Were movie folk blind in 1960? We kids were so dino- crazy, ANY movie about dinosaurs would have cleaned up at the box office. We’re told that Jack H. Harris didn’t do badly with his third turn at the wickets, despite thunder lizards with a complexion of Jurassic Pla-Doh. The Romper Room dramatics didn’t offend my eight-year-old sensibilities, either. The movie had a caveman for comic relief and a klutzy villain that all but eliminates himself, so kid-safe it is even if people are being devoured alive. And hardly any kissing scenes, Ma.
KL Studio Classics
1960 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 83 min. / Street Date August 20, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Ward Ramsey, Paul Lukather, Kristina Hanson, Alan Roberts, Gregg Martell, Fred Engelberg, Wayne TreadwayLucita Blain.
Cinematography: Stanley Cortez
Film Editor: John A. Bushelman
Original Music: Ronald Stein
Written by Dan E. Weisburd, Jean Yeaworth idea by Jack H. Harris
Produced by Jack H. Harris, Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.
Directed by Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.
Dinosaurus! came into my life via a two-page ad in a Honolulu newspaper just before Christmas 1960; I remember thinking about the movie all through a Christmas Eve church service. Expert that I was, with my box of Marx dinosaur toys, I had already seen those highly educational dinosaur epics Gigantis, the Fire Monster and the 1960 The Lost World. But this thriller with the grammatically unsound title promised to be even better!
Parents probably considered the show a matinee kiddie babysitter perfect for parents to grab a fast lunch. For me, it was a serious drama. I identified with the little-kid hero, who owned the exact same dinosaur toys I played with. But I remember the audience laughing quite a bit — there’s a good chance that older smart-alecks took it as an unintentional comedy.
Several years later I noted that the photos of Dinosaurus! in Famous Monsters magazine didn’t look as good as I remembered … the Tyrannosaur seemed made of unfinished clay, and the Brontosaurus was rather lumpy. The word Brontosaurus was out of favor for a while, but the word in the swamp is that it may be coming back.
When I finally saw the movie again, a full forty years later, I learned some lessons about how small kids took in exciting entertainment: I had seen not the movie that Jack H. Harris made, but the dream movie in my head, where everything was perfect. True, the show was indeed tricked out in good color, and reasonable widescreen cinematography, courtesy of the great Stanley Cortez. But what had happened to the fantastic visuals I so clearly remembered? I experienced the same mild disillusion when I finally saw A.I.P.’s Master of the World as an adult.
Dinosaurus! now plays the same as 70% of TV in the 1950s — it’s aimed at a 12-year-old, with declarative dialogue suitable for the radio. In the Virgin Islands, gung-ho construction supervisor Bart Thompson (Ward Ramsey) is trying to dredge out a new harbor, fighting the obstructionism of the local strong man Mike Hacker (Fred Engleberg). Aiding him are his foreman Chuck (Paul Lukather) and his bulldozer operator Dumpy (Wayne C. Treadway). Dumpy has been mentoring little Julio (Alan Roberts), a dinosaur-loving kid who avoids Hacker, his abusive guardian. Julio’s dreams come true when Bart’s dredge strikes a pair of frozen dinosaurs. A lightning storm brings the giant creatures to life, along with a Neanderthal Man (Gregg Martell) who washed ashore nearby. Bart and Chuck organize the island to retreat to a colonial fort for safety. Hacker has plans to make a fortune from the caveman, who has ideas of his own — he befriends little Julio, and rescues Bart’s girlfriend Betty Piper (Kristina Hansen) from the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Since little Julio has toys of the leading dinosaur players, he sets the film’s moral tone: Brontosaurs are good, Tyrannosaurs are bad, and the caveman is both a slapstick comedian and a sentimental hero. Julio gets to ride on the back of the Brontosaur (I admit to having been enchanted by that fantasy) while Bart ends up going mano-a-mano with the ‘bad’ Tyrannosaur, using a steam shovel as his weapon of choice.
Dinosaurus! is a commercial sure thing, but it’s the least of the three productions by the Harris-Yeaworth team. Universal-International appears to have brought the pair in-house for this show, yet Harris retained full ownership. Director Yeaworth relocated from Pennsylvania to Hollywood for the shoot, pretty much abandoning the home-grown appeal of his The Blob and 4D Man. In place of quaint local talent, home-grown art direction, and ingenious Bart Sloane special effects, Dino! is a by-the-numbers assembly of location work, rear-projected dialogue scenes and actors standing around on a jungle set suitable for Gilligan’s Island. It’s professional, it’s slick, and its ambitions are simple.
Jack H. Harris really gambled on his taste for his first two pictures, luring young New York talent to Yeaworth’s mini-studio in the sticks: Steve McQueen, Robert Lansing, Lee Meriwether. Universal appears to have called the shots here, casting (rather capable) unknowns. The leads are certainly charming. Ward Ramsey’s Bart is an all-purpose swell guy, who says corny lines without irony:
“Hacker? Why, I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw a, a — dinosaur!”
Ms. Hansen’s Betty has a habit of fainting when things get sticky, but she knows how to handle the amorous Neanderthal, begins to get touchy-feely as he investigates her blonde hair:
“Gee, what does a caveman do after a hard day’s work in the jungle? Let’s keep romantic thoughts out of our Neanderthal minds.”
Paul Lukather’s second-banana hero Chuck provides someone for Ward Ramsey to boss around, in a nice way, of course. Chuck also takes his shirt off at regular intervals to better strike manly-man poses. Little Alan Roberts had been one of the alien-possessed kids in The Space Children two years before. He pretends to be Latin, and comes off better than the annoying Mario Novarro of The Beast of Hollow Mountain and The Black Scorpion.
The screenplay gives ethnic stereotypes a serious workout. Hacker calls his put-upon waitress ‘Chica’ (Lucita Blain) ‘my little tamale.’ Otherwise, she gets to play her marginal role with some dignity. The first victim of the revived Tyrannosaur is an exaggerated Irish drunk, with terrible dialogue about ‘seein’ things in the dark’ (James Logan). The loutish villain Hacker naturally is his own undoing, because he’s simply bad, no explanation given. I remember the audience cheering when Hacker breaks a bottle so he can threaten Bart. When the bottle shatters, he cuts his own hand, and has to ask for first aid. That’s how a ‘safe’ production in 1960 suggested violence, while actually having none.
Probably saving the film commercially are the slapstick scenes with Gregg Martell’s caveman. He has a fine time pulling crazy faces when he investigates the Piper house, discovering a dandy axe and raiding the fridge for pie. He’s even frightened by a flushing toilet. Sometimes I forget how starved we were in the ’50s for silent movie comedy — the only close thing we had back then were The Three Stooges, and the kiddie audiences I saw those with loved them. The caveman comedy relief gives the picture a real boost.
“Sound the alarm! Dinosaurus!”
Good ol’ Dumpy shouts that zinger in close-up, as if calling for Philip Morris or announcing that the Sullivans are at it again. Like everything else in the movie, the overall effect is muted. But the acting and Irvin Yeaworth’s direction have a friendly, sincere quality. Although Yeaworth doesn’t seem intimidated by working with an unfamiliar Hollywood crew, he does assemble the show as if from an instruction booklet. Several weak interior/exterior sets are sandwiched between a great deal of process work in front of slightly grainy, low contrast screens. There aren’t enough genuine location shots to make us feel we’re anywhere but a movie studio. Just the same, Universal-International’s overall production standards give Dinosaurus a more consistent polish than the first two pictures. The editing and title art are first-rate, and Ronald Stein’s music score is a big asset.
So how about those special effects?
Quite a few dinosaur scenes are done with hand puppets, that only roughly match the stop-motion puppets in the wider shots. Although I rather like some of the action in the battle between the two dinosaurs, the animation is too rushed and too rough to impress. It is handsomely shot, and there’s good color matching between the live-action, the puppet work and the stop-motion. The animation is crude but effective, I suppose, but it doesn’t really score with the fans; most Hollywood stop-motion this side of Ray Harryhausen just looked crude, except on those occasions when an artist like Jim Danforth was given proper time and facilities. The work here was done as work for hire by the future ‘Project Unlimited’ team of Wah Chang, Tim Barr and Gene Warren. We know how rushed these professionals must have been, so it’s not like their effort should be discounted.
Filming in CinemaScope can’t have made the dinosaur effects any easier to accomplish. I don’t believe that any of the stop-motion was filmed with a rear-screen live action projector. The attempt to do that in The Beast from Hollow Mountain resulted in some really low-quality images. What we see here is so visually clean, we wonder if the stop-motion scenes were filmed flat and then optically printed into the ‘scope format. They don’t have any of the expected grain or image degradation, but there’s no way a ‘scope lens of 1960 was going to deliver such a non-distorted, deep focus image for tabletop miniatures.
Ray Harryhausen made several to-die-for dinosaur movies, with technical illusions so polished and animation so nuanced, that he became a hallmark of quality unto himself. The CGI advances that began with Jurassic Park can’t dim Harryhausen’s artistry, but it does make most older dino-thrillers seem more like relics. I’m showing my personal bias when I say I prefer Dinosaurus’s so-so saurians to the studio-built ones seen in U-I’s pricey Lost World retread, The Land Unknown.
Frankly, things were different in 1960. Afternoon movies at the Bijou were mostly a one-time-only event. Special effects were still shrouded in mystery, and we had no ability to replay and analyze what we saw. I remember staring wide-eyed at Gorgo and Atlantis The Lost Continent to memorize every moment, convinced I’d never see them again. In today’s world, even six-year-olds can be experts, dismissive of technical details that were meant to be part of the flow of fantasy. The modest Dinosaurus! wasn’t going to win any awards, but for its year it was a clean little bit of escapism.
I don’t think the corny content was all meant to be comic, but there’s no harm in enjoying the film’s overall corny aspect. I still smile when Bart kneels down at the end and comforts little Julio, who has just lost his new best friend from prehistoric times. Ah, tragedy. A couple of feel-good bon mots later, Julio is fully recovered from the trauma. Neanderthal who?
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Dinosaurus! is touted as a 4k restoration from the original negative, and is in perfect shape. The early DVD looked great too, but this scan lets us latter-day film archeologists check out how every shot was done. How nice that HD runs at 24 frames per second, with no shared frames — we can see every bit of animation. The clean image shows us that cameraman Stanley Cortez did his best with the limited camera setups in the uninteresting sets. A blackout scene in the Cantina uses nice silhouettes. Of course, the Virgin Islands atmosphere vanishes when we get to Betty Piper’s home, which might as well be a ranch house in the San Fernando Valley — with full power during the blackout.
Kino comes up with some extras, that seem produced in Germany but filmed here. The making-of docu features interviews with Jack H. Harris, dinosaur fan extraordinaire Don Glut, actor Paul Lukather and the late sci-fi expert Bill Warren. We get a canned history of dinosaur pix courtesy trailer clips, and the insight on the animation is limited to Glut’s explanation that stop-motion is quite a bit like cartoon animation. Actually, Bill Warren remembers that the original models, once on display at the Ackermansion, were light-weight compared to Willis O’Brien’s much heavier older puppets. Harris (and everybody else) tells us that the Brontosaurus made a cameo in the Twilight Zone episode The Odyssey of Flight 33.
Director Irvin’s son Kris gives us an audio commentary that’s only intermittently as interesting as his track for 4D Man. Kris knew everything about the previous pictures, but he had little contact with this production and therefore remembers little about it. One thing he does say is that, to get the screenplay into shape, his mother and father divided the script in half during a scout in the Virgin Islands, and then pasted their work together. Mr. Yeaworth fils also informs us that the impressive steam shovel animation miniature we see had been built for Willis O’Brien’s effects team on The Black Scorpion. We do remember some construction equipment helping out in the scorpion fight at the end of that show.
The source of the steam shovel miniature prompts thoughts about the exact connection between Dinosaurus! and the effects expert Willis H. O’Brien. His name appears nowhere on the movie, but Jack H. Harris tells us that the genius behind King Kong advised on all of the effects, and that his help was invaluable. It’s possible that by this time O’Brien was content to come to the aid of anyone who asked his counsel. O’Brien, sadly, spent the last decade of his life being abused by producers who either took his ideas or used his name to promote their projects. Producer Irwin Allen presumably paid for O’Brien’s input into The Lost World, where he does receive a credit. In 1959 and ’60 Wills O’Brien might have been planning his ‘King Kong vs. Prometheus’ feature, not realizing that another producer ‘partner’ was preparing to sell him out by shopping the project at Toho.
In the extras, Jack Harris sure likes to associate Dinosaurus! with Willis O’Brien. He can tout his ‘amazingly realistic’ monsters all he wants, but we’re told that he hit the hardworking effects men Chang, Warren and Barr with the usual Hollywood double cross: after the schedule and rate have been agreed on, the project must suddenly be done in half the time.
This is all conjecture. Maybe Jim Danforth knows the real story — perhaps Mr. O’Brien was a happy silent contributor to Dinosaurus!
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good ‘for undiscriminating audiences’
Supplements: Audio commentary by Kris Yeaworth; Dinosaurs! A Monstrous Story featurette with Jack H. Harris, Paul Lukather and Donald F. Glut and Bill Warren; Theatrical Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 3, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson