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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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The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

downloadMy brother was reminding me that in the 1950s, the Arctic (Ocean) was kind of like the last frontier on earth. It had been visited, but was not well known and it was during the 1950s that nuclear submarines were engaged in mapping the arctic, floating both among and under the ice floes. It was not until the late 1950s that a submarine was able to push through the ice and, in the words of my brother, take a selfie on the North Pole. It was like the closing of a frontier. After the arctic, there was really nothing else to do but take the exploration in films to space and out-right fantasy. No more going to islands and discovering King Kong or the Arctic and finding prehistoric monsters or even aliens.

But this might be why the Arctic features in a few 1950s sci and fantasy films, most prominently in The Thing From Another World and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms begins with a test of a nuclear bomb in the Arctic, which releases a prehistoric monster that had been frozen in the ice for millions of years. A specialist in radioactive isotopes, Dr. Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) sees the monster, but no one will believe him. He contacts the respected paleontologist, Dr. Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), but he finds the idea of a frozen dinosaur come to life incredible. Only his assistant, Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) believes Tom. Together, Tom and Lee track down several fisherman who claim to have lost their boats when attacked by a giant monster.

Eventually, the evidence mounts up so that not only Dr. Elson, but also Tom’s military friend, Col. Evans (Kenneth Tobey) believe him and they try to locate the monster (which they call a Rhedosauros, a fictional dinosaur), except that the monster has other ideas and invades New York City a la Godzilla.

Interestingly, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was released over a year before the Japanese classic Godzilla and served as an inspiration. There are many similarities: the connection between atomic weapons and monsters, the way it attacks boats, the way it comes ashore to destroy a whole city. Ray Harryahusen’s Rhedosaurus probably looks better than the original Godzilla, which is really a man in a suit. However, the Japanese film gave their monster a much deeper significance. Godzilla is not just a rampaging dinosaur, but a direct product and representation of the atomic bomb and it’s deadly effects and trauma.

The-Beast-from-20-000-Fathoms-images-e6efcd1b-fdec-44e1-b9c8-efc46c46273However, despite the lack of an especially deep meaning, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is still a fun movie. It’s not a long movie, only 80 minutes, and incredibly was made for little more than $200,000. It’s a testament to creativity on a shoestring, a creativity that influenced films from Godzilla to Them! and beyond.

The idea came from a short story by Ray Bradbury called “The Fog Horn,” which featured an attack by a giant monster on a light house (a scene which makes it into the film). Ray Harryhausen – who had previously worked with Willis O’Brien on Might Joe Young – was for the first time able to work alone. He said they could only afford one model of the Rhedosaurus, unlike King Kong, where there were multiple models – you can even track the changes through the film. Ultimately, Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus looks to me like a cross between a T-Rex and a Komodo Dragon.

The director, Eugene Lourie apparently used to tease Harryhausen that he made his monsters die like a tenor in an opera. This made me laugh when I heard it because it’s so true. The pathos Ray Harryhausen manages to wring out of the death of a rampaging creature is impressive. He did the same thing at the end of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, pausing for a truly operatic end for a dragon that really wasn’t in the story that much, but managed to convey more emotion that the entire cast put together.

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Cecil Kellaway, Paul Raymond, Paul Christian

In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the Rhedosaurus goes out amidst a burning roller-coaster on Coney Island, taken out by a radioactive isotope. He gets all the drama, while the people are along for the ride, though Cecil Kellaway as Dr. Elson is quite good. I am always happy to see him in a film and the character even makes jokes about leprechauns, which I thought was ironic since Cecil Kellaway had played a leprechaun in a movie only a few years before. Another familiar face is Kenneth Tobey as Colonel Evans. He makes a crack about flying saucers, another irony, since he helped discover one in the 1951 movie The Thing From Another World.

The film grossed over $5 Million, an impressive return for a film made for only $200,000. But the creative returns were even more impressive, inspiring Godzilla and Them!, but also launching Ray Harryhausen as solo creator and unique genius.

This post was written as part of the Ray Harryhausen Blogathon. My thanks to Wolffian Classics Movies Digest for hosting! Click here for more posts about Harryhausen’s work.

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Posted by on July 11, 2016 in Movies

 

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Above and Beyond (1952) – Robert Taylor, Eleanor Parker

Above_and_beyond_-_movie_posterAbove and Beyond is a blend of genres; part military history of Lt. Colonel Paul Tibbets at Wendover Air Force Base preparing to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and part melodrama about his strained relationship with his wife. Made in 1952, it stars Robert Taylor as Paul Tibbets and Eleanor Parker as his wife, Lucy.

The film is narrated by Eleanor Parker, recounting how their marriage has nearly fallen apart. It begins in 1943, when Tibbets is brought back to America from overseas (where he was flying the B-17 over Africa) to fly test runs of the new Boeing B-29 bomber, which has been having technical problems and even crashed during one test, killing the pilot. Lucy is thrilled to see her husband for the first time in two years – and to introduce him to the son he has never seen – but discovers that he only has thirty minutes to be with her before he reports to Wichita to begin test flying the B-29.

They do manage a few moments together in the coming months and Lucy is soon pregnant again. She comments on how they have been married for five years, are the parents of a child and yet they have really only lived together for about seven weeks. But the war continues and because of Tibbets’ experience with the B-29, he is chosen to head the 509th Composite Group, an Air Force group that was part of the Manhattan Project and the group in charge of actually delivering the bomb, training the crew and modifying the B-29 so that it could carry the bomb.

The 509th Composite Group is located at Wendover Air Force Base in Utah. Initially, there are no women and children, but out of concern that the women would do too much talking and speculating, the decision is made to allow all the wives and children to live on the base….except Lucy. Major Bill Uanna (James Whitmore) is the security officer and strongly advises Tibbets against bringing Lucy. He’s concerned that the pressure on Tibbets will make him of little use as a husband and father and that the stress would be too much for her. But after Lucy has her second child, she can’t understand why she has been excluded when other wives are there and insists on coming.

At first, everything is okay. The house is cramped and dingy, but she’s happy to be with him. But soon she hears some complaints from the wives on the base. Because Tibbets is not even a full Colonel (still a Lieutenant Colonel) and because of the intense secrecy on the base, some of the men don’t believe he is really in charge of anything important and think he’s being strict because he’s angling for promotion.

Eleanor Parker and Robert Taylor

Eleanor Parker and Robert Taylor

She dismisses it, but soon begins to suspect that perhaps they are right and can’t understand why he won’t tell her anything. The only people who know what is going on are Tibbets, the scientists, Major Uanna and General Brent (Larry Keating), who meets with Tibbets periodically. Soon she begins to wonder if he’s hardening before her eyes and if she can even live with him anymore. Tempers are short, words are spoken and she’s contemplating divorce. Meanwhile, he is agonizing over whether or not to announce to General Brent that the bomb is ready to be deployed.

The film is well-acted and absorbing, though at 122 minutes, a bit too long and it does hover uneasily between aviation history and melodrama. I’m not sure how much of the story between Lucy and Tibbets is accurate. On the one hand, it seems like she could have been more understanding about the stress he’s under (though according to Wikipedia – a grain-of-salt source – the film was made to explore the very issue of high divorce rates among flight crews). But in the film no one on the base seems to really believe that what they are doing is vitally important, which is what causes the misunderstandings in the first place.

There are two moments in the film that I know are true: when Lucy gets one of the Manhattan Project scientists to fix her sink (Tibbets had told her, when she asked about the men in white overalls, that they were sanitation men) and when the bomb is armed once the Enola Gay is in air and not before. They were concerned that if the Enola Gay crashed before taking off (still a somewhat common occurrence) the whole base would blow up.

I have not seen many of Eleanor Parker’s films; I still think of her as the Baroness from The Sound of Music, so it was fun to see her in another role. She’s quite good, though she is required to spend most of the movie frustrated and anxious. Robert Taylor is another actor I am not as familiar with, though I was impressed here. He’s playing a man who does not generally express his emotions, but feels deeply and cannot tell anyone what he is thinking or going through at all while he as at Wendover.

Movie-AboveBeyondThe film reflects a definite post-atomic bomb consciousness of the horror of nuclear weapons. It is not apologetic about dropping the bomb, but is nonetheless ambivalent about the existence of such a weapon. The film mentions President Truman soul-searching about whether to use it or not and Tibbets is clearly uneasy (when the scientists are discussing how to maximize the damage of the explosion, he gets a queasy look on his face) as if they were fully aware of what a weighty moment in history it was. But in 1945, I have read of no soul-searching or agonizing over the decision or consideration past the primary objective, which was to end the war as quickly as possible, the atomic bomb being considered one method of several concurrently employed to bring it about.

Interspersed in the film is quite a bit of actual war footage, including of the mushroom cloud billowing upwards (which is eerie), footage of the B-17 and B-29, of dropping bombs, of explosions and damage and it is quite well integrated. The ending of the film is chillingly effective, as the crew looks out of their plane at the cloud and the flattened, burning city of Hiroshima. All Tibbets’ says is “God,” in a hushed tone while his men look on, a bit in shock by what they just unleashed.

It’s not a moral exploration of the use of the bomb (Michael Bess writes a thorough and excellent one in his sobering and deeply thoughtful Choices Under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II), but is a look at a historical moment in time, as well as a more timeless account of the pressures on a loving marriage were the husband is frequently gone, in danger and unable to talk about what he does.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2015 in Movies

 

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