If you liked everything about King Kong except King Kong, then I’ve got a movie for you.
Dinosaurs first made their way onto film in 1914, in both animated and live action films. The most significant early films to feature dinosaurs were probably The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).
The first dinosaurs I remember seeing on film are the animated ones in Fantasia, which was released in 1940, the same year that gave us the slightly less memorable One Million B.C. (1940), which starred Victor Mature as “Tumak” and Carole Landis as “Loana.”
During World War II, the American public’s taste for the fantastical cooled, and for the most part, science fiction elements could only be found in horror movies.
But by 1948, producer Albert J. Cohen decided we were ready for a movie about dinosaurs, and in color no less! Jack Bernhard’s Unknown Island is a low-budget film, though, so it’s shot in Cinecolor — Technicolor’s shabby cousin that makes movies look like old color photographs that have been left in the attic too long.
Nevertheless, Unknown Island will forever have the distinction of being the first live action film in color to feature dinosaurs. It borrows liberally from both The Lost World and King Kong, particularly the latter, with its mysterious island, its rampaging prehistoric creatures, its damsel in peril, its dueling male protagonists (one of whom is more interested in capturing a live specimen than he is in the girl), and a crew of vicious, rowdy seamen who ferry our cast of characters to an uncharted land where dinosaurs roam.
Unlike the stop-motion animation dinosaurs created by Willis O’Brien for King Kong, which are still pretty impressive, the dinosaurs and other assorted beasties in Unknown Island appear to be puppets and actors in rubber suits, and aren’t very impressive.
But if taken in the right spirit, Unknown Island is a fun picture. Blond, tanned, square-jawed Richard Denning — the voice of Mr. Lucille Ball on the radio sitcom My Favorite Husband (1948-1951) — makes for a good hero. He plays John Fairbanks, the only person in the expedition who has first-hand experience of the Unknown Island, and who is haunted by what he experienced there. Virginia Grey is likeable and attractive as the only woman in the film, Carole Lane, and Phillip Reed is nicely unlikeable as her glory-hound fiancé, Ted Osborne. The real gem in the cast is Barton MacLane as the nasty, hard-as-nails Capt. Tarnowski, who rules his crew of Laskers with an iron fist.
Jack Bernhard previously directed the (in my opinion) overrated B noir Decoy (1946), as well as Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1946), Violence (1947), Perilous Waters (1948), The Hunted (1948), and Blonde Ice (1948).
Unknown Island looks pretty good, but the shadowy jungle scenes featuring the human actors never quite jibe with the brightly lit special effects work with the dinosaurs. Still, it’s an early example of the kind of low-budget giant-monster movies that would become commonplace in the 1950s, but which were still pretty rare in the late 1940s, and for that reason alone it’s worth seeing.