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‘20,000 Leagues’ resurfaces on DVD

Times Staff Writer

Director Richard Fleischer never thought he would work for Walt Disney. His father, animator Max Fleischer, was Disney’s greatest competitor, having created such beloved cartoon characters as Betty Boop and Popeye.

So Fleischer was shocked when he received a call half a century ago from Disney asking him to direct the studio’s lavish live-action adaptation of the Jules Verne adventure, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 28, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Popeye creator -- An article in the May 20 Calendar misidentified animator Max Fleischer as the creator of Popeye. Cartoonist E.C. Segar created the character; Fleischer Studios adapted it to the screen.

“It was really stunning to me,” Fleischer recalls. “I went up and met him and he offered me this giant picture. It was a great opportunity for me. I said, ‘You do know who I am?’ He said, ‘Of course, that doesn’t make any difference to me.’ ”

Fleischer, though, was curious why Disney decided to “select me of all people to direct this picture?” Disney, says Fleischer, told him he had seen a picture he had directed called “The Happy Time” with Bobby Driscoll, the child star who had appeared in several Disney films, including “Song of the South” and “Treasure Island.”

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“He said, ‘Anybody who can make an actor out of Bobby Driscoll has got to be a great director.’ Those were his exact words!”

Fleischer, though, felt obligated to talk to his father about working for his rival. “It made me uncomfortable knowing the feeling between the two men was so strong,” he recalls. “So I called my father who was in New York at the time. I told him what the story was. He said, ‘You got to take the picture. It’s too important to you and give Walt a message for me. You tell him that he has great taste in directors.’ It was very nice.”

“It was just a great experience,” says Fleischer, 86, of making the film. “It was wonderful working with Walt. He was very helpful. I was very comfortable dealing with him. I know I had heard stories about Walt being a tough producer, but I didn’t find that in any way.”

Today Disney is releasing a lavish two-disc DVD set ($30) of the 1954 film, filled with extras, including commentary, deleted scenes and a lengthy documentary. And tonight, Fleischer will introduce a screening of the film, sponsored by Disney and the American Cinematheque, at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood. Extras from the DVD also will be screened.

Shot in the then-new widescreen process of Cinemascope for $5 million (it was one of the most expensive films at the time), “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” revolves around a professor (Paul Lukas) who sets out on a ship to investigate reports about a sea monster destroying ships in the Atlantic Ocean just after the Civil War.

When the monster sinks his ship, the professor, his aide (Peter Lorre) and a colorful, accordion-playing harpoon master (Kirk Douglas) all survive the disaster. They soon discover that the monster is actually a futuristic submarine, the Nautilus, commanded by the brilliant, mysterious and ruthless Captain Nemo (James Mason).

One of the highlights of the film is the climactic sequence in which a giant squid attacks the sub during a torrential storm at sea. As originally shot, that scene wouldn’t have scared anyone; it was shot with a different squid and took place at sunset with a calm sea. The DVD has footage without sound of the disastrous first attempt at the squid attack -- the creature looks incredibly cheesy with the wires clearly visible.

“That sequence was a mistake really from the first time we tried it,” Fleischer says. “Everything that could be wrong about a sequence was wrong. The squid didn’t work very well. It had virtually no animation, no movement and you had to fake all the fighting. The stuntmen, if they held on to the squid arms too long, they fell off.”

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The squid also was filled with a material that absorbed water, “so it became heavier and heavier and the stuntman couldn’t lift the arms up to fight with them.”

Disney, Fleischer recalls, made a rare appearance on the set during the filming of the ill-fated sequence. “He looked at it and tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘What are you doing? A Keystone Kops comedy?’ I explained the situation and he said, ‘Why don’t you quit this sequence? Leave it. Go and do another scene and that will give me a chance to take this problem over to Disneyland. Some of my [special-effects] geniuses will go to work and see if they can give you a real important squid.’ ”

(The film ended up winning an Oscar for its special effects and for best art direction-set decoration.)

The new squid, says Fleischer, was “wonderful. We decided the next thing that it needed was some excitement and the writer, Earl Felton, came up with of doing the storm at night. We had big wind, sea and waves; we had the whole schemer. It was very effective. I always say I am the only Hollywood director that has ever fired a giant squid!”

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The production also had difficulties with Lukas, who had won the best actor Oscar for 1943’s “Watch on the Rhine.” “He was a wonderful actor, really perfect for the role, but he was very touchy,” says Fleischer. “By the time we finished, he vowed to sue everybody on the picture. I think the problem was he was embarrassed for himself because he couldn’t remember his lines. It caused a delay on the picture. I think he had to blame somebody for it, other than himself.”

Lorre, though, “kept everybody laughing and happy. He was very lively on the set. It was a great atmosphere in general except for Paul Lukas trying to figure out how to sue everybody.”

Not only was the film expensive to make, says Fleischer, logistically it was very difficult. “We went all over the Caribbean,” recalls the director. “Doing scenes under water takes time. The lighting is all done with natural light-sunlight. When the clouds came over we just had to stand there on the bottom of the sea and wait for it to clear. If it didn’t, we would have to surface and go back to our barge and then go back down again when the clouds would go away.”

After “20,000 Leagues,” Fleischer directed such films as “The Vikings,” “Compulsion” “Fantastic Voyage,” the original “Doctor Doolittle” and “Soylent Green.” He acknowledges that “20,000 Leagues” did bolster his career, “but not as much as I expected would have happened. Walt Disney had such a reputation at that time that the general public -- this is my theory -- thought he did everything on the picture. So that in this film, the director got somewhat overlooked because of Walt Disney’s overpowering strength. Everybody thought he did the picture. But it wasn’t so.”

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Screening

What: “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

When: Today, 7:30 p.m.

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Where: El Capitan Theatre, 6838 Hollywood Blvd.

Admission: $7 fostudents and seniors; $10 for adults

Contact: (800) DISNEY6 for tickets


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