20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

120, 122 or 128 mins | Adventure, Fantasy | 23 December 1954

Writer:

Earl Felton

Cinematographer:

Frank F. Planer

Editor:

Elmo Williams

Production Designer:

John Meehan

Production Company:

Walt Disney Productions
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HISTORY

The opening title reads: "Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ." The film opens with the image of a curtain rising onto the first page of Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea . The text on the page serves as a foreword describing the “monster on the loose” attacking ships at sea. Contemporary news items and studio press materials provide the following information on the production: Although HR reported on 25 Jan 1951 that independent producer Sid Rogell was readying 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at General Service Studios, that film was never made and there is no indication that Rogell was involved in the Disney production.
       Contemporary studio press materials provide the following information on the production: More than a year before shooting began, Walt Disney and his staff labored over the pre-production challenges inherent in filming Verne’s complex and technically sophisticated tale. Production developer Harper Goff was working on plans for the Disneyland amusement park when Disney asked him to consider some marine life footage, shot by the California Institute of Technology’s Dr. McGinnity, for a documentary film in the studio's "True-Life Adventure" series. While developing the storyboard, Goff “daydreamed about the Verne story” and sketched the scene from the novel in which divers explore the ocean floor. Although Disney liked the sketches, he was under the impression that M-G-M owned the rights to Verne’s novel; however, he soon discovered that the rights were available for purchase, having passed to first the King Brothers and then to a smaller company.
       In 1952, the studio began work on an animated version of Verne’s novel, but ... More Less

The opening title reads: "Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ." The film opens with the image of a curtain rising onto the first page of Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea . The text on the page serves as a foreword describing the “monster on the loose” attacking ships at sea. Contemporary news items and studio press materials provide the following information on the production: Although HR reported on 25 Jan 1951 that independent producer Sid Rogell was readying 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at General Service Studios, that film was never made and there is no indication that Rogell was involved in the Disney production.
       Contemporary studio press materials provide the following information on the production: More than a year before shooting began, Walt Disney and his staff labored over the pre-production challenges inherent in filming Verne’s complex and technically sophisticated tale. Production developer Harper Goff was working on plans for the Disneyland amusement park when Disney asked him to consider some marine life footage, shot by the California Institute of Technology’s Dr. McGinnity, for a documentary film in the studio's "True-Life Adventure" series. While developing the storyboard, Goff “daydreamed about the Verne story” and sketched the scene from the novel in which divers explore the ocean floor. Although Disney liked the sketches, he was under the impression that M-G-M owned the rights to Verne’s novel; however, he soon discovered that the rights were available for purchase, having passed to first the King Brothers and then to a smaller company.
       In 1952, the studio began work on an animated version of Verne’s novel, but by late fall of 1952, Disney, encouraged by the success of his British live-action films, decided to make 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea his first American-made live-action feature. Goff then worked for months on the design of the Nautilus , which Verne had envisioned, many years before any submarines existed, to have a battering-ram snout, electric “eyes,” metallic ridges, a tail, a diving chamber, atomic power and a lavish salon. Six scale models were constructed before Disney accepted the design. The final submarine set was 200 feet long and twenty-six feet wide and featured a tubular interior based on the Forth railway bridge in Scotland.
       Goff, who did not belong to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), was not allowed to receive the credit “art director” or “production designer,” and as such was not considered eligible for an Academy Award. Goff recounts in the studio press materials his disappointment with Disney for refusing to fight IATSE, calling it “a very traumatic experience.” The union insisted on the hiring of an affiliated art director, and as a result John Meehan was engaged to carry out Goff’s designs. Meehan was also responsible for the design of the San Francisco and Abraham Lincoln sets.
       Another challenge for the crew was to bring to life Verne’s vision of diving suits that would allow men to walk on the ocean floor. After months of research, Disney’s diving technicians created a suit that combined a diver’s helmet, a rubber suit and an aqua-lung that piped air through tubes into the diver’s mouth. The suit weight 225 pounds and was considered the first practical, self-contained diving suit ever invented. In addition to the suit, the film’s divers wore long underwear, wool socks and leather gloves.
       During the pre-production stage, Disney worked with writer Earl Felton to adapt Verne’s novel into a more viable film story. Among the changes made to the original was the portrayal of "Captain Nemo" as an aggressive, remorseless hunter of warships, rather than the novel’s self-defensive killer. In addition, the novel portrays "Prof. Pierre Aronnax," "Conseil" and "Ned Land" as Nemo’s observers, rather than his prisoners; and has the submarine run on electronic power, instead of atomic. Felton commented on the changes in studio press materials, stating, “We counted on the fact that nobody ever read the book very carefully.”
       Beginning on 11 Jan 1954, the fifty-four-man crew shot exteriors on location for eight weeks, including work in Negril, Jamaica (standing in for New Guinea and the cannibal’s island, where hundreds of native Jamaicans portrayed cannibals), Nassau in the Bahamas, Lyford Cay on New Providence and Death Valley, CA. More than twenty tons of equipment, six ships and thousands of captive fish were utilized. Special equipment was devised, including an Aquaflex underwater camera and a system to enclose the standard Mitchell camera in a watertight case, making it a self-contained unit for the first time. Problems with shooting underwater abounded, as underwater communication was almost impossible and the unit had only fifty-minutes of air per dive, which involved a twenty-minute diving and resurfacing procedure. In Lyford Cay, underwater photography had to be completed between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., before cloud coverage obscured the sunlight. Director Richard Fleischer carpeted the ocean floor with hemp to prevent clouds of sand from marring images. To minimize time underwater, each scene was first diagrammed and rehearsed on land.
       On 2 Mar 1954, location shooting wrapped, and on 10 Mar the crew returned to the Disney studio in Burbank. There, a third sound stage was built specially for the film, containing a tank that ranged in depth from three to twelve feet. Press materials report its size variably as either 90 x 165-feet or 60 x 125-feet. The only scene to be shot in its entirety in the tank was the one in which Ned and Conseil discover buried treasure. During this time, second units shot exteriors in San Diego, the Twentieth Century-Fox backlot and the Universal lot (where the San Francisco sequence was photographed).
       The “giant squid” sequence was shot during the week of 10 Mar 1954, but it appeared unrealistic, prompting Disney to order the footage reshot, despite the fact that this caused a six-week delay. Second-unit director James Havens solved the problem of visible wires by deciding to set the fight during a rainstorm, thus obscuring wires among the wet, chaotic background. The final squid model weighed two tons, had eight forty-foot tentacles and two fifty-foot feelers, and required twenty-eight crew members to control. On 19 Jun 1954, principal photography was completed.
       Charles Boyer was originally cast as Aronnax, but withdrew. Press materials discuss the tension on the set caused by Paul Lukas, who at various times threatened to sue Fleischer, Disney and Kirk Douglas, and fought with longtime friend Peter Lorre. According to Fleischer, “When he couldn’t remember his lines, he’d blow up at somebody.”
       20,000 Leagues Under the Sea marked Disney’s first CinemaScope film. According to the Var review, the film’s final cost was $5 million. It was also the first Disney feature to be released by its recently created, in-house distribution arm, Buena Vista. According to press materials, both RKO and Paramount wanted to release the film, and on 14 Sep 1954, HR announced that the deal for RKO to release the film was near completion, but Disney eventually chose Buena Vista in order to retain more of the film’s profits.
       Disney assigned a crew to shoot a “making-of” documentary about the film’s production, which was then broadcast on the Disneyland television show on 8 Dec 1954. According to modern sources, that hour-long promotional program, entitled “Operation Underseas,” was referred to in the industry as “The Long, Long Trailer,” in reference to its use as a publicity program. The documentary won Emmys for Best Individual Program of the Year and Best Television Film Editing (Grant Smith and Lynn Harrison).
       Modern sources add Harry Harvey ( Shipping clerk ) and Herb Vigran ( Reporter ) to the cast. The film won Academy Awards for Art Direction (Color--John Meehan and Emile Kuri) and Special Effects (Walt Disney Studios), as well as a nomination for Film Editing (Elmo Williams). It was the most financially successful Disney film to that time.
       Verne’s novel had previously been filmed by Universal in 1916, directed by Stuart Palin and starring Allan Holubar and Dan Hanlon (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20 ). The author had written a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1874 entitled Mysterious Island , and Columbia produced the adaptation in 1961, directed by Cy Enfield and starring Michael Craig, Joan Greenwood, and Herbert Lom as Nemo (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70 ). Press materials note that Mason turned down the opportunity to star in the 1961 picture. In addition, the success of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea inspired many other film adaptations of Verne novels, including Twentieth Century-Fox’s 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth , which starred Mason (see below); Columbia’s Valley of the Dragons in 1961; Twentieth Century-Fox‘s Five Weeks in a Balloon in 1962 with Red Buttons (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70 ); and several others.
       20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was re-released in 1968, 1993 and 1999. According to a 15 Sep 1993 DV article, by 1993 the film’s original color had faded to the extent that that year's re-release featured a restored print made from a new master, with a re-mixed sound track. More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
American Cinematographer
1 Mar 54
p. 126.
American Cinematographer
Jun 1954
pp. 282-83, 308.
Box Office
18 Dec 1954.
---
Daily Variety
15 Dec 54
p. 3.
Daily Variety
5 Sep 1993.
---
Film Daily
15 Dec 54
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jan 1951
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
24 Apr 1953
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
5 Feb 1954
p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter
19 Mar 1954
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
14 Sep 1954
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
15 Dec 54
p. 3.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
18 Dec 54
p. 249.
New York Times
24 Dec 54
p. 7.
New Yorker
23 Aug 1993.
---
Variety
3 Feb 1954.
---
Variety
15 Dec 54
p. 6.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Walt Disney Production
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
2d unit dir
Asst dir
Asst dir
PRODUCER
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Underwater photog
ART DIRECTORS
Prod developed by
Art dir
Sketch artist
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATOR
Set dec
COSTUMES
MUSIC
VISUAL EFFECTS
Eff photog
Spec processes
Spec eff
Spec eff
Mechanical spec eff
Sculptor
Miniature painter/Tech
Matte artist
MAKEUP
Makeup and hairdressing
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod mgr
Bahaman tech adv
Tech consultant
Diving master
Consultant
Consultant
STAND INS
Stunt diver
Double
Double
Double
Stunt man/Double
Stunt man/Double
Stunt man/Double
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Vingt mille lieues sous les mers by Jules Verne (France, 1870).
AUTHOR
MUSIC
"Toccata" and "Fugue in D Minor" by Johannes Sebastian Bach.
SONGS
"Whale of a Tale," music by Al Hoffman, lyrics by Norm Gimbel.
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Release Date:
23 December 1954
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 23 December 1954
Production Date:
11 January--19 June 1954
Copyright Claimant:
Walt Disney Productions
Copyright Date:
23 September 1954
Copyright Number:
LP4463
Physical Properties:
Sound
RCA Sound Recording
Color
Technicolor
Widescreen/ratio
CinemaScope
Duration(in mins):
120, 122 or 128
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
16972
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

In San Francisco in 1868, a mysterious beast attacks ships at sea, causing trouble for shippers who cannot find any crew members willing to risk setting sail. Prof. Pierre Aronnax, a famous French marine scientist and scholar, arrives in San Francisco with his aide-de-camp, Conseil, on their way to the Orient. Upon discovering that no ships will sail through the South Seas, Aronnax resigns himself to waiting. After he consents to reporters questioning him about the sea monster that such a beast could possibly exist, he is approached by U.S. Naval official John Howard, who offers him transport to Asia on a warship that will search for signs of the monster. Intrigued, Aronnax accepts, and boards the Abraham Lincoln along with the skeptical commander, Farragut, and brash harpooner Ned Land. The crew is energetic, but after more than three months pass without sighting the beast, morale lags, and Farragut declares the expedition a failure. Just then, they spot a ship being attacked some miles away and rush to the site where, too late to save any of the sailors, they fire cannons upon the attacking “monster.” They are helpless against its battering approach, however, and within minutes, the Abraham Lincoln sinks. Aronnax and Conseil manage to stay afloat on a piece of sail, but are soon debilitated from the freezing waters. Finally, they spot a submarine, the Nautilus , and climb aboard, not realizing that it is the “monster” that sank their ship. Below deck, they are shocked to discover a lavish salon, fueled by electric power and richly furnished. Through the massive porthole, Aronnax witnesses an undersea burial attended by men in full ... +


In San Francisco in 1868, a mysterious beast attacks ships at sea, causing trouble for shippers who cannot find any crew members willing to risk setting sail. Prof. Pierre Aronnax, a famous French marine scientist and scholar, arrives in San Francisco with his aide-de-camp, Conseil, on their way to the Orient. Upon discovering that no ships will sail through the South Seas, Aronnax resigns himself to waiting. After he consents to reporters questioning him about the sea monster that such a beast could possibly exist, he is approached by U.S. Naval official John Howard, who offers him transport to Asia on a warship that will search for signs of the monster. Intrigued, Aronnax accepts, and boards the Abraham Lincoln along with the skeptical commander, Farragut, and brash harpooner Ned Land. The crew is energetic, but after more than three months pass without sighting the beast, morale lags, and Farragut declares the expedition a failure. Just then, they spot a ship being attacked some miles away and rush to the site where, too late to save any of the sailors, they fire cannons upon the attacking “monster.” They are helpless against its battering approach, however, and within minutes, the Abraham Lincoln sinks. Aronnax and Conseil manage to stay afloat on a piece of sail, but are soon debilitated from the freezing waters. Finally, they spot a submarine, the Nautilus , and climb aboard, not realizing that it is the “monster” that sank their ship. Below deck, they are shocked to discover a lavish salon, fueled by electric power and richly furnished. Through the massive porthole, Aronnax witnesses an undersea burial attended by men in full diving suits, the likes of which have heretofore been unknown to man. Ned has also managed to find his way to the sub, and upon joining them, insists that they flee in his longboat. Just then, however, the Nautilus ’s captain, Nemo, spots the trio inside the ship and instructs his crew to capture them. They are brought before Nemo, who, recognizing Aronnax’s name, decides to save him but drown Ned and Conseil. Aronnax surprises Nemo by choosing to die with his comrades rather than share in Nemo’s treasures of knowledge, and to test his loyalty, the captain allows the three men nearly to drown before saving them all. He then calls them in to dinner, which consists of such delicacies as unborn octopus and milk of sperm whale. Ned and Conseil are disgusted, but Aronnax appreciates Nemo’s ingenious ability to live completely off the fruits of the sea. Nemo then allows them to join a “hunting expedition” to harvest natural materials from the ocean. Ned and Conseil sneak off to explore a sunken ship, upon which they discover buried treasure. When Ned tries to sneak the jewels back onto the ship, they are attacked by a shark and Nemo is compelled to save them. Back onboard, the captain rebukes Ned for bothering with jewels, useless on the Nautilus except in the hold, where they serve as ballast. Later, Aronnax, who is eager to learn all he can from Nemo, scolds Ned and Conseil for angering the captain, but Ned asserts that he wants only to steal some of the treasure and escape from “the madman.” Aronnax instructs Conseil to watch over Ned, who is secreting jewels in a homemade guitar when he is spotted by Nemo’s barking pet seal, Esmerelda, and must flee. Meanwhile, Nemo, eager to share his discoveries with someone who can appreciate them, reveals his nuclear-powered engine to Aronnax. When the professor urges him to share his miraculous knowledge with the rest of the world, Nemo states that the world is uncivilized and would only use the power for evil. One day, Nemo takes Aronnax ashore on the island of Rorapandi, where he shows him a secret slave camp and reveals that he was once among the men forced to mine minerals to be used for weaponry. He and his crew escaped the island, Nemo explains, and fled to their new home, the isle of Vulcania, where he built the Nautilus and invented all of its machinery. Back on the sub, Nemo confines the trio to their quarters and then, after playing Bach on his organ, attacks and sinks one of the slave ships. Horrified, Aronnax tells Nemo that no inhumanity could be dreadful enough to justify mass murder. Nemo replies that he kills a few slavers to save thousands of future slaves, and reveals that his former government imprisoned him to learn his secrets about nuclear power, eventually torturing his wife and son to death. Soon after, Conseil reads Aronnax’s diary and suggests to the professor that he is growing too sympathetic to Nemo. After Aronnax retorts that Nemo is a genius who must be brought back to civilization, Conseil convinces Ned that they must band together in secret to get away. When Conseil tells Ned that the ship is headed to Vulcania, the harpooner schemes to read the navigational plans and form an escape plan. Snooping through the forward deck, they are forced to hide in Nemo’s cabin, where Ned befriends Esmerelda and discovers a map painted onto the wall. Later, he throws out Nemo’s specimen collection in order to use the bottles to send S.O.S. messages, hording the specimen alcohol for future enjoyment. One day, the Nautilus runs aground on a reef near the shore of New Guinea. When Aronnax refuses to join Nemo ashore, protesting his murderous impulses, Ned and Conseil ask for permission to explore the nearby island. There, they ignore Nemo’s warnings and attempt to escape, only to be chased back to the ship by native cannibals. Nemo uses electric currents to repel the natives, then imprisons Ned. Soon after, the crew spots a warship, and because they remain grounded on the reef, the Nautilus is hit, the explosion freeing them from the rocks. Ned’s cell is flooded, but he manages to escape while Nemo is forced to submerge the ship farther down than ever before. A giant squid soon attacks the ship, and when Nemo resurfaces the boat to battle the beast, Ned harpoons the squid, saving Nemo’s life. Back inside, Ned, horrified at his actions, gets drunk while Nemo sneers at Aronnax’s diary depiction of Ned as a hero. The two argue, Aronnax insisting that Nemo still believes in the basic goodness of humanity and the captain dismissing the professor’s “gullibility.” As the ship soon nears Vulcania, Aronnax has almost convinced Nemo to reveal all his secrets when they are ambushed by warships, responding to Ned’s S.O.S. Nemo, desperate to destroy everything on the island before the intruders discover it, goes ashore and sets a nuclear explosion. Upon returning to the ship, he is shot in the back, but manages to steer to safety. In his salon, the dying Nemo announces that this will be the Nautilus ’s last dive, and his men prepare to die with him. Aronnax begs him to reconsider, but Nemo merely promises that when the world is ready for his secrets, they will be rediscovered. Ned breaks free from the guards and resurfaces the submarine, allowing him, Aronnax and Conseil to race to a lifeboat. Inside, Nemo collapses, struggling to the porthole to watch Vulcania explode into a mushrooming cloud. As Aronnax, safely on the open sea, watches the Nautilus and its inhabitants sink, he remembers Nemo’s assurance that his inventions will one day resurface. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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