Sunday 12 June 2011

Dinosaurus! (1960)

Director: Irvin S Yeaworth Jr
Stars: Ward Ramsey, Paul Lukather, Kristina Hanson and Alan Roberts

Irvin S Yeaworth Jr has an interesting filmography. Almost entirely remembered today for making The Blob with Steve McQueen in 1958, he directed six films all told, though his first wasn't really his, as he was responsible only for the new footage that expanded a 1945 church backed scare movie called Twice Convicted into a new 1956 picture with the seemingly cut short title of The Flaming Teenage. Then it was The Blob, a huge success which paved the way for more B movies: 4D Man and Dinosaurus! Finally he returned to Christian scare movies, releasing a pair of them in 1967: The Gospel Blimp and Way Out. The former deals with spreading the message of Jesus by blimp, complete with bible drops; while the latter deals with heroin addiction, told from the point of view of an addict. Both the first and last of his films are available today from Something Weird Video, which provides a pretty good idea of the sort of material they contain.

This one opens like an ambitious B movie, shot in colour and in CinemaScope, on location on the 'tropical paradise' of St Croix in the Virgin Islands, which we first see in widescreen underwater footage. Unfortunately that's all the CinemaScope that TCM screened, so I'm stuck with pan and scan. It was also apparently intended to star Steve McQueen, but he had been difficult to work with on The Blob so Yeaworth didn't even bother to hire him. What it turns out to be is a film for kids, less comparable to The Blob and more to Son of Godzilla. The star is nominally Ward Ramsey, a new actor to film who appears somewhat like a cheap B movie Cary Grant. However, given the tone the story takes, the audience who would find this film most magnetic are young enough to focus instead on Alan Roberts, certainly the most watchable actor in the film but one who would be about to turn twelve when Dinosaurus! premiered. He retired in 1962 at fourteen.

As befits a story pitched at kids, it's a pretty threadbare outline of a plot that could easily have been a Saturday morning cartoon. Bart Thompson, cast from the standard hero mould, gets to blow things up for a living. If I understood things right, he's expanding the harbour on an exotic island by setting off underwater explosions off the coast. He's good at his job, of course, but he's not too good at putting up the required warning signs, so his girlfriend Betty Piper, cut from the cloth of the cute and sassy but non-working perpetual victim, heads to shore in her speedboat in a gap between explosions. We can see why she's popular: as soon as Bart gets to her boat to tell her to get out of the blast zone, she strips down to a bathing suit and dives into the water. She's aiming to retrieve the cooler that the last blast knocked into the water, but she faints in shock at the sight of an underwater monster instead. Of course she looks good in wet hair and a towel.

Given the title of the film, technically meaningless but probably the best thing about the picture, you'll surely be shocked to discover that the underwater monster is a dinosaur, frozen solid in unnaturally cold water. Actually there are two dinosaurs, a tyrannosaurus and a brontosaurus, or at least that's what I think they were aiming at. 'Boy, this is terrific!' cries young Julio, as Bart's men bring the frozen monsters up to the surface. Julio is the endearing local boy who serves as the link between all the characters. He constantly hangs out with the working party, especially Dumpy, the big jovial bulldozer driver who is trying so hard to be Alan Hale that it hurts. His guardian is the villain of the piece, Mike Hacker, a surprising name for a foreign villain who looks rather like a sophisticated Torgo with a white suit and two stupid henchmen. What's more, and here's where the tone is totally betrayed, Julio befriends the brontosaurus and the neanderthal.
Yes, there's a neanderthal too. Hacker finds him first, washed up on the beach in the wake of the dinosaurs, because of another of Thompson's mistakes. He makes a lot of those. He tells Betty that he wouldn't trust Hacker as far as he could throw him, immediately after entrusting him with a message to the Smithsonian about the creatures he's found. Then he brings the beasts up onto shore before the Smithsonian can send anyone down to do it properly (even if the message had got through). He takes Betty out for dinner instead of watching his new prizes thaw out. He even tasks T J O'Leary, your run of the mill drunken Irishman, with guarding them. This enables Hacker to wander around unnoticed, and find then stash the frozen neanderthal. It also means that the drunkard is the only one around when the dinosaurs get hit by lightning in the inevitable storm, wake up and wander off. Amazingly T J gets carried off instead of eaten, but let's not nitpick.

There are precisely no surprises in this movie and every plot detail is telegraphed, but in a way that would be gloriously suspenseful to kids young enough to believe everything they see. How young they would need to be to buy into some of the events that unfold here I really don't know, but it's pretty young. This is the sort of movie where the heroine can trip over a tree root, get picked up by a tyrannosaurus and be rescued by a caveman who whacks its foot with an axe and sticks his hands out to catch her. It's the sort of movie where Julio can join a fight between a brontosaurus and a T Rex by throwing rocks at the latter. The brontosaurus is his friend, you see, who gives him rides. Yes, the caveman rescues him too. The ending presages the iconic battle at the end of Aliens, so there is imagination at play here, though not much. This isn't The Land That Time Forgot. This is the Saturday morning cartoon version, remember.

In fact some of the writing demonstrates an acute lack of imagination. For instance, Hacker is blackmailing the local barmaid, because that's what villains do to cute island seƱoritas, but this one is sensitively named Chica. Names aren't this film's strong point: she works at the island cantina, which is called, you guessed it, Island Cantina. Perhaps the most clever moment is when O'Leary, the drunken Irish guard, falls asleep on watch while reading a Rip Van Winkle comic book. The only moment of true honesty is when Hacker breaks a bottle on the bar to prepare to fight Bart, only to cut himself. It's something that should happen almost every time such a scene crops up but somehow never does. That's what I'm going to remember this film for, that and the antics of Gregg Martell as the neanderthal. He looks pretty believable in the role, somewhat like a midget Lou Ferrigno, but his antics are too wild to be mere fantasy.
Martell plays it deadpan throughout, as do the rest of the cast. It's the sincerity of actors like him and Alan Roberts that make this picture joyous instead of awful. The highlight of the entire film for me is without doubt when Julio first encounters the living brontosaurus. 'Remember, you're a friendly vegetarian like it says on the cereal box,' he tells it. The dialogue is jaw droppingly bad but young Roberts delivers it with such sincerity that it's both touching and hilarious all at once. Martell gets a few scenes that come close too, stealing routines from the Marx Brothers. It's the scenes with both of them that go the furthest down this road though. Julio finds the caveman in Betty's mother's kitchen and, taking the whole thing in stride, shows him where the food is, then teaches him how to eat with a fork. 'No, caveman! It's not right to kill!' he shouts as the bad guys show up. So he uses a pie. No, I'm not kidding. Even Alan Roberts can't avoid laughing at points.

We have to look for this sort of magic because the traditional sort just isn't here. The stop motion animation is capable, hardly Harryhausen quality but worth watching nonetheless. The dinosaurs are far cuter than they deserve to be though: a T Rex is not supposed to grin. The rear projection work is terrible though, down at the level of the writing. Fortunately the acting is capable and, as I mentioned, sincere. Ward Ramsey, the star, debuted in this film, then made thirteen more, but he was only credited in two of the last nine. Maybe by then he took the hint and retired. Leading lady Kristina Hanson was appearing in her first movie too, building on an episode of Bachelor Father the year before. She only made one more film though, no less than nineteen years later, called Over the Edge, instead going back to her day job as a sixth grade teacher. The romance is best explained by highlighting that she gets more screentime with the caveman than her lead.

Fred Engelberg, who plays the villainous Hacker, was on his last film, though he only made four. Wayne C Treadway, a chubbier Alan Hale as Dumpy, was on his last film too, though it was his first credit in fourteen movies. He's capable but without Hale's character. Luci Blaine, who plays Chica, is perhaps better than any of them, but this was the only picture she made. Only two of the cast were really experienced. Paul Lukather, who plays Bart's sidekick Chuck, was a mainstay in film and television for decades, becoming a notable voice actor in the eighties and expanding successfully into video games in the nineties. Gregg Martell was a veteran extra by this point, in over fifty movies thus far, a dozen of which I've seen. I didn't recognise him though because he mostly landed uncredited bit parts. These are perhaps the sort of people you'd expect to be in a kids' film masquerading as a B movie to sell tickets. Be warned: watch it before you turn seven.

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