Following the release of Disney’s TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA in 1954 and AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS in 1956, for the next six or seven years Jules Verne—as far as the movies were concerned—became a pretty hot author with a film adaptation of one of his books appearing every year or so. My favorite of these follow-ups was JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.
I first saw it at the Laconia on a Saturday afternoon and was enthralled from first credits until the movie was over. If I remember correctly, I think I sat through the movie twice which I don’t usually do. At the time I thought the special effects, sets and most especially the music was—in my words at the time—“great.” One has to admit, that the film is a bit a tongue-and-cheek with James Mason doing most of the cheek as he gave one of his best performances of the period which is saying a lot as these were the years that he did his very best work. (Three years later came Lolita and his incomparable Humbert Humbert. You don’t get much better than that.) In the Disney TWENTY-THOUSNAD LEAGUES he had played it straight and was nowhere as good. In this film he is a joy as is the rest of the cast including Arlene Dahl giving, in my opinion her best performances ever and, with it, a realization that not only did the woman have talent but she had been wasted under her MGM contract where she merely served as very attractive window dressing.
I saw it again a few years later as the lower half of a science fiction double feature with something called VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS staring Cesare Danova who two years later was 7th billed in Liz Taylors 40 Million dollar epic, CLEOPATRA. How he went from this B&W B-film to that Todd-AO specular is a mystery to me. In any case, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was as good to me viewing it then as it had been two years earlier when I saw it at the Laconia. In short, I still thought it was movie magic.
When it came to television I of course saw the film again—and on the little screen in B&W pan and scan – a lot of the of the magic was gone but what was left kept me watching almost every time it the popped up on TV—network showings and local. But, one time I caught a viewing at the Museum of Modern Art which proved an interesting experience. The print had been provided by Martin Scorsese from his private collection and one or two of the reels were faded somewhat and so I was able to see the difference between proper color and faded and it’s effect on the film which helped me to realize in quite a dramatic fashion how much the color added to the film’s overall experience. In fact how much it added to every film. But more on that in a future posting. Eventually the film was released to DVD which I immediately purchased and then the Blu-ray when it became available.
Today, after several college geology classes and a lot of National Geographic documentaries, it is pretty obvious that the film is far more fantasy than science fiction. In fact calling it science fiction would be quite a stretch. I mean if you want to reach the center of the Earth you better realize that you are going to be burned crisper then a slice of bacon. Also, the special effects that I marveled at in 1959 aren’t so special anymore—not since CGI came into the picture business. I mean Iguanas dressed up with back fins just can’t hack it anymore as representing dinosaurs. Not after Jurassic Park.
Yet despite all that the film is still enthralling. A lot of that is due to a fantastic score by Bernard Herrmann. His morning “lighting the way” music is absolutely outstanding and his score sets the tone and overall atmosphere as there is real magic to it. It is ageless. Remember, thisis the man who wrote the music for VERTIGO. The overall scenic design—if taken as fantasy—is really quite wonderful with James Mason’s deft performance only getting better over the years. Maybe not the performances so much as my ability to appreciate what Mason is doing. In certain respects Mason really puts the film across. David Thayer was born to play the film’s villain. After he ate Gertrude the goose audiences always cheers—well I do—when he is killed. He deserved it.
And I’ve already mentioned Arlene Dahl. The “battle of the sexes” scenes between her and Mason are simply wonderful. The character is an independent woman and, much to Mason’s annoyance, lets him know it at every opportunity. I especially like the wonderful scene on the beach after they are—in a center of the earth fashion—shipwrecked without any food to eat. Lying there, their clothes in rags Mason—starving—regrets not having eaten the food his mother had given him when he was a child and Dahl commenting that she had a hard time imagining him as a child. Not only is it an very amusing scene but looking at the scene now I realize that in its own way it is a love scene—center of the Earth style of course.
As for Pat Boone, he is quite good and his performance comes across as quite genuine, Scottish accent and all. (Strangely, he’s top billed and even gets to sing two songs.) And one shouldn’t forget Gertrude the goose who practically steals the movie providing a great deal of the comic element. If they had Oscars for animal performances, there is no doubt in my mind Gertrude would have walked – well waddled – away with it that year.
The costumes, the props; they all still work. Finally—as improbable as it is, but remember this is fantasy—it is a film that despite its technological limitations is still true example of what movies can do that simply cannot be done in any other medium. It’s pure cinema magic and as such for me, remains a WOW!
I remember when I wrote about the film on my Facebook page one Facebook friend really gave it to me for wasting my time writing about this junk—what he called the film—and wasting his time having read what I wrote. What is interesting is that he was in the film business as a child and was in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS taking part in the ballet sequence and in SINGING IN THE RAIN playing in the Broadway Melody sequence. He even danced with Gene Kelly in INVITATION TO THE DANCE where he played the boy genie and did that wonderful duet with Kelly. I guess as his youth was spent in the business and he saw films being made they held no magic for him and so, as an adult, had a completely different take on them then I did. So, to him JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH just didn’t measure up. A pity, if circumstances had been different he would most certainly have enjoyed the film.
There have been remakes—including a TV version and 3D version—but this one in my opinion is the best. As I keep saying over and over, the film is a fun ride from start to finish and one that I never grow tired of taking. If you haven’t seen it. Please give yourself a good time. Take a look.
Thinking about it I also remember that there was a fascinating Czech film (dubbed into English) released about that time called the FABULIOUS WORLD OF JULES VERNE. It was live action with animation drawings as they would have been drawn in the 19th century at the time Verne wrote his books. It was in—of course—B&W and I simply loved it while my 11 year old friends thought it was crap. I mean did I hear it from them for talking them into going to see it. Years later I saw it on TV and I still thought that it was just as wonderful. One of the most imaginative films of its kind I had ever seen. One can only imagine how much better it would have been if James Mason had starred. But, they probably didn’t have the budget and among Mason’s many accomplishments speaking Czech probably wasn’t one of them