Friday, September 2, 2016

A Whale of a Tale, or Thoughts on Kirk Douglas in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

What people don’t realize about Kirk Douglas, the original Spartacus (1960), is that he was an all around entertainer from the Vaudeville tradition who would do anything he could to keep your attention on him, be it dancing, singing, fighting, gymnastics or histrionic scenery chewing.  His onscreen charisma and naturalistic style is a joy to watch, and sadly missing from most modern performers.  In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) he portrays Ned Land, the two-fisted singing whaler and shipwreck survivor aboard James Mason’s Nautilus.  James Mason’s portrayal of Captain Nemo can’t help but be compared with Uncle Walt himself, another megalomaniacal visionary as he promotes his utopian life on the sea, including an all-seafood diet and seaweed cigars.  Also a pet seal named Esme, it’s a Disney movie, after all.
From the 1870 novel of the same name by Jules Verne, the movie also stars Paul Lukas as Professor Aronnax of the Paris National Museum investigating rumors sea monsters in the Pacific along with Peter Lorre, vaguely European accent and shifty, mournful eyes as his assistant Conseil.  It’s a leisurely storytelling style, with plenty of time for a sea shanty musical number by Kirk that seems anachronistic by contemporary standards, from a time when audiences demanded more from a cinematic experience than explosions and non-stop action.
The visual style of the movie, which I suppose we could call Disney steampunk, remains visionary and innovative.  The look of the Nautilus is an ironclad Civil War era ship but with the streamlined fins of a mid-century Cadillac.  The fully realized interiors are reminiscent of HR Giger’s design of the Nostromo, but of course with the lighthearted Disney touch.  The underwater scenes are convincing with simple animations and lighting tricks, while the brass diving suits and design of the Nautilus manage the challenge of looking concurrently antique and futuristic.
However it wouldn’t be a mid-century Hollywood movie without some moments of cringe-y racial insensitivities, in addition to fighting a giant squid the Nautilus encounters a tribe of South Seas cannibals that they repel with the magical wonders of an electrified hull.  The scene is played for laughs as they dance barefoot on the hull, and is difficult to watch.  All movies are products of their time, and that’s just how we saw the world back then.
Director Richard Fleischer would go on to make Fantastic Voyage (1966, with Raquel Welch), Soylent Green (1973, it’s people), Conan the Destroyer (1984, with Grace Jones) and Red Sonya (1985 with Brigitte Nielsen).



my first novel?  thanks for asking:)  it’s a the first book in a 4-volume supernatural martial arts series chock full of killer kung-fu witches, haunted carnivals, punk rock assassins, and a 24-hour diner with the best pie in town…
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