The idea for such a structure didn't arise solely from the imagination of German novelist Bernhard Kellermann, on whose book the film was based-Jules Verne wrote about it as early as 1895-nor has the idea lost relevance in the years since. Robert Goddard, the father of modern rocket science, held two patents on an oceanic tunnel, and Arthur C. Clarke mentions intercontinental undersea passages in his 1956 novel The City and the Stars. In 2003, the Discovery Channel aired an episode of its series Extreme Engineering dealing with the possibilities of creating a tunnel of that length.
Although British made, Transatlantic Tunnel stars a number of American actors, including, in the lead role, Richard Dix, a former silent star who was by this point in his career a B-Western powerhouse at RKO. Madge Evans and Helen Vinson are cast as, respectively, his lonely wife and the heiress with designs on him. The English are well-represented, however, by Leslie Banks (best known stateside as the frantic dad in Hitchcock's first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934) and that stalwart symbol of the British Empire in any number of films from both Hollywood and abroad, C. Aubrey Smith.
Two important stars from either side of the Atlantic appear in small roles as their nation's leaders: Walter Huston as the U.S. President and George Arliss as the British Prime Minister. Huston had gone to London to make Rhodes of Africa (1936), a paean to British imperialism in the form of a biography of diamond miner and African colonizer Cecil John Rhodes. When that project was delayed, Huston found himself with time on his hands and stepped into his part as the President of the United States in Transatlantic Tunnel. No such explanation exists for Arliss, the British stage star who had gone on to considerable success in Hollywood in the first half of the 1930s. Perhaps it was his indelible Oscar®-winning portrait of real-life Prime Minister, under Queen Victoria, Disraeli (1929) that led the creators of this picture to seek him out to lend a certain gravitas and authenticity to their project.
The story had been filmed twice before, first as a German silent, Der Tunnel (1915). The French remade it in 1933 as Le Tunnel with top star Jean Gabin in the lead. That version was written and directed by Curtis Bernhardt, who later ended up at Warner Brothers directing such Hollywood superstars as Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Barbara Stanwyck.
One of the writers on this project was German-born Curt (aka Kurt) Siodmak, one of the four writer-directors on the legendary Menschen am Sonntag (1930), the film that also gave career starts to future Hollywood cinema artists Robert Siodmak (Curt's brother), Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann. A former engineer and newspaper reporter, Siodmak's early success in adapting his own futuristic novel to the screen as F.P. 1 antwortet nicht (Floating Platform 1 Does Not Answer, 1932) led to a career in horror and sci-fi movies that included the screenplays for The Wolf Man (1941), I Walked with a Zombie (1943), and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).
Additional dialogue for Transatlantic Tunnel was provided by the venerable British writer Clemence Dane, who was referred to by Noel Coward as "a gallant old girl" and is said to have inspired the character Madame Arcati in his supernatural comedy Blithe Spirit (1945). Dane wrote the play on which Katharine Hepburn's film debut, A Bill of Divorcement (1932), was based and won an Academy Award® for her story for the Robert Donat-Deborah Kerr romance Perfect Strangers (1946).
Director: Maurice Elvey
Producer: Michael Balcon
Screenplay: L. du Garde Peach, Curt Siodmak, additional dialogue by Clemence Dane, based on the novel Der Tunnel by Bernhard Kellerman
Cinematography: Gunther Krampf
Editing: Charles Frend
Art Direction: Erno Metzner
Original Music: Hubert Bath
Cast: Richard Dix (Richard "Mack" McAllan), Leslie Banks (Frederick "Robbie" Robbins), Madge Evans (Ruth McAllan), Helen Vinson (Varla Lloyd), C. Aubrey Smith (Lloyd).
by Rob Nixon