Friday, May 16, 2014

Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953)

1 Nomination, 0 Wins

Nomination: Best Cinematography, Color - Edward Cronjager

As a result of the Every Oscar Ever project, I've had to watch many films I would love to have skipped, usually due to nominations for technical achievements (Real Steel, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, just to name a few).  While the Academy has recognized many of these clunkers in recent years, this is hardly a new phenomenon, and Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is proof that the Academy has always been willing to recognize terrible films for worthy technical achievements.

Beneath the 12-Mile Reef tells a Romeo and Juliet story of the children of families of competing sponge divers off the coast of Florida (I'd like to have been a fly on the wall for that pitch).  Tony Petrakis, played by a young Robert Wagner, is the son of a Greek family who falls in love with Gwyneth Rhys (Terry Moore, the self-proclaimed wife of Howard Hughes), the daughter of a Protestant family who has long dominated the sponge business in the region.  The story is straightforward with little surprises, and though the setup is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, there is none of the drama, wit, characters, or anything else that made Shakespeare's work and its best adaptations what they were.  Instead, we have a flat premise that gives the filmmakers an excuse to set a story on the water.  Matters aren't helped by Wagner's performance, as Wagner seems to belong to the school of acting that believes that if one says every line at the upper limit of one's volume, a great performance will result.

This decision to set a story on the water was an important one, because Beneath the 12-Mile Reef served as a showcase for the underwater CinemaScope cinematography of Edward Cronjager.  None of this cinematography will look particularly impressive no, especially as a visit to any Best Buy comes with a showcase of jaw-dropping underwater cinematography on the newest generation of high-definition televisions.  Still, in its time the film's cinematography was revolutionary, and this was the first time many audiences had seen the underwater world in such vivid beauty.  But the nomination was clearly for technical achievement more than for any artistry in the cinematography, as the shots on land are generic and without any character or style.  This is surprising, given that Cronjager was one of the great cinematographers of his era.  Beneath the 12-Mile Reef was Cronjager's seventh and final Academy Award nomination, and he lensed such great films as Heaven Can Wait (1943) and Cimarron (1931).  My best guess is that the fault lies with director Robert D. Webb, who spent years as a second unit director before moving to the director's chair, and whose best remembered films are the Elvis vehicle Love Me Tender (1956) and the Robert Ryan starrer The Proud Ones (1956).  Though the technical achievement was impressive, Cronjager was rightfully beaten by Loyal Griggs for his iconic work in Shane (1953), one of the most memorable color cinematography jobs of the 1950s.

Aside from the cinematography, the one notable yet little mentioned thing about this movie is the storyline of the struggles of Greek immigrants to gain acceptance in the United States.  The film was released in 1953, just a few years after Greek immigration to the United States surged following the end of World War II and four years after the end of the Greek Civil War.  I don't know of any other films that touch on this era for Greek-Americans, and this film has some historical value for this reason.  I don't want to overstate this, as the film hardly takes a nuanced look at the issue, but it might nonetheless be interesting for anyone interested in the Greek-American experience.

Other than those few individuals and those who love underwater photography, I can't imagine many people enjoying this film much more than I did.  I guess I shouldn't have expected anything more from a film about sponges.

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