BR: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

May 26, 2012 | By

JourneyToTheCentreEarth1959_BR2015Film: Excellent/ BR Transfer: Excellent/ BR Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time/ Region: All / Released: May, 2012 and March 10, 2015 (4K remaster)

Genre: Fantasy / Science-Fiction / Jules Verne

Synopsis: Based on Jules Verne’s science-fiction novel, Professor Lindenbrook takes his intrepid party on a journey to the Earth’s core where they encounter prehistoric monsters and all sorts of hazards along the way.

Special Features: Audio commentary track with actress Diane Baker, Bernard Herrmann biographer Steven C. Smith, and producer Nick Redman / Isolated Stereo Music Track / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 5,000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment




The fifties enjoyed a mini-wave of Jules Verne tales, spanning Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), Michael Todd’s Around The World In 80 Days (1956), and RKO’s From The Earth To The Moon (1958). The combination of otherworldly / exotic travelogue tales with dabs of science-fiction and adventurous intrigue certainly made Verne’s classic works suitable for the big screen, so it seemed natural that 20th Century Fox would deliver the underworld of planet Earth in multi-track stereo and Cinemascope.

At its core (ahem), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) is a high-concept production that took a beloved adventure classic for all ages, added crooner Pat Boone for the lucrative teen audience, and gave older folks plenty of witty banter between stalwart James Mason and shapely Arlene Dahl, plus a small role for Fox contract star Diane Baker, slowly being groomed for possible starring roles after prior appearances in The Diary of Anne Frank and The Best of Everything that same year.

Director Henry Levin, an experienced multi-genre veteran, was more adept with light comedies and melodramas – Where The Boys Are (1960), Jolson Sings Again (1949) – and he had already directed the studio’s latest contract star, Pat Boone, in Bernadine and April Love (both 1957), so it seemed natural for Levin to direct Boon in Fox’s fairly grand film version of Verne’s literary classic.

Boone does get to sing (only one of three recorded songs survived the final edit), but he’s unusually good playing a naïve geologist who knows he’s a bit overwhelmed by mentor / professor Lindenbrook (James Mason) and Carla Goteborg (Dahl), the feisty widow of a rival professor (unbilled Ivan Triesault) – a situation not dissimilar to a singing star surrounded by established actors in a special effects extravaganza. Levin and Fox also recognized Boone would bring in young girls, so they made sure he had a few shirtless scenes to show off his buffed torso.

(Baker, in turn, is stuck playing Lindenbrook’s whiny, wishy-washy daughter, and the screenwriters had to create a ludicrous ‘nightmare’ / portent of danger  scene where little Jenny wakes up, terrified that her father and future fiancé are being swirled up alive in a sea storm. Although designed to remind audiences that Jenny is still in the picture, she disappears again until the finale.)

Fox’s production is a standard mix of studio and location sets, and while the otherworldly sections of the underworld are more fifties fantasy than vintage Verne – the colours and lighting resemble a Classics Illustrated comic book – the use of the renowned Carlsbad Caverns National Park is very inventive, and most of the studio sets blend well with the genuine cave locations.

The giant dinosaurs (good old macro lenses, slower camera speeds, and the use of contemporary lizards) are beautifully intercut between the terrified explorers, and much like the film’s sets and locations, the creatures make good use of the scope frame. Fans of Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) will also experience a mild cinephile eureka moment when Lindenbrook & Company must run for their lives when a giant round boulder threatens to mash them in a tunnel. (It’s that obvious, but kudos to the effects team that the giant boulder is still threatening.)

Perhaps the chief reason the film still eclipses the myriad remakes that followed is Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett’s script, which brilliantly maintains momentum and intrigue like a good comic. The scene in which Lindenbrook discovers a clue embedded in a chunk of lava easily hooks audiences into the grand mystery of What Happened to Arne Saknussem? and each scene is always part of an overall journey to the Earth’s core, rather than filler material.

The only silliness is the inclusion of Gertrude, the goose Nordic guide Hans (played by one-time actor Peter Ronson) takes with him to the Earth’s core, but she kind of pays off in the end when filthy rotten swine Count Saknussem (gleefully slimy Thayer David) does a very bad thing, which mandates appropriate payback from the Heavens. Even as cinema pulp, some sophisticated wit is regularly allotted to Mason’s character, and Dahl seems to relish playing an assertive woman surrounded by chauvinistic eggheads.


Jules Verne Journeys to the Land of 4K

Twilight Time’s 2012 Blu-ray was perfectly fine, but when Fox decided to commission a 4K transfer, TT’s astute producers realized a plum opportunity to assemble a commentary track that would contextualize a film that still resonates with new and old fans. (Another wise move for fans: augmenting the press run from 3000 to 5000 copies)

On prior DVD editions, Journey always had a grainy look with weak colours, and while TT’s prior BR disc was lovely, the new transfer reveals Fox has spent time and money researching a solution to one of CinemaScope’s biggest headaches: the sudden shift to grain and slight orange whenever there’s a dissolve. More recent HD transfers minimized the issue, but within this stellar disc, the problem is gone. The image is sharper, clearer, richer in colour, and the film grain hasn’t been scrubbed away ( just minimized a little).

Fox may well have selected this film from their fifties catalogue because it remains an inimitable classic. As Nick Redman recalls in the newly recorded commentary track, while attending a recent screening of the film, kids booed and cheered at the right places, reacting as every kid should to a great adventure film with an unflappable cast, a rock solid screenplay and witty dialogue, and effects which still hold their own in spite of inherent cheesiness. If you’re caught up in the story and characters, optical effects, macro-photographed lizards, and unusually long running time are irrelevant. (Even Diane Baker comments on how long characters and conflicts are built up before the group finally makes its way below grade.)

Also cited in the commentary is composer Herrmann, whose score in the remixed 5.1 track is the biggest benefactor. Sound design is less robust in Journey, but Herrmann’s music really booms when any / all of the five organs grind away – the main title sequence is wonderful, and should upset all neighbours, whether the film’s watched in a fully detached house or apartment.

Because Baker had a relatively small part in the film – the cute love interest – there is only so much she can add to the film’s making-of history, but Smith and Redman indulge in a broader discussion on the studio’s history, its cast, and Baker’s own career which went from screen ingenue to contract actress, later TV actress, and soon producer.

There are several lengthy discussions of her producing efforts, including the 1985 mini-series A Woman of Substance and a valiant attempt to launch a Playhouse 90-styled series using idling talent when Fox had effectively shut down production after the Cleopatra (1963) disaster and sent most of the staff home. One could regard these topics, including Baker’s role as an educator, as digressions, but she’s never gotten her due for surviving Hollywood, and fans will be delighted to learn more details of her lengthy and busy career.

The original Fox disc include a trailer and restoration comparison between the old TV prints, the 2000 laserdisc master, and the subtle digital cleaning for the 2003 DVD release. Twilight Time’s 2015 disc includes the trailer, the aforementioned 2012 isolated score track, and the film’s soundtrack in 5.1 and 2.0 uncompressed DTS.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes is less about facts and more about personal enthisiasm, and she’s dead-on about the film’s unwavering impression on youngers: once you’ve seen it as a kid, it never leaves the imagination. Crafted for the full family unit, there are little bits for every age group, but the film sense of wonder for the strange & fantastical is what keeps fans returning to the film again and again.

Jules Verne’s novel has been adapted several times, including a 1967 animated series co-produced by Fox, Juan Piquer Simon’s embarrassing 1977 version, the wretched David Mickey Evans-scripted 1993 TV movie, another 1999 TV movie, and a direct-to-video quickie designed to ride on the publicity of the 2008 3D film. Perhaps the most interesting is Rusty Lemorande’s 1989 abomination which was never fully completed in spite of additional scenes by hack Albert Pyun and brutal re-editing by studio Cannon.



© 2003, revised in 2012 and 2015 by Mark R. Hasan


External References:

Editor’s Blog — IMDB Soundtrack AlbumComposer Filmography

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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