It’s great to once again be contributing to this wonderful blogathon. It’s become my favorite event each year. And I’m grateful to all three marvelous bloggers who put this bash together! It’s a fantastic line up so stick around for the next few days and enjoy the tribute being paid to those wonderful character actors and supportive players who made the movies full of… well CHARACTER!!!!!
This year I’m focusing on one of my all time favorites, one of those great familiar faces–Martin Balsam!
“I think the average guy has always identified with me.“-Martin Balsam
“The supporting role is always potentially the most interesting in a film.”
“I’ll tell you, I still don’t feel whatever change you’re supposed to feel when your name goes up above the title. I think that’s because this star thing has never been the first consideration with me. Never. The work has always come first.”
Martin Henry Balsam nicknamed “The Bronx Barrymore” by columnist Earl Wilson, was born November 4, 1919 in the Bronx to Lillian and Albert Balsam. His mother was born in New York City to Russian Jewish parents, and his father was a Russian Jewish immigrant. Martin Balsam is like a comfortable friend, he could even be my father.
Martin participated in the Drama Club at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York. After high school, he attended the New School for acting. But when WWII started, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. After WWII, Martin worked as an usher at Radio City Music Hall, and was selected by Elia Kazan and Lee Strasburg to join the Actors Studio. A struggling actor living in Greenwich Villege, Balsam started acting on Broadway in the late 1940s,“I ate a lot of mashed potatoes in those days. It was 1950 and I was 30 years old… I thought I had better learn to do something with my hands before it was too late.”He finally established himself as an actor in 1951 in Tennessee Williams’ “The Rose Tattoo.” He won a Tony for “You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running” and an Obie for “In Cold Storage.”
After his success on Broadway, Balsam began working in television, becoming known for regular parts on shows like the United States Steel Hour, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Studio One in Hollywood, and the Goodyear Playhouse. In 1955 he starred in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, and as a result was offered the supporting role of Detective Milton Arbogast in Psycho (1960). After Psycho, he played strong parts in films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Cape Fear (1962) and The Carpetbaggers (1964). In 1965, he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for “A Thousand Clowns.” His later television appearances included a regular role as Archie Bunker’s Jewish business partner Murray in “Archie Bunker’s Place.”
During his 50 year film career he worked with top film directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Elia Kazan, Martin Scorsese, John Frankenheimer, and Sidney Lumet. After his success in the U.S., he accepted roles in European films, spending much of his later years in Italy.
Balsam was married 3 times. Actress Talia Balsam is his daughter, with his second wife, actress Joyce Van Patten. He died while in Rome from a heart attack on Feb. 13th, 1996 at age 76. He was survived by his third wife Irene Miller and three children, Adam, Zoe and Talia.
Balsam could play anything: a vengeful mob boss, a blustering pompous politico, a Mexican stagecoach driver, an Italian train line director, a flaming antiques dealer/caper crew member, a disgruntled subway motorman turned lukewarm hijacker with a tale-tell head cold.
Balsam could either play at being the old school seasoned good cop, or the jaded bad cop, a humble talent agent scraping by to make a living but comfortable with who he is, an average Joe, he was perfect as a non confrontational jury foreman, an over-eager opportunistic Colonel, or a quirky snake oil salesman in the wild west who keeps losing parts of his body. Several times he played the old Hollywood studio mogul, and a private investigator who gets more than he bargains for when he meets a psychotic old lady wielding a very large knife at the Bates Motel. And many more supportive parts that helped the sum total of whatever he was performing in to become even better because of his presence.
For over 55 years Balsam entertained us on the theatrical stage, in feature films, in television plays and tv series as well as serious made for tv movies. His roles run a wide range since his first appearance in 1949’s tv show Suspense, to later on appearing in several Italian crime thrillers in the 70s.
Martin Balsam is an everyman. His familiar comfortable face and voice is easy for us to make a connection with because he appears to be one of us. My father was raised in the Bronx and also worked in the garment district like Martin’s father -til the mid 70s- I myself am a Russian Jew. Whenever I see him in something I think to myself, now we have the whole mishpocha, he’s like kin!
Every performance of Martin Balsam seems to be seasoned with a dash of significant flavor -his presence always makes whatever he’s appearing in more potent, salient and that much more comprehensible.
He more often in his roles exudes an authentic and, likable personality. Balsam is a ubiquitous guy, his performances always manage to deliver an extra special bit of realism or something familiar that makes it feel special. He exudes true accessibility as an ordinary 5’7 guy. But he also has the ability to transcend that average guy persona we can relate to and adopt a quirky either lovable or despicable character. Yet- he is not only the everyman. He’s also one of the most versatile actors, never playing the same character or role twice. Sometimes mild-mannered, sometimes bombastic, at times a face of still waters, at times a volatile geyser of emotions!
While he does epitomize the ordinary guy, Balsam stretched his range that included Italian crime films, serious teleplays, made for tv movies, feature classic films as well as a few quirky offbeat films
It may seem easy to be an ‘everyman’, to portray an ordinary fella whose personality is based on conformity and quiet acquiescence. But to be a regular guy who possesses many layers and dimensions, who isn’t just a flat cut out figure to fill out the plot… that takes talent, that is acting magic!
Martin Balsam draws you in and makes the experience memorable. That’s what makes him one of the most versatile and recognizable actors. I wish I had been able to see him on stage in the theater, but I regret that I was too young to experience that great time in our culture when the New York City theatre was thriving with Strasberg trained actors.
Martin Balsam has been imprinted on our collective consciousness with his legendary death scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho 1960 as Detective Arbogast who gets up close and personal with Norman’s knife wielding rage filled mother only to stumble backwards (wonderful bit of camerawork by John L. Russell) down the staircase at the Bates Motel—the quintessential cinematic scene still remains a shocker today!
While Jason Robards delivers a superb portrayal of an iconoclast living outside of society, railing against conformity, trying to raise his wonderfully compassionate nephew in search of a name, played by Barry Gordon (who also did the character on stage) in the film version adapted from the stage play of 1962, A Thousand Clowns 1965, Balsam’s performance as his brother Arnold is the quintessential downtrodden man who has risen above the grind to find inner peace and satisfaction with who he is: Balsam plays Arnold without a hint of artifice.
It was this impassioned performance in A Thousand Clowns that won Balsam’s Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.
A few of my favorite performances are his flamboyant decorator/ in on the caper Tommy Haskins in director Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes 1971. And of course I particularly love his Harold Longman aka ”Mr. Green”, the reluctant subway train hijacker with a that pesky head cold, which ultimately gets him pinched because of an ironic ill-fated “atchoo” just as the dauntless Walter Matthau’s police Lt. Zachary Garberin is leaving his NYC apartment checking up on Longman as a suspect in the original 1974 classic version of director Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). I loved his portrayal of the wise Mendez in director Martin Ritt’s Hombre 1967, And then there’s Bianchi who is quick to pin the murder on everyone Poirot interrogates in director Sidney Lumet’s wonderful Murder on the Orient Express 1974. One of his most heartbreaking roles is that of Dr. Harry Walden, eye doctor who is beaten down and haunted by the ghosts of war, married to Joanne Woodward an ice queen in Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams (1973). As Professor Ruzinsky the dotty academic who translates the portion of Paradise Lost Balsam’s characterization of an eccentric adds humor to Michael Winner’s frightening 70s horror masterpiece The Sentinel (1977). And in Contract on Cherry Street (tv movie) 1977 Balsam plays the hardened and world weary Capt. Ernie Weinberg who is beaten down and beleaguered and just can’t deal with the reality of fighting against the system that allows criminals to reign over his beloved New York City.
Balsam started out as part of the Method actors led by Lee Strasberg along with actor and friend Shelley Winters who shared the stage with him in the 1950s.
Shelley wanted to return to the theater after feeling strangled by her 7 year contract with Universal Studios. At that time, she was friends with Method actors like Elaine Stritch, Ben Gazzara Kim Stanley Virginia Vincent Tony Franciosa (her then husband) Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and our wonderful Martin Balsam. Shelley wanted to do a Summerstock tour of her play Wedding Breakfast. Shelley and Marty met with a hot new director Sidney Lumet hoping at the end of the play they could shoot it as a film script. Unfortunately Shelley didn’t have faith in her erratic husband Tony Franciosa and so she cancelled the project, which made Lumet angry.
The two would come together again on television in 1964 for Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre “Two is the Number” Later once again they both co-starred in The Delta Force 1986.
At the Actor’s Studio Balsam was in the great company with friends and co-stars the likes of Geraldine Page, Rip Torn, Ben Gazzara, Julie Harris, Barbara Harris, Anne Bancroft, Maureen Stapleton, Jane Fonda, Anne Jackson, Eli Wallach, Burgess Meredith, Walter Matthau, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Estelle Parsons, Marilyn Monroe and Franchot Tone. Working with writers, Arthur Penn, Arthur Miller, William Inge and Clifford Odets.
You can see a full list of his work at IMDb but here is a list of some of my favorite Martin Balsam’s filmography stopping at the mid 1980s:
Television shows such as: Suspense 1949, Inner Sanctum 1954, Goodyear Playhouse (TV Series) 1954-1956, Kraft Theatre tv series 1958, Studio One in Hollywood (TV Series) 1957-1958, Decoy tv series 1958, Playhouse 90 (TV Series) 1958-1959, Have Gun – Will Travel (TV Series) 1958-1960, Roald Dahl’s Way Out (TV Series) 1961, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (TV Series) 1958-1961, The New Breed (TV Series) 1961, Naked City (TV Series) 1959-1962, The Untouchables (TV Series) 1961-1962, Route 66 (TV Series),The Twilight Zone (TV Series) 1959-1963, The Defenders tv series 1961-1964, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. tv series 1965, Dr. Kildare tv series 1926-1966, The Fugitive tv series 1967, The Name of the Game 1968-1970, The Six Million Dollar Man 1973, Police Story tv series 1973, Kojak 1974 tv series, Maude 1976 tv series, Quincy M.E. 1982 (Tv Series), Archie Bunker’s Place (tv series 45 episodes) as Murray Klein–Previously they had performed together in the The Sacco-Vanzetti Story on Sunday Showcase (1959)
Television Movies : The Old Man Who Cried Wolf (1970), Night of Terror (1972), Trapped Beneath the Sea (1974), Death Among Friends (1975), The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (1976), Raid on Entebbe (1976), Contract on Cherry Street (1977), The House on Garibaldi Street (1979), The People vs. Jean Harris (1981), I Want to Live (1983) remake
Feature Films: On the Waterfront 1954 uncredited as Gillette, 12 Angry Men 1957 as the Foreman Juror 1, Time Limit 1957 as Sgt. Baker, Marjorie Morningstar 1958 as Dr. David Harris, Middle of the Night 1959 as Jack, Psycho 1960 as Detective Milton Arbogast, Ada 1961 as Steve Jackson, Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1961 as O.J. Berman, Cape Fear 1962 as Police Chief Mark Dutton, Seven Days in May 1964 as Paul Girard, The Carpetbaggers 1964, Come Back Little Sheba 1965 as Doc Delaney, Harlow 1965 as Everett Redman, The Bedford Incident 1965 as Lt. Cmdr.
Chester Potter, M.D., U.S.N., A Thousand Clowns 1965 as Arnold, Hombre 1967 as Henry Mendez, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys 1969 as Mayor Wilker, Catch-22 1970 as Colonel Cathcart, Tora! Tora! Tora! 1970 as Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Little Big Man 1970 as Mr. Merriweather, The Anderson Tapes 1971 as Tommy Haskins, The Stone Killer 1973 as mob boss Al Vescari, Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams 1973 as Harry Walden, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974 as Harold Longman aka Mr. Green, Murder on the Orient Express 1974 as Bianchi, Mitchell 1975 as James Arthur Cummings, All the President’s Men 1976 as Howard Simons, Two-Minute Warning 1976 as Sam McKeever, The Sentinel 1977 as Professor Ruzinsky, Silver Bears 1977 as Joe Flore, The Delta Force 1986 as Ben Kaplan, St. Elmo’s Fire 1985 as Mr. Beamish along side real ex-wife Joyce Van Patten.
Special note of Balsam’s Italian Crime films:Confessions of a Police Captain 1971 as Commissario Bonavia, Chronicle of a Homicide 1972 as Giudice Aldo Sola, Counselor at Crime 1973 as Don Antonio Macaluso, Smiling Maniacs 1975 as Carlo Goja, Season for Assassins 1975 as Commissioner Katroni, Meet Him and Die 1976 as Giulianelli, The Warning 1980 as Quester Martorana
HERE ARE SOME MEMORABLE SCENES FROM BALSAM’S IMPRESSIVE CAREER
A Thousand Clowns 1965″I have a talent for surrender” Directed by Fred Coe Famous broadway play comes to the screen with memorable performances by all the principles in standout jobs by Jason Robards as a talented non conformist and Barry Gordon as his precocious ward. They struggle against welfare bureaucracy in order to stay together. Funny and poignant throughout. Martin Balsam’s performance as brother Arnold lends the axel of normalcy to the entire shenanigans with his fresh fruit and common sense filled equilibrium.
12 Angry Men 1957
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Martin Balsam plays the unassuming jury foreman who tries to keep the proceedings run by the rules but soon finds out that many of the jurors are racist, filled with rage, apathetic and just in a rush to get the ballgame even when a young man’s accused of murder’s life hangs in the balance.
Little Big Man 1970
Directed by Arthur Penn, Dustin Hoffman plays Jack Crabbe who recalls 121 of his adventurous years ending with General Custer’s Last Stand. Told in flashback it tells of numerous encounters in the Old West. One of the most touching relationships is with his chosen Grandfather Old Lodge Skins played by Chief Dan George. Martin Balsam is perfect as the irascible Mr. Merriweather a snake oil salesman who with each town he get’s chased out of, winds up losing an eye, an ear, then a hand then a leg. And after all that getting tarred and feathered to boot! But he still has a mouth to crack wise with and ponder life’s deep questions
The Carpetbaggers 1964
Directed by Edward Dymtryk. Howard Hughe’s like millionaire George Peppard Jonas Cord is a rude and unfeeling rich young tycoon makes movies love and enemies in the Hollywood of the 1920 & 30s. Alan Ladd as a Tom Mix clone helps in this his last picture. Carroll Baker is steamy very tame compared to the porno edged Harold Robbins novel. Martin Balsam plays studio Mogal Bernard B. Norman.
Murder on the Orient Express 1974
Directed by Sidney Lumet. Albert Finny is astonishing as Agatha Christies Belgian detective
Hercule Poirot who is stranded on the train by snow, and a murder where nothing is as it seems. With an extraordinary cast of characters Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset. Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Wendy Hiller, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Colin Blakely and of course Martin Balsam is animated and hilariously radiant as the Italian Bianchi -head of the train line, who suspects everyone!
Contract on Cherry Street 1977
Directed by William A. Graham
When Frank Sinatra’s partner is killed, NYC detective Frank Hovannes and his organized-crime squad go against the mob run by Martin Gabel, despite strong objections from his superiors and the legal-departmental restrictions that hinder him. Martin Balsam plays Capt. Ernie Weinberg a career cop who is just worn down by all the bureaucracy. The chemistry between Sinatra and Balsam is terrific. Very well done for a made for tv film. Good supporting performances by Harry Guardino and Henry Silva.
Directed by Mike Nichols. This black comedy about the absurdity of war stars Alan Arkin as a soldier during World War II. The dilemma of trying to avoid the insanity or to embrace it in order to get out of duty. Orson Welles plays a rabid general who keeps scheduling more and more bombing missions, and Martin Balsam as the blustering opportunistic Colonel Cathcart adds an extra edge of preposterous folly and audacity
Directed by Martin Ritt
Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) plays a sage Mexican who himself has been treated less than by the white man because of his heritage. Mendez tells John Russell (Paul Newman -Hombre) the stagecoach line is shutting down because of the railroad and urges John Russell to return to his White Man’s roots and take over a boarding house left to John by his deceased stepfather.
Henry Mendez is the stagecoach driver paid by Alexander Favor to transport him and his family. Mendez decides to take the back road to Bisbee Arizona because of a suspicious group of men (led by outlaw Richard Boone), in the area. Alexander Favor (Fredric March) makes Henry do his dirty work and tell John Russell that he has to ride on top with Mendez when Alexander finds out that John Russell is a White Man raised as an Apache. Mendez doesn’t see the point in fighting this because he has seen how it isn’t worth making trouble. Co-stars Barbara Rush as Alexander Favor’s wife Audra.
Cape Fear 1962
Directed by J. Lee Thompson Cape Fear is a taut thriller about a lawyer (Gregory Peck) and his family being menaced by a vengeful psychopathic ex-con Max Cady played with authentic relish causing real chills by Robert Mitchum. CADY blames Sam Bowden (Peck) for sending him up the river and now that he is out. he’s got disturbing plans for his family. Martin Balsam plays Sam’s friend Police Chief Mark Dutton who tries to help him protect himself though it seems Cady has ways of getting around the law.
The Sentinel 1977
Directed by Michael Winner. This is a simple nightmarish adult fairy tale about a young model Alison Parker (Christina Raines) who has been picked by a secret cult of catholic priests to become the next sentinel to watch over the gates of hell, which happens to be a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. (the building is still there) While renting this lovely furnished apartment she meets a host of weird characters that may or may not exist. When odd occurrences begin to drive Alison mad, her boyfriend lawyer Michael (Chris Sarandon) looks for help from various criminal elements lock pickers, private eyes and our man Martin Balsam as Professor Ruzinsky to help translate a passage in Latin. Balsam is hilarious as the forgetful & nutty old professor. Co-stars Ava Gardner, Burgess Meredith
Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “The Equalizer” aired February 9, 1958
Marty plays a mild mannered accountant Eldon Marsh who is called “little man” too often after the new company hot shot who is much bigger and stronger Wayne Phillips (Leif Erickson) humiliates him and steals his wife (Norma Crane). Eldon gets punched a lot but still defends his honor by challenging Phillips (Erickson) to a fight to the death
Naked City episode “Beyond Truth” aired July 7 1959
Directed by John Brahm
Martin Balsam plays Arnold Fleischmann who is haunted by a reoccurring nightmare. Arnold has served time in jail for manslaughter when driving drunk he hits and kills a little girl. Now his wife seeks out the help of Det. James ‘Jimmy’ Halloran (James Fransiscus) of the 65th Precinct to re-investigate the case, as she has never believed that Arnold was driving that night. But Arnold refuses to co-operate with the police and just want to leave it in the past. But the evidence does look like Arnold’s been framed for the killing and that the wrong man has been convicted. Balsam plays a sobering and sad guy who has come to accept the hand he’s been dealt.
The Twilight Zone episode “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” aired October 23, 1959
Written by Rod Serling. Ida Lupino plays Barbara Jean Trenton a faded film star who lives in the past, constantly re-watching her old movies and shunning the outside world. Martin Balsam plays her agent Danny Weiss who tries to get her to come out of isolation, even getting her a part in a new film, though it’s not a lead nor glamorous role. Danny tries so hard to get Barbara to see that it’s no good living int he past, and though she refuses to embrace what’s new, Danny stands by her loyally ultimately with frightening and uncanny results.
Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams 1973 “I have to stand someplace, someplace that I’ve stood before!”
Directed by Gilbert Cates the story follows the journey of depression experienced by housewife Rita Walden. At the opening of the film, Rita loses her overbearing mother played by Sylvia Sidney. Martin Balsam does an incredible job of stoically navigating around Rita’s ice water emotions, though he has ghosts of his own that he quietly battles. Somehow through all the harsh words and bitter detachments, the couple seem to find each other again at the end. Balsam was nominated for the 1974 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor as Dr. Henry Walden unloved by his unemotional wife, finally articulates his feelings and confronts his pain head on while on a trip to France revisiting Bastogne where he was stationed during the war. It’s an outstanding performance which shows Balsam’s acting range, as he shakes off the average guy persona and reaches deep inside and bares his soul.
Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams 1973
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock After Marion Crane steals money from her employer and runs off into the night staying at the Bates Motel run by the gentle young man Norman -which leads to her terrifying demise, her sister and lover Lila Crane (Vera Miles) and Sam Loomis ( John Gavin) hires a private detective Det. Milton Arbogast to find Marion. Balsam plays the edgy Arbogast who isn’t buying sweet and humble Norman’s story that he’s never seen Marion Crane. Arbogast is not one to be put off, he suspects Norman’s mother knows something and secretly goes up tot he house on the hill to investigate. to his ‘down fall’ Sorry for that cheap pun!
The Anderson Tapes 1971
Director Sidney Lumet’s taut action thriller about an ex-con (Sean Connery) under surveillance who wants to pull off The Big Heist, consisting of loot and treasures from the affluent tenants of a high rise apartment where his lover/call girl (Diane Cannon) lives. Martin Balsam plays the wonderfully exuberant interior designer Tommy who helps out with the caper.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three 1974
Directed by Joseph Sargent -Walter Matthau plays the belly-aching gum chewing Police Lt. Zachary Garber chief of security on the New York City subway. A band of clever thugs led by Robert Shaw as Bernard Ryder aka Mr. Blue has hijacked a commuter train with,demanding a ransom of $1 million dollars or they will start killing the passengers one by one. Martin Balsam plays Harold Longman aka Mr. Green plagued by a really bad head cold, and sneezes throughout the film so much so that Lt. Garber recognizes it, even replying “Gesundheit” . Green is also a bit reluctant throughout the caper, but he’s disgruntled for having lost his job as a transit worker.
Well this is Joey giving you all the Bronx Cheer for me and Marty!!! But I mean it in the nicest way!
It’s that wonderful time of the year when we all get to celebrate those unsung actors with loads of character, thanks to Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, Paula’s Cinema & Club& Outspoken and Freckled who are hosting the Fifth Annual WHAT A CHARACTER! BLOGATHON 2016… This will be my fourth time contributing to this fantastic event, having covered Jeanette Nolan, Burgess Meredithand last year’s Agnes Moorehead. As many of you know, it’s often the actors on the periphery of some of our most favorite films that fill out the landscape with their extraordinary presence, a presence that becomes not only essential to the story, but at times become as memorable perhaps even larger than life when compared with the central stars themselves. I’m thrilled to be joining in the fun once again and am sure that it’s going to be just as memorable this year as ever before!
The ASTONISHING… RUTH GORDON!
“The earth is my body; my head is in the stars.”-Ruth Gordon as Maude
Maude: “A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they are not dead, really. They’re just backing away from life. *Reach* out. Take a *chance*. Get *hurt* even. But play as well as you can.”
I’ve been waiting to write about my love of Ruth Gordon for quite some time, and felt that this would be the best way to get off the pot and just start singing those praises for this remarkable lady of theatre, film and television. Ruth Gordon in so many ways channeled her true personality through the character of Maude, in life –she too always projected a spirit that played as well as she could…
“Choose a color, you’re on your own, don’t be helpless.” –Ruth Gordon -An Open Book
There’s a vast dimension and range to Ruth Gordon’s work both her screenwriting and her acting, the effects leave a glowing trail like a shooting star. With her quirky wisdom and sassy vivacity that plucks at your hearth, Ruth Gordon stands out in a meadow of daisies she is emblazoned as bright and bold as the only sunflower in the field. No one, just no one has ever been nor will ever be like this incredible personality.
For a woman who is impish in stature she emanates a tremendous presence, a smile like the Mona Lisa, sporting a unique and stylish way she expresses herself with a poetic & fable-like language. Ruth Gordon is a character who dances to a different rhythm — how she sees herself and how she performs *life* is uniquely mesmerizing as it is burgeoning with all the colors of the universe.
Ruth Gordon is a dramaturgical pixie, with a curious hitch in her git along… an impish dame who rouses and fortifies each role she inhabits with a playful, mischievous and almost esoteric brand of articulation.
In a field of different daisies Ruth Gordon is that sunflower that Maude soliloquies poetically to Harold —
Maude-“I should like to change into a sunflower most of all. They’re so tall and simple. What flower would you like to be?”
Harold-“I don’t know. One of these, maybe.”
Maude-“Why do you say that?”
Harold-“Because they’re all alike.”
Maude-“Ooooh, but they’re *not*. Look. See, some are smaller, some are fatter, some grow to the left, some to the right, some even have lost some petals. All *kinds* of observable differences. You see, Harold, I feel that much of the world’s sorrow come from people who are *this”, (pointing to a daisy) yet allow themselves to be treated as *that*.” (she gestures to a field of daisies)
From the Arlene Francis 1983 interview with Ruth Gordon– actress, screenwriter and playwright…
Ruth Gordon 1975 photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt
Ruth Gordon never wanted to be told how to write nor be instructed on how to act… from her autobiography An Open Book- “I don’t like to be told how to act either. When I’m left alone thoughts come… ‘Don’t try to think’ said our New England philosopher, Emerson, leave yourself open to thought. If you find out stuff for yourself, you get to know what you believe; what you like, how to live, how to have a good time. It’s important to have a good time.”
from Hugh Downs Interview
“ I did grow up to have character. And I’m always doing some damn thing that uh I don’t wanna do but I know it’s right to do. And I finally thought of something in my next book and I’m gonna have it in there and it’s a very important thing to remember. Just because a thing is hard to do doesn’t make it any good. You tackle something and you work at it and slave at it and say now I’m gonna do this I’m gonna do it and when you’ve done it better think it over and see if it was worth it… some easy things like falling off a log and stuff those easy things probably just as good but a New Englander has to do it the hard way. “
Arlene Francis “You once said ‘never face facts’ how can you avoid it?”
Ruth Gordon-“Oh my god look, we’re not facing facts now surely cause I might dry up and not have a thing to say in the world and then where would you be, you know… […] it would be stupid there are enough hazards in the world, I’m 85 now and I’m at my very best peak of my looks which might be an interesting thing to anybody because you figure, 18 why wouldn’t I be better looking than now?… “Don’t lets anyone tell their symptoms, it would be the most boring thing, even though everybody has so many… so the ‘don’t face your facts’ is if you face what’s the matter with you, you know we’d open a window and say goodbye everybody like tinker bell and take off and hope you could fly (she laughs) Don’t face the facts you know, I was 18 years old I was going on the stage didn’t know anybody in New York and I didn’t know anybody on the stage, and I wasn’t beautiful and I wasn’t tall which everybody was in those days, and uh I didn’t have any money and how was I gonna do this, so if I didn’t ‘not face those facts’ I’d say too bad she wanted to be an actress…”
Ruth Gordon, who always dreamed of becoming a ‘film’ star, beside an astonishing stage presence talks about winning awards for her work–“ The main award that I really value is the award I give myself and people say Oh you don’t know when you’re good you know, the audience knows, people know but you don’t know Well that’s stupid I know when I’m good for myself You might not like it, they might not like it, the public might not like it, but I know that wonderful performance that doesn’t happen too often, when anticipation and realization come together because that night when it’s all perfect and is great and you know … that you’ve just taken off… that’s my award…”
Ruth Gordon is bold and vibrant and an actress who never shied away from taking the quirkiest and eccentric roles. From irreverent Ma in Every Which Way But Loose (1978) the poignant Becky Rosen in Boardwalk (1979) to the perspicacious Maude in Harold and Maude (1971) George Segal’s tushy biting batty mother-Mrs. Hocheiser in Where’s Poppa? (1970) and of course the queen of campy kitschy New York City’s enigmatic coven hostess with the mostest– Minnie Castavet in Rosemary’s Baby (1968) …
Once Ruth Gordon personified the unforgettable Minnie Castavet in “Rosemary’s Baby”in 1968 she manifesting a lasting and unfading, enigmatic character that only Ruth Gordon could infuse with that unforgettable energy.
Minnie is perhaps one of the most vividly colorful film characters with her sly and farcical mispronunciations and a wardrobe that is distinctly tacky. Part cosmopolitan part menacing, no one could have performed Minnie Castavet quite like Ruth Gordon, that next door meddling neighbor who befriends an American housewife, who is secretly waiting to become the godmother to the devil’s unborn son.
Gordon appears as if she was cut from a mold that makes her seem like a rebel to the inner workings of Hollywood. And as extremely unconventional as she can be, there is always a depth and authenticity to the wackiest of characters she’s portraying. From the lyrically loving and life devouring Maude in Hal Ashby’s different style of love story.
“ Well it’s a very good movie, I was absolutely wonderful Collin Higgins wrote a great movie Bud Cort was sensational, Hal Ashby became one of the top directors so how do you account for that, well it just happened. But, you see, some guy in Cambridge Mass. he wrote from the YMCA he wrote me a letter and he said, ‘I’ve seen Harold and Maude’ I don’t know how many times he’d seen it, and he said I’m at a loss to know why it means so much to me and I think about it , I think about it a lot and I finally came to the conclusion that it’s because to get through life you have to have somebody to tell it to’ that’s a very profound remark. I’ve had lovers I’ve have friends I’ve had family and I didn’t exactly tell it to them but Garson Kanin I tell it to him whether it’s bad whether I’m a failure whether I’m going grey. Somebody to tell it to. And it’s a very very necessary part of life. And in Harold & Maude Harold who was a kind of helpless geek with looks riches money everything he had … except knowing how to live. And Maude who didn’t have anything except she knew how to live. And Harold could tell it to her. he could tell it to her. She didn’t always have the answer. But he could pour it out. And so it was wonderful really, just pour it out, I said once even if I’m wrong agree with me because you know to Gar, have somebody you know would stand up for you.”
Ruth and husband Garson Kanin… super writing team!
Bud Cort remained very close friends with Ruth Gordon. Here he is talking about her tremendous influence on This is Your Life television show honoring the extraordinary actress/writer.
Ruth Gordon and Hal Ashby on the set of Harold and Maude 1971
from the Dick Cavett interview from September 19, 1969 expressing how if you had never seen Ruth Gordon on the stage “You would lament that fact… a lady who is one of the incomparable ladies of American Theatre. There have been cults about Ruth Gordon for years and years and years. When great performances on Broadway are discussed, Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie or Mildred Dunnock in Death of a Salesman, or Vivien Leigh or any of the classics are referred to Olivier in Oedipus, Ruth Gordon in *The Matchmaker* is always brought up as one of the masterpieces of all time. And she has been a wondrous presence in the theatre for over 50 years. Splendid comedian and a splendid comic writer.”
Ruth Gordon Jones was born October 30, 1896 in Quincy, Massachusetts. “growing up with the brown taste of poverty in her mouth.” As a child she wrote fan letters to her favorite film stars and received a personal reply from Hazel Dawn. So struck with stage actress Hazel Dawn after seeing her perform in “The Pink Lady” in Boston, Ruth Gordon decided to go into acting. After high school she went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, and was an extra in silent films made in Fort Lee, New Jersey making $5 in 1915. She made her Broadway debut in 1915 as one of the Lost Boys later that year in Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up as Nibs. She garnered a favorable review by Alexander Woolcott, who at the time was an extremely influential theater critic eventually the two became close friends and he her mentor. Gordon was typecast in “beautiful but dumb” roles in the early 20s.
Ruth Gordon began to hone her craft and push the range of her acting ability which she revealed in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, the restoration comedy The Country Wife in which she appeared at the influential theater–London’s Old Vic. She eventually found her way to Broadway, and landed a role in Henrik Ibsen’s A Dolls House during the 1930s.
Severely bow-legged, in 1920 she spent time in a hospital in Chicago where she had her legs broken and straightened.
Ruth Gordon as Edward G. Robinson’s wife in director William Dieterle’s Dr. Erhlich’s Magic Bullet 1940
Ruth Gordon with the great Greta Garbo in director George Cukor’s Two-Faced Woman 1941.
She was married to actor Gregory Kelly from 1921-1927 when he died of heart disease. In 1929, she had a child (Jones Harris) with Broadway producer Jed Harris. She stared in plays in New York City and London, not doing another film until she played Mary Todd in director John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois 1940, co-starred with Edward G. Robinson in director William Dieterle’s Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet 1940 and appeared as Miss Ellis in director George Cukor’s film starring Greta Garbo film Two-Faced Woman 1941 and co-starred with Humphrey Bogart in Action in the North Atlantic 1942.
Ruth Gordon plays Ann Sheridan’s mother in director Lewis Milestone’s story of a small fishing village in Norway and the resistance to the Nazi occupation, Gordon plays Anna Stensgard the unassuming wife and neurotic mother who lives too much in the past in Edge of Darkness 1943.
In 1942, active on Broadway again, she married writer Garson Kanin and started writing plays. Together with her husband she wrote screenplays for Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy like A Double Life 1947, Adam’s Rib 1949, and Pat and Mike 1952. She also wrote an autobiographical play “Years Ago”, that then became a film directed by the great George Cukor starring Jean Simmons, Spencer Tracy and Teresa Wright in The Actress 1953 about her life growing up and getting into the theatre.
Ruth Gordon and her husband were included in a round up of theatre actors questioned by the House on Un-American Activities in 1947 and flown to Washington for questioning. Nothing came of the investigation.
In the 1960s she returned to Hollywood with roles in films and television adaptations–
The television movie version of Noel Coward’s 1941 play Blithe Spirit—Ruth Gordon manifests the spiritual medium Madame Arcati in the 1966 tv version.
Ruth Gordon as Stella Barnard co-starring with Roddy McDowall and Tuesday Weld in Lord Love a Duck 1966.
Playing Mrs. Stella Barnard in Lord Love a Duck 1966 The film stars Tuesday Weld as the innocent attention seeking teenager from a broken home who aspires to become loved by everyone, wears 12 colorful cashmere sweaters given to her by friend and mastermind Roddy McDowall (who was 36 at the time playing a teen!) Director George Axelrod’s biting satire that pokes fun at teen beach movies of the 1960s, elitism and the adults that satellite around their machinations …
Stella Bernard: (Ruth Gordon) “You lied to me, Miss Greene. You permitted me to believe your father was dead.”
Barbara Ann: (Tuesday Weld) “Well, they’re divorced.”
Stella Bernard: (Ruth Gordon) “In our family we don’t divorce our men; we *bury* ’em!”
Where’s Poppa? 1970 In director Carl Reiner’s black comedy- Ruth Gordon lets it rip as the irreverent Mama Hocheiser who’s senile antics are driving New York attorney Gordon Hocheiser (George Segal) to the brink. When he finally meets the loving and naive nurse Louise Callan (Trish Van Devere) , worried his mother’s idiosyncrasies will ruin his budding romance, he grasps at any means to finally get rid of her! Ron Leibman is hilarious as brother Sidney!
Inside Daisy Clover 1965, for which Ruth Gordon returning to the screen after almost 20 years -was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe as Supporting Actress… One of my favorite directors Robert Mulligan creates a portrait of a tomboy (Natalie Wood) who dreams of being a singer, lives in a trailer and runs a beach side concession stand where she forges the autographs of Hollywood stars — suddenly discovered Daisy rises to stardom herself, falls in love with Robert Redford, only to turn her back on the viciousness of the business.
Ruth Gordon plays her quirky card playing mother whom she calls ‘Old Chap’ who lives in her own world. Daisy loves her dearly, but the studio heads force her to hide Old Chap/Mrs. Clover in an old age home and tell the public she’s dead in order to project her star image without an eccentric & batty mother in her life. Ruth Gordon once again plays batty to the poignant level of art form.
Inside Daisy Clover co-stars Christopher Plummer, Robert Redford and Roddy McDowall, with a wonderful soundtrack “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” by André Previn and Dory Previn.
Police (Harold Gould)-“You waited seven years to report your husband missing?” Mrs. Clover-‘The Dealer’“I just started missin’ him this morning.”
Natalie Wood grew so fond of Ruth Gordon after working on the film Inside Daisy Clover that she made her the godmother to her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner
Gordon plays Alice Dimmock involved in a dangerous battle of wits with the menacing Clare Marrable who buries her victims in her lovely rose garden–Geraldine Page hires companions who have a nice savings built up and no relatives to come around looking for them in What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice 1969.
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE? 1969 directed by Lee H. Katrin Produced by Robert Aldrich Music by Gerald Fried.
In this taut Grande Dame Guignol horror thriller Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice 1969 Ruth Gordon portrays Alice Dimmock who sets out to uncover the truth behind her companion’s (Mildred Dunnock) disappearance after she takes a job with the austere and cunning Clare Marrable, a prolific serial killer who sows the seeds of her rose garden with her victims.
Director Lee H. Katzin and Bernard Girard’s psychological thriller that positions two powerful actresses in a taut game of cat and mouse…
Geraldine Pages plays the ghastly & audacious serial killer Claire Marrable, whose husband left her penniless. In order to keep living a life of luxury and comfort she begins offing her paid companions who have stashed doe and no family to come looking for them. When Edna Tinsley played by Mildred Dunnock goes missing and becomes part of Mrs Marrable’s wondrous garden of roses, Ruth Gordon pretends to be Page’s companion in order to get to the truth about her missing friend.
Ruth Gordon was amazed at the showing of What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? She figured that by playing the part of a woman in peril at the mercy of the ruthless and calculating psychopath, performed perfectly by Geraldine Page, at the final moment of confrontation her split decision to for self preservation and become a murderer herself or be true to her inherent goodness allowing herself to be a victim. Ruth Gordon believed that it was this defining moment the goodness that ruled Alice’s heart and head would be the most powerful moments in the film. Yet, when the audience responded at this critical scene, to her surprise they screamed out “Kill her, kill her!” The audience had wanted Ruth’s character to live so badly…
from director Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971)
A 79 old woman and a twenty year old lost soul meet at a funeral, and find love and life together in a darkly light comedy. Bud Cort creates an iconic figure of a young privileged young man disillusioned by life, who gets a kick out of antagonizes his priggish mother Mrs. Chasen (Vivian Pickles) with creative faked suicides. Once Harold is exposed to the wisdom and insight that Maude imparts, she manages to open up his heart and teaches him how to reach out and embrace the substance of life’s beauty.
“You know, at one time, I used to break into pet shops to liberate the canaries. But I decided that was an idea way before its time. Zoos are full, prisons are overflowing… oh my, how the world still *dearly* loves a *cage.* “-the inimitable Maude
Harold: “Maude” Maude: “Hmm?”Harold: “Do you pray?” Maude: “Pray? No. I communicate.” Harold: “With God?” Maude: “With *life*”
Every Which Way But Loose 1978
Ruth Gordon plays the impertinently, uninhibited Ma to Clint Eastwood as trucker Philo Beddoe & Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) who travel around the West Coast looking for street style prize- fights. Along for the ride are Beverly D’Angelo as Echo, and evasive love interest Sondra Locke as country singer Lynn Halsey-Taylor. There’s a hilarious assorted misfit motorcycle gang members and Philo’s pet Orangutan Clyde who’s always stealling’s Ma’s Oreo cookies!
Ruth Gordon reprised her role as the cantankerous Ma in Any Which Way You Can 1980.
Ma after Clyde has eaten her bag of Oreos-“Ohh! Stop that, ya goddamn baboon. No respect! No privacy! No nothing!”
co-staring with Lee Strasberg in Boardwalk 1979
Lee Strasberg plays David Rosen and Ruth Gordon portrays wife Becky who own a wonderful little diner, a loving older couple who have lived in their Coney Island jewish neighborhood for 50 years, until a gang moves in and changes the communities quality of life by threatening the local store owners with violence if they don’t pay ‘protection’ money. When David defies them, they burn down the diner and desecrate the synagogue. Janet Leigh also co-stars as Florence Cohen.
Ruth Gordon manifests a marvelously warm and poignant chemistry with master actor/teacher Lee Strasberg.
She personified the unforgettable role as Minnie Castavet in “Rosemary’s Baby”in 1969. Manifesting an unfading, enigmatic character that only Ruth Gordon could perform.
Ruth Gordon started to get more regular film and television roles. Reprising the role of Minnie Castavet in the made for tv fright-flick Look Whats Happened to Rosemary’s Baby (1976) and played the devouring Jewish mother Cecilia Weiss in the television movie The Great Houdini 1976. And the television movie The Prince of Central Park 1977.
Ruth Gordon was cast in the feature film The Big Bus (1976) among a terrific ensemble of actors. She appeared as Arvilla Droll in Scavenger Hunt 1979 and the very touching film about growing up and friendship- My Bodyguard 1980 in -Maxie (1985) Ruth Gordon plays Chris Makepeace’s kindly but rascally grandmother, while he finds a way to school bully Matt Dillon from beating him to a pulp, he finds an outcast that everyone is afraid of to be his bodyguard in Adam Baldwin. The film also co-stars John Houseman.
Ruth Gordon co-stars with Chris Makepeace in 1980’s My Bodyguard
Ruth Gordon co-stars with Glenn Close in Maxie 1985
As the eccentric Marge Savage in the ABC tv Movie of the Week directed by John Badham starring Alan Alda- Isn’t It Shocking (1973) Gordon possessed the seamless ability to oscillate between a delightfully aerated conviviality and acerbic snapdragon capable of delivering the most colorful tongue lashing!
Alda plays a small town sheriff with his quirky secretary/sidekick Blanche (Louise Lasser) who is daunted by a string of mysterious deaths that are plaguing the elderly town folk. Edmund O’Brien plays Justin Oates an odd serial killer who is holding a lifetime grudge against his old friends who humiliated him in high school. Marge was his great love who might have done him wrong! Co-stars Lloyd Nolan, and Will Geer and the county coroner who uncovers the weird details that connect the murders.
Lynn Redgrave stars with Ruth Gordon in the stage production of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession.
Ruth Gordon was nominated for Broadway’s 1956 Tony Award as Best Dramatic Actress for playing Dolly Levy in Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker.” Ruth Gordon says that Wilder had been a tremendous help and influence to her, having ‘picked him up in front of The Booth Theater’ way back when. She won a Golden Globe award as Best Supporting Actress as Natalie Wood’s mother she calls Old Chap in Inside Daisy Clover, and a much deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Rosemary’s Baby.
She was nominated for a Golden Globe for playing Maude in Harold and Maude in 1971.
In the 1970s and 1980s she played parts in well-known television shows like Kojak as psychic Miss Eudora Temple in Season 2 “I Want to Report a Dream”, Rhoda, and Taxi(which she won an Emmy for.)
and in the superb episode of Columbo as mystery writer Abigail Mitchell one of the most sympathetic murderess’ of the series as she avenges the death of her beloved niece with unrelenting Lt. Columbo dauntlessly nipping at her heels. And though Abigail finds Columbo to be a very kind man, he tells her not to count on that. He must stay true to his calling as a homicide detective though we wish he would just Abigail get away with murder– in “Try and Catch Me.”
Ruth Gordon as mystery writer Abigail Mitchell: I accept all superlatives.
Ruth Gordon also had the distinguished honor of hosting Saturday Night Live in 1977.
Ruth Gordon died of a stroke at 88 in Massachusetts with her husband Garson at her side.
“She had a great gift for living the moment and it kept her ageless.”
— Glenn Close
Ruth Gordon had quite a unique way of expressing herself on stage, screen and in person and as Dick Cavett had said about the great actresses’ ability to always project her incomparable persona, what we get! — “It’s a lesson in something that only Ruth Gordon can teach.” And as she would say, she had “a lot of zip in her doo dah.”
I’ll end by saying this about this astonishingly iconic character whose sagacity and spark will never dim, when asked that particularly interesting question, ‘if you had 3 people you could meet in Heaven who would you choose?’ Ruth Gordon, you would be one of them!- With all my love, MonsterGirl
Aired December 11, 1973 as an ABC Movie of the Week
“Beware the seal of Kah-ub-set, for he who dares to remove it will open the gates of Hell.”
The Cat Creature was directed by horror film icon Curtis Harrington— Night Tide (1961), Queen of Blood (1966), Games (1967), How Awful About Allan (1970) tv movie, What’s the Matter with Helen (1971), Whoever Slew Auntie Roo (1972), The Killing Kind (1973), Killer Bees (1974) tv movie, The Dead Don’t Die (1975) tv movie also directed by Curtis Harrington, Ruby (1977), Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978) tv movie.
The Cat Creaturewas scripted by Robert Bloch based on a story by producers Douglas S. Cramer , Wilfred Lloyd Baumes and writer Bloch himself.
From Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood written by Curtis Harrington -he talks about how different television executives’ mind-set for tele-films are than major motion picture executives.
Director/writer Curtis Harrington master at ‘horror of personality’
“I found out just how different on a television movie called The Cat Creature. The script was written by Robert Bloch, based on an old story he’d published in Weird Tales. In fact, he was one of the horror writers I had discovered in the pages of Weird Tales during my teen years in Beaumont. It was a nice pulpy story about a girl who is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian cat goddess. In casting the actress to play the modern incarnation of this beautiful goddess, I got my first nasty taste of TV executive thinking. I discovered that this new set of black suits was always very involved in the casting of leading roles in the network TV drama. Unlike movie executives whose primary interest was ‘box office appeal’ they were concerned with something they called TVQ” This meant the ratings the stars other television appearances had received. The connection between a star’s suitability for a role meant absolutely nothing, and this was the case of The Cat Creature… […] I recalled that Egyptian women supposedly used henna to dye their black hair red, so we put a dark red wig on Meredith Baxter, and she agreed to darken her eyes with green contact lenses… […] Bloch had written an important supporting role, the proprietor of a magic shop, for a man. I suggested that he rewrite the role for a woman and that we try to get Gale Sondergaard for the part. Sondergaard was an actress I remembered vividly from my childhood. She had been memorable as the sinister Oriental [sic] woman in The Letter and in the title role of The Spider Woman, a Basil Rathbone/Sherlock Holmes adventure in 1937…
“I had wanted the proprietress of the occult shop to be played as a lesbian to lend a bit of spice to the show. But Standards and Practices , the office of the network devoted to removing any element to a script that might offend Mrs. Grundy, sent a memo after that there must be ‘NO SUGGESTION WHATSOEVER THAT THIS CHARACTER IS A LESBIAN.’ However, my natural propensity toward subversion was given its due when Douglas Cramer allowed me to add a dwarf hooker to a scene in a cheap hotel where Stuart Whitman as the detective interview John Carradine, who plays the hotel clerk. The dwarf lady of the evening is shown seated on the counter in the hotel lobby. Swinging her short legs and batting her eyelashes, she says to Stuart, “How’s tricks, baby!” This was left in, and Cramer was very pleased when the incident was singled out for comment in a New York Times review of the show. It wasn’t the sort of thing they were used to seeing in the bland medium of television.”
An estate appraiser Frank Lucas (Kent Smith) comes to catalogue a private collection of Egyptian relic, the inventory at an estate –among the deceased’s possessions is an Egyptian mummy adorned with splendid regalia –wearing a large amulet around it’s neck and topped the golden head of the cat Goddess Bast.
Just to be clear as a person who worships cats–The story of The Cat Creature is a creation for a horror tele-play that has no foundation in historical fact. Bast was not a murderous cat nor an evil deity. Bast represents protection and is a sacred symbol of that protection toward cats… She is not a monster!
The uniting Egyptian cultures had deities that shared similar roles and usually the same imagery. In Upper Egypt, Sekhmet was the parallel warrior lioness deity. Often similar deities merged into one with the unification, but that did not occur with these deities having such strong roots in their cultures. Instead, these goddesses began to diverge. During the 22nd Dynasty (c. 945–715 BC), Bast had transformed from a lioness warrior deity into a major protector deity represented as a cat. Bastet, the name associated with this later identity, is the name commonly used by scholars today to refer to this deity.
Shortly after Lucas leaves, a thief Joe Sung played by Keye Luke steals the amulet, the mummy disappears setting off a series of uncanny events and several mysterious murders. Frank Lucas is found dead and Lt. Marco (Stuart Whitman) calls in Prof. Roger Edmonds (David Hedison) as an expert to help identify the missing amulet. Joe Sung tries to pawn this ancient amulet at The Sorcerers Shop an occult shop owned and run by Hester Black (Gale Sondergaard). After Black’s young salesgirl is murdered in the same fashion as Frank Lucas, she hires a new girl to work in her shop. Enter, Rena Carter (Meredith Baxter) who gets pulled into the mysterious happenings and begins a romance with Prof. Edmonds.
The strange killings show the victims all baring the marks of a giant cat attack, as if they’ve been clawed to death. Is it the resurrection of the Goddess Bast who is committing these murders?
This ABC Movie of the Week, showcases the actress whose popularity was rising at that time, Meredith Baxter, who plays the mysterious Rena Carter who may be somehow involved in these strange ritual killings. David Hedison plays Prof. Roger Edmonds an archeologist who is called upon by the detective on the case, Lt. Marco (Stuart Whitman) to assist him in solving the murders. Just a note… I am absolutely crazy about Stuart Whitman, down the road I plan on doing a feature on his work –his credits too long to mention, so see the link to IMBd, I also really want to do a feature on the incredibly mesmerizing actress of the 70sBarbara Parkinswho appears in another ABC Movie of the Week Snatched that I’ll be covering in just a bit…
Prof. Roger Edmonds-“Marco is on his way here to arrest you”
Rena Carter “What!”
Prof. Roger Edmonds-“Don’t you see Everything about you adds to Marcos’ suspicious no previous address no social security number A girl who covers her tracks A girl who stops at the shop not by accident but with deliberate purpose. Marcos thinks that you destroyed everyone who stood between you and that amulet.”
Another bonus of this creepy tele-film is that it co-stars the wonderful Gale Sondergaard. as Hester Black the occult shop owner.
In an interview actor David Hedison commented, “All in all, it was a very happy experience. Meredith was a joy to work with, and a fine human being. Stuart Whitman and I talked and laughed a lot about our early contract days at 20th Century Fox in the late 1950s and 1960s. And of course, Gale was a lovely woman and shared so many wonderful memories with me about her early films. And I should add that all the felines behaved beautifully–even in one of the more violent scenes with me at the end of the film. I managed to escape without a scratch!” –“One other memory was of the first screening of the film before it aired. There was a small invited audience at a screening room on the lot. My wife, Bridget, had not read the script or seen any of the shooting, and at one point when the Cat Creature suddenly jumps out to attack, she got such a fright she let out a scream- much to the delight of the producers and director”
From Television Fright Films of the 1970s by David Deal-“here he (Curtis Harrington) successfully recreates the moody thrillers of Val Lewton of the 1940s. Relying on creepy atmosphere and suspense.”
Deal points out one of the prevailing great elements of The Cat Creature, it’s fabulous casting of course Stuart Whitman who is a tremendous actor, his appearances go all the way back to the early uncredited 50s classics like When Worlds Collide (1951) and Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Whitman was nominated for an Academy Award for his startling performance in The Mark 1961, as a tormented man dealing with his repulsive impulse to molest children and his ultimate redemption. It was a risky role, that he inhabited with dignity and pathos. A prolific supportive actor and leading man he appeared in Cimarron Strip tv series from 1967-1968. One of my favorite films of his Shock Treatment (1964) was another powerfully nuanced portrayal of Dale Nelson an actor who is paid to infiltrate a mental hospital to expose a crazy psychiatrist Edwina Beighly played by the silky and sly Lauren Bacall. Stuart Whitman has appeared in stinkers too, like Night of the Lepus (1972) about giant mutant bunnies, eh not so much… in Jonathon Demme’s Crazy Mama 1975with Cloris Leachman, and a very slick Italian cop thriller called Shadows in an Empty Room aka Blazing Magnums (1976). And since we’re celebrating these ‘tele-fright’ films of the 70s let’s just mention his other supporting roles, he plays a psychic looking for a missing husband in Revenge! (1971) with Shelley Winters as a deranged mother who lost her daughter and The Woman Hunter (1972).
David Hedison of course was popular with horror fans for his campy over-the top performance as a altruistic scientist who loses his head over his discovery to transport matter in the fantastical classic Sci-Fi hit, The Fly 1958(which is part of my series to follow Keep Watching the Skies -coming up The Year is 1953) starred in the hit television show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964)
The supporting cameos are such a treat! Seeing Gale Sondergaard who is terrific as the occult shop owner Hester Black who while reading Professor Edmonds his tarot cards gets into a battle of the wills between skepticism and fanaticism. Sondergaard received the first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Anthony Adverse (1936) I adore her as Emily in the Abbott & Costello romantic comedy The Time of Their Lives (1946) even then she was open to the spirit world! Sondergaard was one of the unfortunate actors who were targeted by HUAC, brought before them she refused to testify and was blacklisted from the industry for over 20 years. She returned in 1969, and The Cat Creature was her first ‘tele-fright’ (as writer David Deal puts it) of the 1970s.
The Deputy Coroner (Milton Parsons) looks like a corpse himself, just one of the macabre details that Harrington likes to throw into his ‘horror of personality’ films and teleplays.
The busy working actor Kent Smith has appeared in so many film and television supportive roles. Best known by horror fans for his roles in Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat people (1944)
Here he plays Frank Lucas the cat creature’s first victim. Ironic isn’t it! His other tele-frights include director Curtis Harrington’s How Awful About Allan (1970) starring Anthony Perkins, Julie Harris and Joan Hackett. He was also in The Night Stalker (1972) and The Disappearance of Flight 412 (1974). One of my all time favorites, is the lovable, ubiquitous the theatrical acrobat likes of Burgess Meredith who could inhabit the role from vagabond to thespian at times quixotic poetic tongued –the sharp, and saturnine character actor John Carradine who plays the manager of a sleazy hotel clerk. Carradine can make the smallest part enormously unforgettable and has graced many a tele-fright– Crowhaven Farm (1970), The Night Strangler ((1973) and Death at Love House (1976) Next to Boris Karloff and Vincent Price, I have such a sweet tooth for John Carradine and he’s another icon I’d love to feature here at The Last Drive In.
From David Deal’s terrific Television Fright Films of the 1970s a movie of the week companion –“Charlie Chan’s number one son Keye Luke is the amulet thief in his only telefright appearance of the decade but most curious is Peter Lorre Jr. who appears as a dying pawn broker Lorre Jr. was really German born Eugene Weingand a notorious imposter who was once taken to court by Lorre for using his name. Lorre died before his case against Weingand was settled, allwoing the impersonation to continue. Relative newcomer but top billed Meredith Baxter was fresh off the Bridget Loves Bernie sitcom and would soon marry her co-star David Birney, where she would heifeenate her name and has become a fixture to television.”
Composer Leonard Rosenman is responsible for the score, he has won Oscars and Emmys for his compelling music, for instance Fantastic Voyage (1966), A Man Called Horse (1970) Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970)Race with the Devil (1975), Bound for Glory (1976) and supplied the poignant music for the dark disturbing psychological mini-series starring Sally Field–Sybil (1976). He also added his music to other tele-fright films such as Vanished (1971) The Phantom of Hollywood (1974) and The Possessed (1977) starring wonderful supporting actress of the 1970s Joan Hackett.
Though I am a huge fan of the directors body of work, I have to look away from Harrington’s predilection to either kill off cats or make them look sinister in his films, so avoid The Killing Kind (1973)with Ann Southern or if you love rabbits lets not forget the poor bunnies in Whats The Matter With Helen (1971).
Also the sound the cat creature makes doesn’t sound anything like a growling menacing cat, it sounds like an old man who smokes too many cigars and needs to spit up his oatmeal and prunes.
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc and screenplay written by writer/director Collin Higgin’s whose credits include the cult film starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon and one of my personal favorite films–Harold and Maude (1971), he also penned the memorable feminist comedy classic Nine to Five (1980) starring Dolly Parton, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Fonda.
Busy 70s television Canadian born actress –with the girl next door beauty –Belinda J. Montgomery plays Diane Shaw, whose mother has died, leaving her with the revelation that she is actually the daughter of Satan. Diane’s mother Alice Shaw (Diane Ladd) had carnal knowledge with the prince of darkness and Diane is the product of that unholy union. Alice was also friends and worshiped Satan with Lilith who befriends and lures our wayward devil waif into a web of suspense as she spirals toward her fate.
Naturally as the working formula would suggest Diane is then pursued by devil worshipers headed by Lilith Malone played by the grand lady herself, Shelley Winters. Of course there are elements that pay tribute to the far superior classic pre-occupation with devil cults and paranoia in the city Roman Polanski/William Castle’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) brought to life by the stunning performance by Mia Farrow, and the presence of such greats as Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy, Patsy Kelly and Maurice Evans.
Shelley Winters having a Ruth Gordon/Minnie Castavet moment!!!
Feeling trapped by her destiny, she soon meets and falls in love with Steve Stone (another tele-fright favorite-Robert Foxworth). Steve asks Diane to marry him and so life is possibly good again? Well maybe not so much…
Lilith-“Dear, You mustn’t disappoint your mother’s old friends”
Alikhine-“You are your mother’s daughter!”
Lilith- “SHE WAS ONE OF US”
Mrs Stone (Martha Scott) “She got religion, and turned away”
Alikhine-“You are your father’s daughter!”
Diane –“NO! NO!”
Alikhine- “He is the evil one.”
Mrs Stone- “The all seeing… he is Lucifer”
First off, The Devil’s Daughteris still entertaining to watch, I adore Belinda J. Montgomery and I could watch Shelley Winters bring in her mail. She’s been lighting up the screen since she played the neurotic Jewish mother Faye Lapinsky in director Paul Mazursky’s sublime Next Stop Greenwich Village (1976)to watching her as Belle Rosen who swims under treacherous waters in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) , as she envision Ma’ Kate Barker in Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970) or the tragic Helen Hill/Martin in Curtis Harrington’s gruesome horror of personality thriller What’s the Matter with Helen (1971) as the bellicose Mrs. Armstrong in Bernard Gerard’s The Mad Room (1969) as the vengeful and deranged mother in the tele-fright film Revenge! (1971) going back to the luckless love-sick and doomed Alice Tripp in A Place in the Sun (1951), as the delightful singer Binky Gay in Phone Call from a Stranger (1952), the sympathetic Terry Stewart in William Castle’s Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949) or the gutsy and classy torch singer –Joy Carroll alongside Frank Sinatra in the dazzling musical noir film Meet Danny Wilson (1951)…! there it is I just adore Shelley Winters!
Belinda J. Montgomery was one of the more prevalent actresses in the 70s teleplays, like Season Hubley who looked fresh scrubbed and awfully pretty but could play it all damaged and less than pure if you know what I mean.
The Devil’s Daughterplays like a dark comedy, with a surprisingly pessimistic or should I say fatalistic ending, not unlike it’s finer forerunner Rosemary’s Baby.
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc had started out his career working in television and has directed many popular contemporary television series link to IMBd to see his complete credits, in the late 60s and 1970s he worked on Rod Serling’s television horror anthology series from 1969-1973 Night Gallery.
If you’re familiar with the series you’ll recognize the painting of Satan that emblazon’s Lilith’s living room wall, could be a tout to the series that utilized artwork of art director Thomas J. Wright who painted all of the paintings used to introduce each story.
Szwarc directed a the ‘tele-fright’few Night of Terror (1972) and in 1973 directed the Lovely But Lethal episode of Columbo starring Vera Miles. Some of his notable theatrical releases – Bug (1975), Jaws 2 and the romantic fantasy Somewhere in Time (1980).
What makes The Devil’s Daughter the most interesting to watch are the familiar character actors that populate the film. The nefarious characters that are not quite they seem to be on the surface. Of course there’s the mentioned Diane Ladd as the profane mother who slept with the devil in the first place but in her waning years found religion but was executed by the cult for her transgression. There’s the wonderfully perspicacious Ian Wolfe whose presence always adds an extra depth to any story, here he plays Father MacHugh a kindly priest who while he doesn’t believe the gossip about Lilith would rather see Diane move out of Lilith’s house and live with a girl her own age. When Diane does decide to move in with a friend, Lilith blows her stack…
Fans of Dan Curtis’ cult television horror soap opera of the 1960s Dark Shadows will recognize Jonathan Frid as Lilith’s mute ‘chauffeur companion.’
Film star Joseph Cotten plays Judge Weatherby, Martha Scottas Mrs. Stone, Lucille Benson ( a quirky character actress who was great at playing batty old ladies) as Janet Poole and Thelma Carpenter as Margaret Poole curious twins, a pair that reminds me of the odd relationship between Sylvia Miles as Gerde Engstrom and Beverly D’Angelo as Sandra in Michael Winner’s The Sentinel (1977) which I am highlighting this Halloween month of October! The Poole sisters dress alike, Janet is white and Margaret is black, and they have cats with opposite colors.
The persnickety Abe Vigoda (the irascible Detective Fish from tv’s Barney Miller) plays Alikhine an expert in ancient art of dance, Robert Corthwaite (the fanatical scientist intent on idolizing the superiority of the super carrot in The Thing from Another World 1951) plays pastor Dixon.
Some of the dialogue is as campy and hilariously high brow as all get out–“You are promised in marriage to the Prince, the Demon of Endor.”
And much like the climax of Rosemary’s Babythere is the ensemble of Satanists seen in Lilith’s scrapbook of yesteryear, the cult standing around in living rooms in their robes posing for a the photograph.
Diane struggles to fight back her legacy as the Devil’s own daughter as she struggles with nightmares, manifests her inherited evil nature and wearing her ring with the strange insignia, mentally impels a young boy to walk out into traffic, nearly getting him run down by a car.
There’s a nice touch as she meets her roomate’s horse and they become frightened by her presence bucking and whinnying, a sign that they can see her evil essence. When Alikhine (Abe) leads the ‘ancient dance’ at the party Diane has an instinctual rhythm that guides her movements. Will Diane succumb to her legacy or will she use her power to fight her destiny? I won’t tell… “They actually refer to me as the Devil’s daughter.”-Diane
“Sally, Sally, Sally… We want you, we want you. It’s your spirit we want, your spirit we need… When will they come to set us free… there’s time enough we have all the time in the world.”
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is one of the most remembered television horror films of the 1970s. It no doubt has left a lasting impression with so many of us. Enough so, that director Guillermo Del Toro remade it with more teeth and polished effects in 2010, renewing a whole revitalized generation of fans of the story and mood of the piece in all it’s palpitating unreality. That’s why it has maintained such a cult status all these years. The creepy atmosphere is partly credited to director John Newland who wasn’t a stranger to stories of the macabre and uncanny as he developed the late 50s series One Step Beyond. which dealt with real life experiences with the uncanny and the supernatural. He also had a hand in directing several of Boris Karloff’s anthology series that blended mystery, horror and noir in his 60s series Thriller.
I love the color palate by set designer James Cane–the purple and blue tones, the reds and pinks, the golds and browns, the lighting and set design is a rich visual set piece to work within the modern ‘things that go bump in the night’ trope.
Felix Silla, Tamara De Treaux & Patty Malone as the creatures: on the set of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Newland worked steadily through the 60s and 70s with Karloff on Thriller and then with Rod Serling on Night Gallery. In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, director Newland has such a grasp on what is eerie and spooky in the classical sense delivers an atmosphere that is rich with a wonderful color pallet. He produces a simple story with spine tingling chills, that are often missing today. Newland’s device works great often due to the lighting and the quick glimpses, as you just catch aspects of these little menaces, rather than have them appear for long periods of time on camera. Another creepy mechanism that I find startling is a device within the make-up developed by Michael Hancock (The Omega Man 1971, Deliverance 1972, Altered States 1980, Se7en 1995). where the creatures speak but their mouths do not move, it is as if the voices come from behind their faces.
It’s an odd effect, and though it lacks the virtual ‘teeth’ that Del Toro’s savage creatures have, I am filled with such nostalgic shivers for the old look of things. The kitschy decorating for instance. The creature masks also remind me of something you’d see in The Twlight Zone, episode ofEye of the Beholder, in the same way make up artist William Tuttle created masks where their mouths didn’t move when they spoke. The effect just works. The three little devil imps with their shriveled scowling faces and piercing eyes and creep-tastical voices are among the most iconic and remembered creatures from the 1970s.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Darkis “lit like a horror movie–pools of light glow amidst shrouds of darkness and mysterious shadows abound” “Even a darkened party scene is justified as reticence to reveal the house remodeling underway. The truth is fear of the dark is universal., especially when prune-face goblins tug at our bedclothes.”- David Deal: Television Fright Films of the 1970s.
Alex (Jim Hutton) and Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) inherit a eerie old Victorian house from Sally’s grandmother that holds a dangerous secret legacy, as it harbors the spirits of little devil imps who need to be set free by a designated person whose soul they aim to possess. Once Sally moves in to her grandparents garish and secretly ghoulish old house, Sally discovers these little creatures living down in the pits of hell behind the bricked up fireplace in the creepy, musty den. Like her grandfather before her, Sally is next in line to ‘set them free’ by being their chosen sacrifice. She now must convince her success driven husband Alex that she isn’t crazy or a hysterical, bored housewife. Alex refuses to listen to Sally’s pleas to leave the house, or that the strange happenings and sightings of antagonistic little demons are real and not born out of her imagination or a way for her to sabotage his budding career that takes him away a lot. The only person who not only believes Sally but has tried to warn her not to meddle in things she doesn’t understand, is William Demarest as cantankerous handyman Mr. Harris, who worked for Sally’s grandparents. He knows about the little evil gnomes bricked up behind the fireplace and tries to no avail to get Sally to leave the creepy den as is, “Some doors are better left unopened.”
Sally pushes on the bricks of the old fireplace, Mr. Harris the handy walks in, in his
sour-puss scowling manner-
Mr Harris-“It won’t work.! Sorry Miss I didn’t mean to make you jump”
Sally-“It’s alright… well why won’t it work? I mean surely all it needs to be is smashed open”
Mr. Harris- “those bricks are cemented 4 deep and reinforced with iron bars. There’s no way of opening it up.”
Sally-“now who’s idea was that?”
Mr.Harris-“Your grandmother had me do that twenty years ago.”
Mr. Harris-“Well, it, it was after, er (he stops and looks at the fireplace)
Mr. Harris- “I just can’t open it up.”
Sally-“Now Mr. Harris surely you’re not afraid of a little hard work, hhm?”
Mr. Harris-“Its not the work it’s just that some things are better left as they are”
Mr. Harris-“That’s for cleaning out ashes”
Sally-“it’s been bolted shut”
Mr. Harris-“By me, and that’s the way it should stay!”
Told by both Alex and cranky pants Harris to leave the fireplace alone, naturally she unbolts the ash pit, releasing the creatures who proceed to torment her, making it look like she is crazy, torturing her, gas-lighting her, as we here whispered tones of
“No don’t hurt her, not yet… “but I want to I want to…”
Oh there’s plenty of opportunity and time to torment, hurt and and drag Sally down to hell. Sally, it’s too much fun to drive her mad, messing with the lights whiles she’s taking a shower, then leaving the straight razor on the dark bathroom floor, poking out from behind curtains and bookcases, peaking out of the floral arrangement at the haute dinner party intended to impress Alex’s boss, placing a chord across the steps hoping she’ll fall down the long staircase. Sally sees these little menaces everywhere but no one else does. Alex doesn’t even believe that it’s mice, the place was fumigated right before they moved in. After Alex has a fit and fires Mr. Harris for filling his wife with dread, he finally reaches out to him wanting to hear about the history of the house.
Apparently, Mr. Harris tells Alex, that Sally’s grandfather was heard screaming in the study the night he disappeared presumably as he was being dragged down into the pits of hell. After that, the fireplace was bricked up and the ash pit bolted shut. The wicked little imps have been waiting all this time to be set free.
The simplistic story, everyone at one time has been afraid of the darkness and the unseen terror that it holds and the beauty of this enduring film which moves along in a very quick pace that doesn’t seem rushed, nor empty. Each scene while at times frustrates from the standpoint of stupid things you don’t do if you feel you’re in danger, like at the height of the danger drawing ever so near, just lie down on the bed and take a nap, okay you’ve been drugged with the sleeping pills slipped into your coffee by those little creeps. You will forever ask yourself, go to a hotel, why not just get out of the house. You feel like you want to scream at Sally, get the hell out… now for the love of Mike! And by the end, it tickles you to finally see her being dragged and daunted.
It’s hard to make out in the darkly lit scene but the goblins are climbing the stairs like a mountain.
Sally -“It’s was something like this little ferocious animal grabbed at my dress… Alex’s irritated voice scolds Sally like a child--“Look Sally you’ve got to stop this!!!”
I must admit, it’s too delicious to see these little nasty creatures bounding up the stairs, rigging them with a chord in order to cause one to trip, fall and break ones neck, and pop out of the luscious darkness wielding what is to them a giant a straight razor. These little evil imps inhabit our world view perfectly of those ‘things that go bump in the night.’
Kim Darby is plain and perfectly whiny within the horror version of Diary of a Mad Housewife, but that works to the films sense of go ahead drag her down the stairs already feeling, though I cheered for Carrie Snodgrass in the afore mentioned film of the 70s. ” Sally trips into a surreal world of gloom and although she never really gets a grip on things, she still shows some resolve.” Buying flashlights and candles instead of a room at a Hotel. sure Sally sure…
Alex and Sally experiencing martial woes and little devil imps in the suburbs!
As Sally puts it when having a heart to heart with her only friend Barbara- “Most of the time she feels like a reasonable adjunct to his getting ahead”
Barbara tells Sally that she knows exactly what’s it’s like to be “left by yourself to brood” ‘Making imaginary mountains out of imaginary mole hills”that’s exactly what her friend Barbara thinks the breaking of the ash tray by the side of the bed and the sounds of something lurking behind the kitchen garbage merely was…
This 70s tele-fright film could work as a horror story that embroiders the dismissal of women, their needs, their perceptions and their entire world into a adult fairy tale/nightmare. How a woman can become discounted when what she thinks and feels is chalked up to being merely her ‘imagination’ or emotional distress, and/or an unreasonable emotional dependency on her man who is trying to make it. Or… she is just plain exuding hysteria. Don’t Be afraid of the Dark consists of blunt hyperbole of the hysterical woman not in it’s undercurrent rather, right out in plain sight a contrast to the ‘shadows’ and goblins that lurk in the dark. Metaphor for women’s desire to be set free? I’ll leave that to scholars…
Kim Darby looks better than ever… no frowzy Sally here!
Actually I read that originally actor George Hamilton was cast as Alex. The chemistry would not have been as well suited as Hutton’s disbelieving soul. Hamilton is too sharp an actor for Darby’s frowzy simple girl next door style. William Demarest gives a well suited supportive performance as the cranky handyman Mr. Harris who knows all to well about the secrets of that bedeviled house with it’s ancient wicked creatures lurking about. It is Sally’s friend Joan played by Barbara Anderson who finally believes Sally isn’t going mad. At first she suspects that it is a mad housewife deal, sexual frustration, martial woes, and just plain hysteria. Anderson won an Emmy for her role on Ironside as Officer Eve Whifield.
Writer Nigel McKeand was sometime actor and was one of the demonic voices on the film. Prolific composer Billy Goldenberg (Columbo) is adept at both classical and pop music and has been in demand, providing music for film and television since the mid 60s. He tele-fright scores include Ritual of Evil (1970), Duel (1971), Terror on the Beach (1973), Reflections of Murder (1974), The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), The UFO Incident (1975) and One of My Wives is Missing (1976).
One of the great aspects that work in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the set direction by James Cane, the big old Victorian that creates the mood of a ‘chamber piece’ is so creepily garish with colors that clash, and a mix of neo-gothic, Louis VI and contemporary styles that even Sally decides to hire decorator Francisco Perez (Pedro Armendáriz Jr.) whom the dastardly gnomes accidentally cause to fall down the steps killing him. Still, Alex doesn’t quite see that something is wrong with the house.
Even after Joan (Barbara Anderson) begins to believe Sally, the efforts made to protect her friend are sluggish and frustrating, just to make our skin crawl with anxiety as these wicked little things chant “we want you, we want you, we want you, we want you”, while Sally is destined to go the way of her grandfather. This special Movie of the Week chiller is brimming over with eerie atmosphere.
Felix Silla, who played one of the creatures also played Cousin It in The Addams Family.
Directed by Philip Leacock with a screenplay by Richard Masterson. (I Am Legend, The Incredible Shrinking Man) This iconic writer/visionary has too many credits to list them all, link to IMBd to see the breadth of this genius’ work.
She’s Alone. No One Believes Her. And There’s No Way Out!
While driving across the desert Bob and Jean Mitchell (Dabney Coleman and Cloris Leachman) stop at a desolate roadside diner late one night. When Bob goes to the gent’s room, he doesn’t return, just vanishes completely! The locals including Ned Beatty as Tom King, the wonderful Louise Latham as Vi and Ron Feinberg as Lou McDermott all appearing unfriendly and downright menacing. The worst of all being diner owner Jim Cutler who considers people like Jean and Bob ‘moron city folk’ (Ross Martin who does sinister really well!)
Jean “You must have seen where my husband went”
Jim Cutler-“Are you telling me I did?”
Jean “He was sitting right there at that table. Right there.”
Jim Cutler-“And I was right there at that griddle, with my back turned how would I know where he went. Maybe he got sore at ya and just lit out. Cause your husband ain’t here ain’t no fault of mine.”
One of the most underrated character actresses Louise Latham!
These uncooperative folks deny even seeing her husband at all. Then as the paranoia and panic builds someone drives off with her car, stranding her there and now are coming after her. Jean goes to the sheriff played by recognizable character actor Dana Elcar but she has no proof of a crime and tries to get him to believe her protect her from the danger she is in and of course find Bob.
This familiar theme of the missing husband had been seen in tele-fright flicks such as Honeymoon with a Stranger 1969 starring Janet Leigh, and And No One Could Save Her 1973 starring Lee Remick.
Richard Matheson’s teleplay, from his short story strikes that universal chord of paranoia, alienation, helplessness and abject fear stuck in the middle nowhere, working like a claustrophobic stage play Dying Room Only puts our heroine in an environment surrounded by hostility with authority figures who don’t believe you all while stuck in the middle of a lonely unforgiving desert.
Cloris Leachman is one of THE most talented comedic actresses, just brings to mind her iconic role as Mary Tyler Moore’s narcissistic and fashionable friend Phyllis Lindstrom from 1970-1977 and her outre brilliant performance as Frau Blücher in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974).
Ross Martin best known for Artemus Gordon of popular television series The Wild, Wild West, and as Garland Humphrey ‘Red’ Lynch Blake Edwards striking suspense thriller Experiment in Terror 1962, and his pretentious art critic Dale Kingston in Suitable for Framingon Columbo’s 1971 episode co-starring Kim Hunter. Ross is just superb as a menacing figure, showing up in another tele-fright film Skyway to Death, before his death of a heart attack in 1981.
Ned Beattyis another marvelous character actor who’s creepy statement to Jean is chilling a complete departure from the cowering victimized Bobby out of his element in Deliverance1972 who goes through his own ordeal with local hostile types here plays a slovenly cretin, Jean asks for change to use the pay phone, Jim Cutler (Ross Martin) tells her he’s fresh out and Tom (Beatty)- looks straight at her, jingles coins in his pocket and walks over to the pinball machine to play a few rounds. One of his more menacing lines–“The only thing I’m gonna regret, lady, is that I’ll only have ten minutes alone with you before I kill you.”
Dabney Coleman has few lines like this for instance– “These two men happen to be jerks and this… is a dump.”Not quite Bette Davis…
Dana Elcar appears to be a well-meaning but powerless sheriff… Is he part of the conspiracy?
From David Deal’s Television Fright Films of the 1970s –“This story of frustration has the feel of dream logic at first as Jean’s world suddenly turns into a series of unexplainable roadblocks.
Dying Room Only is a film that pushes the trope of paranoia and no-one will believe me. Director Philip Leacock who keeps the film tautly wound, especially during the first half. Leacock worked on many popular television shows of the 1960s. His tele-fright films in the 1970s include When Michael Calls (1972), and Killer on Board (1977).
Composer Charles Foxwas twice nominated for Oscars The Other Side of the Mountain, Foul Play, and won two Emmy’s both for Love American Style. Among his credits are Barbarella 1968, The Green Slime 1968, The Drowning Pool 1975. I just learned that he wrote Killing Me Softly with His Song with lyrics by Norman Gimbel in collaboration with Lori Lieberman in 1972, made famous by amazing songstress Roberta Flack, who gives the most stunning rendition.
If there are devils, there must also be gods. I don’t know. I have no thoughts…
Aired on February 13, 1973, as the CBS Movie of the Week
With a teleplay by Ron Austin and Him Buchanan -and music by Mort Stevens who worked on many Boris Karloff’s anthology series Thriller… Horror at 37,00 Feet is directed by David Lowell Rich
Television Fright Films of the 1970s by David Deal– “Horror at 37,000 Feet is either a meditation on the inherent savagery of the human race on the primal fears and ancient behaviors that tether us to the past, no matter how far we advance with our technology or just a silly horror movie.”
Alan O’ Neill –“You know I think I’m gonna put some black stone on the floor here around the altar”
Sheila O’Neill-“Very nice if you’re planning to use it as a bar”
Alan O’Neill -(laughs) “That’s a little nasty”
Architect Alan O’Neill (Roy Thinnes) appropriates the remains of a cursed abbey from his wife’s familial state in England, loads them onto a plane with the intention of flying them to America and using them in their home. During all this time it also happens to be the night of the summer solstice and I might add, a full moon. A foreboding glowing moon that shines over Heathrow Airport. Once the stones and pieces of the abbey are stowed away safely in the cargo hold, ten passengers board the red-eye flight.
Buddy Ebsen as millionaire Glenn Farlee, Tammy Grimes as Mrs. Pinder, Lynn Loring as Manya Kovalik, Jane Merrowas Alan O’Neill’s wife Sheila, France Nuyen as model Annalik, William Shatner as faithless minister Paul Kovalik, Paul Winfield as Dr. Enkalla, H.M Wynant as Frank Driscoll, a little girl Jodi played by Mia Bendixsen who is flying alone with her doll. And then there’s the crew Chuck Connors as Captain Ernie Slade, Will Hutchins as cowboy Steve Holcolm, Darleen Carras flight attendant Margo, and Russell Johnson as Jim Hawley.
Once everyone settles in, the spirits of the long dead druids break free in the cargo hold and threaten to take over the plane in order to claim their human sacrifice. The tension among the passengers starts to unfold as they try to figure out what the menace is, and what it wants.
Horror at 37,00 Feet is the only credit for V.X. Appleton whose story the film was based on. It was Emmy winning director David Lowell Rich’s first supernatural film for television but he would go on to make the cult favorite Satan’s School for Girls,Runaway! (1973) and another frightening flight film called SST-Death Flight (1977). Rich also made Madame X(1966)with Lana Turner and Eye of the Cat (1969) with Michael Sarrazin, Gayle Hunnicutt and Eleanor Parker and lots of felines…
People might make a comparison with some of the elements of Horror at 37,000 Feet and Cruise Into Terror1978 on a rival network. While the basic framework, passengers board a cursed ship daunted by supernatural powers, Horror at 37,000 Feet just has a campier, creepier more atmospheric mood and sensational theatrics because of it’s cast. In that film, the passengers of a boat are threatened by the son of Satan. Horror at 37,000 Feetutilizes a more nuanced menace, the spirits of ancient druids, which is a totally more unique narrative, as they howl and cause an eerie frosty freezing burning cold throughout the cabin of the airplane as they hunger for their sacrifice. Barry Thomas in charge of the sound department creates some authentically chilling aural scares as the wailing, groaning old ones, and the supernatural static that encircles them…
The ensemble of this horror film might not be too proud of it but it is quite a diverse cast indeed. Tammy Grimes is deliciously eerie in her unbounded knowledge of ancient cults, Lynn Loring as usual is perfectly intense and tightly wound. It’s all so outlandish and campy. Jane Merrow from Hands of the Ripper (1971) plays architect O’Neill’s wife, Sheila. Among the other great actors is millionaire Glen Farlee played by Buddy Ebsen, a Mrs. Pinder Tammy Grimes, who seems too in sync with all things supernatural and sort of sympatico with the druid mythology. There’s a man of god, who has fallen and is having a crisis of faith- drowning himself in alcohol and self pity. Who else could play that without breaking a sweat by the brilliant to happily hammy master most likely hand picked just to re-visit his role as the tormented man on a plane William Shatner as Paul Klovalik… Shatner is not at all a stranger to being terrorized on a plane by strange creatures–if we just think back to a decade before on The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet that aired 10 years before in 1963. Shatner played Bob Wilson crazed by his visions of a monster on the wing of the plane, daunted by a gremlin who is tearing the wing and tinkering with the engine of a plane when no one, not even his wife will believe him much to the fate of the flight.
A film like Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), creates a world of tension as the variety of personalities each respond to the crisis in their own way, not to compare this Movie of the Week with the masterpiece of cinema, Horror at 37,000 Feet is itself an ensemble morality play as much as it is a supernatural story. The tensions, conflicts and personal dynamics are tested by the imminent danger and the doomed fate they are faced with.
Alan (Thinnes) “Are you beyond fear or are you just drunk?”
Paul (Shatner) –“Both but if I were you I’d worry more about your fellow passengers than what ever it is you brought on board”
Things start to go wrong as soon as the flight leaves London as the plane is being mysteriously suspended in mid air going around and around in circles. The mysterious and uncanny entity smashes out of it’s crate in the cargo hold and freezes Mrs Pinder’s dog Damon. The cold then begins to manifest itself inside the cabin. A green boiling oozing Lovecraftian kind of menace reveals itself.
When Captain Slade and Hawley investigate, Hawley is quick-frozen like a bag of organic cauliflower. The evil power rips through the carpeted floor of the plane and an ugly greenish brown ooze bubbles and smokes as ancient unintelligible voices chant. That is how the malevolent entity shows its presence.
Co-Pilot Jim Hawley “Look at this there’s something like moss on the bulk head.”
An evil unspeakable horror that you cannot really see. From the old school of less is more, and it’s what you don’t see that creates more dread. It’s more creepy and effective that way. Sheila O’Neill (Jane Merrow), whose family built the abbey passes out and speaks Latin and hears voices that torment her, calling her name, which prompts Mrs. Pinder to explain a bit about what’s going on.
Paul- “Do you remember what you said when you fainted? (he speaks a Latin phrase)
Sheila “Yes I heard that, one of the voices what does it mean?”
Alan – “Well do you know or don’t ya?”
Paul “It’s from a Black mass…”
Alan “a prayer… to the devil?”
Manya-“or to that thing back there!”
Alan “My wife is imagining things that’s all
Manya “She’s hearing voices…Paul says she was reciting a black mass”
Paul –“I was probably wrong I was a worse scholar than I was a priest”
Mrs.Pinder “It was a man’s voice wasn’t it?”
Sheila -a crazed look in her eyes-“Yes”
Mrs. Pinder “Do you know who that was my dear… ? In 1407 Lord Compton the owner of the land in which the Abbey stood, your ancestor was burned at the stake for heresy and murder. He worshiped the Druid gods. Offered human sacrifices. Members of your own family.”
It seems the abbey was built on a sacred grove of the druids who had performed human sacrifices. Every hundred years at the solstice, the spirits of the ancient druids come back demanding their sacrifice. Mrs. Pinder asserts that it’s Sheila they want. The panic sets in as everyone jumps to wild conclusions for self preservation’s sake, They decide to make a pseudo Sheila, attaching her fingernail clippings and strands of her hair to the little Jodi’s creepy doll. They paint it’s lips red with Sheila’s lipstick. It’s a grotesque site. They try offering that to the spirits who are drawing nearer, only being held off by a fire the passengers have lit, and their safe space is growing smaller with each hour. They try to substitute the doll for Sheila as their sacrifice. The druids aren’t buying it!
Glen Farlee (Buddy Ebsen) has a soliloquy “Maybe she’s right. What other explanation could there be. Everything’s gone crazy!”The plan doesn’t work so the group decides to light a fire on the plane to keep the evil spirits away, and soon the fire burns out and all looks grim. Of course Shatner stands out in this film as the faithless, pessimistic, nihilist defrocked priest Paul Klovalik as he drinks heavily and tries to shut off the chaos surrounding him, feeling helpless and hopeless. “The closer to heaven, the more discordant” and generally dismisses the rest of the passengers bitterly as fools and barbarians.
Paul Kovalik: “You don’t need a priest, Mr. Farlee. You need a parachute….
I’m going to open a bottle of it right now. It might not make me happy. But it will amuse me to think of all of you back here worrying about your lives… as though they were of some importance.”
Shatner certainly isn’t playing this kind of guy, that’s for sure!
At the end Paul Klovalik does find a flicker of faith left and rises to the occasion. But will the ancient old ones, the druids get what they want?
Her task is clear, to find an confront her own murderer!
Aired November 5, 1973, ABC Movie of the Week.
From David Deal’s book Television Fright Films of the 1970s-“Producer-director Dan Curtis had his hand on several intimate productions in the early 1970s, which were shot on videotape in Canada. The Invasion of Carol Enders is one of these. Carol Enders (Meredith Baxter) and her fiance Adam Reston Christopher Connelly are attacked while spooning in lover’s lane and Carol is seriously injured when she attempts to escape. Meanwhile, Diana Bernard (Sally Kemp) the wife of a doctor, is fatally injured in an automobile accident. Both patients are sent to the same hospital. and Carol makes a miraculous recovery just as Diana dies. Upon Awakening, Carol claims in very convincing terms to be Diana. When the police determine that Diana was murdered, Carol/Diana leaves the hospital to find the killer. This mild-mannered story of possession will not appeal to those with a fancy for the macabre. It plays more like a soap opera mystery that happens to have a kernel of the supernatural driving the action.”
The story is by Merwin Gerard whose list of credits include tele-fright films, The Screaming Woman (1972) starring the great Olivia de Havilland, The Victim (1972) and She Cried Murder (1973) The story was adapted by Gene Raser Kearney. Kearney wrote several Night Gallery episodes for Rod Serling and my cult favorite Games (1967) starring Simone Signoret and Katherine Ross, directed by Curtis Harrington and Night of the Lepus (1972) —Giant killer bunnies, ehh not so much…
Meredith Baxter was in the midst of her breakthrough television series Bridget Loves Bernie in 1972 when she did this film. She also appeared in Ben in 1972 and the other film I covered directed by Harrington, The Cat Creature. Her most famous roles aside from tele-films were of course as Nancy on the thoughtful nighttime drama Family 1976-1980 starring Sada Thompson and Kristy McNichol then she went on to play Elyse on Family Ties in the 80s.
Peyton Place alumnus the handsome Christopher Connelly plays Adam Reston and familiar character actor Charles Adiman plays Dr. Peter Bernard both are good at playing the perplexed husband routine. Connelly’s Adam Reston even helps the police in their investigation, playing an important part in solving the mystery. Dan Curtis favorite John Karlen plays Diana’s ex-husband David Hastings, the number one suspect in her death. George DiCenzo plays Dr. Palmer and Sally Kemp is Diana Bernard.
Carol-“I knew Diana, probably better than anyone. She was hard on you David, a lot harder than you deserved.”
Dan Curtis has executive producer credit on this film. and an un-credited nod for direction because several snippets of footage–including Diana’s car crash are taken from his tele-fright The Norliss Tapes, which aired the same year. Some sources list the film as having aired on March 8 1974, some claim it was released in 1973. I’m choosing to include it in my feature here as a 1973 release.
Director Burt Brinkerhoff was an actor, mainly on television in the 50s and 60s and this was his first film as director. He would go on to make the horror film Dogs, and yet another television adaptation of Frankenstein in 1987.
The film plays more like a murder mystery/thriller, but you cannot escape the supernatural narrative that exists, references to India where the air was “thick with the spirits of the dead, it was like incense.”
The Possession of Joel Delaney came out in 1972 and The Reincarnation of Peter Proud came out in 1975, Audrey Rose came out in 1977. The subject of reincarnation was threaded throughout the 1970s as an appealing and uncanny, almost taboo trend.
This event always promises to be an epic endeavor as there are so many interesting themes and subjects to cover. I am excited to be participating once again with these fabulous hosts who make it possible for all of us to contribute to a wealth of classic film history goodies to devour. Now listen folks, don’t get frightened off! You cast of exciting unknown readers… This has become a real project for me, a work in progress that will unfold over the next several weeks. For the purpose of The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon 2016, I offer an overview that will be a lead in for the entire decade of 1950s science fiction cinema conquering it year by year in separate articles. As I started delving into this project, it began to grow larger and larger as if Jack Arnold and Bert I. Gordon themselves compelled me to GO BIG!
In order to review an entire genre of such an influential decade and do the treatment it so rightly deserves, I realized that I needed to spread it out as a series. Re-visiting these beloved movies that inspired my childhood with wonder and sometimes tapped into my own authentic fears, I fell in love all over again. And though I tend to gravitate towards the classical Gothic horrors that are steeped in mythology, the supernatural and the uncanny, I can’t help but feel my mind expanding by the iconic themes that emerged from 1950s science fiction! So I’ll be publishing each year as individual posts or chapters from 1952 on… over the next several week or so instead of all at once. Talking about all the films I mentioned here and so many more films & things to come!
It’s a collection–a decade of the sci-fi genre, sub-genres and it’s hybrids– some eternally satisfying because of their remarkable ability to continuously shine a light on fascinating & mesmerizing fantasy stories. Well written and adapted as visual narratives and surreal stories by beloved visionaries who set out to reach inward and outward through all of us dreamers and thinkers.
There are also those lovable Sci-fi films that are charming and wonderfully kitsch. And some… are just downright so, so, soooo awful their… awesome!
That’s what makes so many of these diverging films cut through the cross-sections to become cinematic jewels & memorable cult favorites!
There are many films that I’ll cover more in depth, some are the more highly polished masterpieces that have lingered for decades with us as adult children who grew up watching them on a rainy afternoon on televisions with knobs that only had 9 channels and if you were lucky you didn’t snap the knob off every 6 months! Growing up in New York I had Chiller Theater, on local channel 11 or Creature Featureson Channel 5, or Fright Nighton Channel 9. That’s how I fell in love, and got my fill of the treasures of films & television anthology series that was lurking out there destined to leave long lasting impressions on so many of us!
Fright Night WOR
Or back in the day, you went to the Drive-In theater to explore in the back seat of your pop’s Chevy Impala any double feature, and it was an invigorating and entertaining experience and you didn’t even have to get out of your pajamas.
You could spend all day in a musty theater festooned with captivating promotional lobby cards and colorful posters. Too bad, I wasn’t of the age to witness William Castle’s ballyhoo he strategically placed at certain theaters for that interactive live experience , EMERGO, PERCEPTO! You could take in a bunch of the latest scary films, sometimes double & triple features, while sitting on sticky red velvet seats that smelled like hot buttered popcorn and week old spilled Pepsi. A box of Milk Duds in hand and the faint wiff of air conditioner freon at your back. You’d enter the movie theater in the bright light of a sunny Saturday afternoon only to exit into the dark of night, tired and filled with wonder, awe and okay maybe looking over your shoulder a few times. Some films were big budget productions, that contained serious acting by studio contract players, terrific writing that blended deep thoughts and simple escapism pulled from some of the best science fiction, fantasy & horror literature and adapted screenplays, scares and witty dialogue besides and cinematography that still captivates us to this day.
Well… sure some were B movies that have now sustained that Cult film charm and cheesiness, and some… are just downright pitiful, laughable guilty pleasures… and a bunch even came with really neat 3D glasses!
SOME ICONIC GEMS FOR THE AGES THAT I’LL BE COVERING!
THEM! (1954)*INVADERS FROM MARS (1953) *DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)*FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) *THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)*EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) *THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957) *INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) *WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953) * CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON(1954) * IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953)* IT, THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE (1958) *EARTH VS THE SPIDER (1958) *THE CRAWLING EYE (1958) *THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959) *IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955) *TARANTULA (1955) *FIEND WITHOUT A FACE (1958) *THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957)*THE AMAZING COLOSSAL MAN (1957) * THE ANGRY RED PLANET (1959)*KRONOS (1957)* THE CREEPING UNKNOWN (1956)*X-THE UNKNOWN (1956
I’LL ALSO BE TALKING ABOUT SOME GUILTY PLEASURES!
Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)
Paul Birch is the alien vampire Paul Johnson in Roger Corman’s Not of This Earth 1957
It’s also important to mention some of the ubiquitous actors who graced both the great & guilty pleasure flicks, you’ll be seeing a lot of in the following chapters likeJohn Carradine * Ed Nelson *Allison Hayes *Paul Birch *John Agar *Hugh Marlowe*Peter Graves *Richard Denning *Richard Carlson *Faith Domergue *Mara Corday *Les Tremayne *Marie Windsor *Morris Ankrum * Arthur Franz *Kenneth Tobey* John Hoyt * Whit Bissell and of course Beverly (kicks-ass!) Garland!
One thing is for certain, each film is relevant and all have a place in the 50s decade of Sci-fi / Horror & Fantasy!
So come back and read a little at a time and get some thrills even while you’re sitting under the hair dryer… Do people still do that today? I need to get out more…
This 1955 hair dryer is just begging to be a space-age helmet!
As early as 1920 there was the German expressionist film dealing with the arrival of a menacing alien visitor from the planet Algol giveing actor Emil Jannings a machine that awards him unlimited powers. ALGOL aka POWER 1920 directed by Hans Werckmeister —
“That which you believe becomes your world.” –Richard Matheson from ‘What Dreams May Come’
Science Fiction emerged out of the “Age of Reason” literature reflected a merging of myth and historical fact. Stories filled with an imagination that had no boundaries. While Science Fiction is a literary movement that can be a separate study all it’s own, story tellers who grasped the concepts of science fiction who questioned the endless possibilities, the far reaching machinations of brilliant minds, this project if focused on the history of 1950s science fiction cinematic and all it reveals. Science Fiction cinema flirted blatantly with ideas and images of a world that reached beyond the known, and contemplated aloud, fantastic stories as early as the silent era. Consider Robert Louis Stevenson’sStrange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, re-envisioned time and time again.
John Barrymorelifts the dark conflicting tale of the inward monsters off the pages of Stevenson’s book. Barrymore so fluently moved through the silent stage, reveals that we all just might be harboring in our sub-conscious hidden dark and primal desires. Unleashed by a concoction, a seduction of science creates a fiend! Dr Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920)
There were a few early visions of fantasy, magic & Science Fiction films from all around the world- At 3:25 akaThe Crazy Ray (1924) Directed by Rene Clair-a scientist invents a ray that makes people fall asleep where they stand! The German film Master of the World (1934) (Der Herr der Welt) where a German scientist wants to create an army of Robots to do the dangerous work of laborers so, when he is told it’s too risky he goes mad and it’s too late the machine has a mind of it’s own. It features really cool electronic chambers and more!
Metropolis 1927 the dystopian masterpiece by director Fritz Lang was the beginning of the fascination with exploring the fantastic and our unbounded imaginations on film, it’s remarkable set design, imagery and narrative sparked the Science Fiction genre in a big way— spanning decade upon decade, in particular revived in the 1950s!
The first influential science fiction film by Fritz Lang created a dystopian societ in Metropolis 1927. It’s influence has maintained it’s powerful thrust for decades. An inspiration for Ridley Scott’s neo-noir sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner (1982)
“Man is the unnatural animal, the rebel child of nature, and more and more does he turn himself against the harsh and fitful hand that reared him”-H.G.Wells
Charles Laughtonis superb as H.G. Wells‘ Dr. Moreau a sociopathic sadist/scientist with a god complex whose profane experiments on animals and humans tortures them in the ‘house of pain’ trying to create a hybrid race he can hold sway over on his private island hell! Science has never been more evil! Island of Lost Souls (1932)
The electrical secrets of heaven, the lighting, the elaborate sets designed by genius Kenneth Strickfaden with his lights throbbing gizmos flashing and zapping, the creepy atmosphere of murky tones. The consummate Universal monster movie with iconic scenes introducing a new face, Boris Karloff who would become the great father of terror stories …
What’s on that slab?, “It’s Alive, It’s Alive!…”those monumental words that remain ingrained in our consciousness. Colin Clivebecomes hysterical as he has creates life from death, but that life would become a whole new ethical, moral and imposing dilemma for Dr.Frankenstein. A horror film with strong science fiction/fantasy tropes. And the laboratory as gorgeous set pieces would become a staple of the science fiction realm.
The 1950s Science Fiction genre took root with it’s profouns contribution to our collective consciousness AS a genre its vision & breadth possessed quintessential & ever-lasting sociological and psychological metaphors, iconic tropes and striking imagery.
The splitting of the atom, ushering in the atomic age and the collective anxiety most definitely was the catalyst for the many of the movie fantasy stories known as the 1950s Sci-Fi film.
“But no matter what else it might be, what makes a science fiction film science fiction is the fact that it is, in some sense, about science—and not only science but futuristic science. By that I mean that science fiction movies deal with scientific possibilities and technologies that do not exist yet but that might exist someday. Science fiction is the realm of the not-yet.”— “Cult Science Fiction Films” by Welch Everman
Ridley Scott – (Alien 1979, Blade Runner 1982) “When you come to the second World War You’ve got a very specific enemy. You know what that enemy is, It’s there for all the wrong reasons and it should be prevented…. Then you got the next phase which is The Cold War again which is to do with paranoia . But I think real, it’s real. Movies started to dip into that.”
“The Splitting of the atom…. forces that can only be explained to us by these guys in white coats… All of a sudden the guys in white coats became these simultaneously kind of rock stars and the most evil thing you could imagine.”
In a scene from The Atomic City 1952– The mother’s child sitting at the kitchen table with his breakfast “If I grow up do you know what I’m gonna do?” The mother turns to him, leaving her scrambled eggs on the stove and corrects him nervously, “It’s when you grow up, not if…”
The Atomic City 1952 trailer
Duck & Cover 1951 classic propaganda film
From the short instructional film Duck and Cover “But no matter where they go or what they do they always try to remember what to do if the atom bomb explodes right then!” (the kids suddenly fall into the brick wall. The narrator says ) It’s a bomb DUCK & COVER!
James Cameron – “All of our fate as human beings, our destiny seems bound up in our technology and our technology is frightening. It’s Terrifying!”
Steven Spielberg- “So there was a great deal of anxiety in the air. It was not just fear of being beaten up by the local bully. But the fear was being NUKED!… But we almost pushed a button on each other during The Cuban Missile Crisis…… I was absolutely prepared for Armageddon and these movies from the 1950s and early 60s played on those fears. And these movies were all metaphors for those fears. ”
George Lucas- “I would say that there was a certain amount of anxiety about that I mean I grew up right in the very heat of that. DUCK & COVER drills all the time… We were always hearing about the fall out shelter. About the end of the world, issues that were always going on about how many bombs were being built. The Cold War was always in the media.”
1950s Sci-Fi films represented a conservatism or ‘reactionary wing’ that seems consumed by a motive to emphasize the values of 1950s America post WWII, in the midst of a McCarthy era witch hunt that prevailed fueling our fears that seeped into many of the Sci-Fi narratives on screen and in literature. Reflecting the growing internal struggles within American society and the developing mistrust about Soviet aggression and anyone and anything perceived as subversive.
“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?”
In 1947, in Roswell New Mexico the military reports that they have a UFO in their possession. The phenomena of sightings of UFOs would continue throughout the 1950s, though agencies were fully prepared to explain away the reports. Yet the public had a hunger to and fascination with the possibility of extra-terrestrials.
As Phil Hardy’s insightful take on the genre, all this manifested in a way that the Science Fiction films of the 1950s ‘supplanted horror as the genre that dealt with fear and paranoia.” The films expressed a very realistic look at science within the atomic age, and shed the shadows and expressionism of the earlier Gothic horrors and while not all scientific fact, tried to embrace a world of possibility.
The Flying Saucer 1950 begins the momentum for the decade of Science Fiction cinema’s love affair with unidentified objects and begins to round the edges of space crafts from other worlds that aren’t our American sharp and phallus shaped rockets!
DESTINATION MOON 1950 was featured in COLOR BY TECHNICOLOR. Being hailed the 2001, Space Odysseyof it’s time, it attempts to portray a realism trip to the moon. Phil Hardy calls Destination Moon 1950 ‘a sober celebration of man’s imminent conquest of space that dominated the decade.’
Destination Moon did attempt to accurately portray a trip to the moon given the technology and knowledge that was stuck in 1950.
Themes and metaphors that emerged from anxiety about the atom bomb, radiation fallout, the advent of modernity, the space race and the wanderlust to conquer outer space, interplanetary warfare, military vs. science hubris, science meddling with nature, fear of science and technology,invasion anxiety, continued fear of otherness, deviant (in terms of counter-culture not exclusively moral judgement) subversion and xenophobic nightmares.
Sometimes we were even married to a monster from outer space and didn’t even notice much of a difference except for the lack of small talk! Here’s Tom Tryon and Gloria Talbott in I Married a Monster from Outer Space 1958.
Director Howard Hawk and screenplay by Charles Lederer, created a striking science fiction masterpiece of film noir ambience with it’s chilling back lit set pieces-The Thing From Another World 1951, adapted from John W. Campbell’s story ‘Who Goes There?’, other films that followed the path of paranoia — Invaders from Mars 1953, War of the Worlds 1953, It Came from Outer Space 1953, It Conquered the World 1956 & Invasion of the body snatchers 1956.
There were also science fiction films that rang the warning bell about cosmic calamity and catastrophic world coming to an end, annihilation fantasies like When Worlds Collide 1951.
H.G. Well’s view of Martianinvaders created for the public consciousness the idea of destructive beings from another world. It was a great reflexive move for those science fiction films to portray aliens that were sympathetic, yet non-humanoid in appearance. Most Sci-Fi films show aliens as menacing, not only destructive but dangerous because they also wanted to keep us as captives, zap our resources and colonize our planet, sometimes even take our women, oh god no unhand Faith Domergueyou pants wearing Mutant!
“Is that a fireball or something?”
Hollywood saw a trend later on in the 50s with Destination Moon 1950 when they came upon a story written by Harry Bates called The Return of the Master this became Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951which has remained one of the best regarded science fiction films of all time. This is one of the rare occasions when the alien Klaatu played beautifully like an intricate clock by the chiseled face, tranquil speaking Michael Rennie is benevolent, bringing with him a sincere and dire warning about earth people’s course and the future of their civilization if they don’t relent about the proliferation of atomic weapons. There were several well intended alien visitors who were met with hostilities as with, Klaatu (Michael Rennie ) in Day the Earth Stood Still 1951, and The Man From Planet X 1951.
Many films, even the low budget excursions dealt with our primal fears of alienation, estrangement & loss of identity i.e.,(communism at it’s core, the ramifications of otherness) nothing hits home more than Invaders from Mars 1953, and the quintessential loss of self and individualism in Don Siegels’Invasion of the Body Snatchers!
“They would change into people who hate you!”
Steven Spielberg talks about the impact of Invaders from Mars 1953, “It certainly touched a nerve among all the young kids like myself who saw that movie at a very young age. That you would come home and that you would not recognize your mom and dad they would have changed into people who hate you!”
I can attest to the persuasion these films could have over the burgeoning imagination of a child, especially one like me who felt very much like an outsider as a kid. One night, as sure as my name is MonsterGirl, I went home, looked at my parents, decided they had been switched by aliens and ran out of the house, walking around the block for at least an hour before I convinced myself that I was being ridiculous. Or was I? These themes did have a not so subtle impact on a young impressionable mind who could easily question the world around them. Who could you trust? Would would believe you anyway?
Giant insects, sea creatures and people who ran around half crazed and scantily dressed were a by-product of the atomic age!
George Lucas —“Out of that fear came I think a lot the monsters which you mess around with stuff and you’re gonna unleash this unknown monster!… it’s making tangible the unknown… A lot of that has to do with the mystery of this silent death that comes along with it that nobody knows exactly what it is or where it came from or can’t see it, can’t touch it. Well let’s make it easier to deal with by making it a giant monster.”
Some films show the ascension from violence & hyper-masculinity, Women as professionals & bold heroines who didn’t shrink as hysterical victims. Female dominated civilizations (Cat- Women of the Moon 1953, Queen of Outer Space 1958, Missile to the Moon 1958, Fire Maidens from Outer Space 1956, that threatened to maniacally seduce & subsume male voyagers, dressed by 5th avenue they are outré chic. Wanton warriors & nubile space maidens who often never saw the male species before or wanted to destroy them altogether!
A tagline reads “SEE-Astounding she-beasts of Venus!”
In Queen of Outer Space 1958 the masked disfigured Queen Yilana (Zsa Zsa Gabor) imprisons the men who crash land on her planet, intending to annihilate the earth with her beta disintegrator, though her beautiful subjects revolt in the name of love.
Mark Hamill –“We sometimes imagined other planets as paradises…. with girls!!! they looked more Hollywood starlets than space aliens, anyway they were eager to please. Their dancing their music their leotards were so Moderne! like Greenwich Village in outer space.” referring to Cat-Women of the Moon 1953.
“May we serve you earth men?”
“You’re the first man I’ve ever seen!” Carol Brewster as Alpha is mesmerized
There’s nothing worse than a space Queen–The Lido (K.T. Stevens ) and one of her maidens in distress…
Mark Hamill who narrates the wonderful documentary written and directed by Richard Schickel Watch the Skies! Sci-Fi , the 1950s and Us presented by Turner Classic Movies also reminds us that “50s science fiction may have shot at the stars but the dialogue often remained earth bound tied up with the battle of the sexes.” Many prevailing sub-texts were also love stories, soap operas involving relationships between men and women.They would create love stories in space!
Project Moonbase 1953 Donna Martell as Colonel Briteis (bright eyes?)
Cameron Mitchell plays Steve Abbott in Flight to Mars 1953, who tells Marguerite Chapman as Alita a fellow scientist/astronaut, “I think you’re a prize package and very feminine.”
There is always time for romance in outer space!
There were menaces from without, menaces from within. The ordinary world transformed into the monstrous. There were warnings from benevolent aliens and aggressive attacks by aliens who wanted to colonize our planet.
The indie filmmakers introducing teenagers as both heroes & monsters. Many films were horror/sci-fi hybridizations. And by the end of the decade we were left a legacy of impressive productions that remain timeless masterpieces, the cult grade- B Sci-Fi picture with their indelible charm and kitsch emblems, and the true stinkers that are so bad there too good not to appreciate. Sublime, thrilling, provocative & yes campy!
Within the 50s decade shedding the Gothic themes of the 30s & 40s, the poetic shadow plays of Val Lewton,1950s Sci-Fi films had a pre-occupation with the modern world and mostly all the central menaces were transformed into non-human threats that we not only couldn’t empathize with but were revolted against as dangerous, vicious, insidious and potentially nihilistic in vision, they were seen as only a threat to our humanity and ultimately would lead to our destruction.
Within Sci-Fi there are so many films which are complex hybridizations of horror/science fiction /fantasy and have become too insurmountable to dissect or decipher all the nuances between the various free-floating genres. Writer critic historian Robin Wood in his Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan.—wagers that “the horror film’s radical potential lies in the fact that ‘the true subject of the horror genre is the struggle for recognition of all that our civilization represses or oppresses’ Jancovich states that the monster “must therefor be seen as a profoundly ambiguous figures which challenges social norms and so reveals society’s repressive monstrosity.”
This theme is attached to McCarthyism that showed up as coded narratives in the more highly produced Sci-Fi films- “the myth of Communism as total dehumanization—accounts for the prevalence of this kind of monster in that period” -Mark Jancovich -Rational Fears- American Horror in the 1950s.
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) Ray Harryhausen’s Ymir from Venus
It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) Ray Harryhausen’s The Kraken
Cinematographers who brought these visual narratives & landscapes to life- just to name a few!
Clifford Stine (It Came from Outer Space 1953,This Island Earth 1955, Imitation of Life 1959,Spartacus 1960) Sidney Hickox(Them! 1954, The Big Sleep 1946,Dark Passage 1947,White Heat 1949), John F. Seitz(Invaders from Mars 1953, Sullivan’s Travel’s 1941m Double Indemnity 1944, Sunset Boulevard 1950), Russell Harlan ( The Thing from Another World 1951, Red River 1948, Witness for the Prosecution 1959 To Kill a Mockingbird 1962) George Barnes(War of the Worlds 1953, Rebecca 1940, Spellbound 1945) Leo Tover(The Day the Earth Stood Still 1951, Hold Back the Dawn 1941,The Snake Pit 1948, The Woman on the Beach 1947,The Heiress 1949, Journey to the Center of the Earth 1959) Ellsworth Fredericks(Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956, Hold Back the Night 1956,The Stripper 1963, Mister Buddwing 1966)
And just as key to the atmosphere and attitude of the films were the musical contributions which defined that certain feel of chills and excitement, screwball antics and off-beat perscussion that filled up your head with pulsing visions of laser beams and other-worldly noises that ran up your spine like a finely coiled wire resonating the confluent sounds of the cosmos! Geesh that was a mouthful!
There were composers who masterfully underscored some of the BEST films and even the worst!, Dimitri Tiomkin * Bronislau Kaper * Bernard Herrmann *Hans J. Salter and Henry Mancini to name a few.
Instrumentalist Clara Rockmore mastered the Theremin which had a cosmic, universal vibe that was, well out of this world!
The Theremin is an electronic musical instrument created by Russian inventor , Léon Theremin controlled by the performing thereminist who makes the dulcet eerie tones by manipulating the two metal antennas that respond to the hand movements