Thanks to an email from Di Silkin this morning in which she recounts an incident that she recalls from her days working for a London PR consultancy in the 1960s.
The agency was hired by the Esperanto League to help spread the ‘universal language’ that had so far failed to catch on with quite the universality intended by its creator, Ludovic Lazarus Zamenhof.
They came up with the idea of hiring an actor to play Zamenhof, with the task of traveling the country as an ambassador of Esperanto, promoting it at stage shows and giving talks to the great and the good.
Unfortunately, midway through the promotion, the actor was arrested on serious charges relating to crimes committed by a business he ran. The company’s public front was the supply of medical equipment to developing nations; in reality it was a façade for grave robbing and the provision of body parts for medical research.
The day of his arrest turned out to be the occasion he was due to give a well publicized speech in the Russian consulate in London, leaving the PR company with red faces and a major headache.
Desperately seeking a diversion to limit the damage, they came up with a ploy aimed at generating ‘positive’ headlines that would relegate the actor’s arrest to the inside pages.
Brilliantly, they announced that the Esperanto League were going to fund the first feature film in which the dialogue would be spoken in Esperanto.
It worked but turned out to be a costly ruse, for the league, fearing the dangers of failing to follow through, did indeed go on to fund such a film.
Five years later, the horror movie Incubus was released, starring William Shatner, with all the dialogue spoken in Esperanto; the first – and last – such example in movie history.
Soon to be famous for his wooden performances as Captain Kirk, Shatner was at that stage famous only for his wooden performances.
The picture, made on a shoestring budget, is littered with unintentionally hilarious goofs and continuity errors – watch out for the sun making an appearance in a ‘night’ scene which turns to day and back again with alarming and apparently random frequency.
Yet its gruesome legacy is what most remember about it, with a series of unfortunate events befalling the actors who played the various incubi and succubi. A few weeks after wrapping, Shatner’s co-star Ann Atmar committed suicide, followed soon afterwards by Milos Milos (the incubus of the title) who murdered his lover, the estranged wife of Mickey Rooney, and then shot himself. A few years later, the daughter of another of the actors was kidnapped and murdered in the Hollywood Hills.
The film became a cult hit on the festival circuit and a big UK premiere was planned. But, in a supreme irony, the opening night turned out to coincide with the opening day of the trial of the hired hand whose arrest had prompted the making of the film in the first place.
Not to be fooled again, the press eagerly leapt on the embarrassment which completely overshadowed the premiere, condemning the film to movie hell. And that, at least in part, surely explains why we don’t speak Esperanto today.