Tuesday, October 7, 2014

One Million B.C. (1940)

Audiences are taken back in time to the ages of the dinosaurs and other wild prehistoric beasts in Hal Roach’s production of One Million B.C. Hal Roach’s studio was known for its vast array of comedies from the likes of Laurel and Hardy to the Our Gang shorts, but here the studio has taken its chances in dabbling in more legitimate movies. In One Million B.C. audiences are shown images they had never seen before in a special effects filled prehistoric, adventure/fantasy that would be a real gamble for the comedic filmmaker. The picture would also turn back the clock to the earlier days of the cinema, as movie magic allows the story to play out without the need to intelligible dialogue.

One Million B.C. is a prehistoric fantasy about a young caveman and his adventures in survival with two different tribes who share two very different values. In a quick prologue where an anthropologist begins to explain the story told through carvings on a cave wall the story begins to turn back the sands of time to this story of pre-evolved man. Set in a prehistoric time where long before the use of modern language all characters speak in incoherent grunts and noises. We follow Tumak (Victor Mature) a young caveman on his journey from a shunned member of the brutal, warrior centered “Rock Tribe” to meeting and learning the softer and more nurturing “Shell Tribe” where he is cared for by the young cavegirl Loana (Carole Landis). We watch as Tumak learns from observing others to grow as an individual. He too grows into a great protector as he battles great beasts that threaten man. Tumak struggles with not being unselfish due to his upbringing which leads him to being banished by the Shell Tribe, but when travesty of a massive volcano eruption and more carnivorous beasts threaten both tribes Tumak helps to prove himself a hero for both people, uniting them with the love he has for Loana as a new age will begin from the uniting of the survivors.

Considering the time this picture was produced One Million B.C. is a fantastical feature to behold. Giant creature and/or fantasy films were not very commonplace, at least outside of B-features, but here is a fairly sizable feature film that would run in major theaters. Here producer/director Hal Roach goes above and beyond his normal production quality to make a picture that was meant to wow audiences as they are transported to another time and place were man was not the dominate species on the planet.

Originally intended to be directed by D.W. Griffith, famed for being one of the first great directors in cinema history especially for his epic The Birth of a Nation, the long since dismissed filmmaker would leave his chance to direct this feature when he had a creative disagreement with Hal Roach. Griffith was brought aboard by Roach for work on both producing the dramatic adaptation of Of Mice and Men as well as directing this feature. Griffith, keen on building characters in the film, was told not to expand on the story for the feature which he felt overly limited him from his creativity upsetting Griffith and prompting his leaving the picture very early in production.

Roach would still attempt to attach Griffith’s name to the project, but Griffith would demand his name removed from the production. This would be the last project Griffith would have worked directly on in his career. Hal Roach along with his son, Hal Roach Jr., would pick up the directorial duties and finish the picture. Claims state that very little of Griffith’s work is left in the finished picture although it is sure his influence must have still played a role in the look of the film.

Prehistoric lovers Loana and Tumak.
For production the feature was casted with complete unknowns. Both of its stars Victor Mature and Carole Landis would not have been names familiar to any audience member anywhere. Mature was a discovery by Roach off the stage of the nearby Pasadena Community Playhouse with little work on screen before being thrusted as the main character in this feature. Actress Carole Landis was a high school drop out with dreams of breaking into show business who had worked in movies only as an extra or in very small bit roles before being casted as Loana the cavegirl.

Carrying over from his performance in Of Mice and Men is Lon Chaney Jr. who appears as Tumak’s father and leader of the Rock Tribe, Akhoda. Chaney took on his father’s name to gain himself more notoriety. His performance here as the caveman tribe leader is less effective than that of Lenny in Of Mice and Men, but he would be under a good amount of make-up for this role, which aided in the idea that Chaney Jr. was destined to play roles in make-up most of his career. Chaney attempted his own make-up job, for which his father did as well to much pride, but Roach had him cut back considerably to allow his normal human features to still come through.

Look out for that giant iguana! Academy Award nominated SFX.
The film would do well enough critically to be nominated for two Academy Awards, for best special effects and best musical score. Apart from forced perspective, rear-screen projection, mate painting they was a heavy use of live animals used to represent prehistoric fanciful creatures. Along with many iguanas Hal Roach used pigs, alligators, and elephants dressed with added appendages, costumes, horns, fins or other such additions glued to their skin to make then appear primeval. For that time they were close to being some of the better special effects for such a style of movie. For a number of years the special effects of this picture would be sold and used in other features, because of its higher quality, helping Hal Roach to make more money for his production years after its release.

Retrospectively from a contemporary point of view the special effects are obvious and quite ridiculous. For its time the filmmaking was clever and the editing of such segments aided in the attempt at realism, but with time the magic of these effects would wear off very quickly as the animals are very unconvincing as “beasts.” Due to the treatment of these animals in the film some overseas audiences would view an edited version of the film to remove moments were the filmmakers were obviously very cruel to their animal actors. At various moments the animals are buried under large piles of dirt or thrown down holes for the drama of the scene, which would have harmed any living creature. These scenes were trimmed down to meet the animal right needs of the overseas markets.

For its time One Million B.C. was actually a visual stunning picture, despite its overly simple point-and-shoot directing nature. With time the film quickly dated itself in quality and would become more laughable than magical to audiences. In contemporary audiences there are found cult followers of the feature who seek out classic special effects features.

The picture is a very polarizing movie to watch as one can be very much interested in the film, or see it as very unwatchable for its lack of special effect quality when compared to the great advancements in cinema technology. Most minds might share in the mindset of the latter point of view, but it was a picture produced in a different age of filmmaking with the techniques that were available at the time. It did not plow new ground in the world of cinema, but remains to manifest what could be done at that time for movie makers. The story would, however, still remain strong in the minds of Hollywood enough to produce a remake in 1966 popular for the appealing and lightly wardrobed female lead in Raquel Welch.

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