SATURDAY AFTERNOON B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” (1961)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 12/12/09

There are certain movies that never turned up on my local monster chiller horror science fiction theater show when I was a kid, for no adequately explained reason. Certainly it wasn’t because films like “Destination Moon” and “Planet of the Apes” were A-pictures. Clearly they weren’t. Sometimes I think that it might have been that some of these movies were simply too new to be on the show - films like “Omega Man” (1971) or “Colossus: The Forbin Project” (1970), but then I remember that stinkers like “Lifepod” (1980) made it on to the show regularly, so clearly date couldn’t have been a problem. Is it a matter of prestige, then, that kept some movies out of rotation? Does something like that even matter when the movies are being used as filler in between host segments filmed on location at a local used car dealership in 1978? Probably not. I never figured it out.

For whatever reason, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” was one such movie that never, ever, ended up on Saturday morning TV in my childhood. This annoyed me to no end, since I discovered the series spun off from it when I was about ten or eleven, and was eager to see the movie, but to no avail: they just never ran the darn thing, even though they regularly ran SF sub movies like “The Atomic Submarine” (1959). Go figure. I was well into my teens before I finally saw the film.

PLAY BY PLAY

In The Not Too Distant Future (As seen from 1961), Frankie Avalon is singing what is truly one of the treacliest, most inappropriately placed, ill-conceived love songs of all time:

Come with me
To the sea
And we’ll find love
On our voyage
To the bottom of the sea.

Unbelievable, inconceivable,
What a triumph it will be!
And we’ll be the first
Yes the very first
To live such a brave new dream

There we’ll be
Lost and free
And we’ll find love
At the bottom
Of the sea.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t take time out to single out a song on the soundtrack, but really this is the most hysterically out-of-place song of all time, and his teenybopper croon is totally unsuited for what’s basically a pulse-pounding adventure story. That’s not even mentioning how stupid the damn thing sounds, or the fact that they rhymed “Be” and “Dream” or (Even worse) “First” with “First.” And don’t even get me started on those cloying “Come with me/Come with me” backing vocals. Seriously, this is just unbelievably awful. You’ve really got to hear it to believe it:

Fortunately the submarine Seaview surfaces and puts and end to it after about two minutes or so, amidst the normal newspapers that fly at the screen with expository headlines (“Super Sub Seaview on trials beneath the north pole”, “Experimentelles U-boot auf der Jungfernfahrt”, “Je fais loger un sous-marin de jouet dans mon rectum et ne peux pas le sortir”, and so on) From here we see a newscaster on TV explaining that the sub is the latest brainchild of the “Always controversial” Admiral Harriman Nelson, “one of the foremost scientific minds of our age.” Nelson himself is watching the newscast on TV in the sub’s control room, and turns it off in some embarrassment, then goes below decks to meet his VIPs: A retired Vice Admiral, washed up Academy Award winner Joan Fontaine, and Floyd the Barber (Walter Baldwin), who’s playing a senator this time out. All these fine folks are on a factfinding mission for the government, and are visiting the sub for the duration of her arctic shakedown voyage.

We’re treated to a looooooong series of info-dumps as Admiral Nelson (Walter Pigeon) gives them a tour of the major sets, and explains what everything is for the benefit of the maiden aunts in the audience who really don’t understand what’s going on, and are already confused ten minutes into the film. Despite all the un-funny scenes of forced comedic condescension to Floyd the Senator, there’s one genuinely mirthful one, and then we meet up with Barbara Eden and Frankie Avalon in the mess hall, where she’s inexplicably dancing in full-on ‘shake yer ass, baby” mode while he’s equally inexplicably playing the trumpet. Embarrassed in front of the barber/senator, Nelson dresses them all down, and takes them away while Captain Craine (Robert Sterling) says behind to chew out Eden, who explains that she was just showing the crew how she’ll dance at her wedding. Then, making a mockery of the Uniform Military Code of Justice, the two of them start macking right there in the hallway, embarrassing impressionable young Frankie Avalon.

The sub dives under the ice and we jumpcut forward two weeks, but I’ll take this opportunity to set up a couple things we see in the guided tour that’ll pay off later on: 1) The sub is nuclear powered (Well, duh); 2) The sub has a huge swimming pool-sized open-top aquarium with a man-eating shark named “Bessie” which can only be traversed by a dangerous-looking catwalk with no guardrails, 3) Peter Lorre is an American naval officer (Despite his accent and nebulous sexuality), one of the leading physicists of his age, and he really, really likes fish (Possibly because of his accent and nebulous sexuality) ; and 4) The sub contains a minisub which is driven by a fresh-faced red-headed kid with the placeholder name of “Jimmie Smith” who is coincidentally the son of one of Nelson’s best friends, so you just know from the moment you meet him that he’s going to die horribly.

Ok, so now it’s two weeks later, and the Seaview surfaces to discover the lurid Technicolor sky is luridly on fire. It’s really cool looking. Captain Crane discovers Michael Ansara floating on the ice, and rescues him. Ansara was a UN scientist, and the only survivor of his expedition.They contact Washington and discover that the Van Allen belts caught on fire like two days ago, evidently ignited by an abnormally big meteor shower. (“Theoretically it’s possible” says Peter Lorre.) They’re ordered to New York so that Nelson and Peter Lorre can take part in the great big UN symposium on global warming. (Ha! See what I did there?)

Arriving in an absolutely gorgeous effects matte shot of New York City with the sky on fire, which you can see :39 second in to this trailer

Much like the real UN, this conference on environmental change pretty much consists of a lot of sweaty people with silly hats and outrageous accents (not even counting Peter Lorre) yelling at each other, and proclaiming courses of action that make no sense. In a bit of unintended irony, the liberals in this movie advocate doing nothing, while the conservative Nelson suggests blowing up the Van Allen belt with a nuclear missile, thus saving the world. The Scientists react badly to this, saying it’ll destroy the world, and, again much like the real UN, it ends in a dustup. Nelson gets separated from Floyd the Senator and his Vice Admiral friend, but does manage to dash back to Seaview with Barbara Eden and Joan Fontaine in tow, so, y’know, score! UN cops attempt to stop the sub by running on to its decks and milling about aimlessly, but Nelson simply dives, assuming they can swim. (“Relax, Lee, these security types swim like fish. It’s in their training!”) The sub hauls ass to sea.

In order to get around the UN telling him not to go firing nuclear missiles in an attempt to blow up the earth’s magnetic field (Which admittedly sounds kind of bad when you say it like that), Nelson says he takes his orders from the president only. The Seaview heads south, but because of the whole “Sky’s on fire” thing, they can’t really contact DC by radio. Eventually, they hit on the idea of diving and patching in to a transatlantic phone cable to simply call Washington. This results in a ludicrously long and boring dive sequence in which I’ve fallen asleep more than once. They even attempt to liven things up a bit with both a shark attack and a giant squid attack, but to no avail: it’s just dull.

Just as the squid is about to eat (or aggressively cuddle - it’s not clear) Captain Craine, Michael Ansara rescues him. Despite not being part of the crew, he’d volunteered for the mission as he was an excellent diver. Even so, Ansara is kind of a gloomy gus, talking endlessly about the end of the world, the will of God, and how the crew should meekly resign themselves to death, rather than fight Divine judgment. If the men seem unnaturally interested in this, well, it’s not too unbelievable really: The world *IS* in a bad way, and they’re getting constant news about how “Miami is underwater” and “Central Europe is burning” and satellite photos showing a band of flame girding the entire world, so, you know, certainly it’s not unreasonable to think that maybe this prophet of doom isn’t entirely off the mark. Also it *IS* Michael Ansara we’re talking about here! He’s got that amazing, compelling voice, that clipped diction, that not-quite-placeable accent that might be upper class Manhattan or maybe Syrian, I mean, hell, the guy has always been mesmerizing to listen to. Even reading the phone book, the guy sounds like you’d expect Moses or John the Baptist to sound when they're reading the phone book, so hearing him making pronouncements about doomsday just *feels* right.

Plus, he’s got a really good toupee this time out, so he’s got that going for him as well.

Anyway, to get back to the story at hand: They patch in to the cable to call the president, but evidently they get the area code wrong or something, and end up talking to someone in an otherwise-evacuated London. They ask him if he can patch ‘em through to DC, but he explains that there’s been no contact with the US for 36 hours or so, and then the line abruptly goes dead.

Realizing they’re on their own, Nelson decides to go ahead with the mission without presidential sanction. Many of the crew do not react well to this, particularly since the launch location for the missile is half a world away, in the Marianas islands, and they’ve only got 14 days to get there. They commence to yet more hauling of ass, but as merely hauling ass alone isn’t all that interesting, we’re shown scenes of crewmembers who’ve had breakdowns from the stress. Joan Fontaine is opposed to the mission - she believes the UN assessment that the fires will burn themselves out at 173 degrees - but she’s remarkably two-faced around Admiral Nelson. Did I say ‘Remarkably?’ Actually, she’s quite subtly two-faced around Nelson. It’s interesting to watch her.

The generator goes blooey, so Radar and Sonar are out, and it’ll take ten hours to repair. They don’t have that kind of speed, so owing to them being in safe waters, Nelson orders them to keep sailing blind and make repairs underway. This results in them blundering into a minefield, and getting tangled in the mine cables, so they send out Jimmie Smith and Chief Gleeson to cut the cables which (As I’m sure you saw coming) frees the sub, but kills the both of them.

Nelson is actually pretty messed up by having sent his best buddy’s son to certain death. Peter Lorre and Barbara Eden attempt to cheer him up, but to no avail, and Nelson keeps looking at a piece of paper. Presently they’re called to sickbay, where one of the engineers has committed suicide, and left a note saying he sabotaged the generator, and is hence responsible for Gleeson and Smith’s deaths. Crane assumes that the engineer was the guy who wrote the threat to the Admiral, and ergo all is now safe, but Nelson quickly realizes both notes were typed on different machines. Nelson heads off to do Admiral things (Which mostly involve smoking cigars and being bombastic), while Barbara Eden identifies the “i” on the threatening note as having come from the Admiral’s own typewriter. Joan Fontaine tells Crane that Nelson is displaying all the signs of paranoid delusion, but Crane refuses to take her seriously.

Soon thereafter, there’s a very bad fire in Nelson’s quarters, and Crane barely gets the Admiral out alive. Simultaneously, someone starts pumping gas through the air vents. They surface to scrub the air, and spot a ship on the horizon. Several crewmen go over to check it out, as they’re basically unable to do anything more productive while the air in the sub is bad, and they find everyone dead. One of ‘em brings back a Hawaiian newspaper a couple days old that says pretty much every Navy in the world is attempting to sink the Seaview out of fear that Nelson’s plan will pretty much blow up the world. Several of the men come to the brink of mutiny, so Nelson agrees to give them fifteen minutes to pack up and he’ll give ’em all the water and supplies they’ll need to get the dead ship to port somewhere.

Crane calls Nelson nuts for this, but Nelson insists that the murderer/saboteur would have gone with the rabble, leaving only a core of loyal seamen. They return to hauling ass, but Crane starts reading up on the regulations about relieving a superior officer, y’know, just in case.

The next day, Nelson gets into an argument with Frankie Avalon, calling him a “No good goldbrick,” and slaps him. Hey, we’ve all been there with Frankie, right? Sergeant Dead Head my ass. Anyway, after that, Crane decides to relive the Admiral and stop the whole stupid mission, saying “If the Admiral is crazy, then his plan is crazy.” Curiously, no one listens to Peter Lorre who insists the plan is valid, and no one seems to remember the poison gas pumped through the air vents. Crane relieves Nelson of command - mercifully putting him on “Sick List” rather than more damning reasons - but this is busted up by an attack from an American Skipjack-class sub. The Seaview won’t fire on an American sub, so they dive as deep as they can. The Skpjack doesn’t pull up, and is crushed. Then the Seaview is attacked by a giant octopus, but they drive it off by sending an electrical charge through the hull, which they saw in a movie somewhere. Then, as they arrive at the launch site, the reactor goes down. Crane runs aft to find out what’s going on, and gets as far as the rickety catwalk I warned you about over the shark tank, where he meets Joan Fontaine. She’s just sabotaged the reactor and given herself a fatal dose of radiation in the process. She confesses the whole thing to Crane, but then the sub lurches at an inopportune moment, and she falls into the tank and is eaten by Bessie. Crane falls over and is unconscious. Meanwhile the fire in the sky passes the UN’s “Burnout Point” and keeps burning. The UN was wrong. Again.

Ansara, meanwhile, grabs a hand grenade-ish-looking thing and threatens to blow it up if anyone tries to fire the missile. Barbara Eden and Peter Lorre run looking for Crane and find him asleep on the catwalk. They fill him in on what’s going on, so he goes outside in a wetsuit and fires the missile manually. The sub lurches as it launches, Ansara almost falls, and Frankie Avalon rushes him and grabs the grenade, or whatever it is.

They surface, and up on deck they watch the fires in the sky recede, the world is saved, and everyone lives happily ever after, excepting the billion or so people who died because the temperature was over 100 degrees for like a month. And Joan Fontaine. And probably Bessie, who gobbled up so much radiation that she probably had to be killed.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

Wow. Where to begin? First of all, the Van Allen Belt is a zone in the earth’s magnetic field that tends to naturally trap ionized particles thrown out by the sun, and hold them indefinitely. This shields the earth from a lot of radiation from space, but it allows radiation in at the poles where the belt is so weak as to be nonexistent. The particles that get in through the poles cause the Northern and Southern Lights. Being a zone of fairly hard radiation, it poses a hazard to humans, so the Apollo astronauts (The only ones to travel through it) went really fast in hopes of minimizing exposure. Though theorized to exist for some time, it was actually discovered by Dr. James Van Allen in 1958, and as a result it was still pretty topical neato-keeno stuff when they decided to throw it in to this 1961 movie. That said, the belt “Catching Fire” is utter nonsense - there’s nothing there to burn! Certainly it being ignited by a meteor shower is even more utter nonsense.

Global temperature gets as high as 174 degrees by the end of the movie, after having climbed steadily for a month. Realistically, I don’t think anyone could have survived that. That’s 78 degrees Celsius. Not only do I doubt humans could have survived that, I can’t really think of a land animal that could have survived it for long, either.

Aside from the glass nosed observation deck in the submarine, the sets are pretty solidly realistic, if not amazingly inventive. The control room is one of the neater sets on film or TV from this era. Most of these sets were stored and reused in the 1964-1968 TV series, though not all. The Crews Quarters in this movie is different, as is Nelson’s cabin. The Mess Hall is much larger here. The deck and conning tower set is actually pretty impressive, and looks real.

We get both sides of the “God” equation in this movie: Michael Ansara’s apocalyptic fatalism and fanaticism, versus Admiral Nelson’s understated rational theological optimism. He makes a point of saying “I am confident that with God’s help, we will survive.” Later on, he argues more effectively with Ansara than anyone else when he says “If God has decreed that Man is to die, then why has God give us the will to survive?” and elsewhere he strongly implies that Man can not defeat the will of God, ergo, if Nelson can stop the flames it obviously must not have been God’s will that we all snuff it.

I’m thinking it must be a rather rough thing for morale to have one chick on board the sub, and have her be the incredibly smoking’ hot 27-year-old Barbara Eden. To make matters worse, she’s nailing the captain. Rank doth have its privileges, but it’s hard not to assume there’d be some serious grumbling about that arrangement. Her dance scene is pretty leering for the time. There’s nothing unseemly in her Charleston or Irish Reel or whatever the hell dance she’s doing, but there’s some full-frame shots of her butt waggling in the camera. I’m not complaining. I mean, who would?

Barbara Eden and Michael Ansara were married when they made this movie, by the way. They’d gotten hitched in 1957, one year prior to the discovery of the Van Allen Belt, and of course this also explains his several appearances on I Dream of Jeanie. They were an extraordinarily attractive couple. They divorced in 1974.

Michael Ansara is probably best known to our readers as Elric the Technomage from the Babylon 5 episode “The Geometry of Shadows.” He was also Kang the Klingon, a recurring character in the Star Trek franchise, as well as Cochise on “Broken Arrow,” and of course the voice of Mr. Freeze in the DCAU, as well as a zillion other things as well. Born in Syria, and raised in the US, he had looks that were exotic enough to be striking, but not ethnic enough to frighten off white viewers, and he had that immediately compelling voice. Him and Barbara Eden had one child together, Matthew, who died in 2001. Ansara never really recovered from the loss of his only kid, and has been in retirement since then.

Robert Sterling never really had any major staring roles, but he made plenty of movies and TV shows. He’s one of those people you recognize, but can’t remember the name of. He’s perfectly adequate here. Walter Pidgeon - sixty-four when he made this movie - was, of course, a huge bo-honkin’ movie star in his day, and he made two noteworthy genre films: This one, and Forbidden Planet. He’s never the most nuanced of actors, and though he’s not without some charm, he stomps through this whole film like he’s in a stage play. Really, he stomps through every film like he’s in a stage play.

There’s not a lot of chemistry between Sterling and Pidgeon. We’re told they’re like father and son, and the script is obviously trying to depict the growing estrangement between the two, as Nelson becomes more and more driven and monomaniacal, while Crane becomes more and more concerned with the strain it’s taking on the men, and the increasingly-obvious fact that they’re gonna’ fire a freakin’ nuclear missile without any orders from anybody. Alas, this doesn’t really play out as intensely and personally as it should, and the movie feels a bit dry in the middle, where it should feel impassioned. When Crane finally tries to arrest Nelson, there’s no feeling of personal betrayal like you get in, say, The Caine Mutiny, or even in the Voyage TV series when Crane tried that out in the first season, and Nelson just freaked the f_ck out in utter betrayal. (Though to be fair, Nelson was stoned at the time)

Another odd thing about the film is that it chugs along at a steady pace for four fifths of its length, then, bang- sub attack - bang - giant octopus - bang - sabotage - bang - shark attack - bang - religious fanatic bomber - bang - abrupt ending. It’s a serious pacing problem. It almost feels like they realized they only had fifteen minutes of film left, and tried to wrap everything up too darn fast.

The movie was written with a character called “Commander Chip Morton,” who was removed from the film at the last minute, and replaced with Frankie Avalon, as they figured it’d attract more teens. Morton was intended as Crane’s best friend, and an academy buddy, and someone Crane could talk to about anything. When Avalon came aboard playing “Lieutenant Romano,” the part was quickly rewritten, with Morton’s lines being divided between Romano (Who got the functional lines like “50 yards keel to bottom, sir” and “Diving stations, aye!”) and Barbara Eden (Who got all the quiet moments where Crane expresses his growing concerns about the men and the Admiral).

Poor Frankie Avalon. Owing not to choice, but to the perversity of fate, I’ve probably seen every Frankie Avalon movie ever made, and yet I still have no idea if he could act. I mean, he’s serviceable enough in the Beach movies, he seems to have fair comic timing, he’s even kind of funny in “Back to the Beach,” (1987), and I’ve long gotten the impression he could have been another mid-level comedic talent like William Shatner (I think they get their toupees from the same place) but he totally sleepwalks through this film and a bunch of others, so I can never get a sense of his talents or lack thereof. The problem isn’t really him, but the way he was packaged. He’s never allowed to just act, once he gets in to any movie, he’s shoehorned in as a “Teen Idol,” whether it fits or not. Take “Operation Bikini” which started out (I’m told) as a rather stark navy comedy, but once Frankie came into the project, it became, well, a Frankie Avalon movie, shot in black and white, with really distracting dream sequence music videos shot in color that pop in and out of the story. Or this film, where he sings possibly the worst theme song ever. Worse even that A-Ha’s Bond theme. Worse even than Sheryl Crow’s Bond theme! Probably not as bad as the theme from Quantum of Solace, however.

The special effects are all pretty special, particularly some of the matte shots of the burning sky early on. The miniature work by LB Abbot is very, very nice. Sure, everything is obviously fake, but it’s all very well-filmed, pretty fakes. The Octopus Attack doesn’t quite work (Obviously an homage to Disney’s 20,000 leagues a few years before, or more likely a blatant ripoff), but the submarine attack is well done. The scenes with the dead ship are almost - but not quite - creepy. They don’t play ‘em to their fullest. Which is kind of indicative of the problem with this movie as a whole: The direction is very, very flat. Nothing pops. There’s no standout scenes.

There are a few imponderables, however: Why is the ice *sinking* in the beginning of the movie? (The novel and early script explain it) Where did the minefield come from (In the novel we’re told it was laid by the people trying to stop the sea view). Why was the mess hall full of people when they were at battle stations, under attack, and under-crewed? If everyone in the world knows where the Seaview is going, why aren’t there lots of ships there waiting for 'em?

The status of the Seaview is never made clear. It’s initials are “USOS,” which seems to indicate “United States Oceanographic Survey.” It’s clearly not in the Navy, but it’s repeatedly identified as a “Federal Ship with a Federal Crew,” but it’s also not in the Coast Guard. It’s said to be a research vessel, and most of it’s missiles are for aeronautical research, but what’s the atomic bomb for? Why all the torpedoes? Why the hand grenades? There’s some mention made of an oceanographic organization, presumably like an aquatic NASA, but, again, why the guns?

I toyed with the notion of comparing and contrasting this movie with the series and novelization it spawned, but it’s late and I’m tired, and I think I’ll save that for another day. I will mention a couple things, though, before going to bed.

1) Every. Single. Special Effects Shot from this movie was reused in the TV series, most of them ad nauseam. A number of the crew shots were re-used. If you’ve seen the show, the movie instantly feels like a repeat.
2) This movie was essentially remade as an episode of the series in the second season, making it the only franchise I’m aware of in which 18 months worth of episodes happen *before* the film that started it all.

In the end, the film is best summed up by an old roomate of mine after I forced him to watch the movie in 1991 when he said, “Well, it’s got submarine battles and weird disasters and giant squid attacks, so I feel like I *have* to like the movie, but I kinda’ don’t, and I feel guilty about that.”

And so do I.

I’m told you can watch it free online here http://freeonlinemoviesforum.com/voyage-to-the-bottom-of-the-sea-1961-t1... but I can’t get it to work. If you’d like to see this one, you’ll probably have to netflix it.

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