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One Million B.C. (1940)
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One Million B.C. (1940)

Lizards rarely get any respect in movies but for one brief shining moment in 1940 they achieved stardom when several of them were recruited by Hal Roach Studios to play dinosaurs in One Million B.C. (1940). Chances are you've seen footage from this movie in which lizards in fake fins and prehistoric appendages hiss and fight to the death amid a rocky, volcanic landscape. The NSPCA would never allow this now and seen today it can't help but enrage any reptile lover but the lizard footage was so effective it helped garner a Best Special Effects Oscar® nomination for One Million B.C.. And it's been reused as stock footage for so many other low-budget fantasy adventures with dinosaur sequences (Two Lost Worlds [1951], for example) that most viewers might not realize it originated in this Hal Roach production.

More importantly, One Million B.C. is generally recognized as the last motion picture D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation, 1915) worked on even though the details have always remained sketchy about the great film pioneer's involvement. According to author Richard Lewis Ward (in his book History of the Hal Roach Studios), Roach contacted Griffith in Kentucky about a possible production job at his California studio. Roach was in the planning stages of both Of Mice and Men (1939), an adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel, and One Million B.C. and wrote Griffith: "I need help from the production side to select the proper writers, cast, etc. and to help me generally in the supervision of these pictures." Griffith hadn't worked since his last picture, The Struggle, in 1931 and had been forced into an early retirement since no studio would hire him. Roach, however, believed Griffith's name would add prestige to his new projects and convinced him to come back to work. He had been impressed with Griffith's 1912 one-reeler, Man's Genesis, which depicted a culture of prehistoric people.

Even for 1940, however, One Million B.C. was a risky, even foolhardy venture. It was set in prehistoric times and the dialogue was minimal employing a form of crude early speech, grunts, groans and gestures as communication between the characters. The simplistic plot focused on Tumak, a member of the aggressive Rock tribe, who is banished from his people for defying his father, Akhoba. In his wanderings Tumak is taken in by the more civilized Shell tribe and falls in love with Loana but he is soon banished from their group as well for stealing. Loana joins him and they return to the Rock tribe where Loana's gentle nature has a positive effect on the entire clan. In the end both tribes are brought together by a calamity. A volcano erupts, trapping Loana and some Rock tribe members in a cave which is guarded by a dinosaur. With both the Shell and Rock people working together, the beast is killed and group harmony is finally achieved.

"Griffith realized that the audience would have to be coaxed into the concept," according to biographer Richard Lewis Ward, "and suggested the addition of a framing narrator sequence to prepare the audience for what would follow. Months later, when the film was previewed, it became apparent that even the narrator wasn't enough, and a full dialogue prologue, with a group of explorers stumbling upon prehistoric cave drawings, was deemed necessary. The film, then, became something of a flashback sequence to the prologue."

Despite rumors that Griffith filmed a few scenes of One Million B.C., it appears that he only directed costume and casting tests for the film (he also shot a single test for Of Mice and Men). The caveman epic was actually directed by Hal Roach with the process and background photography handled by Hal Roach, Jr. "Despite Griffith's minimal involvement with the picture," according to Richard Lewis Ward, "Roach still hoped to cash in on Griffith's name. A full-page ad for One Million B.C. in the Hollywood Reporter in late 1939 indicated that the film was "A D.W. Griffith Production, Directed by Hal Roach." Griffith objected to the use of his name, and when the film actually went into general release in April 1940, the published credits did not mention Griffith anywhere."

Lon Chaney, Jr., who played the key role of Akhoba in One Million B.C., was also disappointed with the way the film turned out. He had just given what many people feel is his greatest performance - as Lennie in Of Mice and Men - and was excited about his new role in One Million B.C.. Like his father, he devised his own makeup for the role but was unable to use it because it violated union rules: actors were not allowed to create their own makeup. Only the cosmetician's union had the authority to do that in Hollywood. Despite the ruling, Chaney's makeup is nonetheless impressive, especially in the second half of the film after his face has been disfigured in a struggle with a wooly mammoth (an impressive action sequence featuring some brave stunt men).

Not surprisingly, One Million B.C. did not open to great acclaim. The public stayed away in droves and even Hal Roach, who usually waxed eloquently on his films, conceded that this one was a dud. It did, however, receive two Oscar® nominations - one for the aforementioned special effects which showcase an impressive earthquake/lava avalanche at the climax and one for Best Music Score by Werner Heymann. And regardless of its poor reception, there is much to enjoy in this anthropological fantasy. Of all the major reviewers, only B.R. Crisler of The New York Times recognized its entertainment value: " is the most delightfully amusing tableau from a museum of unnatural history in the history of the cinema...Mr. Roach...has created a masterpiece of imaginative fiction, probably no more fanciful than the monsters which practicing paleontologists have been known to recreate from fossil thigh bones or less...You are almost certain to like something about One Million B.C. - if no more than the third cave man from the left, in the Rock number, who looks like Harpo Marx, just the fact that there is no dialogue, just gestures and unetymological grunts."

In 1966 Roach's maligned epic was remade by Hammer Film Studios as One Million Years B.C. and Hal Roach even took an associate producer credit on it. Unlike the earlier film on which it was based, this one was a box office hit. After all, it was filmed in Deluxe Color in the Canary Islands, featured special effects by Ray Harryhausen, and starred gorgeous Raquel Welch who spent most of the film cavorting in a fur bikini (a poster of her as Loana was the top selling pinup of its era).

One Million B.C. Postscript:
- One Million B.C. was Victor Mature's first leading role in a motion picture (he made his movie debut a year earlier in The Housekeeper's Daughter [1939]).

- Carole Landis starred in several Hal Roach Productions including Road Show [1941] and Topper Returns [1941] but never had a bona fide box office hit of her own. In 1948 she committed suicide after an unhappy affair with actor Rex Harrison, married at the time to Lilli Palmer.

- The locations used for One Million B.C. included the Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park in Agua Dulce, California; the Valley of Fire State Park in Overton, Nevada; and Iverson Ranch in Chatsworth, California.

- In England, One Million B.C. was heavily edited upon its release due to the country's strict laws on animal cruelty. Not only are lizards mistreated in the making of this film but elephants, armadillos, and a baby alligator enjoy equal abuse.

- One Million B.C. was one of Hal Roach Studios' final feature productions though the studio would remain operational through the forties and fifties producing training films and television shows. In 1959 the studio was officially closed and Roach later sold his business to a group of Canadian investors who developed the film-coloring process known as "Colorization." Robert Halmi Industries merged with Hal Roach Studios in the late 1980s to form HRI Entertainment which was purchased by Hallmark Cards in 1994. Hal Roach died in 1992 at the age of 100.

- D. W. Griffith tried to launch a new career as a Broadway producer after his frustrating experience with One Million B.C.. It didn't pan out and he spent his remaining years living a lonely, nomadic existence in a succession of California hotels. He died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1948, virtually forgotten by the film industry he helped build.

Producer: Hal Roach
Director: Hal Roach, Hal Roach, Jr.
Screenplay: Mickell Novack, George Baker, Joseph Frickert
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Film Editing: Ray Snyder
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Werner R. Heymann
Cast: Victor Mature (Tumak), Carole Landis (Loana), Lon Chaney, Jr. (Akhoba), John Hubbard (Ohtao), Nigel De Brulier (Peytow), Mamo Clark (Nupondi).

by Jeff Stafford


History of the Hal Roach Studios by Richard Lewis Ward

"Hal Roach: A Man and His Studio" by John Brennan (