Disney Plus-Or-Minus: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Original theatrical poster for Walt Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was not Walt Disney’s first live-action feature. But it was by far the biggest and most ambitious production he had attempted to date. The project went wildly over-budget, becoming the most expensive feature film ever made up to that time. If it flopped, it very likely would have dragged the entire studio down with it. Instead, it cemented Walt Disney’s reputation as a producer capable of creating live-action spectacles every bit as impressive as his animated features.

In fact, Walt at first considered adapting Jules Verne’s novel as a feature-length cartoon. That in itself is a fascinating alternate history to contemplate. Almost all of Disney’s animated films fall pretty squarely within the fairy tale/fantasy genres. It would have been incredible to see what the Disney animators could have done with a science fiction adventure.

It was the work of artist Harper Goff that convinced Walt to make the film in live-action. Goff had been working as a set designer for Warner Bros. when he met Walt in 1951. They were both trying to buy the same model train set and bonded over their shared hobby. Walt got the train but Goff got a new job.

Assigned to work on the 20,000 Leagues project, Goff proceeded to draw up an elaborate set of storyboards for a live-action feature. The work clicked with Walt. Perhaps emboldened by the success of his first live-action British production, Treasure Island, he greenlit 20,000 Leagues as his first American-based feature.

To direct, Walt hired Richard Fleischer, the son of one of his oldest competitors, the great animator Max Fleischer. The younger Fleischer started his career at RKO, directing low-budget B-movies and noirs like The Clay Pigeon and The Narrow Margin. Nothing in his previous work suggested that he was the right fit for a project of this magnitude. To be fair, very few projects of this magnitude had been attempted by anyone. Needless to say, Dick Fleischer leapt at the chance, but not before both he and Walt made sure Max was okay with his son going to work for his old rival.

Fleischer worked on the screenplay with Earl Felton, a writer he’d worked with previously at RKO. Like many popular novels of its era, Verne’s book had originally been published as a serial. This gave Fleischer and Felton a lot of cool incidents and episodes to choose from but not a lot of plot. Ultimately, they decided to focus on the unwilling captivity of the book’s three heroes, picking the most memorable scenes from the book and rearranging them into an order that fit their needs. The result is faithful to the spirit and flavor of Verne’s book, if not the letter of the text.

Walt was willing to do whatever it took to ensure the film’s success, even if that meant hiring bona fide A-list movie stars for the first time. Kirk Douglas had only been in pictures for less than a decade. But he was already a two-time Oscar nominee for the films Champion and The Bad And The Beautiful. Physically, he was ideally suited for the role of harpooner Ned Land. For Douglas, it gave him an opportunity to play a lighter role than the intense, hard-boiled parts he’d been associated with. Because this was a Disney movie, he’d even get to sing a song.

As Professor Aronnax, Disney cast Paul Lukas, an Oscar winner for the wartime drama Watch On The Rhine. The great character actor Peter Lorre was cast as Aronnax’s assistant, Conseil. This was also a change of pace for Lorre, who was usually typecast in roles that ranged from somewhat shady to outright villainous. Lorre and Douglas make a surprisingly effective comic duo. It would have been wonderful to see them together in other films, like a European heist movie.

Of course, Disney’s most inspired bit of casting was James Mason as the brilliant but deranged Captain Nemo. Mason had been a huge star in the UK but had not been an immediate success since coming to Hollywood. That was starting to change thanks to starring roles in The Desert Fox and especially A Star Is Born.

Mason’s performance as Nemo is one of the absolute best pairings of an actor to a character. It’s difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now without a touch of Mason’s influence creeping in. He’s imperious, paranoid, single-minded, ruthless and refined. Virtually none of Nemo’s robotic, identically dressed crewmen on the Nautilus even have names, much less personality. They don’t need them. It’s clear that they live only to serve their charismatic cult leader.

Disney had never really worked with established movie stars before and wouldn’t do so very often in the future. He preferred to make his own stars, be they cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck or contract players like Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. But 20,000 Leagues demonstrates that Walt had a canny sense for tapping into what made these stars great. None of the four actors were really playing against type. But Disney found a way to channel what made them great, Douglas’s magnetism, Mason’s intensity, Lukas’s gravitas and Lorre’s…well, Lorre-ness, and channel it in directions no one else had. He ended up getting four great star performances without a weak link in the bunch.

Theatrical poster for 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

Apart from the cast, the movie has several behind-the-scenes MVPs. First and foremost is Harper Goff, whose storyboards kickstarted the whole project. Goff was responsible for designing the Nautilus, both the exterior and interior sets. In doing so, he basically invented the entire aesthetic that later evolved into steampunk. Ornate Victorian furnishings sit comfortably beside hard steel walls with exposed rivets, pipes and tubes and massive circular staircases. Best of all is Nemo’s enormous pipe organ, a magnificently absurd touch that tells you everything you need to know about this character.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea won an Oscar for Best Color Art Direction but Goff didn’t get one. At the time, he wasn’t a member of the Art Directors Guild and therefore, wasn’t eligible under Academy bylaws. John Meehan and set decorator Emile Kuri collected the awards instead. Goff worked for Disney for a few more years, contributing a great deal to the layout of Disneyland and later, Walt Disney World. Later on, he’d once again create some unforgettable sets as art director on Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

20,000 Leagues also won an Oscar for Best Special Effects, beating out another submarine movie, Sam Fuller’s Hell And High Water, as well as the giant ants of Them! (Elmo Williams was also nominated for Best Film Editing but lost that one.) The effects had been by far the most challenging aspect of the production, especially the now iconic giant squid. John Hench was the lead developer of the squid, creating a full-sized hydraulic monster that required a team of twenty-some men to operate.

The first attempt at the squid sequence went poorly. Fleischer and Walt both agreed that the monster looked ridiculous. Walt apparently commented that it looked like a Keystone Kops short. While Hench and his team redesigned the squid’s appearance, writer Earl Felton suggested that the scene take place at night during a violent storm, rather than the placid twilight setting of the original. The film was already in danger of going overbudget and the reshoots sent the cost through the roof. Between this film and the ongoing construction of Disneyland, the studio was once again running on fumes.

But the reshoots did the trick. The giant squid remains a highlight of the picture and an indelible moment in movie history. No one could ever accuse Walt Disney of being thrifty and his willingness to spend whatever it took in his quest for perfection paid off more often than not.

Matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, who had worked on all of Disney’s British productions, had now accepted full-time employment at the studio and set up shop in Burbank. Once again, he created seamless illusions. He transformed a tank on the 20th Century Fox lot into Nemo’s island lair, Vulcania, and a quarry into a South Seas penal colony.

Richard Fleischer also tried to work some traditional Disney animation into the film, proposing a sequence where the Nautilus encounters animated, bioluminescent creatures near the bottom of the sea. The animation was produced (it’s available as an extra on the special edition DVD and it’s pretty cool) but Walt decided to nix the idea. That was the right call, as it would have clashed with the style of the rest of the film. Years later, Wes Anderson would use a different kind of animation to achieve the same effect in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. It works there, matching the more whimsical tone of Anderson’s work.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea was a big hit upon its release just before Christmas of 1954, although it took awhile to earn its money back since it had cost so much to make. Eventually it became the third highest-grossing movie of the year, just behind White Christmas and The Caine Mutiny. It was by far the most successful live-action film Walt had produced to date, leading to an attraction at Disneyland, toys, comics and records. Even Kirk Douglas’s “A Whale Of A Tale” got released as a single.

Cover art for the Decca Records release of A Whale Of A Tale by Kirk Douglas

Despite all this success, this would be the only time Fleischer, Mason, Douglas, Lukas or Lorre ever worked for Disney. In Kirk Douglas’s case, the relationship ended on a sour note. He had brought his sons, Joel and Michael, over to Walt’s house and footage from that visit ended up in an episode of the Disneyland TV show. Douglas wrote Walt, saying he hadn’t given permission to use the footage of his family and asked for it to be removed. Walt apologized, then went ahead and aired it again anyway. So Douglas sued him, ABC, and just about everybody else involved with the show for “invasion of privacy”. He later ended up dropping the suit but the incident caused a rift between Walt and Kirk that neither one ever quite got over.

Today, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea appears like a magnificent anomaly in the Disney canon. It could have been the start of a bold new direction for the studio, a series of close collaborations between Walt and first-class filmmakers and actors brought in from outside the studio. Instead, the live-action division began to close ranks, falling back on historical dramas, nostalgia pieces and eventually comedies. It would be years before the studio attempted another live-action film on this scale. Now, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea feels like a calling card for a Disney that never arrived.

VERDICT: Disney Plus.

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An Honor To Be Nominated: West Side Story

THE CONTENDER: West Side Story (1961)

Number of Nominations: 11 – Best Picture (Robert Wise); Supporting Actor (George Chakiris); Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno); Director (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins); Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Ernest Lehman); Cinematography, Color (Daniel L. Fapp); Art Direction/Set Decoration, Color (Boris Leven, Victor A. Gangelin); Sound (Fred Hynes and Gordon E. Sawyer); Scoring of a Musical Picture (Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal); Film Editing (Thomas Stanford); Costume Design, Color (Irene Sharaff)

Number of Wins: 10 – Everything except Adapted Screenplay (sorry, Ernie)

Before I expanded the parameters of this column to encompass all Oscar-nominated films in all categories, the rules were very simple. To be included, a movie simply had to have been nominated for Best Picture and lost. Using those guidelines, I never, ever would have included West Side Story.

West Side Story is by far the winningest movie we’ve covered here to date. It came very close to a clean sweep, with only Abby Mann’s screenplay for Judgment At Nuremberg standing in the way of 11 for 11. Its soundtrack went on to become the best-selling album of the 1960s. Not just a year, the entire decade. It has been referenced and/or parodied in everything from The Muppet Show to The Simpsons to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Anchorman. And somehow, the closest I had ever come to seeing it before now was in seconds-long clips in award show montages.  

The Academy’s attitude toward musicals seemed to be changing in the early 1960s. The genre had been part of the Oscars pretty much since synchronized sound became the norm. Most years found at least one musical nominated for Best Picture. But only a handful had actually won, starting with The Broadway Melody all the way back at the second ceremony. But that changed in the 1960s, as musicals came to dominate the Best Picture category, winning more frequently than they ever had before or would since. It would be their last hurrah.

As Hollywood fought the encroaching medium of television in the 1950s, the movies got bigger. Fancy new processes were created to help embiggen the public’s love of movies, with fun futuristic-sounding names like CinemaScope, Cinerama, VistaVision and Todd-AO. The Academy embraced the Age of the Epic with open arms, handing out trophies to movies like Around The World In 80 Days and Ben-Hur as if they couldn’t sculpt the statuettes fast enough. It was an age when even a small movie, like Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, looked huge.

It didn’t take long for musicals to embrace the possibilities of widescreen cinematography. Movies like White Christmas, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, and many more pushed the boundaries of the screen. Of course, all this extra space meant filmmakers needed more stuff to fill it with. So sets got bigger, costumes got more elaborate, and the number of dancers on screen at any given moment multiplied like rabbits. It was just as well that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were aging out of the genre. By 1961, the idea of paying to see just two people dance elegantly on screen was hopelessly outdated and quaint.

In many ways, West Side Story was the culmination of all this change. The play had debuted on Broadway in 1957, the brainchild of director and choreographer Jerome Robbins. Robbins recruited playwright Arthur Laurents to tackle the book and composer Leonard Bernstein to write the music. Eventually, Stephen Sondheim was brought on board to write the lyrics, resulting in a once-in-a-lifetime gathering of talent.

When it came time to bring the show to the big screen, the director’s reins were handed to Robert Wise. Robbins had wanted to direct himself but the money folks at The Mirisch Company balked at his total lack of experience with filmmaking. At the time, Wise must have seemed an odd choice. He had started his career as an editor, earning an Oscar nomination for his work on Citizen Kane and was notoriously put in charge of Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons after RKO fired Welles.

As a director, Wise had bopped from horror (The Curse Of The Cat People) to noir (The Set-Up) to westerns (Two Flags West) to sci-fi (The Day The Earth Stood Still) to pretty much any other kind of movie you can think of but he’d never made a musical. So it was agreed that Jerome Robbins would stay on as co-director to handle the musical and dance sequences. But Robbins’ insistence on multiple takes led to the production going over-budget and, eventually, his firing. He never directed another feature which, as near as I can tell, makes him the only one-and-done Best Director Oscar winner in history.

What Wise, Robbins, cinematographer Daniel L. Fapp, and all the other filmmakers were able to accomplish with West Side Story was nothing short of extraordinary. Watching the movie, you would be hard-pressed to imagine that this material could ever be contained on stage. The sets are too big, the movement too expressive, the colors too vivid. It’s dynamic and exciting in a way that’s unique to film. And unlike too many other bloated epics of the period, West Side Story moves. It’s a long film, clocking in at around two-and-a-half hours, but there isn’t a wasted second in it.

It’s a little hard to judge the actual performances in West Side Story. Certainly the dancing and physicality is remarkable across the board. But this was a time when movie stars didn’t really have to sing in musicals if the producers didn’t want ’em to, so we end up with these odd Frankenstein performances with lip-synched vocals. The movie’s big name is Natalie Wood, who had already been a star for over a decade. She was still a teenager when she’d earned her first Oscar nomination for Rebel Without A Cause a few years earlier. 1961 ended up being a very good year for her. In addition to West Side Story, she’d garner her second Oscar nod for her other movie that year, Splendor In The Grass.

Even though Wood’s singing voice was dubbed by go-to ghost singer Marni Nixon and even though she’s no more Puerto Rican than I am, her performance as Maria is delicate and lovely. She hits just the right blend of sweetness and sensuality, really selling the emotion and pathos of the character. Richard Beymer as Tony isn’t quite as successful. He’s handsome and charming enough but his inexperience comes through occasionally. He just doesn’t yet have the depth as an actor to really connect with the songs he’s not singing (Jimmy Bryant dubbed his voice). He’d find it by the time he played Ben Horne on Twin Peaks (and as a Twin Peaks fan coming to West Side Story late, I should add that seeing Beymer and future Dr. Jakoby Russ Tamblyn together in this does result in a moment or two of cognitive dissonance) but back then, he seems a little out of his depth.

That is definitely not the case with Oscar-winning supporting actors Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Both stars had an intensive dance background and both were sort of struggling to find their place in Hollywood when West Side Story came along. They made the most of the opportunity, especially Moreno who practically explodes off the screen. Moreno got to do most of her own singing and Chakiris did all of his, possibly just because he doesn’t get any big solo numbers. Their Oscar victories are even more impressive when you consider who they were up against. Chakiris’ competition included Montgomery Clift, Peter Falk, Jackie Gleason and George C. Scott, while Moreno was in her category opposite no less than Judy Garland.

Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with either Moreno or Chakiris. Rita Moreno found herself unemployed for seven years afterwards, not making another movie until The Night Of The Following Day in 1968. Eventually of course, she’d go on to be one of the rare EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winners and an all-around national treasure. As for Chakiris (who, again, not a Puerto Rican, but certainly believable and acceptable as one), he made some pretty forgettable movies throughout the 60s before becoming a prolific TV actor in the 70s.

The only nominee who went home empty-handed that night was screenwriter Ernest Lehman. Lehman was one of the great Hollywood script writers. If he’d done nothing else, his place in film history would be secured by his screenplay for North By Northwest, essentially the platonic ideal for the contemporary mystery thriller. Lehman would be nominated for six Oscars over his career, winning none. Perhaps he was overlooked this time because the Academy figured the movie was so faithful to the play that Lehman hadn’t really done much. In any event, he would go on to become the first screenwriter to receive an honorary Academy Award for his body of work in 2001, by which time he had long since retired.

It’s hard to make a case against any of West Side Story‘s Oscar triumphs. At the time, the technical awards were still split into two categories, color and black-and-white. Odds are this arrangement benefited the black-and-white movies more than West Side Story, which probably would have dominated no matter what it was up against. In the Best Picture category, its only real competition was the star-studded but somber Judgment At Nuremberg. Of the other nominees, The Hustler was likely too small to make much of a dent and The Guns Of Navarone was probably dismissed as just a popcorn epic. As for Joshua Logan’s Fanny, another movie based on a stage musical that perversely decided to eliminate all the songs…nobody remembers Fanny.

As they are wont to do, Hollywood learned all the wrong lessons from West Side Story. Musicals continued to get bigger and busier, eventually becoming so expensive to produce that they priced themselves out of existence. It didn’t help that musical tastes were changing rapidly in the 60s, turning big Broadway-style productions into dinosaurs. But West Side Story captured the form at its best, with a perfect storm of talent working together to bring a timeless story to life. The Romeo & Juliet template is essentially foolproof. It’s a classic, endlessly malleable story that everyone relates to on some level. When you apply this level of craftsmanship to a story this universal, the results will almost always be timeless.

West Side Story is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from MGM/20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.