by Lee Price
Nonfiction: I’m Not Making This Up
This is about the day Jean Renoir watched The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I’m not making this part up. He went to a matinee.
To repeat: Jean Renoir—a giant among film artists, director of The Rules of the Game (cited by some sophisticated and astute people as the greatest film ever made) and other masterpieces, ranked as the fourth greatest director of all time in the 2002 BFI Sight and Sound poll, son of the famed impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir—had a grand time at a matinee in summer 1953 watching The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms accompanied by Eugene Lourié, the movie’s director.
Years later, writing his 1985 memoir My Work in Films, Lourié remembered: “Renoir reacted just like the youngsters surrounding us. ‘Eh bien, mon vieux,’ he said. ‘You surely had a wonderful time making this film.’”
I’d give anything for a photo of Jean Renoir and Eugene Lourié in that movie theater, surrounded by a happy sea of monster-loving children and thrill-seeking adults, enjoying the first of the 1950s cycle of giant-monster-attacking-a-city movies. According to Lourié, it made Renoir feel like a kid again.
Monster movies have a way of doing that. Apparently, even the most sensitive and compassionate of directors can enjoy an afternoon of popcorn, rampaging dinosaurs, and urban mayhem. It’s good for the soul.
Fiction: I’m Making This Part Up
So after the movie, the two directors—our heroes Lourié and Renoir—walk into a bar and a couple of old friends join them for a round of drinks, each eager to congratulate a valued colleague on his first movie as a director. And, being a savvy bunch, they sense the movie is sure to be a hit. Up until this point, they only knew Lourié as one of the finest production designers in the industry, an indispensable help to each of them at high points in their careers. And now he is a film director like them.
Here is Max Ophüls, who worked with Lourié to create the appropriate pastoral mood in The Novel of Werther (1938), his adaptation of the famous story by Goethe. Ophüls is visiting from Paris, taking a welcome break from his latest adaptation of a famous European novel, Madame de….
And here is Mr. Charles Chaplin, the silent screen legend who recruited Lourié to create the sets for Limelight (1952), ranging from a turn-of-the-century London street to period theaters and music halls. Chaplin has clandestinely entered the country just to see and congratulate his friend on his first movie.
Renoir, Ophüls, Chaplin—great film artists all.
Impulsively, Renoir flings open his arms to embrace Lourié, who has helped him achieve his vision on so many movies—Grand Illusion, The Human Beast, The Rules of the Game, This Land Is Mine, The Southerner, The Diary of a Chambermaid, and, most recently, The River. “Welcome to our ranks,” Renoir says. “I only wish von Stroheim could have joined us. He certainly would have loved that scene where the dinosaur devours that unfortunate officer!”
“A toast,” cries Chaplin. “To the best representation of antediluvian life since His Prehistoric Past.” In happy celebration, he swipes a couple of rolls from a basket, spears them with forks, and lets them dance.
Circling the group, M. Ophüls suddenly tracks forward, hand extended. “Mr. Lourié, you’ve done us proud.”
And Lourié humbly answers, “I learned from masters.”
Here’s what Lourié may have learned from them.
An Ophülsian Symphony
When Max Ophüls directed The Novel of Werther in 1938, he had already mastered the swirling camera work and delicately ironic mode that would soon define his greatest works: Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Reckless Moment, La Ronde, The Earrings of Madame de…, and Lola Montès. Possessed of similar warm artistic temperaments, Lourié and Ophüls enjoyed their collaboration.
In his memoir My Work in Films, Lourié recalled: “When Ophüls broke down a script, he often annotated it by a series of musical symbols, marking the different moods and tempos of each scene. One scene might call for ‘allegro’ or ‘allegro cantabile,’ another ‘andante,’ and so forth. And each change of mood would demand a different visual treatment of the given scene. Ophüls was especially sensitive to the visual moods of the setting, which he was convinced could enhance the emotional expression of the scene in much the same way as a musical score.”
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is structured as a symphony in four movements.
The first movement, which borrows a polar setting from the 1951 science fiction hit The Thing From Another World, establishes the themes which will be developed throughout the rest of the movie. The viewer catches introductory glimpses of the revived monster through an Arctic blizzard. Other themes are sounded of man vs. nature, the precariousness of life (a very likeable character suddenly dies), and a cosmic scale suggested by a nuclear blast and the primal grandeur of the Beast itself. As with the following two movements, the tempo alternates between quiet scenes of character development and violent action scenes. The polar settings are admirably recreated in the studio—an impressive achievement considering the low budget. As the film’s lead visual effects technician and animator Ray Harryhausen recalled in his book An Animated Life, “(Eugene’s) experience in set design helped in building cheaper sets which still looked impressive on screen… Most of the film’s look was due to his knowledge of simplified construction.”
The second movement slows the pace, like an adagio, adding exposition and rhythmically returning to the themes sounded in the opening. Character introductions alternate with moody scenes of violence. The geographic diversity and visual variety offered is perhaps unparalleled in low-budget movies, as the Beast follows the polar current south from Baffin Bay to a great underwater canyon near the mouth of the Hudson River. Lourié cuts from an expository discussion in a hospital to a ship being attacked at sea, and from a low-key scene in a university museum to the destruction of a lighthouse. And with the lighthouse, a surprisingly melancholy note is first sounded, which will reach its height in the climax of the second movement, the loss of a beloved scientist’s life in his thirst for knowledge.
The third movement delivers the fast-moving scherzo that we’ve been anticipating. It begins with the Beast rising out of the water and scrambling onto the New York City docks then continues through the dinosaur’s exploration of Lower Manhattan. The early themes are sounded again, but with new variations. Once again, there is man vs. nature, sudden death (a policeman realistically devoured), and a developing pathos linked to the monster. Lourié skillfully captures the movement from day to night, with the tone noticeably changing in the muted nocturne scenes as troops await the next appearance of the dinosaur.
The fast-moving finale brings all the themes together in a new setting, a picturesque amusement park with an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster. As Lourié describes the conclusion, “It was emotionally strong, like the finale of a tragic opera. The beast dies like an opera tenor.”
Naturally, this visual symphony is awash with music, effectively provided by David Buttolph. While Harryhausen was somewhat disappointed with the score (perhaps because Warner Bros. didn’t assign it to King Kong’s composer Max Steiner as he had hoped), it actually does a very good job of accentuating the visuals throughout. The descending four-note monster theme is memorable and big enough for the Beast, and the scoring of the Arctic scenes and bathysphere scene appropriately contribute to the other-worldly nature of their settings.
The Humanism of Renoir
In his single most famous line of dialogue, spoken by Jean Renoir himself in the role of Octave in The Rules of the Game, Renoir says, “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” Many critics have suggested seeing this point-of-view as central to an understanding of Renoir’s multi-varied depiction of life, a world in which there are no clear heroes or villains. Renoir’s affection for all his characters is always manifest on the screen. Each of them are presented in gradations of grey—flawed yet worthy to be viewed with respect and, always, humor.
The two most sympathetic characters in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are not the hero and the heroine (although even they are drawn with more personality than you see in most 1950s science fiction) but the doomed paleontologist and, of course, the Beast himself. As in Renoir movies, they both have their reasons.
Endearingly played by Cecil Kellaway as the world’s gentlest, wisest scientist, Dr. Thurgood Elson is the Dean of the Department of Paleontology at (Unnamed) University and “the foremost paleontologist in the world.” Reigning over the movie’s best interior set (with Dr. Elson’s office in the foreground and the skeletal ancestor of the Rhedosaurus fully assembled in the background), Dr. Elson rules his domain with laid-back confidence, puffing on his pipe, listening to others with mild condescension, and obviously loving every aspect of his chosen profession.
Ultimately, Dr. Elson turns out to be a man of action, belied by his teddy bear exterior. He insists that as a scientist it is his job to take a dangerous bathysphere plunge into the ocean to observe the dinosaur up close and personal. His job is his life. If he has worries, he admirably disguises them: “The Rhedosaurus and I are old friends,” he reassures his concerned assistant. “We’re scientists. This is our job. This is a great moment for me.”
Lowered into the sea to the depths of the Hudson Canyon, Dr. Elson’s childlike enthusiasm grows even more marked even while maintaining his scientific poise. “The dorsal is singular not bilateral,” he observes, and then (in one of the greatest deliveries of scientific gibberish ever) he further notes, “The clavicle suspension appears to be… cantileveric!” Completely in the zone, his happy place, Dr. Elson becomes oblivious to the reality of his situation. Perhaps, while watching at the matinee, Jean Renoir would have been reminded of the Marquis (Marcel Dalio) in his The Rules of the Game, joyfully transported by the opportunity to share a new musical toy with friends. Both are men obsessed by their fervent interests.
Unlike the Marquis who must stumble forward toward tragedy once his euphoria has passed, Dr. Elson’s life ends at his peak moment, his bathysphere apparently swallowed by the Beast like a gumball. It’s hard to imagine Dr. Elson regretting any of it.
The Beast has his reasons, too. He’s no villain, just a large animal trying to find his bearings in a strange environment. Ray Bradbury’s original story “The Fog Horn,” an inspiration for one of the movie’s best scenes, poetically suggests the loneliness that might motivate a primordial beast. The movie is not as explicit. While the original script retained the sound of the fog horn and the beast’s yearning response, the filmed version omits these details. Instead a foggy twilight setting captures the low-key mythic tone of the story, diminishing the sense of violence inherent in the destruction of the lighthouse while subtly hinting at the solitude of the Beast.
The Beast’s reason is simply that he is a Beast alone, out of time, out of place—and empathy naturally emerges from this. As Lourié’s young daughter said after she watched the movie, “You are bad, Daddy, bad. You killed the nice beast.” When you can build that level of identification for the ostensible villain of your piece, you are definitely capturing the essence of a Renoir-type humanism.
The Pantomime of Chaplin
“The task of instilling pathos into a creature that was, after all, an innocent victim of circumstances was something I had set myself from the outset, although I was restrained by the script. Eugene (Lourié) had the same feelings for the Beast, so in him I had an ally, and what little pathos there is for the creature is due solely to Eugene and myself…. So whenever the opportunity arose that allowed me to impart the creature with something ‘special,’ I would try to infuse some element of human dignity into him…”
Ray Harryhausen (and co-writer Tony Dalton)
An Animated Life
Like a true disciple of Renoir, Lourié embraced collaboration with his crew, in particular swiftly establishing a solid working relationship with animator Ray Harryhausen. He intuitively grasped that Harryhausen would have to accept nearly full responsibility for the movie’s central performance and he trusted him to bring as much emotional sensitivity as technical expertise to the task.
Like his mentor Willis O’Brien, the lead animator behind the seminal stop-motion animation classic King Kong (1933), Harryhausen’s understanding of acting was rooted in silent film pantomime. Since their animated beasts lacked dialogue, their personalities needed to be expressed by the way they moved.
Lourié valued pantomime as well. In fact, he had just completed work as production designer on Charles Chaplin’s twilight benediction Limelight, a poignant story about the final days of a once-famous vaudevillian, played by Chaplin. As Lourié wrote in his memoir, “Chaplin’s genius appealed to wide audiences in every country of the world. Simple peasants in India, factory workers in France, Turkish longshoremen, they all accepted Chaplin as their beloved relative and his antics greatly amused them.” Universal appeal of this kind became much harder to achieve with the dawn of talkie cinema. Language created barriers. In a way, the delicately achieved animation effects of O’Brien and Harryhausen were throwbacks to the great traditions of silent pantomime. By the nature of the animator’s art, the performances of their leading beasts (Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and the Rhedosaurus) transcended language. They returned the universal language of pantomime to mass popularity.
Unfortunately, animators rarely enjoyed the freedom of a Chaplin to endlessly rehearse a routine on film to see which effects worked best. Especially when working on a budget as low as on The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (a total cost of $247,000, less than a sixth of the budget of Mighty Joe Young four year earlier), there would be no time for reshoots—most of the animation sequences filmed were destined to make it whole into the completed film. For each shot, the animator was required to thoughtfully consider and weigh the needs of the scene, the motivations and natural personality of the creature, and the likely response of the audience. Then he had to nail it on the first take, painstakingly achieved frame by frame.
Writing fifty years after the movie’s release, Harryhausen’s quote above neglects what appears to be the key strategy in his effort to instill dignity into the performance of an articulated model, thirty inches long by eight inches high. Sympathy for the Rhedosaurus is aroused, not by the Beast acting human but by his behaving recognizably canine. Audiences instinctively like the Beast because he responds to situations in ways that might recall the family dog. This imparts a measure of dignity (and likeability) while stopping way short of anthropomorphizing.
Harryhausen obliquely refers to this strategy twice in An Animated Life, first in the description of the Beast’s attack on the fishing boat. Harryhausen writes, “When the Beast attacks the vessel, he appears to rock it, suggesting almost a playful attitude, like a dog with a stick.” Then, a few paragraphs later, he describes his animation of the scene where the Rhedosaurus eats a policeman. “The action of the Beast rearing back to swallow the food was an action seen in dogs and other carnivorous animals and one I had studied and used in my very early dinosaur tests.” Like Walt Disney bringing animals into the studio to instruct his animators on the biology of animal movement and like master paleo-artist Charles R. Knight (19874-1953) learning anatomy from close observation of large animals at zoos, Harryhausen endowed his fantastical creatures with believable life through close observation of real animals.
It’s even visible in the way Harryhausen has the Beast crush a car—with a delicate dog-like hesitation of the forepaw before flattening it, and then playfully brushing the remains aside. He’s more of a curious explorer than an angry monster.
Best of all, Harryhausen indulges in this penchant for eloquent pantomime in the closing scene where the confused and dying Beast responds with a classic dog behavior. Fatally wounded, he circles twice before collapsing. There is no narrative reason for this behavior—it’s a pure animation flourish. Harryhausen employs it because it’s realistic animal behavior writ large, instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever loved a dog. Following his instincts, Harryhausen creatively blends realism and pathos for a full-bodied climax worthy of his monster.
When you can achieve effects like this, bringing audiences to feel sympathy for the cold-blooded killer of a kind paleontologist, an Arctic explorer, a policeman, and a crowd on the wrong side of a collapsing wall—you just may prompt a reaction like Lourié’s daughter, “You are bad, Daddy, bad. You killed the nice beast.” Or at least you might pull it off if you have the talent, depth of feeling, and storytelling instinct of artists like Ray Harryhausen and Eugene Lourié.
One year later: Returning from a matinee, Ishirô Honda and Akira Kurosawa walk into a bar…
(To be continued at a later date…)
Bradbury, Ray. The Golden Apples of the Sun. William Morrow Paperbacks, 1997.
Hankin, Mike. Ray Harryhausen—Master of the Majicks (Volume 2). Archive Editions LLC, 2008.
Harryhausen, Ray and Dalton, Tony. Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life. Billboard Books, 2004.
Lourié, Eugene. My Work in Films. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1985.