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The opening title reads: "Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." The film opens with the image of a curtain rising onto the first page of Jules Verne's novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The text on the page serves as a foreword describing the "monster on the loose" attacking ships at sea. Contemporary news items and studio press materials provide the following information on the production: Although Hollywood Reporter reported on January 25, 1951 that independent producer Sid Rogell was readying 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at General Service Studios, that film was never made and there is no indication that Rogell was involved in the Disney production.
Contemporary studio press materials provide the following information on the production: More than a year before shooting began, Walt Disney and his staff labored over the pre-production challenges inherent in filming Verne's complex and technically sophisticated tale. Production developer Harper Goff was working on plans for the Disneyland amusement park when Disney asked him to consider some marine life footage, shot by the California Institute of Technology's Dr. McGinnity, for a documentary film in the studio's "True-Life Adventure" series. While developing the storyboard, Goff "daydreamed about the Verne story" and sketched the scene from the novel in which divers explore the ocean floor. Although Disney liked the sketches, he was under the impression that M-G-M owned the rights to Verne's novel; however, he soon discovered that the rights were available for purchase, having passed to first the King Brothers and then to a smaller company.
In 1952, the studio began work on an animated version of Verne's novel, but by late fall of 1952, Disney, encouraged by the success of his British live-action films, decided to make 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea his first American-made live-action feature. Goff then worked for months on the design of the Nautilus, which Verne had envisioned, many years before any submarines existed, to have a battering-ram snout, electric "eyes," metallic ridges, a tail, a diving chamber, atomic power and a lavish salon. Six scale models were constructed before Disney accepted the design. The final submarine set was 200 feet long and twenty-six feet wide and featured a tubular interior based on the Forth railway bridge in Scotland.
Goff, who did not belong to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), was not allowed to receive the credit "art director" or "production designer," and as such was not considered eligible for an Academy Award. Goff recounts in the studio press materials his disappointment with Disney for refusing to fight IATSE, calling it "a very traumatic experience." The union insisted on the hiring of an affiliated art director, and as a result John Meehan was engaged to carry out Goff's designs. Meehan was also responsible for the design of the San Francisco and Abraham Lincoln sets.
Another challenge for the crew was to bring to life Verne's vision of diving suits that would allow men to walk on the ocean floor. After months of research, Disney's diving technicians created a suit that combined a diver's helmet, a rubber suit and an aqua-lung that piped air through tubes into the diver's mouth. The suit weight 225 pounds and was considered the first practical, self-contained diving suit ever invented. In addition to the suit, the film's divers wore long underwear, wool socks and leather gloves.
During the pre-production stage, Disney worked with writer Earl Felton to adapt Verne's novel into a more viable film story. Among the changes made to the original was the portrayal of "Captain Nemo" as an aggressive, remorseless hunter of warships, rather than the novel's self-defensive killer. In addition, the novel portrays "Prof. Pierre Aronnax," "Conseil" and "Ned Land" as Nemo's observers, rather than his prisoners; and has the submarine run on electronic power, instead of atomic. Felton commented on the changes in studio press materials, stating, "We counted on the fact that nobody ever read the book very carefully."
Beginning on January 11, 1954, the fifty-four-man crew shot exteriors on location for eight weeks, including work in Negril, Jamaica (standing in for New Guinea and the cannibal's island, where hundreds of native Jamaicans portrayed cannibals), Nassau in the Bahamas, Lyford Cay on New Providence and Death Valley, CA. More than twenty tons of equipment, six ships and thousands of captive fish were utilized. Special equipment was devised, including an Aquaflex underwater camera and a system to enclose the standard Mitchell camera in a watertight case, making it a self-contained unit for the first time. Problems with shooting underwater abounded, as underwater communication was almost impossible and the unit had only fifty-minutes of air per dive, which involved a twenty-minute diving and resurfacing procedure. In Lyford Cay, underwater photography had to be completed between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., before cloud coverage obscured the sunlight. Director Richard Fleischer carpeted the ocean floor with hemp to prevent clouds of sand from marring images. To minimize time underwater, each scene was first diagrammed and rehearsed on land.
On March 2, 1954, location shooting wrapped, and on 10 March the crew returned to the Disney studio in Burbank. There, a third sound stage was built specially for the film, containing a tank that ranged in depth from three to twelve feet. Press materials report its size variably as either 90 x 165-feet or 60 x 125-feet. The only scene to be shot in its entirety in the tank was the one in which Ned and Conseil discover buried treasure. During this time, second units shot exteriors in San Diego, the Twentieth Century-Fox backlot and the Universal lot (where the San Francisco sequence was photographed).
The "giant squid" sequence was shot during the week of March 10, 1954, but it appeared unrealistic, prompting Disney to order the footage reshot, despite the fact that this caused a six-week delay. Second-unit director James Havens solved the problem of visible wires by deciding to set the fight during a rainstorm, thus obscuring wires among the wet, chaotic background. The final squid model weighed two tons, had eight forty-foot tentacles and two fifty-foot feelers, and required twenty-eight crew members to control. On June 19, 1954, principal photography was completed.
Charles Boyer was originally cast as Aronnax, but withdrew. Press materials discuss the tension on the set caused by Paul Lukas, who at various times threatened to sue Fleischer, Disney and Kirk Douglas, and fought with longtime friend Peter Lorre. According to Fleischer, "When he couldn't remember his lines, he'd blow up at somebody."
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea marked Disney's first CinemaScope film. According to the Variety review, the film's final cost was $5 million. It was also the first Disney feature to be released by its recently created, in-house distribution arm, Buena Vista. According to press materials, both RKO and Paramount wanted to release the film, and on September 14, 1954, Hollywood Reporter announced that the deal for RKO to release the film was near completion, but Disney eventually chose Buena Vista in order to retain more of the film's profits.
Disney assigned a crew to shoot a "making-of" documentary about the film's production, which was then broadcast on the Disneyland television show on December 8, 1954. According to modern sources, that hour-long promotional program, entitled "Operation Underseas," was referred to in the industry as "The Long, Long Trailer," in reference to its use as a publicity program. The documentary won Emmys for Best Individual Program of the Year and Best Television Film Editing (Grant Smith and Lynn Harrison).
Modern sources add Harry Harvey (Shipping clerk) and Herb Vigran (Reporter) to the cast. The film won Academy Awards for Art Direction (Color-John Meehan and Emile Kuri) and Special Effects (Walt Disney Studios), as well as a nomination for Film Editing (Elmo Williams). It was the most financially successful Disney film to that time.
Verne's novel had previously been filmed by Universal in 1916, directed by Stuart Palin and starring Allan Holubar and Dan Hanlon (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20). The author had written a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1874 entitled Mysterious Island, and Columbia produced the adaptation in 1961, directed by Cy Enfield and starring Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, and Herbert Lom as Nemo (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70). Press materials note that Mason turned down the opportunity to star in the 1961 picture. In addition, the success of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea inspired many other film adaptations of Verne novels, including Twentieth Century-Fox's 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth, which starred Mason (see below); Columbia's Valley of the Dragons in 1961; Twentieth Century-Fox`s Five Weeks in a Balloon in 1962 with Red Buttons (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70); and several others.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was re-released in 1968, 1993 and 1999. According to a September 15, 1993 Daily Variety article, by 1993 the film's original color had faded to the extent that that year's re-release featured a restored print made from a new master, with a re-mixed sound track.