Mysterious Island (Blu-ray Review)5 Dec, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Available at www.screenarchives.com
Stars Michael Craig, Gary Merrill, Joan Greenwood, Michael Callan.
Speaking as one who loves seafood as much as, say, the screen music of Bernard Herrmann, Columbia Pictures’ year-end holiday release from exactly half-a-century ago has a scene I’ve never forgotten and never will. The Jules Verne crew that constitutes the cast here encounters a crab the size of a tank — and with a body of conveniently just-discovered “hot springs” water supply. After this creature generates the kind of mayhem you’d expect from a Ray Harryhausen concoction rendered in the famed effects artist’s SuperDynamation stop-motion animation process, it miraculously dispatched as a flying projectile into the springs for what must be all-time crab feast anyone has ever enjoyed (well, without butter). One of the cast members has previously noted that the good-luck discovery of these springs will now afford bathing. Right, just set the knob to “scald.”
We are, however, getting ahead of a Verne saga that boasts the credit, “and Herbert Lom as Captain Nemo” — and a story that commences in, of all places, Richmond VA’s Confederate Libby Prison (where family lore has it that one of my ancestors served some time during the Civil War). Of course, there’s nothing like having a huge observation balloon right outside your cell, and the Yankee inhabitants (taking along one Rebel and a presumably objective news reporter) escape into a wayward wind that ends up taking them to some remote island in the Pacific. Buffalo would have sufficed, but at least in this case, the weather affords tanning.
Of course, there are also the creatures, starting with the crab, that, in deference to screen axioms of the time, make certain that if there is an African-American person in the cast and the script designates someone to be the first person carried off, the choice will be … well, you can figure it out. There’s also the teen-dream presence of Michael Callan, who’d formerly played “Riff” in the original Broadway production of West Side Story and the classroom rebel-punk that high school teacher Dick Clark tried to redeem in 1960’s Because They’re Young. Callan gets something going here with a cutie who eventually ends up sporting a mini-dress (Beth Rogan) after conveniently washing ashore with her aunt. The latter is played by husky-voiced Joan Greenwood, who not quite a decade earlier had been in Anthony Asquith’s popular movie version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. At times, Greenwood has a demeanor of: “what the hell am I doing in this picture?”
Island came out just before, I’d say, the Columbia Harryhausen films with producer Charles H. Schneer started to ebb — though my personal favorite (1963’s Jason and the Argonauts) was yet to come. It is amazing how frequently the team was able to churn out these fantasy-adventure favorites — and, in fact, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver had been in theaters just one year previously. As Julie Kirgo points out in this release’s liner notes, Disney had kind of created an audience mood for this movie’s success — not just with the Nemo-central 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1954 but with 1960’s Swiss Family Robinson, which included a memorable snake to chill up the spines of two Robinson brothers. Here, Harryhausen is more exotic: that crab, a jumbo chicken (or at least some kind of fowl), a monstrous-sized bee (one sting from this baby, and …) plus a sea creature. If I have one complaint here — beyond lackluster acting that was a given in these Schneer productions — it’s that we don’t get to see these concoctions for very much screen time. The crab and bee, in particular, are beyond cool and among my favorite Harryhausen creations.
The other auteur of these movies was composer Bernard Herrmann, who almost did as much for them as he did for Alfred Hitchcock ‘s oeuvre from 1955-64. As has been the case in Twilight Time’s previous limited releases of 20th Century-Fox titles, Island — which, for the first time, invades the Columbia Pictures library — the musical track has been isolated for pure listening pleasure. Options are the original mono or 5.1, and usually, I’m a purist. But this is Herrmann … so pump it away, I say.