When Dinosaurs Walked the Soundstages
Since the down of cinema man, Hollywood has tried to pass off lizards, puppets and men in monster suits as dinosaurs. Now that we have Jurassic Park to look forward to, it's a good time to look back at the long line of movies designed to part a 10-year-old from his allowance.
Movers and Shakers, the 1985 satire about the movie industry, opens with the unveiling of a statue of a Tyrannosaurus rex that is to stand, permanently, in the midst of the film studio that spent a fortune on the dinosaur, but never made the movie it was built for. That neat gag--Hollywood worshipping the proverbial film that got away--is even funnier than screenwriter Charles Grodin could have intended: while he was obviously inspired by the megamillion-dollar giant ape that was constructed, but scarcely used, in the 1976 remake of King Kong (in which Grodin starred), Movers and Shakers happened to come out the same year as Disney's fateful Baby...Secret of the Lost Legend. Before Baby, dinosaurs had always been put on film by any on-the-cheap method at hand--stop-motion animation of clay miniatures, lizards, guys wearing monster suits. The core audience--kids of all ages--certainly didn't care; they were only too happy to suspend disbelief at the first sight of what was obviously someone's pet Gila monster. But Baby went the costly E.T. route--little people inside teensy dinosaur suits--which resulted in a phenomenally expensive brontosaur family that couldn't pass muster on a Disneyland ride, let alone in closeups in a movie. Grodin had it right: surely Disney's execs ended up wishing they'd erected a statue of a young bron-tosaur instead of making a movie about one.
This year, there's plenty of "state of the art" chat about the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, and while we wish the filmmakers well--we'd love to see the T2 of T. rex movies--we thought it was time to take a glance back to see how dino movies of yesteryear look today.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959)
If the casting of '50s teen idol Pat Boone as a singing scientist isn't enough to convince you that this flick has very little to do with the Jules Verne novel of the same name, then consider that he and fellow scientist James Mason take the plunge, as it were, with aging beauty queen Arlene Dahl and a duck named Gertrude in tow. The movie only gets goofier from there. As our stars travel deeper and deeper into the planet, they encounter such natural wonders as gaily colored plastic rocks, a forest of giant mushrooms (where Dahl whips up hot mushroom porridge), and an underground grotto (i.e., a swimming pool on a soundstage). Now, every dinosaur movie ever made provides some reason for an attractive bimbo in the cast to strip for the camera, but here it's Pat Boone who flings off his garments to have a subterranean shower.
"If I had my gun, we'd have fresh meat for dinner!" exclaims one member of the expedition. No, he has not just caught sight of Boone; he's talking about the appearance of what you'll recognize immediately to be a pet-store lizard that has been photographed so that it seems to loom ominously over the entire grade C cast. It's hard to believe that the moviemakers thought they could pass this silly reptile off as a dinosaur, but in fact they bought out an entire pet shop, as if more lizards might be mistaken for more convincing. It gets worse. Someone decided that the lizards would seem less tame if they were decked out with huge, fan-shaped fin contraptions along their backs--but these only make them look like a fleet of prehistoric Cadillacs.
While wandering around the lost city of Atlantis later in the film, the cast finds a friendly-looking Gila monster masquerading as a dinosaur. What kind, you ask? Well, as crack scientist Pat Boone observes, it's "a monster!" When this beastie attacks Mason--you may not want impressionable children to finish reading this sentence--by wrapping its long tongue around his leg, the moviemakers pull out all the stops and show us a shot from inside the lizard's mouth as the tongue finds its target. You assume that this, the first point-of-view shot from a dinosaur's tonsils in movie history, is as daffy as any movie could ever get, but you are wrong. When Atlantis is destroyed by an earthquake, the "monster" dino returns, its skin now inexplicably bright red (a "special effect" you can get at home by rolling your Gila monster in paprika), only to loiter, none too menacingly, on a perch--looking exactly like Snoopy on a tree limb pretending to be a vulture. Fortunately, before it can tongue the stars to death, it's killed by a falling papier-mache rock followed by a lava flow.
"If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe it!" gasps a bad actor after seeing "two huge, ugly dinosaurs!"--and these are the very words you'll say after watching this film. This low-rent island epic is perhaps the cheapest dino movie ever made outside of Japan, so it's really mind-boggling that the bad-beyond-belief cinematography, by the once great lensman of The Magnificent Ambersons, Stanley Cortez, is in costly CinemaScope.
The cheesy (but pricey) tricks begin when the underwater ocean scenes which open the picture get the film's two bimbos, Ward Ramsey and Kristina Hanson, in a state of undress before we've even met their characters--any flimsy excuse will do to get them into the briny deep, so they can find two frozen dinosaurs.
Then Ramsey, who's building a harbor on the unspoiled isle, decides to haul "the critters up and put 'em on the beach." His foreman, Paul Lukather, warns, "We can't build a harbor around two dinosaurs!"--seemingly unaware that the filmmakers couldn't build this movie around 'em, either.
The script of Dinosaurus!--which posits that dinosaurs and a prehistoric man, frozen for a million years on the bottom of a tropical ocean, can be brought to life with a jolt of lightning--features dialogue like no other dino film. Ramsey remarks, about the villain, "I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw--a dinosaur!" Then there are those dinos, a Tyrannosaurus rex and a brontosaur, both apparently made out of children's clay, by children. Lousy stop-motion photography of none-too-convincing miniatures has long been the standard way to get the illusion of dinosaurs into a movie, but here we're talking about prehistoric animation: the bus the clay T. rex steps on and crushes is made out of clay, too. To keep from having to spend money on too many elaborate special effects like those, Gregg Martell, the film's recently thawed-out cave man, gets lots of screen time as he bumbles around the island, learning to throw pies and trying on women's clothes like some sort of cross-dressing Encino Man.
The movie's "big" set piece is well worth the long wait. In it the leading lady wanders through the jungle in a cocktail dress and attracts the unwanted attention of the T. rex. When the monster grabs her--actually it's a clay figure that just acts like her-- and heaves her up into the air, cave man Martell rushes in and hits the dino on the foot, which forces it to drop the lass--no! yes!--into his waiting arms. (We can only assume that this act of gallantry happens because he wants to try on Hanson's dress.) How does she thank him for saving her life? In a nearby cave, she cooks his dinner, then sings "Brahms's Lullaby" to him.
It all ends, as serious films exploring the thematic issues of modern man paving over the past in the ill-gotten name of "progress" must, with the T. rex battling a steam shovel.
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966)
Everything you need to know about this film's quest for authenticity can be gleaned by glancing at the first names of the actresses who play the film's prehistoric women: Yvonne, Martine and Raquel. Yep, this is the dino flick that made curvaceous, expression-free Raquel Welch a movie star, by giving her a chance to demonstrate her one real talent: her ability to walk, while soaking wet, toward a movie camera. Clad only in big hair, white lipstick and a fur bikini, Welch catches the eye of cave man John Richardson.
From the moment she enters the movie, walking, wet, toward the camera, the usual rules of dino films are reversed; here, dinosaurs must fight for screen time while the movie's bimbo pouts and poses and hogs the camera. When Welch saves Richardson's life--he's nearly squashed by a big sea turtle that wouldn't have been out of place in Doctor Dolittle--they fall in love, apparently drawn together because they're such ideal (or is that Mattel?) human replicas of Barbie and Ken dolls.
Welch takes him to live with her tribe, the highly evolved Starlet People--though no mention is made of it, we can see that they've already discovered eyeliner, peroxide and tanning beds--where she teaches him how to spear fish. A good thing, too, for only seconds later he must use these skills to harpoon a Tyrannosaurus rex that's every bit as man-made as Welch is rumored to be, but considerably more lifelike. Richardson's technique is worth mentioning here, in case you're ever in the same situation. First, you lie down on your back with a spear, wait until a dinosaur happens to walk over you, then take aim, stab it, and wave it around in the air: voila, dino kebab!
Later, the lovers are separated when another T. rex battles a triceratops, but they're reunited in time for Welch to stage a hilarious cat fight with cave gal Martine Beswick. When this escalates from hair-pulling to torch-waving, you can't help thinking, "Now, this is what fire was discovered for!" When Welch teaches Richardson the joys of frolicking photogenically in a lake--so she can again stroll, wet, toward the camera--she attracts the attention of a giant pterodactyl, who carries her off and tries to feed her to its offspring. Happily for us, the pterodactyl drops Welch into, yes, the ocean, so she can again walk, wet, toward the camera.
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