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Journey to the Center of the Earth

(1959) *** Unrated
129 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Henry Levin. Cast: James Mason, Pat Boone, Diane Baker.

/content/films/4321/1.jpgThe fabulist Jules Verne meets the era of Cinemascope in the sublimely silly big-screen adventure Journey to the Center of the Earth. Only this 1953 outing could bring together such a motley collection of screen talent: director Henry Levin (The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm), screenwriters Walter Reisch (Ninotchka) and Charles Brackett (Sunset Boulevard), notoriously prickly composer Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo), and a cast ranging from James Mason to top-billed(!) Pat Boone. Boone gets his name over the title in part because his Cooga Mooga Productions got behind the picture, which was released by 20th Century Fox.

Having already starred in Disney's hit Verne adaptation 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Mason was a more-than-obvious choice to play absent-minded Scottish professor Oliver Lindenbrook, ceremoniously knighted in the film's opening scenes (his students humorously serenade him with "Here's to the Prof of Geology," whipped up by Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen). One student in particular, Alec McEwan (Boone), foregoes the customary apple and gifts his teacher with a volcanic rock (he knows the way to Lindenbrook's heart).The rock turns out to be a clue leading Lindenbrook and McEwan to follow the path of an Icelandic scientist to astonishing discoveries at the center of the Earth. Exclamation point.

The expedition means Alec leaving lady love Jenny (Diane Baker), Lindenbrook's niece, at home, but in Iceland, the boys recruit hulking a Aryan Icelander named Hans (UCLA student Peter Ronson) and find themselves saddled with Carla (Arlene Dahl), the newly widowed wife of a scientist who planned to race Linenbrook to the earth's core. Don't breathe a sigh of relief yet: while the good-humored Carla proves both a valuable addition to the team and a love interest for Lindenbrook, a competitor still lurks in the shadows: the dastardly Count Saknussem (Thayer David). (Neither Carla nor Saknussem appear in Verne's novel, which also somehow left out Hans' beloved duck Gertrude.)

Journey to the Center of the Earth is the sort of movie that promised incomparable thrills and, for its time, delivered them—with a wink, some cheesecake, and some beefcake—to the parents of enthralled children. The state-of-the-art special effects have, of course, dated, but they do hold up, in their corny way. Kids will still drop their jaws at the dimetredons and giant chameleon, and sets like a quartz grotto remain impressive pieces of production design and art direction. Carlsbad Caverns convincingly plays its role, and Herrmann's score contributes invaluable mystery and menace. In short, this Journey to the Center of the Earth is fun for the whole family, and—instead of the 2008 3-D version's Brendan Fraser—offers James freakin' Mason, who can pull off urbane and befuddled at the same time.

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