Cast & Crew
After conducting a secret experimental nuclear blast for the New York Atomic Energy Commission in the Arctic Circle's Baffin Bay, professors Tom Nesbitt and George Ritchie proceed to the blast area to observe the results. The two men separate to complete their tasks before an oncoming blizzard hits. Ritchie is soon buried in snow when a giant prehistoric reptile emerges from underground and causes an avalanche. Tom, responding to Ritchie's distress flare, is unable to find him, but sees the creature just before he is wounded and rendered unconscious. After being rescued by the U.S. Army, Tom is sent to a New York hospital to recuperate. There Tom's description of the reptile is explained away as a stress-related illusion and ignored, and Tom, himself, reluctantly comes to believe the diagnosis. However, when he reads in a newspaper that a ship sailing off the Grand Banks of Nova Scotia has been sunk, reportedly by a sea serpent, he leaves the hospital to enlist the help of Thurgood Elson, the dean of the department of paleontology at a local university. However, Elson is skeptical of Tom's theory that the heat of a nuclear blast freed a reptile that has been hibernating since the Mesozoic era. Elson's assistant, Lee Hunter, is open to the idea, and after a second ship is reportedly attacked near Marquette, she contacts Tom and asks him to look at several sketches of prehistoric animals. At her apartment, Tom identifies one of the sketches as looking like the creature he saw. At her suggestion, Tom tracks down George LeMay, the captain of the second ship, who is at first reluctant to risk further ridicule by talking about his experience. Tom gains his confidence and asks him to look over Lee's sketches. When LeMay picks the same sketch as Tom, Tom again requests Elson's help, this time successfully. Elson is fascinated that the identified sketch is a rendering of a rhedosaurus and explains that a fossil field in the Hudson Submarine Canyon, which is located 150 miles from the New York coast, contains the bones of several of these animals. Meanwhile, a lighthouse in Maine is destroyed by a giant reptile. While on a date with Lee, Tom is paged by the Coast Guard and told that another mysterious animal has been sited on a coastal farm in Massachusetts. Elson theorizes that the beast is following the Arctic current toward the Hudson canyon, the place the beast considers home. Excited by the possible discovery of a living specimen of his life's work, Elson arranges to go down into the canyon in a Coast Guard diving bell. However, as Tom and Lee wait for him in the Coast Guard ship, Elson, a Coast Guardsman and the diving bell are devoured by the creature. While Tom and Lee mourn for Elson, the giant creature shows up at a New York pier and proceeds across town, killing people with each step. As the police are unable to contain the beast, the National Guard is called in to set up a barricade. Sharpshooters try to shoot the animal between the eyes, but cannot penetrate his eight-inch skull. The Guardsmen manage to wound him with bazookas, but soon the hospitals are reporting that the beast is leaving a virulent disease in his wake and that contact with his blood is deadly. Shell fire and flame throwers are disregarded as a means of defense, for fear of spreading the beast's blood particles in the air. As the reptile heads for Coney Island, Tom suggests shooting a radioactive isotope into his wound, which would kill the beast, as well as the deadly bacteria. An isotope is brought to the scene and, as there will be only one chance, the best Guardsman sharpshooter is chosen to deliver the shot. He and Tom ride to the top of the roller coaster, where the sharpshooter hits his target. As the beast writhes in pain, he becomes tangled in the roller coaster and Tom and the marksman quickly climb down the structure to safety, where Lee and other Guardsmen await them. A fire erupts as the beast dies.
Lee Van Cleef
Kenner G. Kemp
Bernard W. Burton
Bernard W. Burton
Maurice De Packh
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms - The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
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
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms - The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury both loved the silent stop-motion classic The Lost World (1925) and spent all their time talking about dinosaurs and specifically how to make movies about them. No revival of King Kong (1933) in Southern California escaped their attention and afterwards, they would stand outside the movie theater planning how they would do it better. Bradbury: "We stuck together hoping that someday [Harryhausen] would animate dinosaurs and I would write his screenplays."
That chance finally came in 1953. Producer Jack Deitz, looking for a way to follow the very successful 1952 re-release of King Kong, bought a script about a monstrous dinosaur released by an atomic bomb blast in the arctic. Looking to polish the script, he showed it to young science-fiction writer Bradbury. "I read what they had and I came back and intuitively said, 'Excuse me, but this sort of reminds me of a story of mine that was in the Saturday Evening Post.' The producer's jaw dropped and I realized I'd caught them in the midst of being involved with my story without knowing it." Bradbury's story, The Foghorn, told of a dinosaur that destroys a lighthouse after mistaking its foghorn for a mating call.
After quickly buying the rights to Bradbury's short story, Deitz next hired Harryhausen to create the special effects. Harryhausen was then known only for secondary work on Mighty Joe Young (1949) and a reel he was then hawking around the studios showing dinosaurs he had animated using stop-motion. Given a budget of only $210,000, but a free hand in the scenes he was to create, Harryhausen made The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms seem far more expensive than it was. For decades before and after, cheap horror movies suckered in viewers with exciting posters that might reflect only the slightest connection to the scenes in the movie. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, for once, delivered on its poster's promise. Scenes of the giant Rhedosaurus rampaging through the streets of New York are still impressive. Part of this stemmed not only from Harryhausen's abilities from stop-motion, but also his acting abilities. "When you're doing animation, you have to project yourself into the creature to keep him in character."
Deitz sold the resulting film to Warner Brothers for over twice what it cost, only to see it bring in $5 million at the box office and start a worldwide explosion of giant monster movies. The makers of the Japanese film Godzilla (1954) admitted using The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms as a template and the big-budget U.S. Godzilla (1998) is practically a remake.
Warner Brothers new DVD of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms presents a very clean print of the film along with some great extras. There is a six-minute featurette on the making of the movie along with four trailers for Harryhausen movies including this one. Look for a young Vera Miles making a surprise appearance in The Beast's trailer. My favorite section is a seventeen-minute discussion by Harryhausen and Bradbury shot June 2003 as they spoke before an audience. These two men may now be elderly, with Bradbury in a wheelchair, but as they begin talking of their youthful passion for dinosaur movies they become teenagers again, still reveling in their dreams of bringing these long-dead monsters back to life.
For more information about The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, visit Warner Video. To order The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, go to TCM Shopping.
by Brian Cady
The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms
Kenneth Tobey (1917-2003)
Born in Oakland, California on March 23, 1917, Tobey originally intended to be a lawyer before a stint with the University of California Little Theater changed his mind. From there, he went straight to New York and spent nearly two years studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, where his classmates included Gregory Peck, Eli Wallach and Tony Randall. Throughout the '40s, Tobey acted on Broadway and in stock before relocating to Hollywood. Once there, Tobey soon found himself playing a tough soldier in films like I Was a Male War Bride and Twelve O' Clock High (both 1949); or a tough police officer in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye and Three Secrets (both 1950). Such roles were hardly surprising, given Tobey's craggy features, unsmiling countenance and rough voice.
Needless to say, no-nonsense, authority figures would be Tobey's calling for the remainder of his career; yet given the right role, he had the talent to make it memorable: the smart, likeable Captain Hendrey in The Thing From Another World (1951); the gallant Colonel Jack Evans in the "prehistoric dinosaur attacks an urban center" genre chiller The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, a must-see film for fans of special effects wizard, Ray Harryhausen; and as Bat Masterson, holding his own against Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).
Television would also offer Tobey much work: he had his own action series as chopper pilot Chuck Martin in Whirlybirds (1957-59); and had a recurring role as Assistant District Attorney Alvin in Perry Mason (1957-66). He would also be kept busy with guest appearances in countless westerns (Gunsmoke, Bonanza, The Virginian) and cop shows (The Rockford Files, Barnaby Jones, Ironside) for the next two decades. Most amusingly, the tail end of Tobey's career saw some self-deprecating cameo spots in such contemporary shockers as The Howling (1981); Strange Invaders (1983) and his role reprisal of Captain Hendry in The Attack of the B-Movie Monsters (2002). Tobey is survived by a daughter, two stepchildren, and two grandchildren.
by Michael T. Toole
Kenneth Tobey (1917-2003)
Actors Vera Miles and Paul Picerni (I) appear in the trailer for this film, but not in the film itself.
The film is based on a short story by Ray Bradbury.
While visiting his friend Ray Harryhausen on the set, Ray Bradbury was given a copy of the script and was asked if he could possibly do some rewriting on it. After reading the script, Bradbury remarked that the story seemed very similar to one he had published in "The Saturday Evening Post" several years earlier. The next day Bradbury received a telegram offering to buy the film rights to the story.
The dinosaur skeleton in the museum sequence is artificial. It was obtained from storage at RKO where it had been constructed for Bringing Up Baby (1938).
The Coney Island Amusement Park in the film is actually The Long Beach Amusement Park. The production was able to film at the park from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.
The working title of the film was The Monster from Beneath the Sea. After the credits, voice-over narration introduces the team of scientists and their secret project, "Operation Experiment." According to an August 1953 Variety news item, producers Jack Dietz and Hal Chester originally offered their independent film, which they made for $285,000, to RKO, but the studio declined the offer, despite the success of the producer's 1933 production for RKO, King Kong. The article reported that Warner Bros., interested in entering the science fiction market, then paid $400,000 for the film. The studio budgeted an additional $250,000 for a radio and television ad campaign, which was described in an April 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item as a coast-to-coast campaign, preceding a 500-city multiple premiere.
According to a modern source, Warner Bros. also replaced the original score with an orchestral one by David Buttolph and added the scene at the ballet. The beast, which was called a "rhedosaurus" in the film, was designed and animated by Ray Harryhausen, using a low-budget stop-motion technique called "Dynamation." The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was Harryhausen's first major film credit. Director Eugene Lourié admitted, in an April 1953 Daily Variety news item, that the creature was completely imaginary, as they wanted to create a monster that was "more frightening than the real thing." According to a May 1953 Los Angeles Daily News article, eight men were needed to operate the beast.
The character of the surviving seaman portrayed by Jack Pennick, who was listed as "Jacob" in the New York Times and Variety reviews, was called "George LeMay" in the film. Portions of the film, according to a modern source, were shot in locations in New York City, including Wall Street and the Stock Exchange. Modern sources add George R. Grover and Max M. Hutchinson to the sound crew, Clarence Kolster as film editor, and stuntman Gil Perkins. The following actors were added to the cast by modern sources: Ed Clark (Lighthouse keeper), Franklyn Farnum (Ballet patron), Fred Aldrich (Radio operator), Joe Gray (Longshoreman) and Louise Colombet (Nun).
One modern source also states that Lourié later claimed that he and an unnamed blacklisted writer contributed to the screenplay, which was signed by writers Lou Morheim and Robert Smith. Morheim and Fred Freiberger are credited onscreen with the screenplay. The source speculated that Smith was a pseudonym for the blacklisted writer. One of the plot points partially retained in the screenplay from Ray Bradbury's original short story was the lighthouse scene. However, in Bradbury's version, the beast is lured to the lighthouse by the sound of the foghorn, which it mistakes for a mating call. The short story was later retitled "The Foghorn" when published in Bradbury's anthology The Golden Apples of the Sun.