When 1950s crooner Pat Boone arrives in Omaha for film historian Bruce Crawford's Saturday screening of “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” he'll have journeyed straight from his 60th high school reunion in Nashville, Tenn.
Boone, 77, has seen decades pass since the peak of his career as a hit singer (second in sales only to Elvis back then), TV variety show host and movie star. But he vividly remembers making “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” in which he co-starred with James Mason, Arlene Dahl and Diane Baker in 1959.
“I did not want to do the film,” he said by phone last week from his Beverly Hills home. “It was science fiction, and I wanted to do romantic comedy, with music.”
The producer promised to add a song for Boone to sing (“My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose”) and even offered a percentage of the movie's profits.
“But that was not my deciding factor,” Boone said. “My manager and agent said they would strangle me if I didn't take it. And I'm glad I did. It was some of the best singing I did in my whole career.”
It also made him lots of money and furthered his career as a film actor.
Asked for a behind-the-scenes story from filming, Boone said he'd tell “the one that cracks me up the most.” It was from a climactic scene in which he, Mason, Dahl and Peter Ronson were on a raft, caught in a giant whirlpool.
“It was a tricky thing to shoot,” Boone remembered. “The raft was on a revolving platform that tilted as it went around like a merry-go-round. It had to look like we were being tossed violently.”
Hundreds of gallons of water were dumped on the actors to simulate a stormy sea. The noise was deafening, but not enough to drown out Dahl, who started screaming as she held on for dear life.
“(Director) Henry Levin, get me off this thing! Get me down! I'm going to pass out!” Boone recalled her yelling.
Mason had little patience for it. He thought Dahl had already overplayed the role of dainty creature when they had to wear heavy parkas, feigning winter amid hot weather, for another scene. Dahl complained then of heat prostration. Mason was not amused. This time he yelled back at her.
“Shut up, woman! We're going to have to do this 10 times if you don't keep quiet,” he shouted — or, words to that effect, Boone recalled.
“We were going to have to dub dialogue anyway, so it didn't matter,” Boone said, “and they got the shot.”
Dahl, he said, was hauled away to the infirmary on a stretcher.
Boone got along great with Mason.
“I was in awe of him as an actor, and he was very nice to me,” he said. “I liked that he hummed a lot before a scene would be shot. He wasn't humming any tune I recognized, but I think he was making sure that famous voice was warmed up and ready. He was thoroughly professional.”
As for his own voice, Boone hired a dialect coach for his Scottish accent in “Journey,” the same coach who had taught Julie Andrews her cockney accent for “My Fair Lady.” He confessed to having laid it on so thick, he later had to dub some lines to soften the brogue so people could understand him.
“Journey” may have saved 20th Century Fox, Boone said. The studio was in danger of being bankrupted by the even more expensive filming of “Cleopatra,” until “Journey” became a solid box office hit.
Boone said his career role model was Bing Crosby, who had parlayed a singing career into an Oscar for “Going My Way.”
“Honestly, I never hungered for a movie career,” Boone said. “But they wanted me to do what Dick Powell had done — a singer who became a very successful dramatic actor. And I was in it now up to my neck.”
He even gave up his successful TV variety show to pursue movies. But dramatic roles were hard to come by, as his pal Elvis Presley also learned.
“Elvis and I were Tennessee boys who visited back and forth,” Boone said. “I was the all-American guy, and Elvis was the rebel. I was the conformist, he was the playboy. We had a lot of the same fans, but we appealed to different instincts.”
Presley said Elvis once confided that he wanted to play dramatic roles like Boone's in “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”
Similarly, Boone wanted to play the lead in “The Sand Pebbles,” but Steve McQueen, who “had his bona fides” as a dramatic actor, got that part.
Boone, known then as now for conservative Christian values, said he turned down roles that would have required him to play corrupt hypocrites or that pushed the envelope of onscreen taboos.
“I couldn't conscientiously do those roles,” he said. “You turn down a few, they quit coming.”