Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Glutton for Punishment: UNDERWATER!

by JB
I first learned of this semi-obscure film from one of those “bad movies” books written by critic Michael Medved and his brother Harry. Underwater! was better than I thought it would be!

But it is still very very bad.

Oh, sure—those other, “store-brand” movie websites will tell you all about the new Underwater with Kristen Stewart (which, by the way, is an exciting good time.) I am here to give my readers the skinny on the 1955 Underwater! with Jane Russell.

People used to find this sort of thing entertaining.
Underwater! was a Howard Hughes production made back when he was still 1) alive, 2) calling the shots at RKO Pictures, and 3) obsessed with Jane Russell. The film was set to star Lori Nelson, an up-and-comer under contract at Universal. But maybe it finally occurred to Hughes that if he gave the role of Theresa to the famously shapely Russell, he could showcase… um, RKO’s two most popular stars… in both a bathing suit and widescreen Technicolor. So Russell got the lead and a much smaller part was written for Nelson, who had already signed her play-or-pay contract. I’m also guessing that many actors in Underwater! appreciated receiving their weekly salaries in spite of not working for more than a year, because the production was plagued by delays and difficulties; Lori Nelson blamed the film for stalling her career by effectively keeping her off America’s movie screens for almost eighteen months.

As I learned in that Medved Brothers’ book, this film had one of the most bizarre press screenings in movie history. Hughes arranged for an underwater screening for more than 200 members of the international press under the crystal-clear waters of Silver Springs, Florida. Journalists were encouraged to don swimsuits, face masks, and scuba equipment and watch the film submerged.
Believe or not, some did! According to Bob Thomas of The Milwaukee Journal, “What did we see? Darn little. A bunch of jokers thrashing around in the water. Some weeds floating by. A bored catfish staring at crazy humans […] And you couldn’t hear the dialogue. RKO technicians had carried on about installing speakers above and below the water. But all you could hear was glug, glug.”

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Devil-may-care scalawag Dominic Quesada (Gilbert Roland) and the rather bland Johnny Gray (Richard Egan) believe they have stumbled upon a sunken Spanish galleon that may contain a life-size solid gold statue of the Madonna encrusted in precious gems. Johnny convinces his wife Theresa (Jane Russell) that mortgaging their houseboat to finance a salvage operation could net them untold riches. They are joined by Father Cannon (Robert Keith), a local expert on church relics; and Gloria (Lori Nelson), a good-time girl who gets the rag-tag bunch of adventurers a great deal on a cool salvage boat. There are also ne’er-d-well shark hunters who might be pirates, sharks that eat adventurers and pirates, underwater earthquakes, and the bends.

As anyone who has seen enough movies that feature underwater footage can tell you, it takes gifted filmmakers to make up for the fact that such footage almost always looks like it was shot in slow motion. Even the exciting underwater footage in Thunderball is helped immeasurably by crack editing, an exciting score, and lots of action in the frame involving water sleds, bullets whizzing by, and fistfights.
Underwater! contains none of those things. It’s as if the filmmakers believed that their beautiful, wide-screen footage alone would be enough to sell the picture. The drama in this film is tepid at best. Leading man Richard Egan is one of the blandest actors I have ever seen. He just seems happy to be there; in many scenes, he seems to think he is simply being photographed for a JCPenney summer catalog. Joseph Calleia shows up halfway through as a local shark hunter who chews the scenery and seems to have evil motives up his sleeve, but nothing ever comes of it. He and his band of cut-rate cut-throats are dispatched pretty quickly. We are shown that lovable rogue Dominic has potentially life-threatening problems with the bends, but nothing ever comes of it. We are introduced to a possibly juicy romantic subplot, but nothing ever comes of it. Do you see the exclamation mark in the movie’s title? That implies that, when we sit down to enjoy Underwater!, the filmmakers and cast will treat us to an exciting and entertaining time… but nothing ever comes of it.


Much of its hour and forty minutes is given over to lazy, tedious talk [….] Even the underwater action is on the lethargic side, with the actors merely swimming around in wreckage and giving out bubbles instead of words. This sort of pantomimic business soon becomes obvious and dull, especially since the sub-aqueous setting is mainly a hive of barnacles.” — Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, February 10, 1955

(The phrase “a hive of barnacles” could only have been written by Bosley Crowther.)
“Watching this movie is like listening to one of those soundscape CDs – Relaxing Sound of the Sea, or some such, that you put on when you want to fall asleep.”
— Nick Prigge, Cinema Romantico, May 6, 2016

(Relaxing Sound of the Sea is the fourth studio album by my favorite EMO band, Hive of Barnacles.)

“It's a lean and mean film that gets you into its action instantly and then doesn’t release the pressure until the ending credits.”
—Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com, January 20, 2020

(Oh, sorry, that’s for the Kristen Stewart movie Underwater. Hi, Brian!)

“To a modern viewer, a lot of elements that made Underwater! impressive and noteworthy in 1955 feel a bit worn, perhaps even...dare I say...dated. The captivating underwater cinematography would become routine over the next decade (Thunderball, anyone?) and the relative low-key vibe that most of this film embodies seems representative of a speed that might today be considered slow.”
—Heath Holland, Cereal at Midnight, January 30, 2020

(I know Heath—he’s such a genuinely nice guy that this is all the disdain he can muster for Underwater! Heath actually liked the film.)

FILM TRIVIA: This film single-handedly revived the fortunes of the song “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” which had fallen off the charts in 1951, but got a new lease on life when Perez Prado was featured in Underwater! playing a new cha-cha arrangement of the song with his cool band. Jane Russell and Gilbert Roland dance to it in a nightclub scene that precedes all the sea-going hijinks. This reminded me that I love when certain non-musical films from the 1950s and 1960s stop dead in their tracks for a musical number. Perez Prado is the best thing in Underwater!, just as Fran Jeffries’ impromptu ski lodge rendition of “Meglio Stasera” is the undisputed highlight of the 1963 comedy The Pink Panther.

Underwater! seems like a movie studio science experiment designed to prove that a middling, melodramatic plot could be added to endless travelogue footage of the Caribbean to yield a picture that was somehow more than the sum of its parts. In the case of Underwater!, the result is less, much less. Yes, the scuba footage is impressive, but because none of the actors did their own diving, we are left with a film in which the leads are played (swum?) by stunt people for more than half the running time.
God-damnit, when I pay good money at the box office to watch Richard Egan posing for the new JCPenney catalogue, I want it to see the real Richard Egan, not some water-logged wannabe! Also, look at these low prices for breezy summer separates!

Because the film suffered so many production delays (lost and stolen equipment, shooting location changes, script re-writes) three OTHER diving adventure films beat it to movie screens in 1953 and 1954, stealing all of Underwater!’s “underwater” thunder. 20th Century Fox’s Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Universal’s 3-D Creature from the Black Lagoon may have sated audiences’ appetites for watery thrills before Underwater! ever dog-paddled onto theater screens in 1955.

Kino Lorber’s new transfer is beautiful, but to what end? It’s clear that this film has never looked this good since it was first released—that was an unexpected bit of pleasure. I hate to say this, but even I, the self-professed glutton for punishment [TM], cannot imagine ever watching this film a second time. So here we have a disc designed to provide a beautiful, eye-popping spectacle for every single viewer for whom their first screening… will also be their last.



  1. I got a pull quote! Yes, I liked this one WAY more than you did. I think the setting, cast, and premise are genuinely engaging. I don't think it's great, but definitely a solid studio picture for my retro-loving tastes. Jane Russell is always watchable, and I'd listen to Richard Egan read the phone book with that noir-stained voice of his. Isn't the underwater press screening you mentioned the one where Jayne Mansfield was hired to help promote the film (even though she's not in it) and also the one where she "accidentally" lost her top?

  2. Why, yes. This angered Jane Russell and she left her own premiere in a huff. Actually, it took a minute and a huff.