Podcast No. 0038: Going 20,000 Leagues to Uncover Jules Verne

Artwork by Elias Hale

This month on Dispodopolis, we discuss the 1954 Academy award-winning movie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. This is one of Ryan's favorite films, and it is long overdue for us to review this film. Walt Disney made some fantastic movies, and this is one of his' masterpieces. From a stunning cast to an amazing behind the scenes crew, Disney spent more money on this movie than on any preceding film. In 1954, this was well ahead of its time and spearheaded special effects into the 1980s. 20,000 Leagues surpassed most movies in technological achievement, and this would translate into the parks. But first, we discuss the unique literary works of Jules Verne.

Jules Gabriel Verne was a French novelist, poet, and playwright. Verne, along with HG Wells, laid the foundation of modern science fiction. Jules Verne's father was an attorney and wished for him to join his practice. While at the university, he fell in love with the written word. He wrote plays while a secretary for the Theatre Lyrique. But in 1857, He married and took a job as a broker in the Paris Stock Market. His responsibilities to support his family came first, but he continued to write in the evening. In 1862, Verne had a fateful meeting with Pierre-Jules Hetzel. Hetzel read and agreed to publish Verne's book, Five Weeks in a Balloon. It was an international bestseller. Because of the success of the book, Hetzel and Verne started a partnership. Verne would dabble in dystopian literature, but Hetzel rejected the direction. Hetzel wanted Verne to return to what was successful monetarily. Over the next 40 years, Verne would write over 60 works in the popular series Voyages Extraordinaries. Through his writing, Jules Verne would spark inspiration for countless tales. His unique views of the world opened up new avenues of complex dialogue and thought.

Durning Verne's most prolific and influential time, he wrote the six books that significantly impacted the future. They were the 1863 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon in 1865, Around the Moon in 1870, Twenty Thousand Leagues in 1870, Around the World in Eighty Days in 1873, and the Mysterious Island in 1875.

This time in Jules Verne's life was one of his most stable. Verne and his family settled in Amiens, France, during this time, and he purchased a yacht to sail around Europe with his family. Twenty years later, his life would drastically change. His mother and business partner passed away within a few months of each other, and he would return to the dystopian and pessimistic world views that plagued the crevices of his mind. He would continue to write until his death, and many of his works would be completed and published by his son posthumously.

He left us with some of the most inventive and rich storytelling that sparked the imagination of all that read his works, including Walt Disney. Disney Studios have adapted three of Verne's books. Two under the tutelage of Walt Disney and one within the new millennium. The second was the 1962 film, In Search of the Castaways, based on Captain Grant's Children, starring Hayley Mills and Maurice Chevalier. The last one was the 2004 film, Around the World in 80 Days, starring Jackie Chan, and the masterpiece 1954 film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which we will be talking about tonight.

20,000 Leagues movie poster from 1954.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was released on December 23, 1954, and brought in a box office of 28.2 million with a production cost of 4.3 million. The amount is roughly is the same budget as Mary Poppins, which was released ten years late. The 20,000 Leagues cast was an experienced crew, including Paul Lukas, Kirk Douglas, James Mason, and Peter Lorre. The cast is all men and stayed true to the story and period.

At the age of 59, Paul Lukas played Professor Pierre Aronnax. He started his career in Europe in 1915. He is known for Watch on the Rhine with Bette Davis, and the 1938 Alfred Hitchcock movie The Lady Vanishes with Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave (father of Vanessa Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave). 20,000 Leagues is his only role for the Disney Studios. Lukas plays Professor Pierre Aronnaz, a French scientist with an explorative and curious mind, that wants to get to the bottom of the monster that has been sinking boats in the Pacific Ocean and killing the men aboard these ships. He has a strong but naive personality that isn't afraid to explore and step over boundaries he isn't supposed to be crossing.

Kirk Douglas was 38 years old when he played Ned Land in 20,000 Leagues. He was born Issur Daneilovitch Demsky in 1916. Douglas' career started later than a typical Hollywood leading man because of World War II involvement. During the war, he spent four years in the Navy. He is known for Spartacus, Gun Fight at the OK Corral, and Lust for Life. Late in life, he reunited with the Disney Company and starred in a few Touchstone Picture films. In 1986, Douglas and Burt Lancaster starred in the movie Tough Guys together, and he starred with Sylvester Stallone in the 1991 film, Oscar. He was also in a few Miramax Films, the 1999 film, Diamonds, with Dan Akroyd and Jenny McCarthy, and It Runs in the family. With Disney Studios, he produced the 1983 film, Something Wicked This Way Comes, created by Ray Bradbury. In 20,000 Leagues, Kirk Douglas comes out swinging as Ned Land. He denies the existence of the monster and has many doubts until he sees it for himself. He is always looking out for himself but will stop to save those in need. Ned also will drag Conseil, the Professors assistant, into his plan to get rich.

James Mason on the set of 20,000 Leagues during the shot of the squid scene.

At the age of 45, James Mason plays Captain Nemo. He was born in England in 1909. Mason's career started in 1935 and worked up until he died, with three projects being released posthumously in 1985. Known for the controversial film, Lolita, along with A Star is Born with Judy Garland, and the Alfred Hitchcock thriller North by Northwest with Cary Grant, he stole every scene with his strong presence. Mason didn't work with Disney before this feature or after. Mason played the dark, mysterious and secretive antagonist, Captain Nemo. Captain Nemo trusts no man who hasn't pledged allegiance to him and thinks all men are maleficient and out for profit. Nemo had been a slave to arm's dealers and forced to work for them. Refusing to work for them and holding back information, they, in return, killed his family.

The man with the smallest role but most accolades to his career, Peter Lorre played Conseil at 50. He was born in 1904 in Hungary and started his career in 1929. He was placed in most movies to round out an impressive cast and bring balance to the screen. He is well known for the 1942 classic Casablanca with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, the 1944 classic Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant, and 1941 classic the Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor. The only other Disney Movie he appeared in was The 1934 Hollywood Party, a Hollywood star cavalcade. Lorre played Conseil, who is the professor's assistant and companion. Conseil watches out for the professor's reputation and warns him about how the journalists will twist his words. Conseil is influenced by temptations presented by Kirk Douglas' character Ned Land.

Next, we look at the crew that turned this feature into a masterpiece that holds up to this day. The first two men we look at are the writer and director. The scriptwriter is Earl Felton, and he translates Jules Verne's book for the screen. He was a long-time Hollywood screenwriter, but this was his only contribution to Disney. He mostly contributed to a lot of B movies. Walt Disney tapped Richard Fleischer, the son of Max Fleischer, who created the Out of the Inkwell and Betty Bop cartoons, to direct the film. Max Fleischer and his brother ran Fleischer Studios, which was in direct competition with the Disney Studios. In 1939, they also made a full length animated feature, Gulliver's Travels, to compete with Snow White. Walt got Max Fleischer's approval before hiring his son, Richard. Richard Fleischer also directed the Burt Lancaster futuristic feature Soylent Greens. Richard Fleischer is known for epic fantasy movies.

Peter Ellenshaw's matte painting of Vulcania in 20,000 Leagues.

After, we explore the film's creativity, focusing on the artwork, special effects, and animatronics. Peter Ellenshaw created the matte paintings used as backdrops. Today, they still exist, and Vulcania is seen at his son's house in the Disney Plus exclusive show, Prop Culture. It is on display in Season 1, Episode 2, that centers around the props of Tron. Harrison Ellenshaw, Peter's son, was the visual effects supervisor on Tron. Peter Ellenshaw also worked on Mary Poppins (yes, those beautiful rooftop scenes of London and the St. Paul's Cathedral), and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. There is a lot of nepotism at Disney Studios, and we're okay