Rev up them Ruhmkorff lamps: one of the cinematic delights of my childhood (to say nothing of millions of fellow Baby Boomers), 1959’s JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, has been exhumed as a second-printing limited edition Blu-Ray disc from the folks at Twilight Time and 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. Yay!
This iconic sci-fi action-adventure really needs no discussion as to its merits – it’s genuinely THAT beloved; added to the fact that, since the advent of widescreen laserdiscs, then DVD, I have yet to come across a lousy transfer. Blu-Ray naturally ratchets the quality factor up a notch or two – which will be briefly discussed later. It’s the cinematic journey of JOURNEY, partially through the eyes of an adolescent who experienced it in spectacular CinemaScope and full-dimensional stereophonic sound, that will encompass these few paragraphs…some of it almost as much fun (to me) as spinning the new platter.
The idea of making a lavish science-fiction extravaganza was rife with ulterior motives for those foxy folk at Fox. The genre was a veritable cash cow during the 1950s. War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth and the Ray Harryhausen epics were filling the coffers at Paramount, MGM, Universal and Columbia – the former two rarely dipping their tootsies in this kind of fare. Fox had jumped the outer-space bandwagon in 1951 with The Day the Earth Stood Still, but hadn’t really mined the possibilities of their game changing CinemaScope process. Picking the Jules Verne epic was a no-brainer for several very good reasons: 1) Disney’s 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had not only become the studio’s all-time box office champ, but enabled its chief mogul to realize his dream of Disneyland; 2) Michael Todd‘s 1956 Verne odyssey Around the World in 80 Days surpassed the Disney release in coin, and, in many avenues, was still playing to packed crowds as the 1950s was drawing to a close; 3) and, most importantly, Jules Verne, like the Bible, was public domain (even low-budget producers like Benedict Bogeaus had filmed From the Earth to the Moon and AIP was beginning pre-production on Master of the World). Translation: no rights, no royalties – this was manna from heaven to any “suit,” particularly a cheap one.
Of course the talent behind such an endeavor was key – and here is where Fox pulled out all the stops. The set and art direction were top-notch – as detailed as any period piece ever unspooled by the company (it’s almost impossible to tell where the cavernous mock-ups end and the actual location work at Carlsbad Caverns begin). The cinematography was assigned to Day the Earth Stood Still’s underrated cameraman Leo Tover (whose career began with the 1926 The Great Gatsby and also included 13 Women, I’m No Angel, The Major and the Minor, The Heiress and The Woman on the Beach), the deft first-rate craftsmanship direction of Henry Levin (who made his debut with 1944’s B-horror fave Cry of the Werewolf, followed by a slew of film noirs, Technicolor swashbucklers and big budget comedies; he directed two other Pat Boone Fox pix, April Love and Bernardine, helmed the original Where the Boys Are and ended his career doing episodes of Knot’s Landing in 1980).
The music would be by the great (and that’s an understatement) Bernard Herrmann, who, along with the previous year’s 7th Voyage of Sinbad, the earlier aforementioned Day the Earth Stood Still, 1947’s Ghost and Mrs. Muir and 1941’s Devil and Daniel Webster, was quickly becoming the master of the fantasy film score. Herrmann’s approach, as one might expect was unique: “I decided to evoke the mood and feeling of inner Earth by using only instruments played in low registers. Eliminating all strings, I utilized and orchestra of woodwinds and brass, with a large percussion section and many harps. But the truly unique feature of this score is the inclusion of five organs, one a large Cathedral and four electronic. These organs were used in many adroit ways to suggest ascent and descent, as well as the mystery of Atlantis.” The script was to go way beyond the Boy’s Life approach that Disney so heavily relied upon. Charles Brackett, one-time co-writing partner with Billy Wilder, had since become a full-fledged Fox producer; he would now wear two hats, and co-author the screenplay with Walter Reisch. This guaranteed that there would be a plethora of witty dialogue and even some eyebrow-raising risque exchanges, most notably concerning Arlene Dahl’s audible underwear and a physically immobile Pat Boone’s remarkable sexual prowess.
Which brings us to the cast itself. James Mason, who helped steer 20,000 Leagues to its fantastic success, would now, as Professor Oliver S. Lindenbrook, lead the Victorian quest into the bowels of the Earth. Mason, who could read Bazooka Joe comics out loud and make it sound like Shakespeare, is a joy to behold. The smash bonanza of this movie, coupled with his appearance in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, would make this a banner year for the actor, perhaps his biggest of all in The Movies.
Arlene Dahl, the former Miss Rheingold Beer of 1946, who had provided jaw-dropping eye candy for many an MGM and Pine-Thomas Paramount pic, boldly took on this rather athletic role; she was, at last, able to make full use of her Minnesota Norwegian roots as the widow Carla Goteborg, playing the part with a perfect Scandinavian accent. She also was portraying a character nearly a decade older than her actual thirty years, a brave decision for any hops and yeast veteran – even Old Milwaukee.
For the ever-growing important teen crowd, Fox tossed the prize gig of Professor Mason’s ace pupil, Alec McKuen, to contract star and soft-rock idol Pat Boone. This, for many at the outset, appeared to be the lead balloon of the proceedings. Surprisingly, he holds his own, and is fairly inoffensive. To not disappoint his fans expecting at least one song, a second draft of the script romantically paired him with recent Fox contractee Diane Baker (as Mason’s niece), in essentially, the female “wait for the cavalry to return to the fort” role. They even included a modern-tinged ballad, sung to Robert Burns My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose (initially cut from American prints but restored in subsequent DVDs and this Twilight Time version); this afforded immense amusement to many high-brow viewers – although likely not to Burns’ estate, who fumed at their famed relation having to share credit for his legendary work with Jimmy Van Heusen. Well, realistically, what was he going to sing, Speedy Gonzalez?!
To Boone’s credit, he handles this plum with aplomb – albeit his major heroics were reserved for post-production. Being shown the pre-release posters, he was stunned to see that he received top billing over James Mason. Reportedly, the star marched into the Fox publicity department demanding that Mason be given the lead honors. He seethed as the ballyhoo boys explained the billing-chops-due-to-drawing-power scenario. Ultimately a compromise was arrived at: Boone and Mason received co-star billing (with Boone first). The actor/singer suffered various indignities during the grueling production where he was pushed, clubbed, shot at, cut, tossed about and, basically submitted to the kind of insensitive brutality usually reserved for Busby Berkeley chorus girls. One sequence, where he trips over a supposed papier-mache prop quartz rock, remains in the final cut; you can hear him let out with a mournful groan as he kicks the real article full force (he broke his foot). At one point, Boone is immersed into a terrain of salt, which he tastes as if he’s in some kind of drug lab. This behavior would be excusable if he didn’t later jump with glee at a forest of mutant mushrooms. Those substance-loving rock ‘n’ rollers!
The sparse supporting players, too, must be given mention. Alan Napier as the “you’re daft, man!” college dean who tries to stop Mason’s trek is his usual professional self. Then there’s poor Thayer David as the evil Count Saknussemm. His look, demeanor and accent have a decided Russian ambiance about it – not an accident for them thar Cold War years; in essence, borscht without the belt. David, intent upon making a slave out of Boone (who has become separated from his crew), points to the Scot’s predecessor, a mouth-agape dead servant. “Too much heat, too much load, too much fear,” he sneers with the lack of remorse that would do any Ayn Rand fan proud. In fact, he’s really too much of a load himself, smugly superior (memorably categorizing human sleep as “little slices of death”) and having his eventual companions woefully wishing they had included a polo mallet along with their inner Earth grip. On a personal note, I’d think that such real-life extreme right wingers like Boone and Dahl would have cherished David’s company (indeed the movie’s title is the closest either one of them ever came to the “center” of anything!).
David’s relevancy is all-the-more prominent due to his ultimate screen villainy. With this one motion picture appearance, Thayer David became the scourge to every movie-going youth – as he murders and eats JOURNEY’s most endearing character, Gertrude the duck. This event forever traumatized members of my generation and, to this day, whenever David shows up in subsequent flicks and TV reruns, he’s referred to as that “duck-killing bastard!” (Gertrude’s staying power enabled her to be resurrected for a later JttCotE television series; furthermore, a tombstone to an actual Gertrude Duck was later uncovered in a cemetery by a JOURNEY fan, who snapped a photo and uploaded it, where it immediately went viral).
The final member of the JOURNEY cast is the Frankensteinian giant, Peter Ronson (aka Petur Rognvaldsson ). Ronson, an Icelandic decathlon runner, was recruited at the last minute. Why he gets an additional “technical advisor” credit, is beyond me (unless he ran up and down mountains). He did receive a mammoth share of fan mail (mostly from teenage girls) – enough to be offered a Fox contract, which he at once turned down. Just weeks after the movie’s release, Ronson’s privacy was constantly invaded; he ended up moving his family to the California’s Orange County, where he remained happily secluded until his passing in 2007.
The special effects for JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH were generally 1959 state-of-the-art, with the notable exception of the dinosaurs, a major hook for sci-fi fans used to the SFX in King Kong (already a TV staple) and (then) on-screen Harryhausen creatures. The dinos, actually blown-up “slow-mowed” chameleons and iguanas with Dimetrodon fins attached, never really are convincing; they only worked once – and that was in the 1940 Hal Roach One Million B.C. The fact that the rest of the movie was so good enabled critical patrons to let it slide – although it’s a bit uncomfortable to watch as these living animals are obviously sacrificed in the name of art (hot molten coals being poured over them; buried by mountains of rock; speared in the neck and mouth). A split image of the adventurers rafting to safety, whilst the monsters feast upon each other, is sanguinely bloodied-up to resemble dinner time at Lucio Fulci’s.
The promotion for JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was a to-the-max triumph of hyperbole in the best 1950s movie fashion. The year before, we kids had been thrilled as the Viking ship from the UA Kirk Douglas picture (coincidentally called The Vikings) majestically floated down the Hudson. This year went one better. Prior to the screenings, Fox installed in key theaters life-sized three-dimensional murals adjacent to the lobby concession stands of the four main characters hugging the underworld crags and stalagmites of our planet. It was attached from the ceiling to the roof and illuminated by Day-Glo lighting similar to those Fifties magic night table lamps which, when turned on, gave the impression of animals running through the forest (anybody remember those?). This extraordinary effect was appended by massive stereo speakers on each side of the exhibit, which belched forth with sounds of rocks plummeting and splashes of lava. A banner heralding, “Our Next Attraction” accompanied this sure-fire stunt. Trust me: any kid who saw this was not going to pass up the chance to be engulfed in a terrifying and undoubtedly painful demise.
Early-arriving audiences to each show were treated to free copies of the JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH comic book; bizarrely enough, it wasn’t the sanctioned Dell Movie Classic edition, but the Classics Illustrated version (which had better dinosaurs). I’m not sure if the Herrmann soundtrack was available, but Boone did record an EP, Pat Boone Sings Songs from Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The outstanding success of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH prompted newly-signed Fox producer Irwin Allen to commence on a quasi-follow-up. Shortly after the dollars started rolling in, Fox announced a new CinemaScope version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s The Lost World (like Verne, Doyle was public domain). As with JOURNEY, Allen’s epic would star a renowned actor in the lead, Claude Rains. Unfortunately, Allen also resorted to using blown-up lizards for the dinosaurs…and worse, updated the turn-of-the-century setting to 1960. Not forgetting the drawing power of Gertrude the duck, Allen gave co-star Jill St. John a pooch named Frosty. That Frosty gets equal billing with Rains remains an unforgivable travesty (that said, in the JOURNEY trailer, narrated by Mason, and included on the BD, Gertrude gets cast mention with Boone and Dahl while David, Baker and Napier are omitted). The B-movie script, which ended where the 1925 Willis O’Brien masterpiece’s climax began (bringing a Brontosaurus back to London, where it goes on the rampage), was another insult – an obvious budgetary consideration, which Allen shamelessly lied to fans about: “We’re saving that for the sequel (yeah, like that ‘Thumbs Up’ ending to Mr. Sardonicus!).”
Twilight Time’s second limited pressing Blu-Ray of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH looks, as one might imagine, pretty nifty (the first edition sold out almost immediately). It doesn’t take your breath away like some other TT/Fox titles because, as indicated, transfers on this title have looked really good for nearly twenty years. Still, the detail of the costumes (Mason’s Scottish tweeds) brings out almost every thread. This Twilight redux is nevertheless an improvement over the original B-D, serving up a brand new 4K restoration. What is impressive is the sound. The audio is the best I’ve ever heard on any home vid incarnation of this title. The surround effects of the rocks, echoes, dino roars and Dahl’s creaky underwear are as if one is really there (which, for Dahl, might prove a bit unpleasant). The magnificent Herrmann music, as with all TT releases, can be accessed as an IST (Isolated Score Track). Alas, this 5000 unit limited release (up from the 3000 minted for TT’s initial JOURNEY), is already in dwindling supply, so organize your hunting expedition today. As Lindenbrook’s intrepid party discovered, it’s an excursion worth seeking out. Or, to paraphrase Mason’s dauntless prof, for students of classic cinema, this Blu-Ray is “…a scholar’s choice.”
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Stereo-surround [5.1 DTS-HD MA]. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95.