TSFO Octopus Arm: Below the Sea (1933)

Below the Sea (1933)
Director: Albert S. Rogell
TC4P: 5/9
Appearance: Giant Octopus (of a species which doesn't occur naturally where this film takes place).

We get so used to modern special effects and buying the b.s. as to their effectiveness in filmmaking – when it really could not be further from the truth in most cases – that we tend to dismiss everything that came before. Modern audiences also like to scoff at what they consider “primitive” techniques. I would argue that those primitive techniques, however moldy they may seem to us, were often far more efficient at helping the director tell his story than many of the slicker, more recent attempts where the effects overtake the story itself. Overriding effects can make the films nothing more than mere spectacle, sapping any true feeling away from the proceedings (crappy studio-driven scripting, where the concern is more on pleasing focus group rather than let a storyteller spin his yarn, can also contribute in a major way). In an age where any action can be slickly rendered through the use of computers, filmmakers have to be careful to blend those effects to make us truly believe in them, i.e. those monsters are really in the same room and taking an emotional and physical toll on their victims.

Part of the charm in searching out old films that one has never seen before is discovering moments that not only look incredible to the immediate eye, even today, but also cause one to be amazed that such a moment or story was even attempted, especially in the earlier days of the cinema. Even if the moment doesn’t really work or looks kind of jerky or static, it still can seem amazing through the sheer chutzpah it must have taken to try it in those less technologically advanced days. Most often, these moments are in films already considered to be part of "the canon": the films we are told repeatedly since we are kids that they are great, and it just waits for us to discover those classics for ourselves. 

Early on in my youth, I felt this with Keaton and Chaplin, and then Fairbanks’ The Thief of Baghdad (Fairbanks films in general, really…). Murnau’s Sunrise, which as a teen I thought at first to be just another boring silent drama, until it slowly revealed its epic intensity and loveliness to me through some surprising 1927 camera effects. Orson Welles took me to another planet – not literally, but his films opened the breadth of the film canvas for me, and well, you should know the score there yourself. And need I mention how Strangers On A Train became my favorite Hitchcock film via its carousel-gone-wild sequence, which I was not anticipating at all, and which then burrowed itself into my mind the way only the most thrilling scenes can? To top all of this was that moment when I met King Kong – it wasn’t just special effects to me; then and now, the Mighty Kong lives fully in my mind and heart as a character as real as the human ones on the screen. To this day, my mind still reels over the balls it took to make that film, let alone to pull it off.

These films loom far, far above the film subject of this particular post, but that vague sense – that “Eureka!” moment of personal discovery – is precisely the same. Smaller, quieter, less ambitious films can have those moments too, and silent films and the films of the 1930s are top-loaded with these moments. They had to be exceedingly clever and resourceful to pull of these impossible scenes. To find them, you just have to know where to look. TCM makes it easier to find them than it used to be. Their Forbidden Hollywood series focusing on pre-Code delights contains scads of these types of scenes, and not all of them are hot girls in ultra-clingy '30s lingerie. (Those scenes certainly count, though, towards the same effect…)

Also on a special night on TCM, where Robert Osborne was concentrating in tongue-in-cheek fashion on films with octopi in them, came this tiny, extremely flawed but somehow entertaining sideshow: Below the Sea, a Columbia “B” from 1933, featuring Ralph Bellamy in the hero’s role getting all gooey – understandably – over that living doll, Fay Wray. The girl of my lifetime dreams, to be sure. The mechanics of the plot of Below the Sea are so ridiculous its not even worth going over it, but in a nutshell: a German U-boat laden with a chest of gold bars worth $3 million goes down in the sea during WWI, sunk by a Norwegian ship, but the German captain and his first mate survive. Crawling to shore, they make a map of the gold's whereabouts on the ocean floor, but in a stunningly done murder scene almost worthy of Hitch himself, the captain pushes the unsuspecting crewman off a cliff, which he bounces down satisfactorily (for the audience, not for the bouncing guy).

Years later, the captain teams up with the top deep-sea diver in the game, played by Bellamy, and through the auspices of a third party, a lusty wharf madam with a cache of coin, they make attempts to retrieve the gold. Only the captain will not reveal the whereabouts nor even show the map to anyone else. Through a series of double-crosses, Bellamy eventually forces the captain into a pact by stealing one-half of the map (why he doesn’t take the whole thing and do away with the obviously crazy German I don’t know, except that it would cause Bellamy to no longer perform effectively as the eventual hero of the piece, given the standards of the day).

And thus we see another attempt to retrieve the gold, this time on a ship owned by the family of a high society flibbertigibbet portrayed by Ms. Wray. Naturally, she falls for Bellamy, but only after making use of his diving equipment for her own photo shoots, including making him jealous by openly kissing her photographer inside the diving bell. Scenes of Wray scrambling to fit her tiny little self into his giant diving suit are also a delight. After the darker drama of the treasure hunters, this romantic interplay is, for once, a good deal of fun, especially as a build-up where the film is ultimately leading. Wray matches Bellamy jibe for jibe, and even dive for dive, with a very buoyant spirit unfettered by thoughts of inequality between the sexes. She simply is who she is and never apologizes for it.

I must be honest and say that, even though they were showing it on a night devoted to octopi, I was watching this film to hopefully catch an early film glimpse of a shark on screen. Sadly, there is none, but while I was expecting an octopus to show up at some point, I didn’t realize to what extent it would. Especially, in 1933 (even though though there are earlier films with octopus attacks). While Ms. Wray was also in that year’s King Kong, that film was made by Merian C. Cooper over at RKO, a man with serious drive and attitude, and I didn’t think that Columbia Pictures had it in them to try their own monstrous attack film in that same era.

While the octopus is not insanely huge, it is big enough to encapsulate fully the diving bell in which Ms. Wray and the photographer are trapped. The octopus wraps its arms about the instrument, and eventually causes the capsule to disengage from the air tubes that give continued life to its mortal occupants. I would judge that each of the creature’s arms, taking the size of the bell into consideration and the size of Bellamy fighting the creature in his suit, were anywhere from 12 to 18 feet in length. And while it is not a real octopus for the most part on screen, the methods used are still most effective in creating a bumbling, almost accidental though spooky menace.

But even menace brought about solely by the natural curiosity of a large cephalopod checking out an object which has dropped into its territory is automatically an outright attack by human terms. Especially terms as identified by human movie characters, who are often even more ridiculous than the real thing (but not always). South Park’s “It’s coming right for us!” hunting attitude regarding monsters and animals of all types is perfectly apt for this film, where the dive-suited Bellamy uses the only weapon at his disposal – an underwater welding torch – to do away with the massive creature. Honestly, it’s an approach I never would have considered – a knife or spear seemed most reasonable – but its spark-spitting underwater flashiness is certainly a far more visually intriguing sight than someone simply plunging a rubber knife into a rubber costume.

After a couple minutes of struggle, there is finally an explosion of – what? Ink? Blood? A combination of the two? Whatever causes the dark cloud to erupt around both diver and attacker, it is remarkable to see. The octopus collapses to the ocean floor, the tubes are reconnected to the bell, and the future of Bellamy and Wray as a couple is assured. At least, for a happy ending to the film.

And for me, regarding Below the Sea, this fight is one of those moments of which I spoke. Going into the film, I did not know that a movie combining these various elements even existed --- and here it was. Did I need a film in which a giant octopus molests a diving bell containing Fay Wray which ends in a breathless fight between a giant sea monster and a welding torch? Well... yes, I did, and I don't blame the octopus for putting the moves on the diving bell either. After all, it's Fay Wray.

And I am glad that my own stumble-footed, octopoid ways led me to wrap my tentacles around Below the Sea. I certainly won't let go of it.

RTJ

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