Directed by John Sturges
Written by Walter Newman
From a story by Robert B. Bailey & Hugh King
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Film Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Music by Roy Webb
Cast: Jane Russell (Theresa Gray), Richard Egan (Johnny Gray), Gilbert Roland (Dominic Quesada), Lori Nelson (Gloria), Robert Keith (Father Cannon), Joseph Calleia (Rico Herrera), Eugene Iglesias (Miguel Vega), Ric Roman (Jesus), Jayne Mansfield
Howard Hughes was notorious for screwing around with the movies at his RKO. This time, Howard gets his mitts on John Sturges’ Underwater! (1955), a film put together as a star vehicle for Jane Russell (and titled The Big Rainbow). The trouble is, going in, Sturges had been lead to believe it was going to be a B action movie. After months and months of pre-production, shooting, the usual Hughes tampering and a boatload of reshoots, the finished picture had its world premiere underwater at Silver Springs, Florida — with the cast, various studio people, the press and assorted celebrities and dignitaries watching the picture 20 feet down wearing aqualungs. Really.
The plot’s a pretty flimsy one (though there were more than 20 drafts of the screenplay). Richard Egan and Gilbert Roland discover a 17th-century treasure ship, perched precariously on the edge of an underwater cliff. As they try to remove the booty before the ship drops into the abyss, they tackle sharks, Joseph Calleia and the bends. Jane Russell is Egan’s wife and Roland’s sister, and she seems to possess an inordinate amount of swimwear.
Before it was all over, some location work was done in Hawaii and Mexico (most of it with doubles and little of it actually used), a giant tank was built on the RKO lot, and a couple million was spent before the thing was finished. Lori Nelson was borrowed from Universal-International and wasted in a nothing part — some say she had the lead and was replaced with Russell, so a role was added to fit her in (after all, they were paying U-I for her services).
It’s a real mystery why Hughes didn’t get involved in the engineering of Jane’s bathing suits, as he did with her brasserie for The Outlaw (1941). It was supposed to be shot in 3-D, but it was abandoned in favor of Technicolor and RKO’s SuperScope widescreen process. John Sturges never met Hughes; they just spoke on the phone in story conferences. The trouble-plagued location stuff was done before the cast had been nailed down, so everything had to be shot from a distance. The water in the RKO tank would get murky every so often and have to be drained. By the time Hughes and his micromanaging got to the reshoots, Sturges had reported to MGM for Bad Day At Black Rock (1955), no doubt sparing him a great deal of heartache. Ah, the joys of Hughes-era RKO.
The critics hated it, but it was a hit anyway. It turned out to be Russell’s last picture for Hughes.
While it’s easy to dismiss Underwater! as a pleasant enough film, it has plenty going for it. The Mexican and Hawaiian scenery is beautiful — and beautifully shot by Harry J. Wild. The boats we see in the harbor, and the yacht our heroes take on their adventure, are incredible. The film’s greatest assets turn out to be Jane Russell (no pun intended) and Gilbert Roland. Jane’s accent is terrible, but she looks terrific and has the likable quality that seems to carry her through some pretty shaky movies. By this point in his career, Roland was in his 50s and proving to be a real force of nature. Other films from this period, such as Anthony Mann’s Thunder Bay (1953) and George Sherman’s The Treasure Of Pancho Villa (1955), also benefit from his presence. In Underwater!, he steals about every scene he’s in, even when he’s up against Russell in a bathing suit.
Like a lot of movies with diving sequences, things slow down below the surface. Even the great Thunderball (1965) suffers from this. But with Underwater!, it isn’t much of a deficit, and the 99 minutes cruise along just fine.
Warner Archive has done everyone concerned proud with their Blu-Ray of Underwater!, presenting it in its original SuperScope 2.0 and making sure the Technicolor pops like it’s supposed to. It’s stunning how sharp it is at times, highlighting just how much craftsmanship went into a picture Russell called a turkey — and RKO pronounced one of its biggest hits. Recommended, not so much for the film, but for Jane Russell, Gilbert Roland and Warner Archive’s terrific presentation.