Hailed in the original theatrical trailer as taking 3 years to make and costing $3 million dollars (ha!), Underwater! was also RKO's first Superscope film - the studio's own anamorphic process branded by some critics as ‘the poor man's CinemaScope. The embarrassing irony is that rival studio United Artists beat RKO to the theatres by releasing their own star-studded Superscope romp, Vera Cruz, in 1954 – a move that kind of neutered all the hoopla RKO later poured into the Underwater! premiere (said to have actually occurred underwater).
In 1955, producer/RKO studio Tsar Howard Hughes was nearing the end of his messy flirtation with filmmaking; in less than 10 years, he eroded the fortunes and stature of the minor-major studio by personally focusing on and tinkering with mediocre or outright awful projects (Jet Pilot, Vendetta, The Conqueror); he often caused budget overruns because of reshoots, musical-chair directors, or building new sets.
If Underwater! actually cost $3 million, none of that cash shows up on the screen. The interior sets are stagy, the lighting is hard and flat, the editing is rough in spots, and for all the publicity concerning co-star Jane Russell in a bathing suit, actual tease moments last for a few scant seconds; with few exceptions, her figure and assets are often positioned behind ship booms or baggy shirts.
Hughes spent a fortune supervising ad campaigns and designing bras for Russell, but Underwater! is mostly a cheat, and one wonders if director John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven), reduced Russell's exposure in the editing room just to raise Hughes' ire for being a bothersome presence, or perhaps he felt Hughes' boob obsession was not going to dominate the film, as tooted in the pre-release campaign art .
Underwater! has sufficient assets to make it a successful tale of treasure-hunting, but the variable production values and flaccid script worked over by three credited writers pretty much fail to deliver any excitement until the final reel, when Johnny Gray (muscular Richard Egan) and Cuban buddy Dominic (Gilbert Roland) rescue Johnny's pseudo-Cuban wife Theresa (Russell) from the wreckage of a 17 th century cargo ship before it snaps in half and tumbles down an abyss with its valuable cargo of gold.
The film was designed as mainstream escapism with the exotic ingredients of furniture babes (Russell, and pretty blonde Lori Nelson) and vivid underwater photography, and it's the latter that really impresses, given few films at the time designed whole sequences with practical lighting and elaborate sets.
The massive sunken ship is an impressive set, but its supposedly excellent condition after 300 years (we see Egan and Roland dive through encrusted but amazingly intact deck levels and pass floating barrels) makes no sense; in a preceding sequence, the divers visit the man of war ship that accompanied the cargo vessel, which has disintegrated to ghostly canons, now trained towards the ocean surface because all the wood has disappeared.
Then there's the quick deduction that relics found by the warship are accurately dated, the bizarro trust everyone has in Dominic after he ‘salts' the first wreck, and Dominic's hugely convenient luck in not only convincing babe Gloria (Nelson) to loan him her schooner, but become his girlfriend overnight.
The quartet of happy treasure seekers are also joined by a religious whiz, Father Cannon (Robert Keith), who periodically wears his formal black and white habit not out of duty, but to remind dumber audience members that he's a deeply religious man who will assumedly keep the treasure hunters on an even moral keel. Cannon's on again/off again wardrobe changes are completely insane in the humid Caribbean weather, and it's all part of the film's poor dramatic continuity, which reaches even sillier heights when the foursome go for an island picnic during a really bad storm. (While the lovers dance and chase each other along the shore, the terrible rear projection footage actually shows their boat being smacked around like a toy by Madre Nature.)
That Damn Song
Composer Roy Webb had the unenviable task of writing a dramatic score for the action and underwater sequences, as well as heavily applying instrumental variations of the film's theme song, that famously drippy, faux Latin confection “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White,” with its farting trumpet solos.
Like Webb's decent score for RKO's The Sea Chase (1955), every time the film stars share screen space, the love theme drones into gear, and it's heard again and again whenever a radio plays (said picnic). Gilbert Roland also whistles the song's intro bars throughout the film it's a cheap trick borrowed from The High and the Mighty, where star John Wayne whistles that film's shrill title theme ad nauseum, so audiences will remember to buy the single, and A.M.P.A.S. members will cast a decisive vote (which they did, bestowing the Best Music Oscar to composer Dimitri Tiomkin).
Curious Historical Antecedents
Whereas it was safer and economically easier to settle for dry tanks, optical effects, filters, and matte paintings, the desire to exploit current diving lighting and diving gear gives the Underwater! treasure searching sequences a striking modern feel – more so than Fox' own 1957 CinemaScope production, Boy on a Dolphin. Director Sturges and his cameramen designed the exploration scenes with some inventive reverse angles, and there's a lot of detailed footage as Dominic and Johnny tear away and discover goodies within the remarkably solid ship.
However, Johnny's smashing idea to hook the schooner's winch to ship's safe door and extract the gold stash from the wreckage ‘like a tooth' is stunningly boneheaded; the sequence yields plenty of chaos and structural carnage – great eye candy and sound design – but being in the hull of the boat as it's torn to pieces devalues the intelligence of the lead character a wee bit.
The concluding sequence, as well as the film's basic plot, will probably feel familiar to ocean treasure fans; whether author Peter Benchley was inspired by the film or felt he could improve on a decent core idea, the action finale is almost identical to The Deep (1977).
Benchley's uses the same idea of a fragile wreck perched on a ledge over an abyss, and he places his characters in the same kind of mortal danger, including pirates (modernized as drug dealers) fighting over the ship's treasure (revised as morphine ampoules), and deadly sharks poking through the vessel (which, in The Deep, ultimately cause some grievous bodily harm).
The makers of Underwater! wanted everything to end well, so no one dies, no one is seriously injured, a religiously devout pirate (!?!) becomes pivotal in fudging his captain's plan, and everyone gets a block of gold before parting ways.
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Jane Russell's prior Hughes-influenced films include Macao (1952), the goofy faux-noir His Kind of Woman (1951), and The Outlaw (1943). She also co-starred with Egan again in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956). Egan appeared in a number of high profile filmed for other studios, including Love Me Tender (1956), Slaughter on Tenth Avenue (1957), and A Summer Place (1959), but he's probably best known for his Fox films, which include Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), The Hunters (1958), and The 300 Hundred Spartans (1962) before moving into heavy TV work soon after.
Gilbert Roland also co-starred in Fox' underwater extravaganza, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953), but he also appeared in Budd Boetticher's underrated Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), and Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful (1952).
The Howard Hughes Legacy
Underwater! remains unavailable on DVD except as a Spanish release, which features a pinched Spanish dub track, as well as the original English audio mix. The source print shows wear and tear, and the full-frame image is a partially panned & scanned, chopping off significant hunks of peripheral information, of not seated characters.
The flat sound mix also reveals the significant amount of echoey ADR that was done for the dialogue scenes, including some sounds that convey dry, spatial depth in spite of being matched to underwater footage.
As the first (planned) Superscope production, Warner Bros. should assemble a deluxe edition for home video. That means not just an anamorphic transfer from the best available print with rich colours and clean sound, but a DVD with extras that address the film's silliness as well as its historical importance: a featurette on the widescreen format, which also leads into a concise profile of RKO's withering life under Howard Hughes; a gallery of publicity ephemera; a profile of Jane Russell as a Howard Hughes-groomed star; and a piece on the film's grating, flatulating theme song. Throw in an isolated score track, and you've got a winning DVD.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan