Shamedown #3: Voyage To the Bottom Of the Sea

Time for another Shamedown. I kept getting that one Little Mermaid song, “Under the Sea” in my head when I was writing this. Can’t imagine why. Anyway, for those who want to know what in the world a Shamedown is, please visit the Cinema Shame crew.

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IcePoster

When Irwin Allen’s 1961 film, Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea was released, the movie studios were in transition, a lot of nations were in transition, social mores were in transition. And oh yeah, the Cold War was in full freeze. When times are weird, what’s more timely than a movie about a nuclear sub with a mysterious and heroic captain, beautiful women, not to mention the threat of total annihilation looming in the background? Throw in some extremely dated special effects and wild implausiblity and the result is an epic kitsch-fest.

The film starts out with the sleek nuclear submarine breaching icy waters like a humpback whale. Then we see the crew of said sub, which bears the tranquil name of Seaview, watching a news report on the bridge announcing their grand expedition to the North Pole to run some tests under the Arctic ice. No one back home is terribly optimistic about this venture, nicknamed “Nelson’s Folly,” so evaluating the proceedings will be a contingent handpicked by the United States government: Vice Admiral B.J. Crawford (John Litel) and Congressman Llewellyn Parker (Howard McNear). Also assigned to the Seaview is Dr. Susan Hiller (Joan Fontaine), who’s there to observe how the crew reacts in the unusual conditions.

However, the real star of the Seaview is the namesake of Nelson’s Folly, Admiral Harriman Nelson (Walter Pigeon). Words like “unpredictable” and “oddball” get tossed around when the newsanchor describes him, but the gentleman remains hopeful: “Despite his oddball reputation, {he} may yet emerge as the predominant scientific genius of our time.” Admiral Nelson jovially chuckles: “Modesty forbids my adding anything to that.”

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Well, this is one pretty ship. (FilmSack)

Okeydokey. On to a tour of the vessel. It looks fairly familiar: bridge, radio room, observation deck, and then an undersea aquarium that “not even Jules Verne could dream of.” With Peter Lorre as Commander Lucius Emery. And he’s trying to herd a tranquilized shark named Bessie. Heh. Certain of the party are nervous as cats, but Emery is quick to reassure them: “Bessie won’t even bite a Congressman.”

The tour proceeds with a look at the amory, as well as an imposing door with the word, “DANGER” above it in big red letters. Even the handwheel is red. As if that weren’t enough, there’s a rather nondescript mat in front of it that sets off an alarm if anyone even slightly steps on it. The newcomers also find out in sick bay that they have to wear special badges that flash red if someone has gotten a fatal dose of atomic radiation. Nope, nothing to worry about at all.

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(Pinterest)

The possible danger is not half as surprising as what awaits the tour when they get to the mess hall. A young scalawag of a Lieutenant Danny Romano (Frankie Avalon) is standing on a table giving out with a swinging song on a trumpet while the ship’s dietician, Lieutenant Cathy Connors (Barbara Eden) does the Charleston. Dr. Hiller is delighted, but Danny’s superiors are embarrassed. Cathy would be in trouble too, except that she’s engaged to the first mate, Captain Lee Crane (Robert Sterling).

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(TV Guide UK)

Everyone settles into their places on the Seaview waiting for things to happen, which of course they do. Dr. Hiller and Cathy are having a cup of coffee when the ship hits something. Passengers and crew are shaken, though their hair never gets mussed, thanks to the hair oils and spray people wore back then. They all rush up to find they’re sailing through what amounts to an underwater asteroid field, with little bits of iceberg floating around. Naturally, the Seaview surfaces, only to find the sky is ominously red with churning clouds.

Come to find out, it’s the Van Allen Radiation Circle, which has just caught fire, strangely enough. The film wisely doesn’t blame a country for the fire but a meteor shower, and the prognosis is grim. The polar ice caps are melting and the temperature has skyrocketed to 135 degrees. Before they leave the Arctic, the Seaview picks up a survivor, Miguel Alvarez (Michael Ansara) who keeps muttering for his lost crewmates. They also bring his dog, of course (I don’t know why there’s always a dog in these movies).

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The rumors of Admiral Nelson’s eccentricities have been greatly exaggerated. (DVDizzy.com)

Nelson. Emery, Crawford, Parker, and Cathy head to the UN to talk about the problem. Temperatures have soared all over the world, burning forests and other vegetation. The news shows sattelite photos of the Earth looking more like Saturn with a ring of fire around it. Nelson claims the Earth has three weeks left at the most, but there’s a way out. If the Seaview sails to the Marianas and fire a nuclear missile at the fire belt, they can blow it away from Earth and stop the destruction. Yeah, a missile fired from the sea into outer space. Popular Mechanics says this is harder than it looks, and it wasn’t even possible with nineteen fifties or sixties technology, but whatever. It’s. A. Movie.

Improbable plot twists aside, it would be easy to peg Voyage as a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ripoff, but that wouldn’t be quite correct. It was inspired by the first real nuclear sub, also called the Nautilus, and Peter Lorre is in it, but it also has Joan Fontaine and Barbara Eden, while Verne’s Nautilus only has a painting of Nemo’s wife and child. Unlike Captain Nemo, Nelson isn’t dark and brooding. He has the reputation of being an oddball, but he’s a very amiable oddball who is closer to Cary Grant’s Captain Cassidy in Destination Tokyo. Actually, it’s more like Captain Cassidy and Adam West’s Batman had a head-on collision.

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Barbara Eden must have cast-iron hands. (DoBlu.com)

Then there’s the camp factor, which is ubiquitous to films of the nineteen-sixties, and Voyage has lashings of it. When the Seaview runs into that underwater asteroid field, the actors may be lurching around, but they’re the only ones. The ladies’ coffee doesn’t even spill. This happens a few times in the movie, such as in the mess hall. One bowl was very obviously painted inside to look like it had tomato soup in it.

Speaking of obvious, the shark in Jaws has nada on the creatures in Voyage, and it’s hilarious. It’s as if Irwin Allen decided to film the old Disneyland Submarine Voyage, and anyone who remembers that ride knows how menacing its predators weren’t. Then there’s the seaweed and other plant life. I’m really not trying to be nitpicky, but they looked like they were made out of muslin.

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Quick, everyone look worried! (Listal)

Camp isn’t confined to the sets, of course. The acting is decent until they go into crisis mode, and then it’s as hokey as only a sixties movie can be, which means forced delivery and non-existent character development disguised as blind-sides. It does succeed on a small level, though. Let’s put it this way: It’s one thing to observe a sub crew in stressful situations, but it’s quite another to create the stress. It’s also one thing to talk about death being God’s will and then grabbing a grenade. And no matter what, Peter Lorre is casually puffing on a cigarette while everyone looks scared or nervous.

Voyage To the Bottom of the Sea isn’t all bad. It may be camp, but it’s entertaining camp. Irwin Allen definitely had something. The only thing that would have taken it over the top is if Frankie Avalon had gotten to sing a bit more than just the theme song, but oh well.

Thanks for reading, and see you tomorrow. Gonna to go blogathon hopping…

 

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