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20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), along with perhaps Mary Poppins (1964), is the most popular and most accomplished live-action feature produced at Walt Disney Productions during Walt's lifetime. He first conceived of adapting the Jules Verne novel in the 1940s, naturally thinking of making an animated feature of the story. By the fall of 1952, though, Disney had decided to produce 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in live-action at his Burbank studio. This was no small decision. Disney had already made a few live-action films, but they had all been produced in England at a relatively low cost (and to avoid paying heavy fees on profits that his animated films earned in that country). Such movies as Treasure Island (1950), The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), The Sword and the Rose (1953), and Rob Roy, the Highland Rogue (1953) had all been profitable costume adventures starring British actors. He planned for 20,000 Leagues to be something quite different: a big-budget picture with top-of-the-line American actors, produced at the Disney lot. Disney's facility, of course, was set up to produce animation, so his plan entailed vast new investments in soundstage construction and behind-the-camera personnel with live-action experience. Concurrent with this risky expansion, Disney was deep into the planning and construction of his landmark theme park, Disneyland.
In their lengthy retrospect appearing in the May, 1984 issue of Cinefantastique magazine, Joel Frazier and Harry Hathorne assigned much of the credit for the success of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to the film's uncredited production designer, Harper Goff. Goff began work on the film when it was still being thought of as an animated project, and he started with the all-important submarine of the story Captain Nemo's Nautilus. Goff described his thinking behind the design: "I always thought that the shark and alligator were quite deadly-looking in the water, so I based my design on their physical characteristics. The submarine's streamlined body, dorsal fin and prominent tail simulated the traits of the shark. The heavy rivet patterns on the surface plates represented the rough skin on the alligator, while the forward viewports and top searchlights represented its menacing eyes." Disney was initially not very happy with Goff's design he had expected a sleek, unadorned cylinder as described in Verne's book. Goff, however, was able to sell Walt on the look of Nemo's ship, which logically would have been pieced-together from iron salvage at his remote hideaway. Goff used the same melding of 19th Century functionality and cultured sensibilities in his designs for the interior of the Nautilus, incorporating finely-crafted woodwork, intricate brass fittings, and, in keeping with Nemo's refined character, a library and an elaborate pipe organ.
While Goff continued with the design work on the film, Disney looked for a writer and director to tackle the episodic Verne book. Disney had been very impressed with the film The Happy Time (1952), a family comedy written by Earl Felton and directed by Richard Fleischer. The two had been something of a team, having also worked together on a pair of highly-regarded crime dramas at RKO, Armored Car Robbery (1950) and The Narrow Margin (1952). Fleisher met with Walt, and as he later described, "At our first meeting, I asked Walt why he had selected me. He answered, 'I saw The Happy Time which featured Bobby Driscoll, one of our contract players. If anybody can make an actor out of that kid, he's got to be a good director.'" That Fleischer was offered the chance to direct such an important film by Disney remains one of the more fascinating ironies in Hollywood lore. Fleischer was the son of Max Fleischer, who throughout the 1930s and early 1940s was Disney's greatest competitor in the field of animation. By 1953, though, Fleischer Studios had long since been absorbed by Paramount Pictures and Max was enjoying his retirement. The elder Fleischer not only gave his son his blessing; he also buried the hatchet and became friends with Disney.
Writer Felton fashioned a script by retaining the three or four major incidents people remember from the book, but adding a motivation for Captain Nemo's actions and making the outside observers on the Nautilus prisoners who think of escape. As Cinefantastique quoted Richard Fleischer, "Although Nemo is demonic, he is a force of good fighting the forces of evil. He lost his wife and child. He was captured and spent years in a slave camp. He sinks ships that carry munitions and tools of war. He never sinks anything that is innocent." Felton's story is set shortly after the Civil War: In San Francisco, shippers have trouble recruiting crewmen due to stories of a monster destroying vessels at sea. French scientist Prof. Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his assistant Conseil (Peter Lorre) gain passage on the U.S. Naval ship, the Abraham Lincoln, in hopes of seeing signs of the monster. After months at sea, they encounter a destroyed warship and survive a battering ram which cripples their vessel. With the ship's harpooner, Ned Land (Kirk Douglas), Arronax and Conseil are taken aboard the Nautilus, a submarine commanded by Captain Nemo (James Mason). There, they witness amazing sights including an undersea burial by crewmen wearing exotic breathing apparatus, sunken ships full of treasure, the nuclear-power of the submarine's engines, and the island slave camp at which Nemo and his future crewmen were once forced to toil for the benefit of munitions manufacturers. Several adventurous episodes follow, such as Conseil and Ned's escape from an island of cannibals and a battle with a giant squid, while Nemo treks toward his volcano headquarters as his reluctant guests hatch an escape plan.
Disney hedged his bet somewhat by having another writer prepare his own version of the script. John Tucker Battle had written the sci-fi adventure Invaders from Mars (1953), but nothing of his scripts for the Disney film was used. When Felton was nearing a final draft, his screenplay was handed over to the Disney art department, and in a significant step, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea became the first live-action feature film to be storyboarded from beginning to end - the boards contained over 1300 drawings. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea provided the first chance for Disney to cast a picture with a top-tier American cast; James Mason accepted the all-important Nemo role, and major box-office draw Kirk Douglas eagerly lightened his screen image by bringing his intense style to the role of the swaggering, heroic harpooner, Ned Land.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had an unusually long shooting schedule. While Disney constructed several new stages on his lot for live-action filming, several scenes had to be shot on borrowed backlots at both Universal and 20th Century Fox Studios. Disney also made the decision to shoot several key underwater scenes on location. In fact, the first sequence shot was the underwater burial scene, filmed in the clear waters off Nassau, in the Bahamas. For this footage, the Disney designers and engineers created specialized gear which was both decorative and functional. It took an underwater crew of 33 men 11 in front of the camera and 22 behind it eight days to film this one sequence. Due to safety concerns as well as natural lighting conditions, the troupe could only remain submerged for 55 minutes at a time. Fish wranglers had to steer frightened specimens in front of the camera, and large areas of the ocean floor had to be covered with hemp carpeting so that the men would not kick up camera-covering silt.
Fleischer filmed the cannibal island sequence on location as well, traveling to Jamaica with Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre for those scenes. After two months of location shooting, the principal photography began in earnest on the new Disney Stages, and took another four months to complete. By far, the most difficult (and expensive) scene to complete was the ship-top battle between the crew of the Nautilus and a giant squid. The squid was designed as a full-size mechanical prop by sculptor Chris Mueller, with mechanical effects by Robert A. Mattey. The all-important tentacles were made of rubber and steel spring and maneuvered from above by wires. The scene as scripted was to take place on a calm sea at sunset, and filming had been progressing for a week on Disney's new stage 3, before it was abruptly halted by Walt himself. As Fleischer related, "No matter what I did, or what any director could have done, I couldn't make the fight look realistic....it was difficult to hide the flaws, especially the wires that supported the tentacles. When you tried to do something with the squid, it looked phony as hell." Accounts vary, but either writer Felton or second unit director James C. Havens had the idea to reshoot the scene during a fierce thunderstorm at night. Great improvements were also made to the squid prop, including adding more natural motion to the tentacles through the use of air pressure pumped through pneumatic tubing. The reshooting of this sequence cost the production $200,000 and a whopping six-week delay in the schedule.
When the film was approaching completion, Disney sought out a new distribution partner for his studio's films and cartoons. The deal with his previous distributor, RKO Radio Pictures, was ending and Disney had no desire to renew he had always felt that RKO took too high a cut of the profits. Disney briefly considered Paramount Pictures, but eventually decided to begin self-distribution. He established Buena Vista Film Distribution Company, named after the Burbank street address of his studio.
Notices for the film were almost universally favorable. Variety called it "very special," and praised the actors, but said "...it is the production itself that is the star. Technical skill was lavished in fashioning the fabulous Nautilus with its exquisitely appointed interior. The underwater lensing is remarkable on a number of counts, among them being the special designing of aqualungs and other equipment to match Verne's own illustrations." The Los Angeles Times noted that "as a sci-fi job, 20,000 LEAGUES is the ablest since the previous year's THE WAR OF THE WORLDS . Nearly everyone should find the voyage exhilarating." And Jack Moffitt in the Hollywood Reporter said that "the production abounds in belly laughs and spine tingling thrills, set forth with an all-important air of plausibility."
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea deservedly won Oscars for Best Art Direction and for Best Special Effects. Unfortunately, the film's primary designer Goff was not a union member and was therefore uncredited and did not share in the Academy Award for Art Direction. The special effects in the film were achieved by a variety of methods including optical work, animation, mechanical effects, and a method as old as filmmaking itself: matte paintings executed on glass and photographed live-in-the-camera. The paintings in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea were created by long-time Disney staffer Peter Ellenshaw.
Walt Disney's first home-grown live-action feature was enormously popular at the box-office, grossing $6.8 million on its first release. It did not make a profit, however, because it was one of the most expensive movies produced up to that time, costing over $9 million. The prestigious 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea had great value for Walt beyond the box-office, though; it provided fodder for the Disney TV series, inspiration for the Theme Park, expansion of the studio soundstages, and put Disney on the map as a live-action movie production and distribution entity.
Producer: Walt Disney
Director: Richard Fleischer
Screenplay: Earl Felton, based on the novel by Jules Verne
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Film Editing: Elmo Williams
Production Design: Harper Goff
Art Direction: John Meehan
Set Decoration: Emile Kuri
Music: Paul Smith
Special Effects: John Hench, Josh Meador
Matte Paintings: Peter Ellenshaw
Cast: Kirk Douglas (Ned Land), James Mason (Captain Nemo), Paul Lukas (Prof. Pierre Arronax), Peter Lorre (Conseil), Robert J. Wilke (First Mate), Ted de Corsia (Capt. Farragut), Carleton Young (John Howard).
by John M. Miller