Beyond the Paleontology

Officially, the blogathon is supposed to be over — but I have three guest posts on their way, and I’ve kept watching late films too…

So, I guess I saw ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING when it came out in 1975, a long time ago — when dinosaurs ruled the earth, or my world, anyway. Aged eight, I was a little disappointed that there were no live, stampeding dinosaurs in it. As moderately amusing as the conceit is, if Disney had made a proper version of THE LOST WORLD and followed Willis H. O’brien and had a rampant brontosaurus in Victorian London… IMAGINE how entertaining that would have been!

But even if they were determined to carry on filming David Forrest’s long-forgotten novel The Great Dinosaur Robbery, being an animation studio they could surely have had an animated prologue or something showing how the dinosaur came to be a skeleton in the British Museum?

Still, the film begins with a really jaunty Ron Goodwin score, then it has Derek Nimmo in old age makeup telling us the story from a leather armchair in his club, presumably in modern times… this is all fine.

Then it gets racist FAST and HARD — young Nimmo is escaping a matte painting of China in yellowface — his glued-on Fu Manchu moustache is brown to match his hair — then he’s gliding over a model of the Himalayas — then he’s rescued by a yeti — the eight-year-old me must have been thrilled by that, but it left no trace in the memory banks.

Then we’re in London and it’s even more racist. Peter Ustinov is somewhat embarrassing as a Chinese master spy, although once you get over the offense, it’s a very inventive bit of ham. An actor full of tricks… well, he’s ALL tricks. But he does get all the laughs. Clive Revill, in a sort of yellowface death mask as his henchman, is horrifying to look upon. He actually gets a couple chuckles in extreme longshot because he’s an able physical comedian but every time the camera ventures closer you feel sick.

Helen Hayes is a nanny, everyone’s after a formula of some kind… it may be racist as shit but it passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. A good big role for Joan Sims.

They spent money on this thing! Clearly armies of inept gag writers have laboured to stuff it full of crap slapstick, and nobody’s in charge of quality control. All of these gags are big and expensive, and they involve bringing in extraneous shit just in order to be able to stage the gag, whereas gags which use the elements already in play in your story will result in a more cohesive show. Plus, gags with a strong cause-and-effect construction, and gags that build up and form chains of connection are the best for a story. Nobody at Disney in the seventies seemed aware of that.

The plus side is that the film keeps wheeling on beloved British comedy actors, because it has all these extra gags to cycle through, so although the material is giving no pleasure whatsoever, the pageant of Carry On actors, sitcom stars, Richard Lester background people and elaborate sets and costumes has a mild nostalgic appeal.

Two of the stars of ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING actually appear in this, but that’s probably a coincidence caused by the sheet preponderance of Brit talent roped in. We also get a second or two of Kathleen Byron. Michael Powell, we should remember, was unemployed, forgotten and living in genteel poverty at this time.

Curious that it was Ustinov’s turn in CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN that prompted protests. Petrol-bombing Disneyland would have been a measured response to OOUDIM. Historians with only these two films to work from would deduce that a lot of social progress was made between 1975 and 1981.

Racism and caricature are uncomfortable bedfellows — most of us feel we can tell the difference, but blurred lines happen. Caricaturing the qualities of a specific person is acceptable if the intent is clear. Caricaturing on purely racial lines is clearly offensive. This movie is making fun of an ignorant idea of the Chinese, but it doesn’t appear knowing. In other words, it seems to accept the idea, and then mocks Chinese people for supposedly conforming to it. Ha ha, they make nonsense noises! It all comes from lazy ignorance, which is never an interesting way to approach anything.

The model work is pretty incredible, I will say that. It was only while framegrabbing afterward that I realized how much of this movie is miniature. And there are… images:

It’s the penultimate film of Robert Stevenson (his best colonialist romp is the much earlier KING SOLOMON’S MINES, which somehow manages to be less obnoxious), and it’s slightly more convincing as a film than ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD which I was dragged to see as a seven-year-old (the back-projected lava was exciting — I do still like the matte paintings and the miniature airship effects). Stevenson would make THE SHAGGY D.A. and then bow out aged eighty-one.

They put his credit over a drawing of a traffic cop.

ONE OF OUR DINOSAURS IS MISSING stars (deep breath) Hercule Poirot; Madelon Claudet; Lady Ruff-Diamond; Emperor Palpatine; Bungdit Din; P.C. Corky Turnbull; John Glynn Haggard; Hazel the McWitch; King Bruno the Questionable; De Nomolos; Planchet; Sgt. Grogan; Miss Marple; Pte. James Frazer; Ives ‘The Mole’; Dr. Fettle; Sister Ruth; Marie Curie; the Minister of the Inferior; Reverend Timothy Farthing; and Cleo(patra).

Speaking of Michael Powell, here are two more limericks.

12 Responses to “Beyond the Paleontology”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

  2. I was in college when this came out, and while I still kept up with a lot of Disney I somehow missed this one despite the TV commercials and its appearance in the Disney “Classic Tales” Sunday newspaper strip. The comic strip revealed the secret formula was (SPOILER) a recipe for Chinese food. Did the movie go that route? Also remember publicity for the film claiming that Ustinov was the only cast member who didn’t need special Asian eye makeup.

    This might have made for a double bill with the 1981 “Condorman”, a lavish James Bond sendup about fifteen years late. That offered Oliver Reed as a Soviet spymaster, Barbara Carrera as a femme fatale who wants to defect, and Michael Crawford as a comic book artist she thinks is a super spy. The core idea was promising, but besides being way late to the party the script plays more like an outline than a movie. In any case the video revolution was putting an end to Disney’s re-release system, under which even a B like “Misadventures of Merlin Jones” could profitably return to theater screens.

    I am fond of “Island at the Top of the World”, probably because it’s so insistently evocative of “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and other old-school adventures. Yes, it’s a bit bland with a plot that plays like a theme park ride. In fact, a whole Victorian proto-steampunk land had been designed for Disneyland, anchored by a ride based on IATTOTW (shelved when the movie failed to perform). But lots of miniatures, mattes, and soundstage exteriors that took me back, much as the 60s “Babes in Toyland” induces nostalgia for boomer-era perky Disneyism. Note that the pidgin-speaking Eskimo is played by Mako, who’d later win a Tony as the star of “Pacific Overtures”.

    These days OOODIM is not available in America beyond a long out-of-print VHS tape, and unlike “Song of the South” nobody seems to be agitating for it.

  3. Ustinov certainly has heavy mascara, but I guess his Slavic features don’t require fake lids. And he seems to have refused yellowface colouring. Clive Revill would have done well to copy him.

    Was Burt Kwouk unavailable?

    It isn’t any good, but it’s worth seeing. I imagine Disney are pretty embarrassed about it now. And it isn’t historically important as an incriminating document the way Song of the South is: they should cop to that one and release it with a lot of apologies and historical info and the like (but no ass-covering allowed).

  4. Matthew Davis Says:

    “Condorman” was indeed a James Bond sendup fifteen years late, since the book it was based upon, Robert Sheckley’s “The Game of X” was published in 1965. Who knows what Disney were thinking. Though it probably meant ready money for Sheckley to go purchase opium out in the Far East in the late 70s. And isn’t that how we all hope people spend their money from Disney: reckless debauchery. The idea of a cartoonist having to act out his own stunts was original to the film, though I suspect the conceit is imported wholesale from “How to Murder Your Wife”.

  5. I was really annoyed that Condorman apparently never played Edinburgh. When I finally saw bits of it, I recognized one scene as pinched wholesale from the Roger Moore vehicle Crossplot. And not even a good scene!

    Had no idea there was a Sheckley connection.

    “The best films for drugs were the Disney films.” – the late, great Dudley Sutton.

  6. A sudden fantasy: The set of a huge movie. The director is explaining an excessively idiotic scene to cast and crew. Some minor participant raises his/her hand.

    “Excuse me, please?”
    “What is it?”
    “Uhm … This movie is going to be awful, isn’t it? … I mean, we all know it and here we are pretending that pouring blood, sweat and money into it is going to make a bad idea good.”
    There’s an uneasy silence as people exchange looks. The director speaks.
    “Lunch!”
    Everybody leaves and nobody comes back.

  7. I’m assuming you’re an afficianado of 70’s dinosaur flicks, and therefore pose to you the question: what do you think of Kevin Connor, who appears to have made tons of these things? I watched From Beyond the Grave recently and was really impressed by it, but it appears his dinosaur epics for Amicus aren’t so well loved. Did they stifle his promise, or are they underrated?

  8. Trial by Combat is a lot of fun. And Motel Hell was a sort of return to form after the Amicus epics had degenerated to the level of An Arabian Adventure.

    I find At the Earth’s Core quite watchable, the other fish-n-chips kaiju less so.

    I knew a guy who knew him — and he’s still working, or was until very recently. Old Brit in Hollywood making TV movies with his equally old editor. Not a bad way to spend your seventies.

  9. Randy Cook Says:

    I will, with some reluctance but with an eye to cinema history, report something I heard on Los Angeles radio during the CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN protests. To the best of my recollection it’s a verbatim quote, as I took the trouble to commit it to memory while driving south on the 405 freeway. KNX radio was covering a big protest over the the film’s Asian caricatures (on the RADIO, of course, the size of the protest was not quantifiable, one had to take the reporter’s word for it —admittedly, on a medium that asked you to believe a fistful of crumpling cellophane was the sound of a burning building, but never mind: this was the NEWS, for pity’s sake). Anyway, they interviewed a spokesperson for the protesters, and she expressed her displeasure over the whole situation, saying, and I quote: “Charlie Chan speaks ‘chop suey’ English, he bow to people, and he is fragment of writer”. Draw whatever conclusions you may. I am only the messenger.

  10. You deserve some sort of award for the phrase fish and chips kaiju

  11. I guess Gorgo is the only real example of that sub-sub-genre, though.

  12. Oh dear. I cannot entirely prevent myself from laughing. However. I do think there are worthy reasons to object to yellowface. This is perhaps a case of well-meanign people who have the right idea but cannot formulate it. Approximately one-third of humanity, I would estimate. (The other two-thirds are the real problem.)

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