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Journey to the Center of the Earth (Blu-ray Review)

28 May, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via ScreenArchives.com
Twilight Time
$29.95 Blu-ray
Rated ‘G.’
Stars Pat Boone, James Mason, Arlene Dahl, Diane Baker, Thayer David.

My stock line about the summer of 1959’s biggest family blockbuster has always been that it’s the one movie that enables one to compare and contrast the acting disciplines of Pat Boone and James Mason. If this sounds like a veiled cheeky put-down, it’s true that Earth director Henry Levin was one of the era’s supreme stiffs (unable to compete even in their dueling “Matt Helm” pictures with Phil Karlson). But it’s also true that this Jules Verne extravaganza has too much going for it to generate much of a curmudgeonly response in a way that the cast and production design of Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea still semi-successfully obscures Richard Fleischer’s own directorial impersonality. Earth’s true auteurs are its then cutting-edge effects, the (again) production design and Bernard Herrmann’s typically wonderful score, which — appropriate to the subject matter — hits some very low ranges as Verne’s subterranean trekkers take on buried-deep salt repositories, toadstools tough as leather and prehistoric creatures with porn-star tongues.

But to give the cast its due as well, even Boone is more than tolerable here — and a great deal more capable playing a Scottish university student than his onetime pop rival Elvis would have been. (My mother was right about some things but wrong about others — including the time she predicted that Boone would outlast Elvis. Though, actually, on one key level, I guess he did.)  A surprise producer of this film via his own company, Boone did quite well from it financially  — and made what was probably a shrewd commercial move by agreeing to appear shirtless in several later scenes (and, yes, he appears to have spent some time working out between recording sessions over at Dot). At the very end of the picture it is further suggested that his partly self is even buck naked in a tree — which is further than some perhaps expected given Boone’s 1957 refusal to kiss co-star Shirley Jones on screen in April Love (a much publicized moral decision that got him a lot of Bronx Cheer derision from my Ohio buddies in fifth grade).

Mason, of course, is fantastic as Prof. Oliver Underbrook, who spearheads the attempt to go underground against a deceitful scientific competitor and after an added attempt by a predecessor has turned the latter’s wife (Arlene Dahl) into a widow.  Mason had previously scored heavily as the definitive Captain Nemo in Leagues — one of the great single-year 1-2 acting punches ever when the Disney extravaganza came out just two months after A Star Is Born (and, for that matter, Mason is way above the material in ‘54’s Prince Valiant, too). But the surprise to me is how good Dahl is here as a feminist looker who brooks no sass in a very up-to-date manner. I’m surprised to see that that Dahl was only in her early 30s when she made this picture; she looks older, and I assumed the character was middle-aged (or something a bit closer to Mason in years). But you have to give it to Levin’s showmanship when he gives the actress a hair-down glamour close-up near the end of the picture as the Underbrook crew gets shot out of the Earth’s core by lava. It is something to behold (more so than the lava).

For me, Earth came out in my approaching-puberty era when, truth to tell, Rio Bravo, Some Like It Hot, North by Northwest and Imitation of Life were my personal “Big Ones” of that time span. Somehow, I uncharacteristically missed this blockbuster upon its original release — but with its more than robust five-week premiere downtown engagement in my city alone, there’s not much doubt that it was the youth-pic of its day. A confident guess tells me that that this Fox/Twilight Time rendering absolutely replicates how the picture looked at the time — though it’s certainly an education to compare the DeLuxe Color here with that of the Technicolor from The Jayhawkers! — a recent and much more vibrant Olive release of a Technicolor movie that originally opened just a couple months before Earth’s year-end launch. 

Still, I’d guess that Earth is destined (and perhaps even deserves to be) Twilight Time’s most commercially lapped-up release so far — particularly since the musical score it typically isolates on a separate track is by Bernard (The Man) himself, whose credits at the time were merely helping to “make” Hitchcock, Ray Harryhausen and “The Twilight Zone” as well. I enjoyed this Blu-ray so much that I almost immediately played it again — this time on a selected greatest-hits run-through on a split screen while also watching a Yankees-Orioles game. During the latter’s commercial break and with bare-chested Boone on the left, the Boone of today came on to plug reverse mortgages. That’s as wild as finding monsters underground.

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