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It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955)

It_Came_From_Beneath_The_Sea_posterAfter the unexpected success of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953, Ray Harryhausen teamed up with producer Charles Schneer for the 1955 It Came From Beneath the Sea, about a giant radioactive octopus that storms San Francisco.

The film opens with a brief discussion (via narrator) of the brand new 55 million dollar nuclear submarine. Commander Pete Mathews (Kenneth Tobey) and his crew are out on maneuvers not far from Pearl Harbor, when an unidentified object catches hold of their sub. They are able to break free, but a bit of the object is jammed in their dive planes and they are obliged to bring in some scientists – Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and Professor Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue) – to investigate.

The scientists conclude that the object is a giant octopus that has rise from its customary habitation deep in the sea due to a lack of food. The octopus is radioactive – caused by the testing of the hydrogen bomb – and the radiation drives away its food. Now, it is aggressively hungry and indiscriminately attacking ships, people, and fish. Eventually, the octopus ends up in San Francisco, where it decides that the Golden Gate Bridge (built in 1937) is a good target.

In many ways, It Came From Beneath the Sea looks like an even cheaper film than The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. With an even smaller budget, there are a lot of rear projection shots and stock footage (not to mention a slightly puzzling romantic subplot). In addition, the octopus doesn’t seem to have the same emotional resonance as the Rhedosaurs of the previous year, possibly because it’s harder to see its face and since what we tend chiefly to notice are the tentacles.

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It’s a Kraken!

But there is something irresistible about watching that giant octopus attack San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. Or even a ship (even if it is a model of a ship). That scene so reminded me of the scene where the Kraken in Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest attacks the pirate ship (just like Harryhausen’s skeletons reminded me of the skeletons in the first Pirates of the Caribbean – in fact, there seems to be a lot of similarities between those pirate movies and the fantasy films of Harryhausen). The more classic movies I see, the more vivid it becomes to me how much films are inspired by the films that came before.

Because Harryhausen and Schneer were on such a tight budget, they were obliged to omit two legs from the octopus, so it is actually a six legged octopus instead of eight, though I confess I would not have realized it unless I had read it. They do an admiral job keeping that fact from being obvious.

The subplot involving Commander Matthews, Dr. Carter and Professor Joyce is, to say the least, unique. Mathews (played by Kenneth Tobey, who shows up as a military man in a number of 1950s sci-fi movies) is a bit of a chauvinist, a “man’s man” who is very attracted to Professor Joyce and they flirt while she’s investigating the octopus. She, on the other hand, has a warm professional relationship with Dr. Carter and the two of them respect each other’s scientific knowledge and abilities. I couldn’t decide if it was supposed to be a love triangle or not. Dr. Carter certainly doesn’t seem jealous that Joyce is attracted to Mathews. But Mathews is always trying to “protect” Joyce and Carter’s trying to explain that the “new women” want to be treated as the equal of men. By the end, Mathews suggest she quit her job and marry him, but she’s not interested.

It’s like the film was playing around with the idea that there is an incompatibility between physical attraction (Mathews and Joyce) and intellectual attraction (Joyce and Carter), and that as an academic woman you can’t have both.

Taking out the Golden Gate

Taking out the Golden Gate Bridge

It Came From Beneath the Sea is also significant for being the first film that Harryhausen would make with Charles Schneer. It was an important partnership that would provide Harryhausen the support and financial backing he needed to be able to bring his visions to life, something that Harryhausen’s idol, Willis O’Brien, always lacked. Apart from King Kong, Willis O’Brien was never given free reign. But with the support of Charles Schneer, Harryhausen was able to create some of his best work for films like The 7th Voyage of SinbadMysterious Island, and Jason and the Argonauts.

Another thing that interested me about It Came From Beneath the Sea was the repeated attention drawn to the nuclear submarine as the new, up-to-date, shiny machine that was so efficient that at the beginning of the film the crew complain that it practically runs itself. This was indeed very new. The first nuclear submarine – the USS Nautilus – was launched in 1954, just one year before the release of the movie. It was also the first submarine to navigate through the Arctic (though not punch through the ice at the North Pole – that wasn’t until 1959).

It is fascinating how the film reflects the issues of the day. The concern over the possible negative effects of the use of atomic bombs, but at the same time the super-efficient new nuclear submarine also saves the day. Not to mention the quirky exploration of women’s new roles in the workplace. But the real reason to watch the film is Ray Harryhausen’s giant octopus!

This is my second contribution to The Ray Harryhausen Blogathon, hosted by Wolffian Classics Movie Digest. Please click here for more posts celebrating Harryhausen!

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Posted by on July 13, 2016 in Movies

 

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1906 San Francisco Earthquake

800px-Post-and-Grant-Avenue.-Look110 years ago to the day, at 5:12 AM in San Francisco, there was a 7.8 earthquake. Immediately following the earthquake was a fire that burned for three days and destroyed nearly the entire city. More than two-thirds of the population were homeless, around 3,000 people are believed to have died. According to Philip L. Fradkin, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was “the closest this country has come to experiencing the widespread ravages of modern warfare.”

I actually owe the idea of this post to Movie Classics and the “Bette Davis Blogathon.” Movie Classics wrote about The Sisters, with Bette Davis, and her post inspired me to revisit the film. Near the end, Bette Davis is in San Francisco and has just been deserted by her husband, Errol Flynn. While she sits in disbelief, the camera cuts to the calendar, which reads April 18th. This was supposed to be a portend, but I honestly had no idea what the significance was…until the house fell in on Bette Davis’ head.  It was then that I realized that the 110th anniversary of the earthquake was coming up and I set out to read several books on the topic and watch a few films that feature the event.

Books – Unfortunately, I haven’t succeeded in completing either book in time for this post.

A Crack in the Edge of the World: American and the Great Earthquake of 1906, by Simon Winchester, is a bit peripatetic. We’ve visited Iceland, various podunky little towns across America. He’s covered the founding history of California, various earthquake disasters in the 1800s, and lots and lots about plate tectonics, the Pacifc Plate, the North American Plate and the San Andreas Fault. What we haven’t covered yet is the San Francisco earthquake…and I’m 200 pages in.

Simon Winchester evidently studied to be a geologist and many of his books have a geological approach to their respective topics. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s only that I was primarily interested in the more social aspects of the 1906 disaster. His book also takes a more global approach, necessitated by the interconnected nature of plate tectonics. For him, people are relatively helpless and small in the face of the sheer size and age of the world.

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Philip L. Fradkin takes the opposite approach in his book, The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, which I have also not finished. He posits that San Francisco was ill-prepared for an earthquake and that they were largely responsible for their own destruction. The earthquake was devastating, but the firestorms that followed are what caused the kind of apocalyptic images taken a few days after. He explores the ways people react in moments of disaster.

The main problem was that firemen didn’t have enough water and resorted to dynamiting buildings. The idea was to create a wall to stop the fire, but instead it merely caused the spread of the fire. They also used the wrong kind of explosives – black powder, which is highly flammable. Basically, a lot of people with limited to no experience of explosives ran about dynamiting the city. There were so many charges going off, that many people said it sounded like a war zone.

To complete the picture of war zone devastation, the federal army was also deployed to keep order. San Franciscans thought marshal law had been declared. What had actually happened is that the Brigadier General in charge of Fort Mason simply deployed the troops when he saw the extent of the damage, though the mayor never protested. Instead, the mayor issued a warning that all looters should be shot on sight, adding to the confusion.

I believe the rest of the book is going to cover the rebuilding of San Francisco and the uneven distribution of relief.

Movies – There are five movies that I am aware of involving the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, though I am sure that there are more.

san-francisco-wreck-movie-7San Francisco (1936) is probably the most famous movie featuring the earthquake. Clark Gable is Blackie Norton, a saloon keeper on the Barbary Coast who falls in love with Jeanette MacDonald’s innocent Mary Blake, an aspiring opera singer. It’s a typical, lavish MGM film that is quite entertaining and ends with a fantastic earthquake sequences that does feature the fire, the heavy dynamiting and the constant presence of the soldiers. The earthquake comes as a deus ex machina, partly as retribution for the sins of the city. Everything is wiped out so they can start afresh with repentance in their hearts.

I watched Frisco Jenny (1932) for the earthquake, but was pleasantly surprised by the story. Directed by William Wellman and starring Ruth Chatterton, the story is a kind of Madame X (though I’ve never seen any version of Madame X). Ruth Chatterton is the daughter of a saloon keeper and in love with the piano player. She’s pregnant with their child and they plan to marry, despite her father’s refusal. But after the earthquake, both her father and her lover are dead and she must fend for herself and her child.

15568After becoming a successful madam, she is forced to give up her child because of legal issues (she is accused of murder), but watches as he grows up to become an honest DA. She, on the other hand, has been running the bootlegging in the city, as well as paying off the politicians. But she’s determined to never get in the way of her son. It’s a remarkable performance by Ruth Chatterton. The plot sounds soapy, but it actually makes perfect sense, as Chatterton’s character consistently makes intelligent decisions that make sense in the context of her situation and the story is extremely affecting. The earthquake also looks pretty good, happening at the beginning rather then the end of the film.

untitledIn The Sisters (1938), the earthquake has the least importance, being more of a historical event that happens to occur during the story. The story begins in Montana, on the 1904 election night. Bette Davis, in an uncharacteristically restrained and quiet role (which I find absolutely riveting) falls in love with ne’re-do-well sportswriter Errol Flynn. She elopes with him to San Francisco, but the restraints of married life and his guilt over not being able to provide the things the husbands of her sisters do causes him to leave her, after which the earthquake strikes. But Bette Davis moves on, becomes successful in business and the film ends with a reunion in Montana during the 1908 election.

There are two other films that I’m aware of that feature the 1906 earthquake: two silent films called Old San Francisco (1927) and The Shock (1923). Old San Francisco apparently features a terrific earthquake at the end and some very scenic scenes in Chinatown, but is also virulently racist, depicting the Chinese as sneaky, devious people preying on innocent Caucasians. In this film, the earthquake comes as divine retribution to save the heroine from a fate worse than death. What I find interesting is that this film, made in 1927, should represent so accurately what was a prevailing view of many San Franciscans in 1906, who were evidently constantly trying to find a “solution” to the Chinatown problem (Chinatown was almost entirely destroyed by the earthquake and fire). The Shock features Lon Chaney and is available on youtube. 

Notable People in San Francisco in 1906

Enrico Caruso is the most famous survivor of the Earthquake. He was in San Francisco with the Metropolitan Opera Company, which was on tour. Fortunately, non of the opera company died, though they lost most of their baggage, as well as the props and scenery for many of their operas. On the day after the earthquake, Caruso apparently traded in a signed photograph of Theodore Roosevelt to get the opera company on a ferry boat to Oakland

John Barrymore was also present during the earthquake. He was 24 years old and appearing in a somewhat obscure play. All we really know is that he was at the opera to hear Caruso sing in “Carmen.” Reportedly, he coped by getting drunk in a bathtub.

Footage of San Francisco in 1906

Although historians are unsure exactly when this footage was taken, at most it was only a month before the earthquake. The camera was placed on the front of a cable car traveling down Market Street by the four Miles brothers. The streets look busier than they actually are; they had cars repeatedly drive in front of the cable car (note the car with license plate 4867 – he seems particularly to show up a lot). It’s fascinating to see what it really looked like, however: how people really dressed, how traffic flow was rather disorganized. Both Frisco Jenny and The Sisters features clips from this footage to lend authenticity to the proceedings.

This video shows footage of the same street, before and after the earthquake and fire. It’s chilling.

Visit this link for many more pictures of the disaster, which I highly recommend.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

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Hello, Frisco, Hello (1943)

220px-Hellofriscohello1943Hello, Frisco, Hello was exactly the movie I needed on a rainy, dreary day. Splendid color, catchy tunes, one heartbreaking torch song, a little romance, a little comedy, a little plot to make things interesting, Alice Faye; I’m a big fan of Alice Faye.  And as is true with any musical featuring songs by Harry Warren, I had tunes cycling through my brain for the next week, mostly Warren’s Academy Award winning song “You’ll Never Know.”

The Barbary Coast in San Francisco in 1915 was the red-light district with all the night clubs, saloons and brothels (though there are no brothels featured in Hello, Frisco, Hello). A vaudevillian quartet – comprising Alice Faye, John Payne, Jack Oakie and June Havoc, work in a saloon. Their job is to provide light entertainment while the customers drink at the bar. But quartet leader Johnny Cornell (John Payne) has grander ambitions and gets the quartet fired by Ward Bond when they perform a song that takes his customers away from the bar to watch the performers.

But Johnny is nothing if not a hustler and soon he gets the quartet off the streets and starts his own club, The Grizzly Bear. Not long after, he branches out and has various clubs, dance halls, and a rollerskating rink proliferating up and down the Barbary Coast. He practically has the district in his pocket.

But that’s not quite enough for him. He still has grand ambitions. He wants to be accepted on Nob Hill, the neighborhood were the posh people live. Bernice Croft (Lynn Bari) represents that life. She is a spendthrift heiress who likes to go slumming at the Grizzly Bear and captivates Johnny, causing much suffering for Trudy Evans (Alice Faye), now Johnny’s star performer.

Alice Faye, Jack Oakie and June Havoc show how to dance the Grizzly Bear

Alice Faye, Jack Oakie and June Havoc show how to dance the Grizzly Bear

I just realized that I’ve been talking only about John Payne’s character, even though Alice Faye gets top billing. The reason is that although she is definitely the star of the film, the one who brings the star wattage and gorgeous singing, her character does very little to advance the plot. She mostly pines…and then sings a knockout song. Pining never looked or sounded so good. Judy Garland has this trouble in her films, too. The two actresses always seem to be yearning for a man who takes them for granted, while at the same time having a sensational career that eventually and inevitably eclipses that of the man they love.

Hello, Frisco, Hello is a remake of The King of Burlesque, which was made in 1936, when Alice Faye was not yet a star. But Warren Baxter, in the John Payne role, was a star, which perhaps explains why Alice Faye has such an underdeveloped part. Though there is quite a bit of pathos she squeezes out of it.

The film has some fun with class distinctions. Barbary Coast performers are fun-loving people who like to wear, shall we say flamboyant clothing? But for all that they are essentially hard working people without pretensions. The crowd on Nob Hill, however…they don’t seem to work, they sponsor opera, even though it brings in no money (which is, I think, supposed to be a sign of their wastefulness) and dance to the waltz. After thirty minutes of nearly nonstop contemporary nineteen-teens music, suddenly hearing a waltz did have, for once in my life, the affect of making me think of stuffy people. At a party Johnny is invited to, he brings Trudy, who arrives in a bright yellow dress while Bernice Croft made me think of the Baroness from The Sound of Music. It was that kind of a contrast between the ladies and Lynn Bari didn’t even have to look askance at Alice Faye’s dress for us to get the picture.

2Poor Alice Faye has to put up with a lot. From the beginning, when Johnny lands the quartet on the street, Trudy believes in him and convinces the others to stick with him. Later on, Johnny seems to think he made Trudy a star, which is not really the case, though the film never directly contradicts him, nor does Trudy. But from the beginning, we know she has an extraordinary voice. Dan Dailey (Jack Okaie) comments that she could easily get another job singing; she didn’t need to hang around with Johnny. In fact, a large part of his success does seem to be her star power. When one of his clubs isn’t doing so well, he brings Trudy over to have her sing and attract patrons. In truth, she probably never really needed him at all, though he never figures it out. She just hung out with him because she loved him.

The rest of the cast is fun: Jack Oakie and June Havoc (sister of Gypsy Rose Lee) provide the comic relief, as well as doing double duty dancing and singing. John Payne is not the most dynamic actor I’ve ever seen, but he makes the character still seem like a pretty nice guy, which is quite an accomplishment. He is also able to sing quite adequately, so none of the four actors needed to have their voice dubbed, which I think is fairly impressive. Laird Cregar also has a small role as a burly and bearded would-be prospector always tapping Johnny for a grubstake.

Songs

All the music in the film, except “You’ll Never Know,” were contemporary to the film’s setting. “Hello, Frisco, Hello” was written in 1915 for the Panama Pacific Exposition where Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the first transcontinental phone call. The song was performed very much as it is in the film, with people on either side of the stage, trying to talk to each by phone as if from opposite sides of the country.

Harry Warren wrote the music and Mack Gordon the lyrics for “You’ll Never Know,” a song of unrequited love that became Alice Faye’s signature song, which she sang many times during her later and successful career on the radio. That song alone, and Alice Faye’s rendition of it, accounts for more than three-quarters of the genuine feeling in the film. “If there is some other way to prove that I love you/ I swear I don’t know how. You’ll never know if you don’t know now.” Poignantly, Johnny Cornell never does seem to fully grasp that.

Untitled

This clip is from the film. If John Payne sounds cranky, it’s is because he was just tricked into singing with Alice Faye. But through the singing of this song, he finally starts to get an idea of her feelings.

This clip was also evidently taken from the movie. She is auditioning and the noise gradually dies down as the people working in the club put down what they are doing to listen.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2016 in Movies, Music

 

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