Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jules Verne's JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH: Blu-ray Redux (2oth Century-Fox 1959) Twilight Time

The science fiction/adventure novels of Jules Verne were to undergo a fascinating cinematic renaissance throughout the 1950’s. Verne, the second most translated author in the world, sandwiched in popularity somewhere between English-language writers, Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare, was, in his own time, regarded as an avant-garde surrealist. In retrospect, his resurgence as a movie-land icon served a particular need in America; the nation emerging from the darkened years of WWII, at the cusp of an unprecedented economic boom and able, at long last to reflect upon the more quaint Victorian era with a hint of cultural sadness for all that had been lost in the frantic rush to modernity and industrialization, but now, poised ostensibly to realize at least part of Verne’s spectacular flights into fancy; travelling 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954) or Around the World in 80 Days (1956) – the era of rocket ships, airplanes and submarines come to pass.  In retrospect, most of Verne’s novels are similarly themed, their central protagonists faced with a spectacular expedition in which a crisis of conscience inevitably arises.  
Henry Levin’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) caps off the public’s resuscitated curiosity with Verne on an oddity; not the least for its transformation of the author’s Germanic hero, Professor Lidenbrock, into the more Anglo-friendly, Edinburgh geologist, Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook (played with Teutonic fortitude and manly grace by a very erudite, James Mason). Mason was a rather unlikely star, and even unlikelier choice to play Verne’s proactive professor; usually cast as the weakest of men who succumb to their fears or foibles (or both) with a tragic implosion. Herein, he acquits himself rather nicely of a change of pace; his Sir Oliver one part sexist to two parts genius, the former inadequacy eventually giving way to a tenderer heart.  At the time of its release, Journey to the Center of the Earth was a smash hit, despite the fact not a whole lot takes place during its’ 2hr. plus runtime apart from some subterranean skulking; Sir Oliver accompanied on his fantastic voyage into the earth’s core by a nubile male protégé, Alexander McKuen (Pat Boone), engaged to Oliver’s niece, Jenny (the uber-placid Diane Baker); a stalwart, if enterprising mademoiselle, Carla (Arlene Dahl), widow of his rival, Dr. Peter Goetabaug (Ivan Triesault); a non-speaking guide, Hans Belker (Peter Ronson in a thankless part) and his beloved duck, Gertrude (oh, please…and no: no yellow-billed mallards were harmed in the making of this picture).
Despite its ineffectual use of matte paintings, clumsily aligned with some of the most obvious rear projection work ever achieved in movies; also, hampered by a few irrelevant interludes in song (because, of course, it’s Pat Boone…how can he appear in any movie in which he does not sing?!?), Journey to the Center of the Earth nevertheless maintains its axis as a fairly tantalizing bit of ‘silly’ cinema; implacably adorned in Hollywood hokum. Miraculously, the picture carries it off, in no small way due to Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett’s deftly written screenplay. This being a vehicle for Pat Boone, the narrative also serves up ample beefcake; whether taking a shower inside a crystal-licious cavern, where falling water appropriately obscures certain choice parts of his anatomy, or stripping down to some homemade shorts, before plummeting shirtless through a series of salt sink holes, Boone shows off his major assets. These, decidedly have nothing to do with his acting, though, nevertheless, they made him a star.
Arlene Dahl is a rather peculiar actress; her career begun in the late 1940’s and attaining a dubious popularity throughout the 1950’s. Yet, her beauty has an imperious quality, like a porcelain figurine. Her Carla is more admirable than amorous (always the kiss of death for a leading lady from this vintage…the movies preferring a little sauce with their tarts). But there’s zero romantic chemistry herein; Dahl’s corseted peacock, perpetually casting aside her mock independence for the stereotypical hapless/helpless/screeching female, her ‘come hither’ celestially blue orbs capable of piercing right through Mason’s dull-headed notion of the heroic martyr.  There is a wax mannequin quality to her poise, more stultified than stunning, though no one could say she was not a handsome woman. But she never comes alive on the screen. Dahls’ artificiality complicates the film’s denouement, as well as our belief this grief-stricken widow has come around for the soft touch of a confirmed old bachelor who doesn’t quite know what to do with any woman – even one as obviously willing and gorgeous as she.
If the central love interests are problematic, their ineffectualness pales by comparison to the wholesome milquetoasts that are Pat Boone and Diane Baker; a truly antiseptic pair of star-crossed sweethearts. Not surprising, Boone is at his most manly and enticing when he warbles Robert Burns’ immortal poem, ‘My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose’, cleverly set to music by Jimmy Van Heusen. He attains a mature apex of seduction in this moment that belies Boone’s otherwise boyish appeal; a ‘come here, my woman and let me get to know you better’ quality Baker’s fresh-faced and demure ingénue doesn’t quite know how to handle. That’s a problem too. Not that her Jenny is given half the chance to be sexy as the enterprising Alec elects to accompany his mentor on his grand expedition with the likelihood he will not come back to his beloved alive – if, at all. Talk about commitment shy! And Boone’s aspiring man of the world has no quam, in fact, about attempting to woo Carla right under Oliver’s nose; the more womanly widow putting a decided stop to his awkward innuendoes by reminding him of all young men’s proclivities to follow most any pretty face down the primrose path to premature ejaculation. Carla is too much woman for him and she surely lets Alec know it. 
In the interim between 1959 and 2015 our cinematic tastes have veered more to the fantastic; apocalyptic movies, heavily laden with special effects. Yet, Journey to the Center of the Earth is rather sincerely more interested in the plight of its characters, perhaps because director, Levin intuitively realizes the technological wizardry mustered up by Johnny Borgese is sub-par for the expectations of his audience. Even by 1950’s standards, the cheese is spread fairly thick; purple glowing wind tunnels, an oceanic vortex that as all the frenetic allure of a drain plug having been pulled in the bathtub, and, reptilian alpha-males devouring one of their own; rejects from a Western Costuming experiment gone horribly awry. Nevertheless, our suspension of disbelief remains untrammeled; chiefly because the cast treats these absurdities as though they were a Median tragedy or Homer’s Odyssey. Reverence to Verne is genuine too; enough to counterbalance the not terribly prepossessing make-believe, about as terrifying as a romp through one of Knott’s Berry Farm’s ‘dark rides’.
Our story begins in Edinburgh, circa 1880: or rather, Hollywood’s reasonable facsimile of it; some gorgeous second unit cinematography by Leo Tover marred with inserts of James Mason’s bumbling Sir Oliver, still floating on a cloud of ether after being knighted, strolling through some obvious sets and/or looking very much like a Colorforms cut out, pasted against some slightly askew rear projection photography.  Badly done! Not to worry, however, as before long the film embraces its own artificiality a la a typical Fox Cinemascope production from this vintage; quaintly decorous and highly stylized. After his graduating class presents Sir Oliver with their gift in honor of his recent knighthood, his most admiring student, Alec McKuen remains behind to offer his own to the professor; a curious piece of volcanic rock with a remarkably uncharacteristic weight. Thanks to the carelessness of Oliver’s lab assistant, Mr. Paisley (Ben Wright) the laboratory is blown up, the rock yielding a plumb bob with a cryptic inscription. Oliver deciphers it as the work Arne Saknussemm; a scientist who, 300 years earlier, claimed to have discovered a hidden passage into the earth’s core. Of course, no one took Saknussemm seriously then. (Aside: in Verne’s novel it is the runic manuscript of an Icelandic saga written by Snorri Sturluson that serves as the impetus for Professor Lidenbrock’s journey.) But Oliver is on the cusp of being brilliant – or bamboozled – or, perhaps, a little of both as he prepares to make ready for his expedition: fundamentally, the same flawed path to fortune and glory.
Upon learning of Sir Oliver’s excursion, Professor Göteborg of Stockholm (Ivan Triesault) proposes a minor coup – to reach the center of the earth before Oliver and Alec, by whatever underhanded trick he can use to gain his advantage. In the barren far reaches of Iceland, Göteborg and his devious assistant (Red West) shanghai, knock unconscious, and finally, imprison Oliver and Alec in a remote feather merchant’s farmhouse. Mercifully, the pair is freed by the proprietor, Hans Bjelke (Pétur Ronson), who is devoted to his pet duck, Gertrude. Indeed, upon hearing the first signs someone is on the other side of the wall that divides them, Oliver and Alec suspect it a romantically involved couple by the sound of Hans kissing Gertrude and vice versa.  Not long thereafter, Oliver and Alec make their way back into town, demanding of the innkeeper (Edith Everson) to be shown into Göteborg’s room. Instead, they discover the door ajar and Göteborg murdered in his bed with some potassium cyanide crystals still lingering in his goatee.
Enter Göteborg's widow, Carla, overwrought by the news of her husband’s demise, though quickly regrouping in her sullen contempt for Oliver after he rather unceremoniously dictates his intensions to claim Göteborg’s espionage for his own. The papers Göteborg has acquired are, of course, Oliver’s. But a rift between Oliver and Carla leads to her refusal to comply. Instead, she suggests she would burn the research than share it with anyone else…that is, until she discovers her late husband’s diary among his personal effects and suddenly realizes what a scoundrel he has been in his pursuit of science. To make amends, Carla offers Oliver access to all her husband’s things. Her philanthropy comes with a loaded request: to accompany the men, along with Hans, on their mission. Oliver is apoplectic. After all, the center of the earth is no place for a woman. Regrettably, he can find no logical argument to dissuade Carla. And so, the team that was to have been two are now four…or rather, five: Hans electing to take Gertrude along for the trip. 
Göteborg was surprisingly well stocked in his plans to trump Oliver’s vision quest. Now, Oliver confiscates his adversary’s formidable array of supplies, including much prized Ruhmkorff lamps to illuminate the caves once they go below the surface of the earth. Regrettably, the team is dogged by the unscrupulous Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), a direct descendent of Arne and most determined to get to the earth’s core first. In fact, it was he who murdered Göteborg. So far, Journey to the Center of the Earth has been a fairly even paced ‘who done it?’ with an adventurist’s spirit tacked on for good measure. Tragically, once the two rivaling parties go below in search of fame the movie hits something of a brick wall. We are treated to a series of interminably episodic bouts of spelunking; a lot of matte work in long shot and full scale paper mache for medium and close-ups; thoroughly unconvincing at best. Count Saknussemm’s man servant is ordered to mark the cave with fresh symbols to confuse and lead Oliver astray. For some time this ruse works. After many days travel, Oliver and his party stumble upon a series of fossilized crystal caves, a sort of hot springs spa where everyone pauses for a respite and to bathe, although for rather obvious reasons, only Pat Boone’s Alec is seen partaking of these therapeutic waters.
Alec possesses all the curiosity of a ten year old boy, or perhaps a novice without a brain, presuming nothing tragic could happen alone, in claustrophobic conditions, miles beneath the earth’s crust. What?!?! Silly boy! As the audience already knows from the tired old cliché, dedicated to ‘curiosity’ and what it did to the proverbial cat, our tension exponentially grows as Alec skulks off to explore an adjacent cavern. Predictably, he becomes lost. In the meantime, fascinated by these crystalized crustaceans, Oliver decides to chisel away a sample for his collection back home. Too bad the density of the rocks is weak, crumbling under his hammer and exposing an underwater cistern that quickly floods the area, threatening to drown Oliver, Hans, Carla and Gertrude. At the last possible moment, a loose stalactite dislodges from the ceiling, allowing this foursome their escape. Back in the caves, Alec is disillusioned by his inability to find his way to the rest of his group. A leaden series of false starts ensues before Alec slips through a crack in the floor, down a slide of salt and ending up at Saknussemm’s feet where he discovers his man servant quite dead. Saknussemm suggests his hired help died of an accident. However, given the Count’s penchant for killing off the competition, this may or may not be the truth. In any case, Saknussemm now demands of Alec that he pick up his slack and carry all of his supplies. When Alec refuses, Saknussemm fires his pistol, wounding Alec in the arm. Oliver, Hans, Carla and Gertrude arrive on the scene; Saknussemm now threatening to kill them all until Oliver momentarily blinds him with a handful of salt.
Afterward, Oliver acts as judge and jury in the case against Saknussemm; the five compatriots having found him guilty of at least murdering Professor Göteborg, Oliver sentences Saknussem to death. Too bad he can neither convince Hans, Carla nor Alec to commit the execution; nor can he bring himself to kill the Count as an act of justice. Instead, Saknussemm will accompany them on the rest of their journey. Sometime later, the troop discovers a large antechamber full of life-size mushrooms. Presumably, never having heard some mushrooms are toxic, Alec freely eats them and then prepares food from their stalks for the others. Mercifully, the soups are nourishing rather than fatal. Saknussemm and Oliver are confronted by a family of dimetrodons; gigantic lizard-esque beings who cannot follow them into the water. At this point, one of the dimetrodons attacks Carla. She is spared by Hans’ quick thinking. He plunges several spears into one of the animals; the others swarming the carcass to eat their own. Bound on a makeshift raft buoyed on this subterranean ocean, too late Oliver discovers the conflicting magnetic forces of the polar north and south have created a whirlpool that threatens to suck their tiny raft under.  Without explanation, everyone is spared this fate. Instead, they sail away to the other side of the ocean, washing up exhausted on the sandy shore.
Meanwhile, back at home, Jenny pines and ponders the fate of her beloved fiancée and her uncle Oliver; waking in the middle of the night with terrible dreams. As the others rest on the shore, Saknussemm lures Gertrude to a nearby cave where he kills and eats her. Discovering the scattered feathers nearby, Hans attempts to strangle the Count. He is spared becoming a murderer himself when Saknussemm stumbles backward over a narrow precipice to his death, an avalanche crushing his body. The hole left behind from the collapse creates a wind tunnel partially blocked by debris. However, Alec has discovered how to create flint and a fuse to detonate the rocks and set everyone free. While preparing this explosion, the troop is attacked by a gigantic chameleon. Alec’s explosion rocks the earth’s interior, creating a hellish earthquake and lava flow. It consumes the giant lizard, but also gurgles and gushes until Oliver and company, who have climbed into a metal discus, are forced upward inside this volcanic shaft to the earth’s surface at lightning speed. Spewed at the crater’s surface into the ocean, Carla, Oliver and Hans are rescued by a nearby fisherman. Alec, however, has been jostled and inexplicably stripped naked in this deluge, landing atop a prickly pine tree near a convent. Unable to explain to the nuns who have rushed to his aid he needs pants to maintain his sense of modesty, Alec is further chagrined when the branch he is perched on breaks, knocking him to the grass. Comic relief kicks in as Alec grabs a wayward sheep from the pasture to conceal his unmentionables.
The narrative glosses over Oliver and company’s return to Edinburgh; the entire university turning out to welcome them home. Alec arrives in a wheelchair pushed by Jenny, who explains how he fell down a flight of church stairs. Oliver attempts, rather badly, to enlist Carla as his muse and secretary to help him pen his memoirs. As she bluntly refuses to remain his grunt or the brunt of his sexism any longer, Oliver confides he has fallen in love to get Carla to remain at his side. She willingly agrees, presumably because she too has begun to harbor affections for this ridiculously clinical man. Thus ends, Journey to the Center of the Earth as benignly as it began and without much fanfare; save a choral reprise of the student’s chant, ‘Professor of Geology’. 
Viewed today, one can definitely see Journey to the Center of the Earth’s enduring influences on other pop-u-tainment – and not only on the rather pathetic 2008 remake. As example, the rolling bolder sequence almost certainly inspired director, Steven Spielberg to concoct his similar peril for Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The 2008 remake of Journey to the Center of the Earth, starring Brendan Fraser, was a terribly sloppy visual effects extravaganza, relying on choppy 3D SFX (more suited for a video game than a major motion picture) to exert chills, spills and thrills. Few remained that did not upset the equilibrium. The ’59 original is hardly a masterpiece. And yet, it remains relatively engaging in all its uber-simplicity and ultra-naiveté. A lot of Fox’s sexless and gaudy Cinemascope ventures from this period have not held up nearly as well. This ‘Journey’ has. But it’s really James Mason’s ability to simultaneously pull off caustic and debonair that continues to weave its magic spell. His supporting players are adequate at best. The gooney special effects do not help his suit much – if, at all. But Mason is a pro unlike any from our current generation; a real actor’s actor who, given the right material (or even the wrong kind) could pull off its’ Victorian-inspired pastiche with a straight face and sell it as divine artistry. When all else fails to impress (and frequently, it does) Mason keeps Journey to the Center of the Earth from suffering a complete implosion.
Well, how to take Twilight Time’s brand new reissue of Journey to the Center of the Earth except with equal portions of elation and contempt; both emotions lobbed at Fox Home Video, who have ‘graciously’ provided their third party distributor with a much improved true hi-def 1080p transfer, although only after fans of this classic were morally outraged by Fox’s slipshod first effort. Fox Home Video has incurred my ire of late too. The studio definitely knows better, as this new 1080p reissue proves. So why not do it the first time around, instead of as an afterthought in a reissue? The obvious reason is Fox didn’t think anyone would care as much in the first place; ergo, they elected to slap to disc whatever elements were presently in their hopper, instead of approaching their catalog as true conservationists of cinema art ought! Okay, I’ll lay off the powers that be responsible for the first release of Journey to the Center of the Earth; chiefly, because this second trip to the well has yielded a spectacular resurrection of the image with a few minor caveats to be considered.
So, where to begin? With the new image harvest, of course: cleaner, with more vibrant and fully saturated tones, properly framed and lacking the Cinemascope ‘mumps’ effect that plagued the original release.  Fox is still having color-timing issues with their Cinemascope releases. They can argue its’ vintage DeLuxe color that is the culprit herein, but NO vintage DeLuxe color image has ever favored robin-egg blue (nee, teal) as a dominant palette. So, no – I’m not buying it either. There’s something remiss about the way whites favor the bluish caste. I should point out it’s not as egregious as some of Fox’s other Blu-ray releases of vintage Cinemascope. For starters, I can’t watch their hi-def rendering of either Desk Set (1957) or Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). I mean, even the whites of Ingrid Bergman’s eyes are blue. What a crock! But I digress. Journey to the Center of the Earth’s problematic color scheme is not as distracting. So cheer up. You’ll enjoy what you see – infinitely more than what you saw the first time around. Your old TT Blu-ray is now officially a Frisbee. Fling!  We get the same 5.1 DTS remastering effort as before, also the original 2.0 mix. Honestly, these were perfect the first time around, so kudos for the carry-over herein. Ditto for the extras: an audio commentary featuring Diane Baker, TT’s own, Nick Redman and film historian, Steven C. Smith. Good solid stuff in Julie Kirgo’s liner notes too. Bottom line: highly recommended. I just wish Fox would give their catalog the respect, time and consideration it so obviously deserves – you know, the first time around. Making everyone double dip for this title just seems greedy on their part. N’est pas?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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