donna Hill in her book Rudolph Valentino: The Silent Idol places the location in Flagstaff, Arizona.) Here is the picture of the back lot snow pile:
The star of the movie, of course, was Alice Lake, who played Lucretia Eastman…
…which may have been a good thing for Valentino because at least one film review was not overly enthusiastic. The May 7, 1921 Exhibitors Herald review digest liked Alice Lake and the photography but thought the tale was “drawn out.” … with no mention of Valentino.
The full review in the same issue of the Exhbitors Herald was even more pointed: “Familiar triangle plot. Makes a poor vehicle for Metro star.” The star referred to was NOT Valentino…ironically, the only mention he received was in a mistake in the caption of the accompanying picture! That’s not Rudolph Valentino with Alice Lake–that’s Carl Gerard who played the errant husband Tim Eastman!
Uncharted Seas may not have been a stellar film, but from all the information I have found, it’s still a film of interest that is sadly lost to time. Hopefully, this post will help bring it alive again on the 100th anniversary of its release…
Leider, Emily W. Dark Lover: The Life and Death of Rudolph Valentino. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.
Munsey’s Magazine, Volume 70, June-September 1920 on Google Books. Free readable/downloadable version of the original short story, The Uncharted Sea.
Internet Archive (Archive.org) John Wilson Fleming books and publications which included short stories
The Adventure, War, and Espionage Fiction Magazine Index Scroll down for a list of some of John Wilson Fleming’s short stories.
Many of John Wilson Fleming’s books are available as original or reprint editions from Amazon, EBay, and many used book sites. Scouts of the Desert and Across the Latitudes are available in Kindle editions.