Eugene Lourié: The Man Who Worked With Dinosaurs – By Philip Smolen

The name Eugène Lourié may barely make a ripple in the minds of most film goers today. But if you mention that name to baby boomers like me who cut their teeth watching schlocky local Saturday night horror shows like “Chiller Theatre” and “Creature Features”, their faces will light up and take on a warm fuzzy glow. During a 45-year career, Lourié (1903-1991) contributed his talents to dozens of major (and minor) films and directed some of the most beloved sci-fi movies of the 1950s. He was also the catalyst for the giant monster movie sub-genre.

Born in Russia, Lourié immigrated to Paris in the 1920s where he studied painting and design, and became a scenic designer for French ballets. Moving on to cinema, Lourié toiled in the production design area and became a leading French art director. He then began a fruitful association with the great director Jean Renoir and worked on many of his classic films including “The Grand illusion” (1937). When World War II erupted, Renoir relocated to America and Lourié joined him. Easily finding work in Hollywood, he continued as an art director/production designer on Renoir’s films (including “This Land is Mine” [1943] and “The River” [1951]), as well as on other Hollywood films including Humphrey Bogart’s “Sahara” (1943) and Charlie Chaplin’s “Limelight” (1952).


Cue the Rhedosaurus

If not for the explosion of sci-fi movies during the 1950s, Lourié might have remained an art director for his entire career. Always wanting to direct, Lourié finally got his chance in 1953 when he was first approached to be the art director for a low-budget monster fest initially titled “The Monster from Beneath the Sea.” Later re-titled “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (after the rights to Ray Bradbury’s short story were purchased), the project was put together by low budget producers Jack Dietz and Hal Chester. Both had taken notice of the 1952 re-release of RKO’s classic “King Kong” which cleaned up at the box office. Both were also painfully aware of their film’s tight budget, so they asked Lourié to direct the movie as well.

While supervising atomic bomb tests in the arctic, scientist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) survives a close encounter with a freshly thawed out dinosaur (called a “Rhedosaurus” in the film). No one believes him of course. It’s only with the support of a beautiful young paleontologist assistant (Paula Raymond) that they are able to convince her boss Dr. Thurgood Elson (an impish Cecil Kellaway) that the creature is real. The trouble begins when the Rhedosaurus comes ashore in New York and proceeds to reclaim the city as its home. It comes down to modern science to destroy it, so Christian and an army sharpshooter (a young Lee van Cleef) fire a radioactive isotope into the rampaging dinosaur.

As well as directing the live action scenes and supervising the art direction, Lourié also help draft the screenplay. He wound up peppering the film with ideas that would become sci-fi clichés by the end of decade including the scientist who nobody believes, the wake of destruction the creature leaves, and the military’s inability to destroy the monster. He coaxed a good performance from Cecil Kellaway and cast other colorful veteran actors (including Kenneth Tobey [staunch military man], King Donovon [questioning psychiatrist], Jack Pennick [salty sea dog] and future star Lee van Cleef [expert marksman]) in key roles. Lourié made the most of “Beast’s” miniscule budget (reportedly $210,000) giving the film a larger more epic feel, especially in the early Arctic scenes which look especially good. Lourié was even allowed to take a skeleton crew to New York for three days of location shooting. Even though it’s his first film, Lourié’s direction is assured and impressive. It is moody and unnerving and this feeling of uneasiness makes it seem like the monster will pop up anywhere.

But even with Lourié‘s grand direction, “Beast” will always been known for its groundbreaking special effects. The innovative stop motion effects were accomplished by a young Ray Harryhausen (who created his famous “reality sandwich” for the film). His Rhedosaurus is a fabulous creation, and it always seems alive and dangerous. Fifty seven years later, it still remains one of the best dinosaurs ever put on film. Though primarily involved with the animation, Harryhausen was very aware of Lourié’s contribution to “Beast.” In his biography “An Animated Life” Harryhausen said:

“He was a good director, bright, capable and never questioned or interfered with my work. We got along very well, and in retrospect I found him more rational than most of the directors I worked with, probably because he was a designer and therefore understood what I was trying to do.” *1

Together, Lourié and Harryhausen turned “Beast” into one of the most beloved “giant monster on the loose” films and help energize an entire sub-genre of sci-fi films, The Giant Monster Movie.

When “Beast” was completed, Chester wanted to distribute the film himself, but Dietz went behind his back and struck a deal with Warner Brothers to sell the film outright. Chester was then threatened by Dietz’s attorney (reportedly with a gun) so he reluctantly went along with Dietz and sold the film. Both were flabbergasted, however, when the movie went over like gangbusters and grossed a hefty $5 million for Warner’s (thanks to the studio’s saturation booking and early use of TV advertising).

Although Lourie was happy with his first directorial effort (his close friend Renoir was also thrilled), Lourie’s young daughter wasn’t, and complained to her father that he was bad because he had killed the nice monster. Little did Lourie know that he would have a future opportunity to correct his mistake.

Tales of the Robotic Frankenstein and a Behemoth

Lourié continued to direct during the 1950s including several television shows. He did not direct another movie until 1958’s “The Colossus of New York.” He doesn’t seem to have been inspired by the film, as it’s his least interesting project. It’s a rather ordinary retelling of the Frankenstein saga as scientist Otto Kruger transplants the brain of his brilliant dead son (Ross Martin) into an eight foot robot with humanistic features. Kruger is convinced that his son’s genius must be preserved. However he’s unprepared when the robot decides that it knows what is best for mankind and then goes on a path of destruction. The monster later realizes the error of his ways, and has his own son press the button that silences him forever. Lourié is curiously uninvolved here, and his direction is quite ordinary. The robot itself is nicely designed and awe inspiring, but lacks the life and zeal that any of his dinosaurs have. “Colossus” wound up being released as a second feature by Paramount or released on a double bill with another William Alland produced film, “The Space Children (1958).”

Much better is Lourié’s next movie “The Giant Behemoth” (1959). While it’s a basic retelling of “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms”, “Behemoth” has a distinct flavor and unique rhythm all its own. In coastal England, large numbers of dead fish have washed up on the beaches and a fisherman has been burned to death by a strange radioactive charge. Scientists Steven Karnes (Gene Evans) and James Bickford (Andrè Morell) investigate, and soon establish that a giant radioactive dinosaur (called a “paleosaurus” in the film) is patrolling the English waters and preparing to strike. The authorities reject their claim, and it isn’t until the behemoth capsizes a ferry, that they realize what they’re up against. The radioactive monster rises up from the Thames and cuts a destructive swath through the British capital. It’s up to Karnes (in a miniature submarine) to destroy the creature with a radium tipped torpedo (sound familiar?) before it obliterates London.

While almost a literal retelling of “Beast” (Lourié’s first draft of the screenplay was basically filmed as is), Lourié makes good use of the London exterior locations. As with “Beast” he overcomes another miniscule budget by giving the film a larger polished look. He also succeeds in creating what is probably the scariest dinosaur movie ever filmed. The paleosaurus is treated not just as a nuisance, but as a legitimate apocalyptic menace. Lourié gets crisp performances from his stars, Gene Evans and Andre Morell. As in “Beast” he casts colorful actors in key spots, including the wistful Jack MacGowran as the dinosaur-loving Dr. Sampson. One of the best non-monster scenes in the film is when Gene Evans looks for evidence of the creature by examining some of the local fish. This scene is surprisingly taut as Evans follows strict scientific protocol in order to find where the monster is.

“Behemoth” also boasts energetic (though somewhat crude) stop motion dinosaur footage from Willis O’Brien and Pete Peterson, who were paid out of the film’s paltry $20,000 effects budget. While some of Pete Peterson’s dinosaur footage is reused over and over again (because of budget problems) the paleosaurus remains a great movie monster due to the reptilian majesty that Peterson instills in the puppet. There are several scenes where Peterson captures the power and ferocity of this prehistoric giant perfectly. While not as impressive as Harryhausen’s Rhedosaurus, The Behemoth is still a beloved creation. Reportedly the puppet (or what’s left of it) currently resides at the house of effects maven Dennis Muren.

With a great score by Edwin Astley and a surprise downbeat ending, “The Giant Behemoth” remains a great giant monster movie. Despite’s its budgetary limitations, Lourié managed to create another nightmare monster that gave baby boomers (including me) many sleepless nights.

Monster Mother Love

“Gorgo” is the most emotional and charming of all of Lourié’s dinosaur films. It’s a boomer favorite where a 60 foot bipedal dinosaur is captured off the coast of Ireland and exploited by its captors (Bill Travers, William Sylvester and Martin Benson). The creature turns out to be a baby, and his 200 foot mother comes roaring up from the sea and tears London apart looking for her delinquent offspring. All weapons the military throws at mama prove useless. The two dinos reunite at Battersea Park and return to the sea unharmed, giving monster fans one of their favorite sentimental movie endings.

“Gorgo” is a fitting conclusion to Lourié’s dinosaur trilogy since it borrows elements both from “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” and “The Giant Behemoth.” From “Beast” Lourié borrows the diving bell scene, while using the London location and a lack of a traditional man-woman romance from “Behemoth.” Lourié shows a special light touch in scenes with child actor Vincent Winter. He seems acutely aware of children’s feelings towards giant monsters (certainly clued in by his daughter). He also presents Mama Gorgo’s rampage as a true terrifying experience. Civilians are crushed indiscriminately and property destroyed without a thought, as the great dinosaur tramples everyone and everything to get to its offspring.

“Gorgo” does not use stop motion for its dinos, but does benefit from great man-in-a-suitasaurus effects from British effects veteran Tom Howard. Howard also uses split screens effectively in the colorful scenes of mass destruction. The film also features an emotive score from Mario Lavagnino.

“Gorgo” was the most successful of all of Lourié’s dinosaur movies. Though he was unhappy with the way his producers (Frank and Maurice King) edited the film (he hated the endless scenes of the military running around) “Gorgo” proved so popular that it was even turned into a comic book that ran for almost two years.

Even though it’s been 50 years since the last of Lourié’s films was released, they continue to delight giant monster movie fans around the globe.

Additional Film Credits

After the monstrous success of “Gorgo”, Lourié thought he would be offered additional directing opportunities. These did not materialize, so he continued to work as an art director and special effects artist (in both films and TV). His later resume as art director includes the Sam Fuller’s cult classics “Shock Corridor” (1963) and “The Naked Kiss” (1964), as well as the earnest sci-fi thriller “Crack in the World” (1965). His final film as art director was Clint Eastwood’s terrific romantic comedy “Bronco Billy” (1980) which is full of wonderful images, including the finale where the rag tag circus group performs in a tent made entirely of American flags.

When one thinks of the great sci-fi directors of the 1950s, Eugène Lourié is never mentioned. But I think he should be considered. Certainly his films were as influential to generations of film fans as those by the other major sci-fi directors of the 1950s. He even jump started a sub-genre that still hasn’t run out of steam nearly 60 years later. Lourié’s ideas remained innovative and fresh until his death in 1991. He was never showy or obvious, but he instinctively knew what was entertaining and original. And for those of us who grew up watching his films as children, he will forever be known as the man who worked with dinosaurs.

The Fantastic Films of Eugène Lourié

1. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) (Warner Brothers)
2. The Colossus of New York (1958) (Paramount)
3. The Giant Behemoth (1959) (Allied Artists)
4. Gorgo (1961) (MGM)

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Citation
1. Harryhausen Ray and Dalton Tony. An Animated Life. New York, New York: Billboard Books, 2004. Pg. 49.

Selected References

Hankin, Mike. Ray Harryhausen – Master of the Majicks. Volume 2: The American Films. Los Angeles, California: Archive Editions, LLC. 2008.
Harryhausen Ray and Dalton Tony. An Animated Life. New York, New York: Billboard Books, 2004.
The Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0522123/. Accessed December 14, 2010.

Schoell, William. Creature Features. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2008.
Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 1992.
Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc. 2010.