Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Adventures in Blu-ray: One Million B.C. (1940)


The last Hollywood project that the legendary D.W. Griffith worked on before being ignored by the industry until his passing in 1948 was a fantasy-adventure film produced at Hal Roach’s “Lot of Fun,” One Million B.C. (1940).  Roach hired Griffith to produce that movie and his earlier Of Mice and Men (1939), requesting in a letter: “I need help from the production side to select the proper writers, cast, etc. and to help me generally in the supervision of these pictures.”

Roach would later avow that Griffith directed that some of the scenes in B.C., though accounts by some of the film’s cast members dispute this, noting D.W. only oversaw the screen and costume tests.  Mature even asserted as much, also adding: “They'd have been better off letting the old man direct the picture.  One day he just wasn't around any more.”  Griffith parted with B.C. because of a disagreement with Roach, and even though Hal advertised the picture in late 1939 with D.W. getting a producer credit, Griffith asked that his name be removed from the film.  (A more cynical person than myself might note that he wouldn’t blame David Wark for doing this…though the eventual success of B.C. might have opened a few doors for him.)

One Million B.C. is the latest Blu-ray release from our good friends at The Sprocket Vault, and I profusely thank them for providing me with a screener to sit down with a movie that I knew only by reputation.  Some members of the TDOY faithful might be more familiar with the remake released in 1966, One Million Years B.C.—which features Raquel Welch wearing a prehistoric ensemble that was apparently supplied (to borrow a Leonard Maltin joke) by Frederick’s of Bedrock.  While the original B.C. lacks the Welch factor, the lovely Carole Landis is certainly sufficient compensation…if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

A group of hikers stumble onto a cave, seeking shelter from a severe storm…and inside, an anthropologist (Conrad Nagel) who’s been studying the cave’s wall markings interprets for the travelers just what those odd scribblings mean.  He tells his audience a tale of two tribes, the Rock People and the Shell People; I’m guessing the Shell People handled the oil concession back then.  (The jokes are not going to get any better, people…so hang onto something solid and pray.)  Tumak (Mature), son of Rock Tribe leader Akhoba (Lon Chaney, Jr.), has a falling-out with his padre over who’s going to be the Big Swinging Dick amongst the Rock People, and he’s blithely kicked off a cliff by Dear Old Dad…only to awaken in time to be menaced by a mastodon (an elephant with tusks and wearing a fur coat).

Lon Chaney, Jr. and Victor Mature play father and son in One Million B.C. (1940)
Tumak is found by Loana (Landis) after floating down a river (the mastodon knocked the tree Tumak climbed into it); as a member-in-good-standing of the Shell clan, she calls upon her people to bring the still unconscious Tumak back to their cave where he is fed and looked after.  There’s a bit of a culture shock for Tumak when he eventually comes to; the Shells are a kinder, gentler people who take pains to look after their women, children, elderly, and infirmed.  In contrast, the Rock tribe takes care of Number One: the Rock hunters get the best of the feast, and the scraps work their way down to the “weaker” elements in the tribe.  (This is where “trickle-down economics” originated, by the way.)

Mature and Carole Landis
The Shell people introduce Tumak to their way of life (in turn, he helps the Shell children gather food and even rescues one from being attacked by an Allosaurus) but when he insists on going to great lengths to keep the spear he used in rescuing the kid in the Allosaurus incident (Tumak steals the spear…and a matching hammer) he finds himself banished from the tribe.  Loana, who’s got a thing for the big lug, insists on going with him; they eventually wind up back among the Rock people, where Loana’s gentleness initially perplexes a people accustomed to a philosophy of “I’ve-got-mine-you-get-yours.”  By the time the closing credits roll, the two tribes have achieved solidarity, after dealing with a volcanic eruption and those pesky dinosaurs heckbent on ruining a good time for everybody.

At the time of its release, One Million B.C. received mixed critical reviews.  The New York Times declared it “a masterpiece of imaginative fiction,” while Variety dissented: “There isn't much sense to the action nor much interest in the characters.”  I honestly tend to lean toward Variety’s view of the film; the storyline of B.C. is a bit thin (as is the direction by Hal Roach père et fils) and the special effects (Roy Seawright and Elmer Raguse’s work got an Academy Award nom, as did Werner R. Heymann’s musical score) a little (pardon the pun) primitive (though they are irresistibly goofy).  But the special effects footage from B.C. was recycled in scads of motion pictures to follow (Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, Two Lost Worlds, etc.) and the film itself was the #1 box office attraction of 1940 (when you exclude Gone with the Wind’s rollover receipts), so who am I to judge what puts derrières in theatre seats?

The presentation of One Million B.C. on this Sprocket Vault Blu-ray is first-rate for fans of this movie—here’s my suggestion on the best way to watch.  Since it’s not a dialogue-driven flick (Mature later joked “I had to 'ugh' my way through that picture”), put on B.C.’s subtitles (“Neecha!”) and listen to the informative commentary track by the man who cleans out the corral at 50 Westerns From the 50s, my film historian compadre (and former ClassicFlix colleague) Toby Roan.  The Blu-ray also contains an excellent photo gallery; you can always count on the folks at Sprocket/VCI/Kit Parker to go the extra mile for classic movie fans, and for them, One Million B.C. will not disappoint.

2 comments:

opticalguy said...

The effects footage in ONE MILLION BC turned-up in tons of film because it was shot as back-projection plates and not cut into the film. So people could buy prints of the effects footage and it was already designed for fitting with the foreground so those who reuse the footage will have a pretty good-looking composites. If they were shot in color they'd still be using the damned footage.

rnigma said...

The shots of gila monsters and lizards with pasted-on fins as "dinosaurs" had their own charm, though they weren't a patch on the Harryhausen dino-battles in "One Million Years BC." (And there is an outtake where a hand reaches in to keep one of the reptiles from running off-camera.)
Roy Seawright headed Roach's FX department (he later left for Eagle-Lion), and Elmer Raguse ran the sound department (remaining at Roach well into the '50s).
Lon Chaney, Jr. wanted to do his own makeup for the film, perhaps to show 'em what his dad taught him, but was forbidden by union rules.