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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Hello Down There’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you discover that the jokes are much deeper than you realize…

Hello Down There (aka Sub-A-Dub-Dub) (1969)
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Directed by: Jack Arnold and Ricou Browning (uncredited)

In the 1960s, saying “under the sea” did not suggest to people a song from The Little Mermaid

While the idea of exploring underwater has been around long enough that Alexander the Great supposedly took a trip in a bathysphere, it’s during this decade that humans made a serious effort to not only get to the bottom of the sea, but stay there for extended periods of time.

Artist’s rendering of the Tektite II underwater habitat, via NOAA Central Library Historical Fisheries Collection

Part of the reason for this was to take what they would learn from constructing underwater habitats and apply that to building living quarters for use in outer space. There was also a secondary consideration, to test how humans would do in a confined space in a hostile environment over extended periods of time, which is good to know when you get your outer space houses set up. In addition to those goals, it was thought that moving people underwater might be the answer to an expected population explosion.

There were various projects undertaken by both governments and NGOs during that time. Jacques Cousteau pioneered undersea living with his three Conshelf experiments, while the US put a lot of resources into Project Tektite, Project SEALAB, and HYDROLAB.

During the height of going to the bottom, there was also the Green Onion…

No, not those, this one:

The film opens with an ironic credits sequence, using images and typography that foreshadows another project from the owners of Paramount, about a sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea…

Our first scene shows us the interior of a mini-sub piloted by Fred Miller (Tony Randall), who is bringing his boss T. R. Hollister (Jim Backus) down to the sea floor three miles off Miami. There, he shows off the “Green Onion,” an underwater house built for $200,000 (about $1.8M in today’s currency; for the sake of comparison, via Yatco, a modern personal submarine smaller than the one we see Miller and Hollister in starts at $2M and goes up from there…).

Miller is passionate about his project, but Hollister is dead set against it. He believes that the Green Onion is a waste of money and should be dismantled, along with Miller himself. For the sake of his passion project and career, Miller asks for a chance to test the concept, by having an average family spend 30 days in the structure. In desperation, he immediately volunteers his own family to take a voyage to the bottom of the sea to test the structure. Hollister reminds Miller that his wife is hydrophobic, but Miller is committed to shanghaiing his family.

Which is probably a blessing for his suburban neighbors, who may not want to hear any more from the kids’ band practicing their latest hit…

The band consists of the Miller children, Lorrie and Tommy (Kay Cole and Gary Tigerman), on keyboards and lead guitar, with the two Webster brothers Marvin (Lou Wagner) on drums and Harold (Richard Dreyfus) on bass. Harold is the de facto leader of the group, which everyone tries to ignore; even their most supportive fan, the housekeeper Myrtle (Charlotte Ray), needs to nip a little on the job to deal with this.

In terms of dealing, as Fred’s boss predicted, his wife Vivian (Janet Leigh) wants no part in the venture. She freaks out and throws Fred out of the bedroom, but after a few hours she realizes there’s still 90 minutes left in the film that she can’t sleep in that big old bed all by herself, ifyouknowwhatImean… For her own personal reasons, and oh yeah, Fred’s career, she relents.

The kids aren’t too enthusiastic either, after they took their latest song to music impresario Nate Ashbury (Roddy McDowall). Think Bill Graham meshed with Mark Zuckerberg, who with the help of the computer overseen by Dr. Wells (Lee Meredith) considers whether a song’s worth promoting based on both his gut and the algorithm:

In order to placate the kids, Frank and Vivian invite the Webster boys to come along for the trip, with the stipulation that they don’t tell their parents were they were going for the month. So, off to the bottom they go, to spend thirty days some 20,000 leagues 90 feet under sea level.

Meanwhile, looking to have a backup plan and still not entirely sold on the idea of housing under the sea, Hollister greenlights a project put forward by Frank’s rival, Mel Cheever (Ken Berry). Cheever has designed a platform that vacuums the sea floor to pick up gold and other precious metals, and goes down with an assistant, Jonah (Arnold Stang), to test it out.

Meanwhile, we watch the Miller kids and the band find their own gold, as life aboard the Green Onion helps inspire their latest number:

But can the band get their number from the sea bed to Mr. Ashbury to get their career jumpstarted? Can the experiment with living underwater save Frank’s career, or will an impatient Hollister, and an ambitious Cheever who’s willing to sabotage the Green Onion, move the company from housing into mining…?

The actual undersea treasure that’s waiting to be vacuumed; image via

It’s actually worth a moment to take a second to consider this aspect of the story, the conflict over how best to use the sea floor. Since the film came out, the drive to house people on the sea floor has diminished, in large part because of the costs. As of this writing, Fabien Cousteau is looking for $135M to go back underwater with plans for a more ambitious undersea habitat.

Meanwhile, there is currently renewed interest in getting mineral resources from underwater. While Cheever’s search for gold is fruitless (which the film gets right), the new rush for submerged minerals in the form of manganese nodules is intensifying. With the pressing need for moving from fossil fuel vehicles to EVs, this is likely to become a far more dramatic conflict in the future.

While what we’re facing today has its roots in the late 1960s, the film doesn’t delve deeply into those issues. These prescient concerns most likely found their way into the script through Art Arthur, who wrote episodes of Sea Hunt and the film Around the World Under the Sea. However, his co-writers, John McGreevey and Frank Telford, look to have been more willing to give the studio what it wanted, a wacky 60s comedy that you could bring the kids to. (The film would get re-released to theaters under the title Sub-A-Dub-Dub under the “Paramount Family Matinee” branded features in 1974.)

While only one screenwriter took the “underwater” part of “a comedy set underwater” seriously, it helped to have a director with an appreciation of the milieu. Arnold’s direction of the first two films featuring the Creature from the Black Lagoon served him well in terms of how to shoot people with SCUBA tanks. Ably assisted by having as a co-director the man who played the Creature during the underwater sequences, the film’s direction gives the viewer aspects of living and working undersea with a quiet authority that a director who never worked with an underwater camera couldn’t.

Somehow, he managed to make the disparate cast work on screen. The idea of Tony Randall as a man of action and brilliant scientist may not have crossed anyone’s mind before or since, but here it manages to work. Most of the rest of the company didn’t need to do as much heavy lifting, with “default” shticks that were probably why they were hired to begin with.

Under Arnold, they manage to keep the film moving and not getting in the way of the story the way some actors in 60s comedies did. For the most part, excluding Randall, nothing anyone does particularly sticks, which Dreyfus (who hated being reminded of this film for years afterwards) is probably thankful for.

As a light comedy, the film was treated by Paramount as a disposable and un-taxing piece of flotsam to watch and forget. But like the little pieces of plastic that make up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, there are bigger issues the film touches upon that deserves our attention…

 

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