Though “Underwater!” was directed by John Sturges, it was produced by Howard Hughes, and so we all know it was really A Howard Hughes Film. And you know how Howard Hughes loved Jane Russell. And she’s there, sure enough, as Theresa, the buxom wife of Johnny (Richard Egan) – which allows for myriad moments of Jane Russell saying “Johnny” and there is no better name to siren-ishly say than Johnny. And there is a moment aboard a yacht lilting in the Caribbean when Johnny is in repose and Theresa sexily walks right at him. I imagine Hughes – er, Sturges – had Russell shoot this a thousand and forty-seven times. It looks as natural as that asinine exclamation point dangling at the end of “Underwater!” And so what? It’s Jane Russell strutting…in the Caribbean…like a Bemidji-born Sheena Easton. Say whatever you want about “Underwater!”, and I will, but that moment, that look and that walk, as a glorious testament to staged melodramatic nothingness, work.
The rest of it doesn’t work. And that’s why I devoted an entire paragraph to the strut. Because otherwise I’d have to talk about everything else. I’d have to talk about the cut and paste story, which is fine, because cut and paste stories can work; you just have to embellish on what you’ve cut and pasted. There is no embellishment. The only real embellishment are Jane Russell’s swimsuits, Richard Egan’s tan and Gilbert Roland’s scarves. Otherwise it’s about some friends who want to find treasure in a sunken ship, run into some pirates, yada yada, the end. Watching this movie is like listening to one of those soundscape CD’s – Relaxing Sound of the Sea, or some such, that you put on when you want to fall asleep. I watched this movie in the morning while drinking coffee – two cups! – and I was almost falling asleep. Its underwater(!) scenes, which are supposed to be its selling point, is like looking through a cloudy aquarium.
To be fair, the technology that Hughes – er, Sturges – employed to garner these underwater(!) scenes was no doubt primitive, compared, at least, to what we have today. Scuba diving in 1955 was still a brand new concept, and as TCM notes, this might have interested Hughes more than making an actual movie. As in, making a movie gave him a stage on which to have fun with so much scuba (and to put Jane Russell in a swimsuit). You know how the exorbitantly rich do. In fact, Hughes was so in love with the underwater(!) concept that he extended it to the movie’s premiere.
What interested me most about “Underwater!” was learning about its premiere, in which Hughes screened it for select invites in Silver Springs, Florida……underwater. The Underwater Premiere of “Underwater!” Hughes had attendees outfit in bathing suits and scuba diving equipment in order to watch the film – all 99 minutes of it – 20 meet below the water, swimming all the while, which seems like a lot of work for a Hollywood soiree. Meanwhile, those who did not wish to be all wet while watching could view the movie through portholes of a submersible. This is so Hughes-ian it hurts. This is the greatest movie premiere story I've ever heard. Not even Jerry Bruckheimer could pull that stunt and get away with it! I loved this story so much I kept thinking of the infinite possibilities a movie about this premiere might have made, like a fictional "Burden of Dreams." You could have enlisted Leslie Nielsen, say, to play the producer, Harrison Hathaway, and all sorts of comic complications would ensue, like a starlet’s bikini deliberately coming off to drum up her brand, which apparently really happened courtesy of Jayne Mansfield.
How, you might wonder, did the real thing not go genuinely wrong? Wait! It kind of did! In an article from the Milwaukee Journal wondrously titled “Writer is Blue, Fish Bored at Underwater Premiere”, Bob Thomas recounted the entire event. “What did we see?” he rhetorically asked. “Darn little. A bunch of jokers thrashing around in the water. Some weeds floating by. A bored catfish staring at crazy humans.” He continues: “And you couldn’t hear the dialogue. RKO technicians had carried on about installing speakers above and below the water. But all you could hear was glug, glug.” Don’t feel bad, Bob. Sitting in my living room, above water, watching on TV, with the volume turned way up, all I could hear was glug, glug.