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Mondays with Ray Harryhausen: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

While classic monster and “creature” features can sometimes struggle in the face of the graphics and visual effects of contemporary Hollywood, it’s impossible to completely dismiss these works. Artist and general effects wizard Ray Harryhausen broke new ground in cinema and showed filmmakers just where movies could take us. These films brought fantastical lands and mythical beasts to life, many of which had previously been relegated only to the imagination.

This month, to celebrate Ray Harryhausen’s 101st birthday, Ticklish Business will be taking each Monday in June to celebrate his work and showcase his legendary talent. This week, we’re starting with the 1953 monster film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms follows the progression of events when a supersized dinosaur wakes up after an atomic test and proceeds to terrorize New York City. Paul Hubschmid, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway and Kenneth Tobey co-star in the movie. Eugene Lourié directs the film from a script by Lou Morheim and Fred Freiberger.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms comes at the cusp of the monster movie resurgence which hit marquees in the 1950s. To add some historical perspective, King Kong premiered in 1933 and Mighty Joe Young followed in 1949. This film hit U.S. theaters in July of 1953 while Gojira (Godzilla) would fully revolutionize the monster movie sub-genre in 1954. 

Ultimately, a great many of these works follow a fairly standard narrative structure. There’s a strapping male lead, there’s always a cute girl (sometimes she’s even a scientist!) and usually there’s another scientist or doctor (often of the paternal variety). This film brings all the usual hallmarks in the casting with respectable results. While no one performer really has a tremendous amount of narrative lifting or challenging emotional work, none give bad or chuckle-worthy performances either. In fact, the presence of Cecil Kellaway should hint to the quality of the acting– the man is never “not good”. It doesn’t matter the role.

Paul Hubschmid cuts an interesting figure as Professor Tom Nesbitt, the catalyst for everything happening in the narrative. A look over Hubschmid’s filmography shows The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to be one of only a handful of Hollywood roles for the largely unknown actor. Interestingly, Hubschmid was Swiss by birth and worked far more regularly in Europe, raking up more than 100 credits in German cinema.

Meanwhile, Hubschmid appears opposite Kenneth Tobey. While Tobey’s star persona is now synonymous with monster movies, this role was an early one for the actor. He’d been appearing on-screen since 1945, but most of those efforts were bit parts or uncredited roles. His fortunes changed with a named role in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye in 1950 and in 1951 he landed the part which would undoubtedly stand as the most important in his career when he played Captain Patrick Hendry in The Thing From Another World. In fact, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is Tobey’s monster movie follow-up to the 1951 sci-fi classic (the only film separating the two was the 1953 noir Angel Face). 

Tobey is a bit under-utilized this time out. While (as mentioned earlier) all the performances are completely serviceable, his work in The Thing from Another World and in the 1955 feature It Came from Beneath the Sea let him shine in leading roles. He very much takes a backseat to Hubschmid this time around. Though, keep an eye on him in the finale for a quiet, but powerful bit of acting. He hits it out of the park.

By far and away though, the most memorable aspect of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms is Harryhausen’s creature design. The monster is brought to life through an intricate blend of miniatures and stop motion camera work. Unlike some of the clumsy costume effects often utilized in other movies of the same era, the art in Harryhausen’s work shines brilliantly on-screen. The texture and the intricacy in the dinosaur’s movement and facial expressions are completely handcrafted and it’s a fascinating thing to watch. In fact, it is a thing of beauty and I would argue these movies become more essential as the effects in Hollywood grow more computer based and the humanity in this work fades into the glossiness of technology.

In fact, by the end of the movie, the creature itself is as big of a character in the narrative as the humans. The dinosaur might not pack the same sympathy and likability as King Kong or Mighty Joe Young, but as the interesting (and surprisingly harrowing) final scene plays out, it’s easy to feel the pangs of tragedy in the ending. These films are never quite as simple as good/bad or good/evil. Reality, and in turn the narrative of these films, are a lot more complicated than that. These creatures really aren’t the “bad guys” and the filmmakers know this. Ultimately, the biggest contributor to building this complexity is Harryhausen’s special effects. The beauty and ultimately the humanity in his creations are really what separates his work from the more infamous creature features hitting screens at the same time.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is an early entry into Ray Harryhausen’s filmography. A study of this film through a contemporary perspective shows just how important this movie is to not only Harryhausen, but cinema as a whole. Not only is the still young artist already functioning at the peak of his powers, but in that, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms at the same time plays an important role in the evolution of science fiction which occurred throughout the 1950s. While it may not be quite as well known as 1954’s Godzilla, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms stands alongside the legendary films for developing and expanding the creature feature as we know it today.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is available to purchase, here!

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