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In 1952, RKO Radio Pictures reissued their then-nineteen year old movie King Kong (1933) to theaters. It wasn't the first time back to the big screen for this durable classic; previous reissues had occurred in 1938 and 1946. The studio took a different approach in 1952, however. They sent the film out in a saturation-booking, meaning it opened in many theaters across the country at one time, and they spent a large amount of money on radio and television advertising, concentrating ad money on what was then thought to be the competing medium of TV was a rarity at the time. The ploy paid off handsomely, and King Kong became one of the surprise top-grossing releases of that year.
King Kong's multi-million dollar grosses were noted by many in the industry, including Mutual Films, a small independent outfit run by former Monogram producer Jack Dietz, former "Little Tough Guy" and "East Side Kid" juvenile actor Hal E. Chester, and editor Bernard W. Burton. They were the first out of the gate with a new giant-monster-on-the-loose film and the first for the Atomic Age, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). The film would prove to be enormously influential, and is also significant for being the first solo feature project for stop-motion animation maestro Ray Harryhausen.
Synopsis: A group of scientists and military men are in the remote far reaches of the Arctic Circle, testing a nuclear device. The detonation sets free a prehistoric "Rhedosaurus", a giant carnivorous dinosaur that walks on four legs. One member of the team, Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian), sees the Beast and is nearly killed when he falls into a crevasse. He is rescued and recuperates in a Manhattan hospital, where he recounts his story to a skeptical psychiatrist (King Donovan). The Beast makes its way south toward old nesting grounds, sinking a ship along the way. At the same time, Nesbitt meets with paleontologist Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway) and his assistant Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond). He convinces them of his sighting and identifies a drawing of a Rhedosaurus as being the creature he witnessed. The Beast destroys a lighthouse along his route and eventually comes ashore in New York City, wreaking havoc. As if his ferocity and size were not enough of a menace, it is discovered that when wounded, the Beast drips blood that contains deadly amounts of radioactive bacteria. The military contingent, led by Col. Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey), decides that the Beast will have to be taken out by a grenade rifle armed with a radioactive isotope, and a sharpshooter (Lee Van Cleef) is enlisted to make an attempt in an unlikely setting - a closed amusement park.
The project started as a script called The Monster from Beneath the Sea, and featured an undefined menace; before Harryhausen designed the Beast, the producers were thinking perhaps that a giant octopus would do the trick. The circumstances under which noted science-fiction author Ray Bradbury received the story credit for the film are somewhat murky and present-day accounts are in conflict. Harryhausen's memory is that "during a story conference Jack Dietz rushed into the room and threw down a copy of the Saturday Evening Post. It contained a beautifully coloured illustration of a dinosaur-like creature attacking a lighthouse. Coincidentally, it turned out to be a short story written by my old chum Ray Bradbury....Jack was so impressed with the image that he wanted to incorporate a similar sequence into our film. Consequently, we decided that it would help bridge the emergence of the creature from the ice and its eventual appearance in New York. Jack quickly made arrangements to buy the story from Ray (I believe for $2000) together with the title from the Post. And so that's how The Monster from Beneath the Sea became The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms."
Bradbury, however, told author Mike Hankin (in Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Majicks, Volume 2: The American Films) that "Hal Chester called me in and asked me to read the preliminary script. I pointed out the resemblance between it and my short story ...which had appeared in The Saturday Evening Post during 1951. Chester's face paled and his jaw dropped when I told him his monster was my monster. He seemed stunned at my recognition of the fact. He has the look of one caught with his hand in the till." Bradbury and Harryhausen had already known each other since they were teenagers, and would remain lifelong friends; it is odd that the only occasion in which both of their names appeared in the credits of a single project came as almost a coincidence.
Harryhausen had previously enjoyed a feature film credit on Mighty Joe Young (1949), working alongside his idol, animator Willis O'Brien, who had brought King Kong to life. For his first solo feature assignment, Harryhausen agreed to a salary for his services of only $15,000. He signed a contract on May 2, 1952 and the work had to be completed by September 19th. The producers bought the equipment that Harryhausen had used while working on Mighty Joe Young at RKO, including a stop-motion camera, rear-projection screens, and a customized projector that could hold an image a single frame at a time. The animator later wrote, "even though the contract included the provision of equipment, I was so inexperienced in film production finances that I undersold myself. The result was that on several occasions I had to dig deep into my own pocket as the project was realized."
Harryhausen found a suitable studio space in Los Angeles, a storefront on Washington Blvd. near Culver City. It was a long, narrow space; the type needed for the long throw of the single-frame projector onto the rear-projection screens Harryhausen would set up behind his animation model. The creature eventually designed for the Beast was unlike any dinosaur that ever existed, and yet looks probable; more importantly, it fit the bill as a Movie Monster. The moviemakers wanted a Beast that walked on all fours, and yet not be too similar to the Brontosaurus that invades London in Willis O'Brien's earlier The Lost World (1925). It also had to be believable as a creature that could swim great distances in the ocean, but also be a carnivorous killer on land. The first designs (as seen in the 2006 book The Art of Ray Harryhausen) featured a creature with a sloped beak for a mouth, and very large scaled plates on its back. The eventual creature was dubbed a Rhedosaurus (Harryhausen denies that the first two letters of the name have any significance), and had smaller scales and a larger head that more closely resembled a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
To create his stop-motion animation on a low budget, Harryhausen dispensed with expensive miniature sets and multiple matte paintings on glass (the type of effects used in King Kong and Mighty Joe Young). Rather, Harryhausen used footage shot on real locations with extras, and employed a split-screen method to "sandwich" his animation models within reality. As he explained at length: "The model of the creature was placed on the animation table and I aligned its feet with a specific portion of the background plate. The table was then masked off by mattes and countermattes, which I opaqued onto large panes of glass in front of the camera. When all the stop-motion animation was completed, the film was backwound, along with the projected footage. At this stage, whatever parts of the plate had been held back were now rephotographed into the unexposed areas frame by frame. Thus the creature (or model) could appear to roam behind parked cars and buildings by matting out those shapes and exposing them back in."
The real challenge in this split-screen process was to trick the viewer into believing that the two worlds were occupying the same space, and herein lay Harryhausen's true talent. When a lone policeman takes close-range potshots at the Beast with his service revolver, the creature casually bends his neck down, grabs the cop in his jaws (as the cops legs kick in agony while he is being lifted up), then the Beast snaps his head, flinging the poor fellow (now a small animation model) back into his throat. The two-shot scene is shocking and funny at the same time, and the frames pass quickly enough that Harryhausen's techniques become virtually invisible.
In his book Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life (written with Tony Dalton), Harryhausen had high praise for Eugene Lourie, saying "he was a good director; bright, capable and never questioned or interfered with my work. We got along very well, and in retrospect I found him more rational than most of the directors I worked with, probably because he was a designer and therefore understood what I was trying to do." Harryhausen, of course, would have literally "called the shots" during the live-action filming of sequences which would later involve his special effects; in effect, he directed those scenes himself.
Producer Dietz took the completed film and shopped it around Hollywood, looking not for a distributor, but a studio buy-out. He first went to RKO since they had already seen results with Kong, but they passed. Warner Bros, however, snapped up the film for $400,000, handing the producers a profit on their $247,000 investment. Had the producers tried for a distribution deal, however, they would have made a fortune. Warner Bros. made a few changes to the film, in particular replacing a minimalist score written by Michael Michelet with a full orchestral rendering by David Buttolph. Warners struck 500 release prints, dyed in sepia brown, and spent an additional $250,000 for a massive advertising campaign. The payoff was enormous, with an eventual box-office gross in excess of $5 Million.
Reviews of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms were mixed. The writer for Variety said, "The sight of the beast stalking through Gotham's downtown streets is awesome. Special credit should go to Ray Harryhausen for the socko technical effects, including the beast itself... Eugene Lourie's direction is excellent, resulting in the proper tension and suspense. Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger's screenplay has a documentary flavor, which Jack Russell's camera captures expertly." The Motion Picture Herald said, "the real stars of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are the special and technical effects men, in this case Willis Cook and Ray Harryhausen, who have put together as weird a monster as anyone need have to disturb their nightmares." The critic in the New York Times was lukewarm, saying only that the film "...generates a fair portion of interest and climactic excitement."
Eugene Lourie went on to become something of a one-man industry in giant reptilian invasion films, a specialized sub-genre if ever there was one. In 1959 he directed The Giant Behemoth, which featured stop-motion effects by Willis O'Brien and his assistant Pete Peterson, using many of the same low-budget methods that Harryhausen had pioneered. This was followed in short order by Gorgo (1961), which Lourie directed in England, this time featuring a man-in-a-suit monster.
Following Beast, Harryhausen began a long association with producer Charles Schneer at Columbia Pictures. Their first picture was It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), which featured a giant octopus invading San Francisco. Meanwhile, the influence of Harryhausen's first solo creation was being felt around the world. In Japan, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka of Toho Studios read a synopsis of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in a trade magazine, and it inspired him to create a homegrown monster-on-the-loose. The first script for what would become Gojira (1954) even included an attack on a lighthouse. Gojira was a fearsome scaly-spined dinosaur brought to life as a man-in-a-suit by effects expert and longtime Kong fan Eiji Tsuburaya. (The edited film received added footage featuring Raymond Burr and a new title for its American release as Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 1956).
Warner Bros. also took note of the success of Beast and immediately put into production Them! (1954), which would feature an invasion of giant ants and a copycat release pattern of saturation bookings and a massive advertising campaign. Other studios would launch their own giant insect films as a result. So two entire movie sub-genres, the Japanese daikaiju (giant monster) film, and the American "Big Bug" movie, can be traced back to the twin successes of the 1952 reissue of King Kong and its Atomic-Age imitator, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
Producer: Jack Dietz
Director: Eugene Lourie
Screenplay: Fred Freiberger, Eugene Lourie, Louis Morheim, Robert Smith; Ray Bradbury (story, "The Fog Horn"); Daniel James (uncredited)
Cinematography: Jack Russell
Production Design: Eugene Lourie
Animation Effects: Ray Harryhausen
Music: David Buttolph
Film Editing: Bernard W. Burton
Cast: Paul Christian (Professor Tom Nesbitt), Paula Raymond (Lee Hunter), Cecil Kellaway (Prof. Thurgood Elson), Kenneth Tobey (Col. Jack Evans), Donald Woods (Capt. Phil Jackson), Lee Van Cleef (Cpl. Stone), Steve Brodie (Sgt. Loomis), Ross Elliott (George Ritchie), Jack Pennick (Jacob Bowman), Ray Hyke (Sgt. Willistead), Michael Fox (ER Doctor), Alvin Greenman (1st Radar Man), Frank Ferguson (Dr. Morton), King Donovan (Dr. Ingersoll)
by John M. Miller
Ray Harryhausen: Master of the Majicks, Volume 2: The American Films, Mike Hankin, Archive Editions, 2008
Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton, Billboard Books, 2003
The Art of Ray Harryhausen, Ray Harryhausen and Tony Dalton, Billboard Books, 2006
Keep Watching the Skies: The 21st Century Edition, Bill Warren, McFarland, 2010