Thursday, June 3, 2010

Unknown Island (Film Classics, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Unknown Island, an item I’d recently downloaded from a 1948 movie from Film Classics (which really did release — or at least reissue — some genuine film classics, including most of the Laurel and Hardy shorts, though most of their own productions, including this one, are far from classics) that seems to be the first live-action dinosaur movie ever made in color. The production values are pretty cheap and most of the “dinosaurs” are actually people in ill-fitting dino-suits — you can see the creases in the cloth in the close-ups — but the script by Robert T. Shannon and Jack Harvey offers some nicely sleazy variants on your typical dino-movie. It opens in a dive bar in Singapore, and introduces Captain Tarnowski (Barton MacLane) and his first mate, Sanderson (Dick Wessel).

Tarnowski is setting lecherous eyes on Carole Lane (Virginia Grey, top-billed), a salty dame who gets to say lines like, “I’ve been in worse dives than this in New York — and I had to pay a cover charge!” She’s at a table with her fiancé, World War II veteran Ted Osborne (Phillip Reed), and they’re discussing an expedition he wants to make to return to an unknown island he discovered accidentally when his reconnaissance plane was blown off course by a typhoon. He spotted living dinosaurs on this unknown island and photographed one (though it looks like a picture of a garden-variety lizard to us), and resolved to go there after the war with a movie camera and shoot a documentary about living dinosaurs that would make him a fortune. He’s relying on his girlfriend to finance the trip — apparently she’s some sort of socialite with money of her own — and he calls Tarnowski to his table to discuss chartering his ship, which is set up for bring-’em-back-alive animal hunts, and setting forth for the unknown island.

They add an additional member to their party, Fairbanks (Richard Denning), who also accidentally discovered the unknown island when he and a group of friends he was doing a pleasure cruise with ran aground on it; the other members of his party were killed by the dinosaurs but he escaped (we’re not told how), though the experience unhinged him and turned him into an alcoholic. He says he wouldn’t go back to the island even if someone put a gun to his head, but of course Tarnowski and Ted aren’t going to take no for an answer: they shanghai him and the kidnapping has the effect of an intervention — he quits drinking, shaves and looks hunky enough to take Carole away from Ted, which duly happens by the end of the film. The explorers come amply armed and throw a few hand grenades at the dinosaurs — who frankly, despite their size, are so clumsy the people don’t look like they’re in any real danger, though the stampede of T. rexes towards Our Heroes is genuinely frightening; director Jack Bernhard actually does a good job keeping this film moving and making the dinosaurs as scary as possible given the limits of his budget and the overall sloppiness of the costumes the people playing dinosaurs are wearing.

The film has obvious links to King Kong — also about a moviemaker who takes a party to an unknown island and encounters living dinosaurs as well as a giant ape — though in Unknown Island the creature that looks like a red-furred ape is actually supposed to be a giant sloth (at least according to the original pressbook), but he’s played by ape specialist Ray Corrigan and about the only concession to “slothicity” in his makeup is a tuft of hair on his head that makes him look like he’s wearing a mohawk. (“Ah, a punk ape!” I joked.) The ape, sloth or whatever it is Ray Corrigan is supposed to be playing gets into a fight with a T. rex that can’t help but evoke comparison with the similar battle in King Kong — if only because Jack Bernhard, working with human actors, somehow can’t evoke the spirit of “human-ness” Willis O’Brien gave Kong in the sequence, having him battle the dinosaur by punching, feinting and blocking like a human prizefighter. Despite the glitches, though, Unknown Island is actually a fun movie: the script is serviceable though predictable (the moment Fairbanks cleans up and shaves, he’s so much hunkier than Ted we know Carole is going to end up with him at the end, as indeed she does) and director Bernhard does the best he can with the budget and actually keeps the film reasonably exciting even though the people and the dinosaurs were filmed on separate sets and combined through process work in post-production. (He’s stuck with humans playing the dinosaurs and doesn’t even exploit the one advantage of that: the ability to put humans and monsters in the same frame without special effects.)

One oddity about Unknown Island — at least the version we were watching — is that the film is in color and is billed as being in the Cinécolor process, which I recall from other films that used it (including The Magic Carpet) as having especially rich, vibrant blues — but what we see looks amazingly like a two-strip Technicolor film, with no blues and just about everything either green, salmon or brown: even the shot of the ship sailing on the open sea on its way to the island shows a chartreuse sea and a tan sky, just like a 1920’s two-strip movie. My impression is that Unknown Island is the first live-action dinosaur movie in color — Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) depicted dinosaurs in color, but only in hand-drawn two-dimensional animation — which is noteworthy because given the technology available at the time, doing special effects in color was considerably more difficult than in black-and-white.