Journey to the Beginning of Time

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(7/10) In 1955 ”the Georges Méliès of Czechoslovakia” directed an imaginative ”lost world” film in colour. With stop-motion puppetry and cutout animation, split screen techniques, mechanical puppets, suits and forced perspective shots, Karel Zeman gave life to the wonders of the prehistoric world. Although more ”edutainment” than drama, the film about four boys travelling backwards in time still manages to captivate its viewers with its innovative special effects, its naive and warm approach and the great performances by the young actors. Some special effects do feel a bit creaky.

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Vladimir Bejval and Zdenek Hustak inspecting a dead Stegosaurus.

Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955, Czechoslovakia). Directed by Karel Zeman. Written by Karel Zeman, J.A. Novotný. Starring: Vladimir Bejval, Petr Herrman, Zdenek Hustak, Josef Lukás. Produced for Ceskoslovenský Státni Film & Filmové Studio Gottwaldov.
IMDb rating: 7.5/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Poster.

Poster.

In 1955 American audiences were being wowed by Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation in films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review) and It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, review). But Europe had their own Harryhausen, who was much less known to American audiences, partly because he worked behind the iron curtain, and partly because the one film he made that got a wide release in the US, Journey to the Beginning of Time (Cesta do praveku), downplayed his contribution when studios tacked on a newly filmed American beginning and end when it was released overseas in 1966. This was Czechoslovak director Karel Zeman, one of the most brilliant, artistic and inventive animators in the history of cinema. Continue reading

Undersea Kingdom

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(3/10) In a nutshell: Inspired by Flash Gordon and The Phantom Empire, the young Republic Studios launched their own sci-fi serial in 1936, and the result was an action-packed, but rather brainless concoction relying heavily on horse chases and pointless crowd battles. Occasional good design and an energetic Crash Corrigan, nice action scenes, or even some merited actors can’t save this awfully scripted and blandly acted Atlantis-themed hotchpotch.

Undersea Kingdom. 1936, USA. Serial. Directed by B. Reeves Eason & Joseph Kane. Written by John Rathmell, Maurice Geraghty, Oliver Drake, Tracy Knight. Starring: Ray ”Crash” Corrigan, Lois Wilde, Lee van Atta, C. Montague Shaw, Monte Blue, William Farnum, Smiley Burnette, Frankie Farnum, Lon Chaney Jr, Sinbad the parrot. Produced by Nat Levine for Republic. IMDb score: 4.7

Crash Corrigan fighting off two Black Robes in the Republic sci-fi serial Undersea Kingdom.

Crash Corrigan fighting off two Black Robes in the Republic sci-fi serial Undersea Kingdom.

I’ve stated numerous times that I normally don’t review serials. But I can’t seem to keep away, can I? Well, just to put my review of Flash Gordon (1936) in perspective, I’ve decided to write a few lines on Undersea Kingdom, released barely two months after Flash. The cheap ripoff showcases almost everything that Flash Gordon got right, by getting it all wrong. Nonetheless, for some peculiar reason, the serial seems to hold a very special place in the hearts of the friends of the Republic serials. Admittedly, it is not without its technical merits, and one does learn to enjoy the horrible acting the way one enjoys Plan 9 from Outer Space. Continue reading

The Phantom Empire

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(4/10) In a nutshell: Not even the worst serial acting in the history of bad serial acting is able to completely sink this brilliantly delirious sci-fi western musical comedy starring western and country legend Gene Autry. The film combines wild west adventure, lost Atlantis-type fantasy, Flash Gordon tropes and country singing in one of he most bizarre train wrecks of film history.

The Phantom Empire. USA, 1935. Serial film. Directed by Otto Brower, B. Reeves Easton. Written by: Wallace MacDonald, Gerald Geraghty, Maurice Geraghty, Hy Freedman. Starring: Gene Autry, Franky Darro, Betsy King Ross, Dorothy Christy, Wheeler Oakman, J. Frank Gleeson. Produced by Nat Levine for Mascot. IMDb score: 6.2

Gene Autry and the Junior Thunder Riders.

Gene Autry and the Junior Thunder Riders.

Although the United States can’t lay claim to the origins of sci-fi films (that would either be France or Denmark), there is a proud subgenre that is wholly and exclusively American – and that is the science fiction musical comedy. Now, one would think that after turkeys like Just Imagine (1930, review) and It’s Great to be Alive (1933), someone would have pulled the plug. But no. Instead the idea seems to be that once down in the dirt, the only way up is by going even deeper down. Thus we get the pulp magazine science fiction musical comedy western gangster serial. And that is exactly what The Phantom Empire is. And it is awesome. Continue reading

King Kong

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(8/10) In a nutshell: Whether actually sci-fi or not, King Kong still had a huge influence on the genre. The amazing stop motion photography, the models and the merging of live action and special effects, combined with the wonderful imagination of director/producer Merian C. Cooper make this one of the true Hollywood greats. This is rounded up by the groundbreaking musical score by Max Steiner. Unfortunately the dialogue is appalling, the script contrived and the acting wooden. The only actor to hold a candle to Kong himself is the immortalized scream queen Fay Wray.

King Kong. 1933, USA. Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, Leon Gordon (uncredited). Starring: Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, Fay Wray, Frank Reicher, Noble Johnson. Produced by Cooper, Schoedsack & David O. Selznick for RKO. Tomatometer: 98 %. IMDb score: 8.0

Is this the most widely recognized movie scene in history?

Is this the most widely recognized movie scene in history?

We all know the story of King Kong by heart, even if we have never seen the film. Filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) sweeps up a girl who is down on her luck, Ann Darrow (Fay Wray), and takes her on a journey on a ship, to appear in one of his films. The trip takes them to an uncharted island, where Denham hopes to film the mysterious Kong – a creature terrorizing the natives. On the island they find that the black natives have built a huge wall to keep out Kong – and they happen to interrupt a sacrificial rite when they arrive. The natives kidnap the golden-haired Darrow and present her to Kong, prompting Denham and his crew to go on a rescue mission, where they first encounter King Kong, the giant gorilla.  Continue reading

The Mysterious Island

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(4/10) In a nutshell: Borrowing the name of Jules Verne’s bestseller, this problem-ridden 1926-1929 production features good acting, some remarkable special effects and a solid-ish script, but alas, the schizophrenic semi-talkie-semi-silent financial disaster is just as equally horrible in many ways, with toy submarines, crocodiles substituting for dinos.

The Mysterious Island. Directed by Lucien Hubbard, Maurice Tourneur, Benjamin Christensen. Written by Lucien Hubbard, Carl Piersen. Loosely based on several novels by Jules Verne (but not The Mysterious Island). Starring: Lionel Barrymore Jacqueline Gadsden (as Jane Daly), Lloyd Hughes, Montagu Love. Produced by J. Ernest Williamson (uncredited) for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. IMDb score: 6.1

Attack of the 3 foot Donald Duck oompah-loompas of the depths!

Attack of the 3 foot Donald Duck oompah-loompas of the depths!

The jury still seems to be out on this film, judging from the few reviews on the interwebz. Many pro reviewers seem to like it, while more amateur writers find it dull and clumsy. When it was released in 1929 critics heaped praise on it, while the audience failed to show the same enthusiasm. And in truth, it is a hard one to appraise. On one hand there are clear qualities in both script, acting, special effects and sets – indeed it was a very expensive film that took over two years to film. But on the other hand this very very loose adaptation of a mix of Jules Verne books had monstrous production problems that are equally obvious, and simply cannot be forgiven. Continue reading

The Lost World

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(8/10) In a nutshell: Although the plot does completely disappear when the dinosaurs enter, this 1925 classic is still as thrilling an adventure as it was when it was released, and Willis O’Brien’s revolutionary stop motion animations still holds up to scrutiny.

The Lost World. 1925, USA. Directed by Harry O. Hoyt. Stop motion sequences directed by Willis O’Brien. Written by Marion Fairfax. Based on the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. Starring: Wallace Beery, Lloyd Hughes, Bessie Love. Produced by: Earl Hudson (uncredited) for First National Pictures. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 7.1

Willis O'Brien's stop-motion Allosaurus in action.

Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion Allosaurus attacking the beautiful Bessie Love.

At some point when reviewing these old silent sci-fi movies it starts getting a little tedious to introduce them as ”the first film to blah blah blah …” But you really can’t help it. During the twenties not many sci-fi films were made, and even fewer before that. Those that were made will almost by default be the first to introduce something. And – if you want a first of something, then few films are as apt as The Lost World. This is the first full length film to feature a lost world, the first full length film with dinosaurs, and stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien’s first involvement in a full length film.

The importance and impact of this film cannot be understated. Without The Lost World we probably wouldn’t have King Kong. We probably wouldn’t have any films by Ray Harryhausen, we probably wouldn’t have all those B-movies of Raquel Welch and the likes in tiny fur bikinis, or Jurassic Park or any Peter Jackson, for that matter. We unfortunately do not have any Peter Jackson in tiny fur bikinis. I would pay a long penny for that. Continue reading

The Conquest of the Pole

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(4/10) In a nutshell: 10 years after the big splash with A Trip to the Moon, director Georges Méliès rehashes all his old tricks in 1912 film that is technically ambitious, but narratively old hat and a bit misogynous. 

The Conquest of the Pole (À la conquête du pôle). 1912, France. Silent short. Written, filmed and directed by Georges Méliès. Inspired by Jules Verne’s novels The Adventures of Captain Hatteras and The Sphinx of the Ice Fields. Starring: Georges Méliès, Fernande Albany. Produced by Georges Méliès and Charles Pathé for Star-Films. IMDb score: 6.9

The ice giant eating the explorers.

The ice giant eating the explorers.

By 1912 the pioneering French filmmaker and father of the sci-fi film, Georges Méliès, was merely repeating himself. Despite impressive production values and an gigantic puppetteered ice giant, The Conquest of the Pole really brings nothing new to the table. Although the theatrical and stagey setup was made by choice, and a trademark of Méliès’, it does seem archaic in a time when D.W. Griffith was producing films like Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Continue reading