Here’s a little treat for your Halloween goodie bag! And check out my interview with Sara, daughter of horror legend Boris Karloff!
Sure as his name is Boris Karloff… the legend endures: My Chat with Sara Karloff
Sure as his name is Boris Karloff… the legend endures: My Chat with Sara Karloff
Last October I had the incredible opportunity to reconnect with Sara Karloff at the Chiller Theater Convention here in New Jersey. It’s really hard to put into words the feeling you get when you’re actually talking to a gracious, elegant, kind, regal and lovely woman who happens to be the daughter of the man you’ve worshiped since a young child.
I met Sara the year before at the same nostalgic celebration of classic, cult film and retro television royalty (The Chiller Theatre Convention) and she invited me to sit with her and talk for a while. At the time, fans were buzzing around trying to get autographs and buying memorabilia with images of her father’s influential work in horror pictures, or should I say ‘terror’ pictures, as Boris would refer to those kinds of narratives in film.
Boris Karloff will forever be remembered for bringing Mary Shelley’s existential monster to life, embodied with pathos and empathy. Karloff is the infinite soul of the monster. His character was my introduction to horror films and to a whole new world where I experienced a sense of belonging. Meeting Sara was the closest I could ever get to my hero Boris Karloff. I truly never imagined I would have the honor of connecting in this way, with the great man who changed my perceptions by opening up my heart to love the mysteries of life and the thrill of being both scared and delighted.
So there I sat with this striking, dignified woman who shared and shares her life with my idol, Boris Karloff, who appear in over 200 films and television programs during his legendary career. He will always be the never-ending expression of a genre that refuses– like Frankenstein’s monster– to die. Part of Karloff’s great legacy is how he brought us all together and gave horror fans a hero.
During the reign of Universal’s claim to what would become the most famous monsters in cinematic history, Karloff elevated the studio’s output with his limitless beauty by interpreting the genre through great instinct and intellect, not just in James Whale’s tragic monster in Frankenstein 1931 but as Imhotep in The Mummy 1932.
A few of my favorite Boris Karloff films are three of Val Lewton’s psychological metaphors of fear where he showed the range of his acting skills. The masterpieces Bedlam, Isle of the Dead, and The Body Snatcher were sparked ‘alive’ by his gentle soul and his ability to dive into authentically sinister roles manifesting truly dark, menacing fiends and yet it was the exact opposite of who he was in real life, a fine English gentleman who possessed grace and kindness.
Boris as Cabman John Gray in Val Lewton’s The Body Snatcher (1945) directed by Robert Wise
Boris as General Nikolas Pherides in Val Lewton/Mark Robson’s Isle of the Dead (1945)
Some of my favorite performances are the set of three films, The Black Cat 1934, The Raven 1935 and The Invisible Ray 1936, all co-starring Bela Lugosi. These pictures too, showcased Karloff’s ability to elicit chills on a wholly deeper level possessing a true passion and understanding for creating thoughtful scary stories. He could be imposing as the crazed Morgan in The Old Dark House 1932, playing twin brothers good & evil in The Black Room 1935, the tragic pianist framed for murder in The Walking Dead 1936. And I adore his more sympathetic and benevolent characters as well — Before I hang 1940, The Devil Commands 1941, Corridors of Blood 1958, and The Haunted Strangler 1958.
Boris in James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932)
Boris and Bela in Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934)
Boris and Bela in The Raven (1935)
Boris Karloff as John Ellman in Michael Curtiz’s The Walking Dead (1936)
Boris as Dr. Janos Rukh in Lambert Hillyer’s The Invisible Ray (1946)
Boris as Dr. Julian Blair in The Devil Commands (1945) directed by Edward Dmytryk
Boris as Dr. Bolton in Corridors of Blood (1958)
I’ve enjoyed his films since I was a girl, and I continually watch everything in his long body of work, as I never tire of seeing his incredible talent, his serious portrayals and his wonderful light that shines through every performance. He has many layers to his persona, but his class, kindness, and thoughtful embrace of the work that are ever present. Boris has the unparalleled ability to Immortalize the sinister only to be counterbalanced by his divine power in other roles, to draw out our sympathy. He will always be the eternal paradoxical face of terror and gentility.
Sara and I had the most warm and welcoming conversation over the course of that day, and I had the chance to tell her about my deep and abiding affection for her dad. I was in a sparkling daze, because I felt like I was talking to her father as well, and I believe she enjoyed spending time with me too. Sara Karloff is so gracious and delightful about her devotion to her father’s fan’s.
One little part of our exchange at Chiller…
I told her, “He elevated each film to a higher level because of the quality of his acting, the dimension to his emotional output, his body language and that exquisite voice. A soft and dream like tone that is both calming and poetic.
His legacy is that he brought honor to the genre of horror. He contributed to the world an incredible body of work, and he will be remembered so dearly by so many of his. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said I wished he had been my grandfather.“ She replied, “He would have like that, he would have been my grandfather.” The words shot through me with warmth and the joy of awaking from a wonderful dream. Because she meant it.
I told her, “He exuded such a gentility, that even with his most brutal characterizations in film, you always knew it was the actor of the man. And quite the grand actor he was. I wanted to mention, how much his voice is so unique. He has a depth, and a pathos that no other actor possesses.”
She replied, “You are correct about his voice. It was remarkable. It not only was his British accent, but the way he could soothe you or scare you with his voice. He was indeed a fine actor and a wonderful human being.”
We had a longer conversation that day, laughing and talking about contributions he made to dramatic television performances aside from the collection of well-remembered films, from silents to drama, his films were not exclusive to the horror genre. Talking about Boris makes me dewy and teary eyed, explaining what I think about his great body of work and the legacy he left us as one of the most memorable cultural icons.
Even though he is the recognized face of ‘horror’, early on Boris Karloff acted in many different films with varying scenarios and narratives that weren’t connected to the classical horror genre. James Whale’s Frankenstein for Universal was Boris Karloff’s 81st picture. He had done theatre and dramatic films, like Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code 1930 where his brilliant performance as Galloway had a particularly restrained hostility. As neither a monster or bad guy, he created a figure of dark and shadowy apprehension.
He also appeared in the ultra violent Scarface 1932 for Howard Hawks. Aside from being the host of CBS’s Thriller anthology series, where he opened up each episode with his own ominous epilogues for Thriller with his cheeky sense of humor, “Sure as my name is Boris Karloff — this is a thriller!”
Boris’ droll epilogue to Thriller episode Roses Last Summer starring Mary Astor
My most favorite performances were his collaborations with Val Lewton. They are psychological in tone and gave Karloff the highly layered characterizations that allowed him to reveal his dynamic versatility surpassing his monster image in the Universal cycle of horror films. Lewton gave Karloff a place to flex his subtlety of the human psyche and how we all struggle with light and darkness of the soul and he captured that nuance brilliantly. While Universal excelled by manifesting corporeal monsters, Val Lewton played on the monsters of the mind. Here Boris was able to convey these darker complex personalities with depth. Lewton used elements of dark and light within us all, and Boris Karloff was a master at dancing between the shadows of Val Lewton’s complex vision.
And that is what he managed to portray within Jack Pierce’s make up for Frankenstein’s monster. Beneath the fierce snarling innocent that rose from death and was born into a cruel world, judged by his ugliness and his otherness, Karloff imbued the monster with a sadness that evoked pity. He could transmit that to us, through his eyes and his thoughtful movements.
Since the last time we spoke, Sara and I have maintained a connection and I had the great privilege of continuing our conversation where I got to discuss her iconic father a bit more. If COVID-19 hadn’t thrown the world into chaos and changed how we now interact with each other, this month would have been another wonderful celebration- spending the day together regaling Boris Karloff’s career and the man himself.
Jo: Hello, Sara?
Jo: Hi, it’s Jo Gabriel. How are you feeling?
Sara: I’m better, thank you. I’m still recovering but I’m better.
Jo: Yes, you sound a little bit better.
Sara: Yes, I am. I’m listening to your CD.
Jo: You are! And?
Sara: I am enjoying it immensely!
Jo: Oh, that’s good! I wanted you to like it.
Sara: Oh, it’s marvelous.
Jo: Oh, good!
Sara: It’s so relaxing and it’s so autumnal (I never can say that word). And it’s just like walking through the woods and it’s like listening to a brook babble. It’s just wonderful.
Jo: Are you feeling up to doing a little talking about your Dad?
Sara: Sure, I’d be glad to.
Jo: Ok, wonderful, because as I said, I’m going to start delving into his career and really doing a very extensive feature on him on my website. And in order to do that it’s going to take some time and some research and I really want to do a good job.
Sara: Oh, I’m sure you will.
Jo: Thank you. It’s a labor of love and I think it’s about time that I do it. And now that we have this connection I thought it would be good to include a little conversation with you about a few things I am curious about.
Sara: Ok, that’s fine.
Jo: So, you know, you and I when we were sitting and talking at Chiller, we talked a little bit about how your father loved working with Val Lewton.
Sara: Yes, indeed, he did.
Jo: Yes, Lewton’s work is very visual like poetry and I think a lot of the films showcase the depth of your dad’s versatility as an actor. His performances in those particular films were extraordinary. Do you want to tell me a little bit again about how he felt working with Lewton?
Sara: Well, I think I can only say what I’ve read and heard but my father said that working with Val Lewton and his films saved his soul. You know, he had made so many – well he made 3 Frankenstein films and then by the time he made the Val Lewton films the quality of the films being offered had really diminished. And he said that working with Val Lewton was such a joy. It was such a pleasure and such a joy because he and Lewton got along so beautifully. They were both well-educated and well-read men. And they enjoyed one another’s company. And those scripts were well written and well directed and well shot and well lit. And they were in black and white and they were suspenseful. And he and Val became good friends and my father really enjoyed doing those high-quality films after some of the ones he’d been doing. And they were well-received by the public. They’ve stood the test of time. My father got to certainly prove his acting skills. He enjoyed working with the other actors, working with good scripts. It just was a joy for my father to make those 3 films.
Jo: Yes I was going to ask about that. I know director Mark Robson and director Robert Wise were both really accomplished directors, but is there one particular film out of the three? I mean, I love Bedlam and thought that was extraordinary. But is there one that he talked about more?
Sara: You know my father didn’t talk about his work and he didn’t bring it home. But I do know that he was really very very pleased to have that opportunity. But I never heard him state a preference amongst those 3 films.
Jo: Well that’s interesting and I’m not surprised that Val Lewton was one of his favorites, favorite body of work to put his stamp on. So the other thing I was wondering – I have something written here. It says “Boris Karloff’s gentility and grace show through the monster, the Frankenstein’s monster. Which is partly why he’s so transcendent in that role, because of his embodiment of the monster. And I really think he, the monster, was beloved by your father and beloved by the fans. And he knew when to leave that character with dignity. Can you tell me a bit about his feeling about that role?
Sara: Well, you know, that role made such a pivotal difference in his life both personally and professionally. And he was forever grateful for that difference. And he felt a certain debt of gratitude to that role. He often would in tongue-and-cheek refer to the monster as his best friend. He did say the monster was the best friend any actor could ever have because it made such a huge difference in his life. But, it was his decision to stop playing that role after those 3 films because he felt that the storyline had been developed as far as it could or should be before it fell apart and before the creature became the brunt of bad scripts and bad jokes, as it did. And he just didn’t want to be a part of that because he did feel a debt of gratitude. My father was a very gracious human being. A very gentlemanly human being. He was an English gentleman with a very self-effacing sense of humor. He understood and portrayed the creature with a sense of pathos and elicited empathetic reactions from those viewers at that time. And he said that children got it. They understood the creature was the victim and not the perpetrator, and any acts of violence were reactions more than proactive. So, that’s the way he played it and that’s the way the audience perceived it.
Jo: Yes, and that was my introduction into horror films was feeling that sympathy towards his characterization and feeling empathy and feeling like I was on his side. And he was provoked and he didn’t do anything wrong, he didn’t even ask to be here. And just feeling that kind of camaraderie with the “other.” He evoked that in children and I think we’re all grateful to him for that.
Sara: Well, I think that is the reaction that his roles elicited and that was how he intended to play it. And I think that there were times when James Whale wanted a bit harsher performance and my father stuck to his guns.
Jo: Good, good! And he was right. It was good instincts.
Sara: I think it is proven to be so in cinema history.
Jo: Absolutely. He’s one of the most iconic figures. I think that’s why it’s so eternal and it’s because he was definitely right. And I think that anybody else who might’ve played Frankenstein’s monster, it would have been a who different ballgame.
Sara: Well, it would’ve been a different portrayal. And who knows if it would’ve been better. It would have been different. That’s all one can say.
Jo: Ehhh, I don’t know if it would’ve been better but I’m partial [laughs].
Sara: Well, you know it would’ve been different. [laughs] That’s all we can bet on.
Jo: [laughs] Yes, that’s for sure. Another thing that we talked about was his involvement with the television anthology show Thriller that he hosted and starred in 6 episodes. And he seemed to love his work on that. And his little introductions like little soliloquies, were so wonderful. Can we talk a little about that?
Sara: Oh, sure! He loved doing that show and he was proud of it. And again they were some of the best writers and actors and directors of the time involved with that show. And it was a fine, fine production. I mean, people like Ida Lupino, I mean you can look at the jackets for each show and recognize the names today…
Jo: Yes, John Brahm. They had a host of good writers and actors, and the character actors were wonderful.
Sara: They were indeed. And then as you said, my father’s introduction to each was a bit, not really tongue-in-cheek, but he had a good time doing them.
Jo: And you could see that he really did. And you could see in the beginning they were trying to figure out where they wanted the show to go. Whether it was going to be more crime thriller like Alfred Hitchcock or if it should be more supernatural. And I think once your father took over and started doing the hosting I think it really went in the right direction.
Sara: Well it did indeed. And it captured a large piece of the audience, the viewing audience. And gave Hitch a run for his money.
Jo: Oh yes, I know. I had heard there was something where Hitchcock extended his show to an hour to try to compete with Thriller because it was doing these 50 minute episodes that were like little movies. So I heard there was some kind of, I guess, competition between the two. But I thought Thriller was very unique and very self contained and had it’s own thing going for it. You know I was reading that Boris worked on something like 80 pictures and stage performances before he landed the role of Frankenstein’s monster.
Sara: It was his 81st film.
Jo: Yes, it was his 81st film. That’s incredible. And I was reading in particular that he did a lot of work with director Howard Hawks where he worked on The Criminal Code and Scarface. I know he didn’t bring home his work or talk about it, but it is fascinating that there’s this whole other aspect of him before he played the monster.
Sara: He did a lot of silents, and a lot of serials. He referred to himself as having been an extra 3rd from the left in the 4th row. He was in the business 10 years and nobody knew it. And 20 years, 10 years in British Columbia in theatre and then 10 years in Hollywood. And as he said Frankenstein was his 81st film and nobody saw the first 80.
Jo: [laughs] Right, right. But now they do. Now they go and they revisit a lot of his work, I know I do.
Sara: And they’re trying to redo some of his silents and put them back together.
Jo: Oh, that’s wonderful.
Sara: Yes, that’ll be fun if they’re able to do that.
Jo: Yes, that would be wonderful. Last year, the year before this one, when we first met, we had a good laugh about the picture The Raven which your father costarred in with Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone and how they used to play practical jokes on one another. Do you remember the story you told? They were playing tricks on the set and I just don’t remember quite all of it…
Sara: Well one of the… I can’t remember which of the two films it was, Basil was put in a vat and they thrown all sorts of awful things into that vat of water like cigarette butts and I don’t remember what else. And then they sat one it when he was in there and wouldn’t let him out.
Jo: [laughs] Oh my goodness! So were they always doing things like that?
Sara: Well that’s one example, I don’t know all of them. A lot of them are lost to history. And I know that Peter Lorre had a tendency to not learn his lines and adlibbed which drove my father crazy.
Jo: Oh, really? Oh that’s interesting [laughs].
Sara: And Vincent was much better at handling that than my father. My father was a stickler for himself learning lines and speaking on cue. And Peter, I guess, drove everybody crazy, including Roger Corman, because he didn’t learn his lines and he adlibbed a lot.
Jo: Wow, right. You’d think that Roger Corman would encourage adlibbing because he would just go for broke. He’d do anything on the set. And I could see Vincent Price being… he was a bit of a jokester too, so…
Sara: Oh yes, all of them where. All of them had a wonderful sense of humor.
Jo: Yeah, they must’ve had a fantastic time together as an ensemble of actors with each bringing their own thing to the table.
Sara: Oh, indeed and they had such a good time working together because they’d know each other all for years and respected one another professionally, and liked each other personally. And having a chance to spoof their own boogeyman images in these films was a great treat.
Jo: Yes, definitely. Well I have just one more question for you. Beyond being one of the most beloved icons, he’s definitely the finest caliber of actor. And I think he transcends the ideology of the horror genre.
Sara: Oh yeah, he did some comedy and he guest stared on an enormous number of television shows of the day. He did some drama. He did a Joseph Conrad with Roddy McDowell and he did all sorts of things.
Jo: Oh yes, I’ve seen that performance and it was actually an extraordinary performance. Well, one of the things that strikes me about him is that he gives a very emotional and thoughtful contemplation on the human condition. He seems to tap into—in the most subtle ways—people’s personalities and the inner machinations of people in his performances. And that’s probably why the Val Lewton films were so important to him because they were very psychological and suggestive. But this is the question, and I don’t know if you can answer it. What do you think your father would want his greatest legacy to be?
Sara: Oh, I can’t really answer that. I think that he was a man of integrity and kindness.
Jo: And that’s it. That’s his legacy. Because that’s what seems to remain. I always hear how gentle he was and how gracious he was with the people he worked with. Well, then, putting it this way his legacy definitely lives on through that and through his timeless work. And you travel all over as a curator of his memory. Are there things you hear quite often or most commonly about your father’s legacy? Is there one common thing that comes up when you speak to his fans about him?
Sara: Ah, that he was so different than the roles he played. That he was a man of great kindness and gentleness. And how different that was from his roles. And that he had a sense of humor.
Jo: Well, that’s what strikes me about him. And I say this to you honestly that when I see him, whenever he comes on the screen, I cry because I feel his gentleness coming through. No matter what he’s playing. He could be playing the most nefarious sinister character and yet I know that he’s Boris Karloff and I know he’s acting and I get into the film. But it makes me cry because I feel like there is such a greatness there. And it comes through. And I mean it that I really wished he was my grandfather [laughs].
Sara: [laughs] Well, he was a lovely man, he really was. He was a lovely human being.
Jo: I wish I could have met him. I mean I feel close to him in a way because we’re talking and I see his legacy lives through you. And you keep that alive…
Sara: Well, his fans keep it alive. His fans keep his legacy alive. For which I am extremely grateful.,
Jo: Yes, but you keep it alive too. You do a great job of reminding us that he gave us you and…
Sara: And he gave us his body of work.
Jo: Yes, he did that too. And I will always love him…
Sara: Well, that’s wonderful to hear certainly as his daughter.
Jo: I really want to thank you for spending this time talking with me about him. And I think that the fans are absolutely going to love it. And you have my music to keep you company.
Sara: I do indeed. Thank you so much. It’s just beautiful, I’m enjoying it immensely.
Jo: Thank you, I love playing piano. That’s one of my great passions.
Sara: Well, you can tell from your music.
Jo: Thank you.
Sara: How long have you been playing?
Jo: Since I was 8 years old. For many years I taught myself how to play.
Sara: Did you really?
Jo: Yes, I was going to be trained as a classical pianist and I did have recommendations to Juilliard. But I chose to play my own music and not go the classical route. And I’m happy for that because I play my own work. And I don’t think not training hurt me any…
Sara: Oh heavens, no. It’s beautiful.
Jo: Yes, I wanted to find my own way. And I’m very proud of it.
Sara: Well, I can see why, thank you for sharing it with me.
Jo: Thanks for letting me share it with you. Use it for your healing and I’ll be in touch with you. I’ll send you the finished piece but we’ll speak before that.
Sara: That’s great, thank you so very very much.
Jo: You’re welcome and thank you for spending time.
The Unknown Terror (1957)
The Golem (1920)
The Man from Planet X (1951)
Woman in the Moon (1931)
Four Sided Triangle (1953)
Doctor X (1932)
City of the Dead aka Horror Hotel (1960)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)
It Came from Outer Space (1953)
The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
Not of this Earth (1957)
Terror is a Man (1959)
The Giant Claw (1957)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943)
The Thing from Another World (1951)
The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
Corridors of Blood (1958)
The Seventh Victim (1943)
The Queen of Spades (1949)
It Conquered the World (1956)
The Invisible Man Returns (1940)
The Raven (1932)
House of Dracula (1945)
Isle of the Dead (1945)
The Bad Seed (1956)
13 Ghosts (1960)
Horror Island (1941)
The Last Man on Earth (1964)
CODED CLASSIC HORROR THEORY “The Uncanny & The Other”
“Scenes of excessive brutality and gruesomeness must be cut to an absolute minimum…”
“As a cultural index, the pre-Code horror film gave a freer rein to psychic turmoil and social disorientation because it possessed a unique freedom from censorship… the Hays Office admits that under the Code it is powerless to take a stand on the subject of ‘gruesomeness.‘(Thomas Doherty)
Horror films in particular have made for a fascinating case study in the evolving perceptions of queer presence; queer-horror filmmakers and actors were often forced to lean into the trope of the “predatory queer” or the “monstrous queer” to claim some sense of power through visibility and blatant expressions of sexuality.- Essential Queer Horror Films by Jordan Crucciola-2018
Though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, they were willing to pay for scripts that dealt with characters that were social outcasts and sexually non-normative. The horror genre is perhaps the most iconic coded queer playground, which seems to have an affinity with homosexuality because of its apparatus of ‘otherizing’ and the inherent representation of difference. The horror genre crosses over boundaries that include transgressions between heterosexuality and queerness. The villain, fiend, or monster plays around with a variety of elements that while usually separate, might merge male and female gender traits.
The horror film, in particular, found its place asserting a queer presence on screen. The narratives often embraced tropes of the ‘predatory queer’ or the ‘monstrous queer’ in order to declare themselves visible while cinematic queers were elbowed out of the way. Filmmakers had to maneuver their vision in imaginative ways to subvert the structure laid out for them by the Code.
As Harry M. Benshoff explains in his book Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality in the Horror Film, “Immediately before and during the years of World War II, Universal Studio’s horror films began to employ a more humanistic depiction of their monsters,” and the films of Val Lewton, like Cat People, reflected “a growing awareness of homosexuality, homosexual communities, and the dynamics of homosexual oppression as it was played out in society and the military.” So even though Hollywood execs refused to show explicit queerness, during the first true horror boom in American cinema, they were willing to pay for stories about social outcasts and sexually nonnormative figures. Horror fans thus found themselves awash in some of the genre’s most iconic queer-coded characters of all time.
On a Greek Island, Boris Karloff plays Gen. Nikolas Pherides in Val Lewton/Mark Robsin’s Isle of the Dead 1945. Driven insane by the belief that Thea (Ellen Drew) who suffers from catalepsy is the embodiment of an evil vampiric force, is a demon called a vorvolaka. Lewton drew on collective fears, and all his work had an undercurrent of queer panic and a decipherable sign of homophobia.
The Vorvolaka has beset the island with plague. Thea- “Laws can be wrong, and laws can be cruel, and the people who live only by the law are both wrong and cruel.”
The Pre-Code era was exploding with American horror films, that reflected the angst, social unrest, and emotional distress that audiences were feeling. Personified in films that used graphic metaphors to act as catharsis, the images were often filled with rage, as Thomas Doherty calls it ‘the quality of gruesomeness, cruelty and vengefulness’. Think of the angry mobs with their flaming torches who hunt down Frankenstein’s monster, eventually crucifying him like a sacrificial embodiment of their fury. James Whale’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1931 was a smash hit for Universal. Other studios were trying to ride the wave of the awakening genre of the horror picture. Paramount released director Rouben Mamoulian’s adaption of the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1886. The film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 stars Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. During the period of Pre-Code, many horror films proposed grisly subject matter that would shock and mesmerize the audience. For example, actor/director Irving Pichel’s The Most Dangerous Game (1932) starring Joel McCrea, Leslie Banks, and Fay Wray.
In 1932 Michael Curtiz directed Doctor X starring Lionel Atwill who would become one of the leading mad scientists of the genre.
Michael Curtiz’s macabre horror/fantasy experiment of homosocial ‘men doing science’, crossing over into profane territories and embracing dreadful taboos!
All scenes below from Dr. X (1932)
Fay Wray is Atwill’s daughter who is the only woman surrounded by a group of scientific nonconformists.
The adaptation of Bram Stoker’s story of the Eastern European incubus was interpreted by Tod Browning in Dracula 1931, immortalized by Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi with his iconic cape and mesmerizing stare. While his nightly visitations were blood driven and cinematically sexual in nature, there is a very homoerotic element to his influence over Renfield (Dwight Frye) and his gaze of gorgeous David Manners as John Harker.
Robert Florey directed the macabre Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. And a film that has no connection to Poe’s story but in the name is one of the most transgressive, disturbing horror films rampant with vile taboos, such as necrophilia, incest, sadism, satanism, and flaying a man alive, is the unorthodox The Black Cat (1934). The film stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, one of four pictures they would do together. A pair of enemies who have a score to settle, ghosts of a past war, and stolen love all take place with the backdrop of a stylish Bauhaus set design and high-contrast lighting.
Paramount released Murders in the Zoo (1933) with Lionel Atwill a sadistic owner of a zoo, who uses wild animals to ravage and kill off any of his wife’s (Kathleen Burke) suitors. Kathleen Burke is well known as the panther girl in Erle C. Kenton’s horrifically disturbing Island of Lost Souls 1932, an adaptation of master fantasy writer H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. Incidentally, Welles, Laughton, and wife Elsa Lanchester had been good friends earlier on, before the filming of Lost Souls. The film stars Charles Laughton as the unorthodox, depraved scientist who meddles with genetics and nature. He creates gruesome human/animals, torturing them with vivisection in his ‘house of pain.’ The film also stars Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams, and Bela Lugosi as The Sayer of the Law.
And in 1933 King Kong shows a giant ape grasping the half-naked object of his affection with unmentionable connotations of bestiality between the ape and Fay Wray. With scenes of Wray writhing in his gigantic paws, he lusts after her, until his desire kills him. It’s almost like fantasy noir, the object of your desire, will ultimately kill you!
Re-assessing the Hitchcock Touch; by Wieland Schwanebeck -As Rhona Berenstein asserts, the horror genre “provides a primary arena for sexualities and practices that fall outside the purview of patriarchal culture, and the subgeneric tropes of the unseen, the host and the haunted house.”
By the same token, Kendra Bean concludes that Mrs. Danvers is portrayed as “a wraith; a sexual predator who is out to make Mrs. de Winter her next victim.”
Queer characters in horror films during the early period, reveal similarities between Mrs. Danvers and the staging of earlier sapphic characters, such as Gloria Holdens’s well-known portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter 1936. Yet, similar to the self-discipline of Mrs. Danvers, Dracula’s Daughter remains a figure of primacy and pity Ellis Hanson argues Dracula’s Daughter presents “the possibilities of a queer Gothic” early on in Hollywood history, “rich in all the paradox and sexual indeterminacy the word queer and the word Gothic imply.
There was a revival of the horror craze during the period of WWII. The Hollywood studios, both major and ‘Poverty Row” like Monogram and Republic realized that horror movies were a lucrative business. The studios began to revisit the genre looking for, not only fresh formulas, but they resurrected, the classic monsters, dropping them into new plots. They also envisioned uniting the gangster film with horror films, and this homogenizing led to a ‘queering’ of the two styles, that demonstrated phallocentric ( guns, scientific penetration) and homoerotic themes and images into a sub-genre.
Public awareness of homosexuality reached a new height during these years, primarily due to the new set of social conditions wrought by war. Slowly , the love that dare not speak its name was being spoken, albeit in ways almost always obscurantist, punitive and homophobic. The linkage of homosexuality with violence and disease remained strong. Monsters in the Closet -Harry Benshoff
Rhona Berenstein in her insightful book Attack of the Leading Ladies points out that films featuring the mad scientist trope operate with the homosocial principle which speaks of the homo eroticism of males working together in consort subverting science together, as a group of men who hide behind their objectification -the female object of their gaze, are in fact, figures of objectification themselves. They are simultaneously homosocial, homoerotic, and homophobic in aspect; … potentially possessing an extra-normative commitment between the two men.
Mad Doctor movies are homosocial in nature. The mad doctor movie is a subgenre that below the surface glorifies intimate male camaraderie and male homosexuality, and by the close of the picture, society, the prevailing culture must in turn annihilate, that which is repressed. But it is not exclusively a vehicle to express homosexuality through homosocial interactions. There is a component not only of male bonding, a world without women, the thrust is a synthesis of misogyny and patriarchal tyranny and oppression of women. Homosocial relationships between men in these science horrors show the man’s desire for connection to other men, even one created by his own hand.
According to (Twitchell) in his Dreadful Pleasures, and Attack of the Leading Ladies (Rona Berenstein) Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein in all three Universal pictures, was at least performing bisexuality. Whale’s 1933 Frankenstein might give way to the homosocial realm of the mad scientist trope, of ‘homoerotic indulgence’ as these men exclude women from the pursuit of their fulfillment. Twitchell views the scientist’s fluid sexuality in order to examine the concept of a man controlling women’s primacy of giving birth. This might explain Dr. Frankenstein’s venture into unnatural reproduction. A process he wants to divert to himself without women’s exclusive right to motherhood. In the scene where he is as close to giving birth to a full-grown man, he seems to display a sexual arousal, when his creation comes to life. Henry Frankenstein provokes nature and defies his heterosexuality. As Whale was an openly gay director in Hollywood, it can be pondered whether he knew exactly what he was suggesting. Thesiger’s sexually ambiguous, or okay, not so ambiguous Dr. Pretorius, the mad scientist who pressures Henry Frankenstein to revitalize his experiments and create a mate for the monster. Pretorius is the scientist who insists Henry continue his creative efforts in Bride of Frankenstein. Vitto Russo called Thesiger, a “man who played the effete sissy… with much verve and wit.”
George Zucco like Lionel Atwill often portrayed the unorthodox scientist who flirted with taboos. He plays mad scientist Dr. Alfred Morris in The Mad Ghoul (1943) As a university chemistry professor, he exploits medical student Ted Allison (David Bruce) with his experimental gas that transforms Ted into a malleable, yielding macabre ghoul, whom Morris directs to kill and remove the victim’s hearts using the serum to temporarily bring Ted back from his trance like death state. David Bruce’s character is represented as a ‘queer’ sort of young man. Not quite masculine and is unable to get his girlfriend Evelyn Ankers to fall in love with him. As the Mad Ghoul, he becomes a monstrous queer.
In 1932, director Tod Browning’s Dracula based on Bram Stoker’s story of a fiendish vampire who in a sexually implicit way, violates his victims by penetrating them with his fangs. The story pushed the boundaries of storytelling, and there was an inherent subtext of ‘queer’ ravishment when he sucks the blood of Dwight Frye to make him his loyal servant.
In Jonathan Harker’s Journal, the protagonist recounts his impressions of his interaction with the vampire, Dracula “As the Count leaned over me and his hands touched me I could not repress a shudder. It may have been that his breath was rank, but a horrible feeling of nausea came over me, which do what I would, I could not conceal.” For (Noël Carroll) the entry in his diary conveys revulsion by the Count’s closeness and offensive presence, which causes him to become sickened.
But it also could be read that Harker’s ‘shudder’ is not about his revulsion, but rather, an uncontrolled sexual response to the vampire’s looming over him which could be interpreted not just as hunger for his ‘blood’ but an expression of repressed sexual desire and the fear it causes.
Horror movies have always pushed the boundaries of normalcy, by virtue of the fact that these films are inhabited by ‘monsters’, something ‘queerly’ different. And it is natural to observe two diverging responses to the impact of the horror genre and often, its persecution of what is ‘different’ and the source of what causes our anxiety.
Dracula may appear as the image of a man, but the count is far from human. While monsters in classical horror films are based on systems of maleness, they are split from being actual men. Although there are physical interactions and suggestive contact with the heroine, there isn’t the foundation of heterosexuality, but something quite deviant, within their aggressively erotic encounters and/or assaults. The understanding of sexuality and the most narrow identifications that are assigned to varying orientations in a large sense is not translatable for the deeper layers of the monster and their relationship to their victims. In Hollywood, horror films can be seen as heterosexuality being invaded by an abhorrent outside force, inherent in the underlying message could be racism, classism, sexism, and gay panic. Though it can be interpreted as a landscape of heterosexuality that is in the full power of its universal presence, horror films are perfect platforms that can illustrate the collapse of heterosexuality and the subversion of sexuality.
The horror genre is a breeding ground for portrayals of the shattering of heterosexual power. This can be seen in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936) starring Gloria Holden as the sapphic vampire who lives in a New Village-type artist’s den, it signals her outsider status from domesticity and normalcy.
In White Zombie (1932) Bela Lugosi plays the eerily menacing Legendre. He turns men into lifeless workers who run the sugar mill. Legendre also begins to turn the plantation owner, Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer) into one of his zombies. His motivation for his control over people is ambiguous, though there seems to be sexual reasoning for both the beautiful Madeline (Madge Bellamy) and Beaumont. In the scene where Beaumont is nearly paralyzed, Legendre’s control over his male victim parallels the sexual entrapment of the movie’s heroine.
MAD LOVE (1935) I have conquered science! Why can’t I conquer love?
Karl Freund’s Grand Guignol Mad Love (1935) shifts from gazing at the female to gazing at the male. Here the focus is on Peter Lorre in his American screen debut as Dr. Gogol, who has an obsession with Frances Drake as Yvonne Orlac an actress who works at Grand Guignol Theatre. To Gogol, she is the typified defenseless heroine whom he tries to lure away from her husband Stephen (Colin Clive) using his knowledge of scientific alchemy.
Though Gogol tries to become Yvonne’s master, his Galatea, there are critics who read the struggle between the two men, as not just a rivalry for Yvonne’s love, but Gogol’s desire for Stephen as well. Gogol is responsible for grafting new hands onto Stephen’s mangled body after a train crash. Mad Love could fit the criteria for the subgenre of science/horror films where the male gaze is diverted from the female object toward other men, in this case, what connected the two was the preservation of Stephen’s hands. Why then is it not possible that the focus could shift from Gogol’s attraction to Yvonne to the homosocial dynamics between Gogol as a doctor and his subject Stephen?
Mad Love possesses some of the horror genre’s most tenacious performances of gender play. (Carol Clover) asks us to take a closer look at Freund’s film, it is less about the “suffering experienced by women, but at a deeper, more sustained level, it is dedicated to the unspeakable terrors endured by men.”
In a similar fashion to Waldo Lydecker’s (Laura) and Hardy Cathcart’s (The Dark Corner) pathology of objectifying Laura and Mari, Gogol worships Yvonne – his Galatea, with a measure of scopophilia that lies within his gaze upon the perfection of female beauty. To control and possess it. The pleasure is aroused by the mere indulgence of looking at her.
Gogol pays 75 francs to purchase the wax statue of Galatea. The seller remarks “There’s queer people on the streets of Montmartre tonight.”
Gogol’s maid Francoise talks to the statue, “Whatever made him bring you here. There’s never been any woman in this house except maybe me… “I prefer live ones to dead ones.”
A Time Magazine review of Mad Love in 1933 notes this queer appeal directly, even comparing Lorre’s acting skills to those of another homosexual coded actor: I find the comment about their faces rude and insulting to both Lorre and Laughton, both of whom I am a tremendous fan.
Mad Love’s insane doctor is feminized throughout the film… In fact, the same reporter who noted Gogol’s sadism argues for his feminine demeanor: “Lorre, perfectly cast, uses the technique popularized by Charles Laughton of suggesting the most unspeakable obsessions by the roll of a protuberant eyeball, an almost feminine mildness of tone, an occasional quiver of thick lips set flat in his cretinous ellipsoidal face. This reviewer came closer than any other to articulate the subtext of mad doctor movies. He seems on the verge of noting that Lorre, Like Laughton is an effeminate madman obsessed by unspeakable homosocial desire. – Attack of the Leading Ladies: Gender Sexuality and Spectatorship in Classic Horror Cinema by Rhona Berenstein
Frances Drake’s heroine masquerades as a wife who deludes herself into believing that her husband is more masculine than he really is. Gogol has a curious empathy with Stephen, whom he touches frequently and prolonged. Although Gogol pursues the heroine, Yvonne, at the theater, forcing a kiss on her, his focus is primarily manipulating Stephen’s body, rejoining his hands and massaging them to stimulate life back into them. When he realizes that Stephen’s hands cannot be grafted back successfully to his wrists, he turns to another man, the hands of a knife thrower who was executed as a notorious murderer. Once Stephen recovers from the surgery, he can no longer continue as a concert pianist but does develop the desire to throw sharp knives.
On the surface the plot of Mad Love appears to be a heterosexual obsession, the most unspoken context is the connection between Gogol and Stephen. “As is true of Frankenstein’s labor of love in Whale’s first film, Gogol sews men’s body parts together and the result is a monster of sorts. (Berenstein)
In the film’s climax, Yvonne hides in Gogol’s bedroom and pretends to be the wax statue of Galatea. When Gogol touches the statue, she lets out a scream. In a euphoric daze (as in the original story) he believes that he has the power to bring the statue of Galatea to life. Yvonne begs him to let her go as he tries to strangle her.
Stephen then rushes to his wife and holds her in his arms. With his eyes fixed on the offscreen space in which Gogol’s body lies, he croons: “My darling.” The homosocial desire is destroyed when Stephen murders Gogol who intones “Each man kills the thing he loves”— echoing on the soundtrack.
In the film’s closing moments, the secret desire is finally spoken out loud…Has Stephen killed the man he loves? Given that the phrase that Gogol mutters was written originally by Oscar Wilde, whose homosexuality scandalized the British social and legal system in 1895, reading the homosocial desire into Mad Love within the very last moments we are left to decipher the suspended cues. We are left with Stephen’s gazing at Gogol’s face and his knifed body as he lay dying, he speaks the words, ‘My darling” while the camera frames the two men sharing that moment in the closing scene.
The mad doctor narrative is particularly predisposed to homosocial impulses. “intense male homosocial desire as at once the most compulsory and the most prohibited of social bonds” – Epistemology of the Closet (Sedgwick)
Sedgwick investigated early fantasy/horror novels, Shelley’s Frankenstein 1818, Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886, and Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau 1895. At the beginning of the 1930s, these stories centered around mad doctors who delved into unorthodox, profane explorations and were all adapted to the screen. All of these nefarious or scientific, inquisitive men, cultivated secret experiments, challenging the laws of nature. What Sedgwick found was that the Gothic literary representations of men performing homosocial collaborations were ‘not socially sanctioned and shunned.’
It was considered a necessary narrative element as well as a monstrous possibility that threatened to subvert the status quo. The combination of these two attitudes is expressed in homosocial narratives- male bonding is both horrifying and guaranteed, entailing the simultaneous introjection and expulsion of femininity. (Sedgwick)
James Whale was a gay auteur who often imbued his work intentionally or with the ‘intentional fallacy’ of a ‘queer’ sense of dark humor. This comical, campy absurdity, was always on the edge of his vision of horror and subtle profanity. His picture The Invisible Man (1933) adapted from H.G. Wells’s story and starring Claude Rains, was classified as a horror film by the Code.
Dr. Jack Griffin (Rains) the antihero, is a frenzied scientist, addicted to his formula as he seeks the ability to make himself invisible. His sanity begins to ‘vanish’ as his hunger for power, delusions of grandeur, and bursts of megalomania grow out of control. He plans on assassinating government officials, and he becomes more belligerent the longer he turns invisible. The idea that he displays radical ideas and runs around in the nude didn’t seem to arouse the censors, In 1933, a letter from James Wingate to Hays states, “highly fantastic and exotic [sic] vein, and presents no particular censorship difficulties.”
What’s interesting about the presentation of the story, is that the coded gay leitmotifs were paraded out, right under the Code’s noses, and didn’t stir any indignation for its ‘queer’ humor.
Gloria Stuart and Claude Rains in James Whale’s The Invisible Man 1933
The Invisible Man perpetrates campy assaults on all the ‘normal’ people in his way. With intervals of sardonic cackles and golden wit, and at the same time, a menacing reflection of light and shadow. Claude Rains is a concealed jester who makes folly of his victims.
“An invisible man can rule the world. Nobody will see him come, nobody will see him go. He can hear every secret. He can rob, and wreck, and kill.” –Dr. Jack Griffin (The Invisible Man)
Claude Rains plays Dr. Jack Griffin an outsider (a favorite of James Whale’s characters) who discovers the secret of invisibility which changes him from a mild yet arrogant scientist into a maniacal killer. The film bares much of Whale’s campy sense of humor, with Griffin’s comic shenanigans abound until things turn dark and he becomes uncontrollably violent. “We’ll begin with a reign of terror, a few murders here and there, Murders of great men, Murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. I might even wreck a train or two… just these fingers around a signalman’s throat, that’s all.”
According to Gary Morris (Bright Lights Film Journal), ‘The film demands crypto-faggot reading in poignant scenes such as the one where he reassures his ex-girlfriend, who begs him to hide from the authorities: “the whole worlds my hiding place. I can stand out there amongst them in the day or night and laugh at them.”
Though Griffin’s (Claude Rains) character is unseen at times, there are potent moments, when he is animated as he skips to the tune, “Here we go gathering nuts in May” flitting around like a fairy. It is suggested that The Invisible Man is a metaphor for the way homosexuals are seen/not seen by society – as “effeminate, dangerous when naked, seeking a male partner in “crime”, tending to idolize his fiance rather than love her, and becoming ‘visible’ only when shot by the police…monitored by doctors, and heard regretting his sin against God (i.e., made into a statistic by the three primary forces oppressing queers: the law, the medical establishment, and religious orthodoxy” (Sedgwick)
The Invisble Man [undressing] “They’ve asked for it, the country bumpkins. This will give them a bit of a shock, something to write home about. A nice bedtime story for the kids, too, if they want it”
Continue reading “Chapter 4 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”
THE LAND OF MORAL AMBIGUITY: HOLLYWOOD & THE HAYS CODE
Prior to the Production Code, LGBT characters were somewhat prevalent, if heavily stereotyped and exploited, in a number of major films. The 1920s especially were a time of shifting societal norms and expanding artistic experimentation. As women rode the first wave of feminism and prohibition was increasingly challenged, filmmakers began to expand their boundaries and feature more controversial plotlines. – Sophie Cleghorn
Pre-Code was a brief period in the American film industry between the dawn of talking pictures in 1929 and the formal enforcement in 1934 of the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPC) familiarly known as the Hays Code. Pre-Code was a glorious time in the history of cinema. It was during the Depression Era before the cultural politics of Clergy and reformer organizations came in and initiated the need for moral governance over the film industry. Their interference evolved into the Hays Code created to oversee silent and talking pictures.
In the late 1920s before the Hays Code, films began to speak becoming audible and more realistic as Hollywood recognized that many Americans knew all about sex. In the early era of talkies during the gutsy cinema of the Depression era, there was nothing stopping the studios from producing daring films. Hollywood movies weren’t afraid to show gay characters or reference their experiences. Ironically, queers were pretty visible onscreen at this time in American cinema. These characters left an impression on trade papers like Variety which called this phenomenon – “queer flashes.”
Also in the early twenties, there were notorious scandals on and off-screen. Hollywood’s moral ambiguity was literally in the clutches of the Hays Code which the MPPDA used to wage a moral battle against Hollywood that they perceived would eventually lead to cultural ruination. The priggish William Hays was a deacon in the Presbyterian church, a former chair of the Republican party, and postmaster general before he was picked to lead the war on decadence in the movie industry. William Hays was appointed chairman of the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (MPPDA) from the year it was established in 1922 to 1945, but the Hays Code was not overturned until 1968. Hays and his code regulated film content for nearly forty years. The little worm.
W.C.Fields and Franklin Pangborn- Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
The Hays Code became a series of self-imposed, perceived-to-be-moral guidelines that told filmmakers and the major studios what was permissible to do in their movies. The Code was established in 1930, and the MPPC set forth censorship guidelines that weren’t yet strictly enforced. And states had their own censorship boards and so their individual standards varied. Hays tried to contain his guidelines without the intrusion of government censorship, so he created his own Production Code that was for all intents and purposes optional for studios.
They felt that the liberal themes of films in the 1920s were contributing to the supposed debauchery infiltrating society. They championed government censorship as the solution to return society to its traditional moral standards (Mondello).
In June 1927, Hays publicized a list of cautionary rules. A construct of ‘Don’ts and Be Carefuls’. The document and empowering legislation spelled out guidelines for propriety on screen in classic Hollywood that became known as the Production Code. It was co-authored in 1929 by Martin J. Quigley, a prominent Catholic layman, editor of the journal Motion Picture Herald, and Reverend Daniel A. Lord, a Jesuit Priest. Their collaboration reflected a ‘Victorianism’ that would tint the freedom of Hollywood’s creative license. “The Production Code was a template for a theological takeover of American cinema.” “No picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it.”
“Just Ten of the Thous Shalt Nots”
While the Code did not explicitly state that depictions of homosexuality were against the Code, the Code barred the depiction of any kind of sexual perversion or deviance, which homosexuality fell under at the time. -Wikipedia
“The courts of the land should not be presented as unjust…”
Prostitution and fallen women
“Brothels and houses of ill-fame are not proper locations for drama. They suggest to the average person at once sex sin, or they excite an unwholesome and morbid curiosity in the minds of youth…”
“Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing…”
“Dancing costumes cut to permit indecent actions or movements are wrong… Dances suggesting or representing sexual actions or indecent passion are forbidden…”
Adultery and the sanctity of marriage
“Adultery as a subject should be avoided… It is never a fit subject for comedy. Thru comedy of this sort, ridicule is thrown on the essential relationships of home and family and marriage, and illicit relationships are made to seem permissible, and either delightful or daring.”
Boris Karloff is Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s creation. Make-up by Jack Pierce.
By the time the sequel Bride of Frankenstein was released in 1935, enforcement of the code was in full effect and Dr. Henry Frankenstein’s overt God complex was forbidden. In the first picture, however, when the creature was born, his mad scientist creator was free to proclaim “Now I know what it feels like to be a God.”
‘Don’ts’ included “profanity,” “sex hygiene,” “miscegenation,” and “ridicule of the clergy.” There was a much longer list of ‘Be carefuls’ which indicated it was offensive to “show sympathy for criminals,” “arson,” “surgical operations,” “excessive or lustful kissing” and of course “HOMOSEXUALITY.”
Hays appointed Colonel Jason S. Joy to be in charge of the supervisory agency, the Studio Relations Committee. Once the first talky The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson was released a newly fired-up rebel cry was heard from the hoity-toity do-gooders who raised objections against Hollywood’s immorality. What was once suggestive in silent pictures was now committed to sound, with all its risque humor and wicked context.
In 1934 censorship was tightening its stranglehold. Under pressure from the Catholic Church and other religious groups, the Motion Picture Production Code made it so that any marginal gay characters became masked in innuendo, relying on queer symbolism instead. Several grassroots organizations were founded in order to pressure the film industry, the most influential of all was the Catholic Legion of Decency.
So, between the Code and state censorship boards, one might expect that films produced after 1930 would be exemplars of wholesomeness and purity. In practice, the men who enforced the Code on behalf of the MPPDA (Jason Joy and James Wingate) were wholly ineffectual, primarily due to the very small staffs they were allotted to keep up with the work of reviewing scripts, treatments and finished films while battling studios that weren’t especially thrilled by the bottleneck caused by the whole operation. The combination of bureaucratic sclerosis and the economic, political and cultural crisis brought about by the Great Depression ushered in a vibrant era of filmmaking and the introduction of many stars whose personas would forever be rooted in their pre-Code films.- Mike Mashon
The Code set in place in 1930 was a turning point in the history of self-regulation. With the strict enforcement of the Production Code, they attempted to influence the discourse in American film without coming out and definitively stating which contexts were strictly forbidden. Instead, they issued phrases like “should be avoided” and “should not suggest.” Though a variety of controversial topics weren’t vigorously banned by the Production Code, gay characters WERE strictly prohibited.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) directed by Alfred Hitchcock- Peter Lorre
When the Hays Code was adopted in 1930, they articulated that, “though regarding motion pictures primarily as entertainment without any explicit purpose of teaching or propaganda, they know that the motion picture within its own field of entertainment may be directly responsible for spiritual or moral progress, for higher types of social life, and for much correct thinking.”
When the MPPDA formally ratified The Code, they demanded that it be followed to the letter but it “lacked an effective enforcement mechanism” – and the studio heads openly defied its frame of mind and its puritanical spirit.
The movie studios had other pressing issues of concern. It was the Great Depression, and studios were barely making it, on the brink of ruin due to low ticket sales. They were quite ready to fight with states over censorship because sex and violence sell. They wanted to draw in audiences that would be titillated by gangsters, vamps, and racy subject matter. Popular musicals could entertain with disparaging racial clichés and glamorous, intoxicating imagery, with hints of queerness. You could also watch languid prostitutes on screen — everyone seems to long for Shanghai Lil, in the film that has it all, Footlight Parade (1933)
Filmmakers tried to switch around controversial subject matter that would not only push the boundaries but would promote ticket sales, with films that would attract a more sophisticated audience. Breen perceived these films to be less ‘dangerous’ a word he often used. They focused on the ‘gangster’ film with its violent content, and when they put their foot on that genre’s neck, Hollywood rolled out the ‘fallen woman‘ films. They tried very hard to get around the scrutiny and so they delved into making horror pictures, and racy comedies. These fare better as they fell under the heading of being ‘unrealistic’ which rendered them as innocuous material to the censors.
During the Great Depression, movies were an escape for audiences in dire need of distraction. The morally-charged stranglehold that was beginning to challenge filmmakers forced them to experiment with movies that were audacious and candid in different ways. Pre-Code actually challenged audiences to watch real-life issues on screen. Pre-Code cinema offered some titillating truths coming out of the dream factory. Depression-era cinema exhibited gay characters, but generally in small parts and often used for comic purposes that managed to cue audiences in, with roles that were codified and readable as queer. ‘Queerness’ was railed against because it subverted traditional masculinity which was under attack by the new socioeconomic crisis in the country. Yet somehow, Hollywood found it to be a viable trigger for ideological gossip.
These films illustrated narratives that were thought-provoking, worldly, and subversive. Movies dealt frankly or were suggestive of sexual innuendo, sexual relationships between races, mild profanity, drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and of course, homosexuality.
William Wellman’s Safe in Hell (1931) stars Dorothy Mackaill as a call girl in hiding. Prostitution is a no no!
Filmmakers took risks delivering a portrait of America with a punishing realism, and creative freedom to portray taboo themes like crime (gangs and guns, violence), and social dilemmas (drug abuse, poverty, and political unrest). And sexual relationships (adultery, promiscuity, deviance = homosexuality). In the 1930s filmmakers also sought to stir up controversy by screening queer characters, in order to shock audiences and drive up their ticket sales. As a result, movies became more lewd, ruthless, and vicious between 1930 and 1934. And Hollywood was its MOST queer from 1932-1934.
Yet during the silent era to the mid-thirties, gay characters were illustrated as stereotypes showcasing the popular tropes established by conventional hetero-normative gender bias. These archetypes were styled to be gender non-conformists. Queer men were fussy, effeminate, and flamboyant. With high-pitched voices, the air under their feet, and waving hands. Essentially, ‘fairies’ were deployed as comic relief on the periphery of the drama. Real-life queers of the Depression era and later periods were exposed to cinematic images, the vast majority being caricatured in which gays and lesbians were often presented as targets of ridicule and contempt for their divine decadence. ‘Entertainers play with gender ambiguity in Broadway thru a Keyhole (1933).‘ (Lugowski)
Lesbians were at the other end of the spectrum. They were ‘masculine,’ demonstrating deep voices, cross-dressing in male attire, and were installed in male-dominated professions. They were often invalidated by the straight male characters and were either played for the uncomfortable humor or shown as baffling to men. The PCA in its Hollywood’s Movie Commandments specified that there could be no comic characters “introduced into a screenplay pantomiming a pervert.” (Lugowski)
Gender Reversals, Queerness, and a Nation in Crisis.–
In Michael Curtiz’s The Strange Love of Molly Louvain (1932) Suddenly, queer imagery in film, typically in the form of comical representations of gay men, lesbians, and ambiguous sexuality, did not seem so funny any-more, least of all to those charged with applying Hollywood’s Production Code to film content. By “queer” imagery, I am focusing particularly on situations, lines of dialogue, and characters that represent behavior coded, according to widely accepted stereotypes, as cross-gendered in nature. As played by such prominent and well-established supporting comedy character actors as Franklin Pangborn, Edward Everett Horton, Grady Sutton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, and Ernest Truex, queer men tended to appear as one of two types.
The queer in his more subdued form appears as the dithering, asexual “sissy,” sometimes befuddled, incompetent,and, if married, very henpecked (Horton), and sometimes fussy and officious (Pangborn). Pangborn, however, was one of the actors who (along with the unsung likes of Tyrell Davis and Tyler Brooke) also played or suggested the other type, the more outrageous “pansy,” an extremely effeminate boulevardier-type sporting lip-stick, rouge, a trim mustache and hairstyle, and an equally trim suit, incomplete without a boutonniere. Although a number of actors played or were even typecast in such roles, one generally doesn’t find a circle of prominent supporting actresses whose personas seemed designed to connote lesbianism (the closest, perhaps, is Cecil Cunningham) lesbian representation occurs frequently as well, and in perhaps a greater range of gradations. At her most overt, the lesbian was clad in a mannishly tailored suit (often a tuxedo), her hair slicked back or cut in a short bob. She sometimes sported a monocle and cigarette holder (or cigar!) and invariably possessed a deep alto voice and a haughty, aggressive attitude toward men, work, or any business at hand. Objections arose because she seemed to usurp male privilege; perhaps the pansy seemed to give it up. -David M.Lugowski: Queering the (New) Deal-Lesbian and Gay Representation and the Depression-Era Cultural Politics of Hollywood’s Production Code
Filmmakers were encouraged not to promote lifestyles of a ‘morally questionable’ nature, so queers remained as humorous detours away from the central story. It was a subtle defiance that filmmakers were determined to feature queer characters in their films in spite of the ban. Because of the threat of boycotts, this created some maneuvering around the scrutiny. Queer identities were not portrayed with depth or realism, this marginalized group was relegated to one-dimensional stereotypes. They were never shown to be in romantic relationships and filmmakers relied on visual cues to signal the character’s identity.
Censors at the PCA, for example, were very worried about the three female characters in William Dieterle’s Dr. Monica (1934) starring Kay Francis. The film is the story of three women, an alcoholic, a nymphomaniac, and a lesbian. In October 1935, Joseph Breen wrote a letter to RKO’s head B.B. Kahane concerned about Follow the Fleet (1936) starring Fred Astaire who gives a dance lesson to all male sailors. “We are assuming of course that you will exercise your usual good taste in this scene of the sailors learning to dance. There will be no attempt to inject any ‘pansy’ humor into the scene.”
Due to a new, stricter Motion Picture Production Code, gays were being swept under the rug in movies. In the late 1930s and 1940s the only way to circumvent the Code was by painting homosexuals as cold-hearted villains (The Celluloid Closet). Now it appeared that gays were committing terrible crimes because of their sexual orientation, implying that homosexuality leads to insanity. In a society where being homosexual was synonymous with being sinful, it is no surprise that Hollywood made the leap to correlating a homosexual orientation with malicious crimes and wicked urges (Weir).
Alfred Hitchcock is a visual magician who rolls out the answers gradually while deconstructing what is explicit in the narrative. He is one of the most measured auteurs, whose eye for detail links each scene together like a skillful puzzle. He has been studied, tributed, and –in my opinion–unsuccessfully imitated. Rigid to conform, he danced around the Hays Code like a cunning acrobat indulging his vision while deflecting the lax regulations. There are arguments that Hitchcock insinuated homophobic messages in some of his films. The queer characters were all deviants and psychopathic predators, who were the ones responsible for some of the most heinous murders on screen. For example, in his film Rope (1948) the two Nietzschian murderers are intellectual companions who get off on trying to perpetrate the perfect murder. They exhibit a romantic friendship with no sexual contact on the screen. Yet there are cues that they are sexually aroused by each other’s mutual pleasure at killing a young boy. The Hays Code inhibited the depiction of a queer couple so Hitchcock had to subtly suggest their sexual relationship by dropping metaphors and visual clues. Though, it might be interpreted through a homophobic lens, and their homosexuality might be at the core of their cruel and immoral nature.
According to David Greven, Hitchcock’s homophelia ‘was through a larger conflict that Hitchcock’s cinema that filmmakers conducted their investigation of American masculinity, one that focused on fissures and failures. Homosexuality emerged as representative of these and also as potential new direction for American masculinity to take, not without serious risk but also treated with surprising, fascinated interest… Hitchcock’s radical de-centering of heterosexual male dominance, devising contemporary narratives of heterosexual male ambivalence that allowed for, at times depended on, an investment in same-sex desire as well as an awareness of its dangerous, pernicious seductions. Homophobia in both Hitchcock and the New Hollywood’s informed by an attendant fascination with the homoerotic that emerges from scenes of gender crisis and disorganization that are rife in both the Cold War and New Hollywood eras.
Any illicit sexual behavior on screen considered perverse would be demonized and exploited as immoral. Queers were shown as villainous, dangerous deviants who were fated for ruination and/or death.
There were several broad categories the Code was not vague about. Any movies depicting criminality had to essentially illustrate that there would be consequences. The message was clear, any flagrant criminal behavior is abhorrent and audiences should NOT feel sympathy, primarily through the implicit edict of “compensating moral values.”
Authority figures had to be treated with respect, and the clergy could not be portrayed as comic characters or villains. Under some circumstances, politicians, police officers, and judges could be villains, as long as it was clear that those individuals portrayed as villains were the exceptions to the rule.
Clearly, there were some productive strategies for circumventing the Motion Picture Production Code. They enabled characters that performed behind the veil, under the radar of social acceptability, while dancing a step closer to the fringe. It allowed for ‘queering the screen’. I find it feasible to consider how Alexander Doty points out that ‘queering’ something implies that you are taking a thing that is straight and doing something to it. Rather it should be considered that it’s less about co-opting or subverting films – making things queer, and more about how something might be understood as queer.
It might be easy to read Zasu Pitt’s and Thelma Todd’s relationship, the brilliantly paired comedy twosome, as lovers. While they perform humorous heterosexual man-hunting, they sure seem to be most interested in each other and sure look adorable in their pajamas! I wonder, as Big Daddy says if there’s ‘something missing here’. Below, they are in the film short directed by Hal Roach – On The Loose 1931, with bobbed hair, leaning into each other in bed together, looking awfully intimate.
To be ‘queer’ is also to deconstruct existing norms and ‘destabilize’ them, making it harder to define, so that it is a clear picture of non-normative straight masculinity/femininity.
What was perceptible to those ‘in the life’ were expressions, and gestures, of the term often used by the Hays Code, ‘deviancy.’ One of the things that the Code banned in Clause 6 Section 2 on “Sex” was that “sex perversion or any inference to it is forbidden.”
Not that films during the reign of the Code were ripe with queer love stories, of course. There were none to be found beyond the foreign offerings of Oswald’s Different From the Others and Mädchen in Uniform. The most prevalent allusion to being gay was the flamboyant man who was the ambiguous bachelor or fussy asexual husband. If there was anything close to a butch woman, she could be an earthy farmer’s wife, a Marjorie Main or Patsy Kelly type (Both lesbians in real life). A tough-as-nails prison matron, a tyrannical madame, or a risque nightclub owner. Perhaps she’s an embittered heavy drinker or just one of the guys who is a faithful friend to the female lead. Maybe she never gets the guy or hasn’t met the right man. Perhaps she was married to a no-good bum and is off men for good!.. And just sometimes, sometimes it’s because… well some of us would know why!
Thelma Todd joined up with Patsy Kelly in comedy series. Here’s a lobby card for their Babes in the Goods. The two became very good friends during their collaboration.
Patsy Kelly had started in Vaudeville and appeared in Wonder Bar 1931 centered around a Parisian club. Kelly played Elektra Pivonaka and sang two lively songs.
She is known for her ballsy, straight-forward, no-nonsense persona, be it her tough-as-nails nurse Mac in Sam Fuller’s The Naked Kiss (1964) or as Laura-Louise, attending to Rosemary (Mia Farrow) in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Kelly played very non-feminine roles, injecting a bit of her ‘in the life’ energy into the characters in every one of her roles. More often than not she had an unglamorous reputation as a funny spunky, brassy, wise-cracking gal who played a lot of maids. She was outspoken about being an uncloseted lesbian, which hurt her movie career in the 1940s. But she had been a very successful actress on Broadway, returning to the stage in 1971 winning a Tony Award for No, No Nanette and Irene.
In director/screenwriter Sam Fuller’s sensationalist The Naked Kiss (1964), Patsy Kelly plays Mac the nurse, a hard-edged pussy cat. A no-nonsense nurse who lives for helping children with disabilities, but there is no visible sign that she has the slightest interest in men, aside from a smart-alecky comment about Grant bringing her back a man from Europe. Kelly might have wanted her role as an independent woman with a more offbeat way of stating that she is a tough dyke and expected Fuller to write her into the script that way. Knowing Kelly that’s a good assumption. The film is audacious in its scope for dealing with more than one theme, as taboo as prostitution, abortion, and pedophilia.
The Catholic Legion of Decency used their influence to label gays as ‘sexual deviants’, not be depicted on screen. ‘Deviancy’ was used to refer to any behavior deviating from what was perceived to be normal in terms of romance, sex, and gender. Hays even ordered all ‘Nance’ characters to be removed from screenplays.
The Federation of Women’s Clubs and the Hays Code tried to make symbolic gestures to maintain decency in films. The Legion of Decency was getting pressure from the Catholic Church. So in 1934 came up with A-acceptable B-Morally Objectionable and C-Condemned. Hollywood promised to observe the rules. The various subject matter was restricted to screen-open mouth kissing, lustful embraces, sex perversion, seduction, rape, abortion, prostitution, white slavery, nudity, obscenity, and profanity.
But all this unsolicited attention caused the studios to be watchful of their off-screen personnel, and they also had to be certain that the Los Angeles Police Department received payoffs to keep their mouths shut. Though the lurid and shocking subject matter was no longer tolerated on screen, the studios tried to continue to release their films without the intrusion of the Hays Office, even though from a commercial standpoint, sex sells.
Warner Bros.’ lack of cooperation with the Code until the bitter end and how Paramount, which was cooperative under B. P. Schulberg, decided to be “as daring as possible” under Emmanuel Cohen in 1932 and 1933. At MGM, Irving Thalberg’s resistance only really ended with his heart attack and journey abroad to recover in 1933. As James Wingate, Breen’s SRC predecessor, put things that same year: (Lugowski)
In 1934 Jack Warner ignored Breen’s letter and phone calls about a scene in Wonder Bar (1934) that explicitly demonstrates homoerotic desire. In it, one man cuts in to dance with another man, interrupting a woman who is dancing with her male partner. “May I cut in?” she responds, “Why certainly,” as the man’s suitor grabs her chaperone to dance instead. The film stars Al Jolson who exclaims, “Boys will be boys!” Breen would later write, “It is quite evident that the gentleman [Warner] is giving me the runaround. He evidently thinks that this is the smart thing to do.” Wonder Bar may have added a flash of queer diversion as part of the entertainment, but it is an incredibly offensive and racist film using a cast who are in Black face.
During the ongoing Depression era, sissy and lesbian characters of the period continued to be screened as effeminate and mannish with one change. They became progressively sexualized between 1933-34. As the Depression moved forward, the Code needed to establish a “suitable” masculinity in film that would satisfy the morality police. They wanted this accepted masculinity to mirror the public art imagery that was now being federally funded by the New Deal in the mid-and late 1930s.
Before 1934 the studios were able to ignore the Code’s denouncement and endeavor to censor the movie industry but Hollywood filmmakers could no longer disregard the regulations issued by the Hays Code. The Legion of Decency forced the MPPDA to assert itself with the Production Code and formed a new agency, the Production Code Administration (PCA). The Hays Code was formed in 1930 but it only began to have a profound impact on Hollywood when the Production Code Administration (PCA) began strictly enforcing it in 1934. The crusade to save America’s purity and squash the filth mongers began a cultural war.
It was a system of moral oversight, conservatives lobbied to enforce, using the PCA to compel the industry to drastically adhere to it. PCA is strongest in explaining how the Code tried to at once repress and enable discourse to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of viewers and to offend the fewest. (Lugowski)
And in 1937, the Production Code Administration (PCA), handed down Hollywood’s Movie Commandments that decried “No hint of sex perversion may be introduced into a screen story. The characterization of a man as effeminate, or a woman as grossly masculine would be absolutely forbidden for screen portrayal.”
The Code was detailed in two parts that reflected the foundation of Catholic principles. The moral vision and “particular applications a precise listing of forbidden material.”
The code was divided into two parts. The first was a set of “general principles” which prohibited a picture from “lowering the moral standards of those who see it”, so as not to wrongly influence a specific audience of views including, women, children, lower-class, and those of “susceptible” minds, called for depictions of the “correct standards of life”, and lastly forbade a picture to show any sort of ridicule towards a law or “creating sympathy for its violation.
The second part of the Code was a set of “particular applications”, which was an exacting list of items that could not be depicted. Some restrictions, such as the ban on homosexuality or on the use of specific curse words, were never directly mentioned, but were assumed to be understood without clear demarcation. Homosexuals were de facto included under the proscription of sex perversion.” — Wikipedia
The second part of the Code was a ban on homosexuality. Though it was not specifically spelled out, queers were the subject under review of ‘sex perversion.’ Though the Hays office would not stand for “more than a dash of lavender” as long as the representation (especially a non-desirable depiction of homosexuality) was fleeting and incidental. Thus, “Pansy comedy” was tolerable in Pre-Code Hollywood. “Despite the watchful eyes of the Hays Office, the trade paper Variety remarked that Hollywood continued what was called “queer flashes” and “mauve characters” who sashayed through Cavalcade 1933, Our Betters 1932, and Sailor’s Luck 1932.
The industry moguls and business offices finally had to follow the rules, clean up the ‘sinful’ screen and adopt a symbol of moral righteousness, that came along with a seal. The Code would be certified by a Code Seal printed on the lobby cards of each Hollywood film. And the seal would be an emblem that would appear on the motion pictures themselves. Any film without a Code Seal would be fined $25,000.
After some revisions, they agreed to the stipulations of the Code. … negotiated cuts from films and there were definite—albeit loose—constraints, a significant … against homosexuals, all in clear violation of the Hollywood Production Code.
Any sexual act considered perverted, including any suggestion of same sex relationships, sex, or romance, was ruled out.
Thus, during the Golden Age of Hollywood, the PCA scrutinized and censored, everything coming out of Hollywood and put its seal on each movie released. The Hollywood executives preferred to call it “self-regulation” and feared that censorship by the PCA would be even worse if they tampered with the creative ‘source’ of their product. Because of the studios’ defiance, Roman Catholics formed the National Legion of Decency, which became an influential group that would put Hollywood’s transgressions through the ordeal, of boycotts, picketing theaters, urging Catholics not to patronize these immoral movies or fall “under the pain of sin”, being met by hoards of angry protestors at the gates of the studio. Now religious groups and other moral traditionalists began a warlike campaign for the government to regulate what was shown on the screen.
Mae West: She Done Him Wrong 1933
Also, government officials were bent on making gay people invisible from cinematic narratives and the United States Supreme Court handed down the ruling that filmmakers were not protected by the First Amendment in the matter of free speech. They considered Hollywood to be a powerful mechanism that to exploit ‘sinful’ behavior on the screen and influence American audiences. This laid the groundwork for local governments that could weigh in and ban films from their theaters if they considered them immoral. Hollywood could not afford to lose money at the box office from governmental authorities, by negative publicity, or from the threatening boycotts by rabid church groups.
Motion pictures could be regulated and run out of town by cities, states, and by ominous extension, the federal government.
“After all, censorship had been a fact of creative and commercial life for motion picture producers from the very birth of the medium, when even the modest osculations of the middle-aged lovebirds in Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896) scandalized cadres of (literally) Victorian ministers, matrons, and other variants of a sour-faced species known as the “bluenose.” By common consent, the artistically vital and culturally disruptive spectacle of the motion picture – an entertainment accessible to all levels of society and degrees of moral temperament, including unassimilated immigrants,impressionable juveniles, and other menacing types – required editorial supervision from more mature, pious, and usually Protestant sensibilities” -from Archives Unbound
Hollywood was in the grip of the Code that saw the ‘dream factory’ movie machine as a Hollywood Babylon. While the powers that be were busy policing the murmuration of taboos, Pre-Code was a brief moment in history, a fruitful period between 1929 to 1934. Hays then appointed someone who could intercede between studio moguls and anti-Hollywood groups, Joseph I. Breen. “The vulgar, the cheap, and the tawdry is out!”
The PCA had been known as the Hays Office but to those in Hollywood, once the oversight became an operation with teeth, it became known as the Breen Office. Breen came in to take over the weak Studio Relations Committee (SRC). The Code consisted of thirty-six rules that informed Hollywood filmmakers to limit the representation of or normalization of subject matter considered by religious groups to be “unsavory or morally corrupt.” The SRC and the PCA were the inner mechanisms within the film industry, shaping the content of the film and heading off any ethical problems the film might encounter before it reached the local censors.
Dorothy Mackaill’s Safe in Hell (1931)
Many scenarios disappeared from the movies by mid-1934: for example, audiences would no longer see women’s navels, couples laying in bed together, murderers going unpunished, an illustration of a bedroom that isn’t merely recognized as a bed chamber. The normalization of drug use, the glamourization of criminal behavior, or not following the law, and of course any overtly revealed gay or lesbian character. After 1934, women would not be sporting short haircuts and tailored suits, confidently smoking cigars. Men toned down the gushy gestures that would be interpreted as flamboyant. Gay men and women were transformed into dowdy spinsters and high-strung bachelors.
What we started to see was an ambiguity, a narrative uncertainty that took the burden of responsibility off of the filmmakers and dropped the perception of the content into the laps of the audience. Since the Code asserted that no picture should lower the moral standards of those who saw it, it was a law that bound Hollywood’s accountability for their plots. Ruth Vasey calls the antithesis of this “the principle of deniability” which refers to the ambiguity of the textual vaguery that shifted the message to the individual spectator. Lugowski cites Lea Jacobs, “Under the Code ‘offensive ideas could survive at the price of an instability of meaning… There was constant negotiation about how explicit films could be and by what means (through the image, sound, language) offensive ideas could find representation.” The studios would have to come up with a structure of ‘representational conventions’, that could be understood by a more sophisticated audience yet would fly over the heads of more inexperienced spectatorship. Though producers felt the sharp sting of the Code as a mechanism of restraint, in terms of ‘queerness’ on screen, film studios could use the leverage of deniability to argue about the interpretation of certain scenes.
Once the limits of explicit “sophistication” had been established, the production industry had to find ways of appealing to both “innocent” and “sophisticated” sensibilities in the same object without transgressing the boundaries of public acceptability. This involved devising systems and codes of representation in which “innocence” was inscribed into the text while “sophisticated” viewers were able to “read into” movies whatever meanings they were pleased to find, so long as producers could use the Production Code to deny that they had put them there. Much of the work of self-regulation lay in the maintenance of this system of conventions, and as such, it operated, however perversely, as an enabling mechanism at the same time that it was a repressive one.-(Documents from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, Inc., 1922 – 1939)
… by assuming that the social crisis over cinematic representation in the early 1930s was caused by the content of motion pictures. The institution of censorship in Hollywood was not primarily about controlling the content of movies at the level of forbidden words or actions or inhibiting the freedom of expression of individual producers. Rather, it was about the cultural function of entertainment and the possession of cultural power. (Tino Balio: Grand Design Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise 1930-1939)
Geoff Shurlock was appointed as acting director of the Production Code in the 1940s and as permanent director in 1954. Over the years, Shurlock would straddle the conflict, appeasing both movie producers, and morality mongers trying to persuade the Association Board that introducing more liberal thinking could protect the PCA from fading away. There were attempts to ease up on the Code, in 1954 he introduced an amendment that would eliminate various taboos, for instance, miscegenation, liquor, and some profane words, but producers felt that there weren’t enough considerations to the amendment and the Catholic Legion of Decency felt that even that much went too far. Shurlock had a tough time making everyone happy.
The 1950s witnessed a weakening of the Production Code to restrict specific representations such as adultery, prostitution, and miscegenation. By the beginning of the 1960s, the only specific restriction left was homosexuality = “sex perversion.”
In the 1960s, filmmakers pressured the Production Code Administration. In the fall of 1961, two films went into production that would deal with homosexual subject matter. William Wyler, who had initially directed Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon in These Three (1936), revealed that he was working on a more faithful treatment of Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour; that dealt overtly with the love that dare not speak it’s named. Around the same time director Otto Preminger began to adapt Allen Drury’s political novel Advise and Consent 1962, which delves into the lives of Senatorial candidates that uncovers controversial secrets, including Don Murray’s homosexual encounter.
Throughout Preminger’s career, he challenged the restrictions of the Code and eventually influenced their decision to allow homosexuality to be shown on screen. Also fighting to change the stifling rules was Arthur Krim, president of United Artists, who threatened to ignore the Code and release the film without the mandatory “seal of approval” forcing them to amend it’s ideological strangle hold.
On October 3, 1961, the Production Code Administration backed off: “In keeping with the culture, the mores and values of our time, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion, and restraint.”
In order to maintain control of the Administration’s power at least in terms of how homosexuals were portrayed on film, they insisted that the subject be infused with medical overtones, to show it as an ‘illness’. Sympathy or illness in psychological terms, were two key factors. The Code’s changed the use of the word “sex perversion” and replaced it with “homosexuality.”
Don Murray –gay bar scene in Advise and Consent 1962
Another interesting shift was that they owned up to the fact that “mores and values of our time” were changing whether they liked it or not, people were becoming more in touch with the freedom to express their sexuality, society was becoming more permissive, the love generation was upon them and sexual representation was a fearless exploration reflected by a new generation of filmgoers.
Otto Preminger was the only major producer able to successfully release films without the Production Code’s Seal of Approval. He defied the Code (Hadleigh) with movies like Advise and Consent (1961) The Man with Golden Arm (1955) Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Wendell Mayes said “Look at the record–you’ll discover that many of the changes in the Code were a result of Otto Preminger breaking the rules”
Though the Code had been revised in 1961 to open up the door for portrayals of gays on screen, the sissy effete and predatory dyke took on a more sinister role. Because they had been hidden in plain sight using symbology that hinted at either failed masculinity or women performing masculinity. When the MPPA rating system was established in 1968 gays on screen were starting to kick the doors open but what was awaiting them was an even crueler denouement than during the reign of the Code. Queers were now portrayed as suicidal, predatory, or homicidal maniacs. And much like the coded gay characters under the Production Code, things moved very slowly in terms of progress for positive representations of being ‘queer.’
Dirk Bogarde and Dennis Price in Basil Dearden’s brave film Victim (1961)
Between January and June 1962, five films were released that dealt with homosexuality, almost as many as in the previous three decades. One did not receive a seal of approval from the Production Code Administration but was released nonetheless. Even without the seal of approval, British director, Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961) was reviewed in all the publications being considered. The liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal even disagreed with the Production Code Administration’s claim that the film made pleas ‘for social acceptance of the homosexual.’ “63 Still, the consensus among reviewers was that of the Production Code Administration and society at large: films should not and, for the most part, did not condone homosexuality. (Noriega)
This ban applied to all characters attracted to the same gender or characters who differed in their gender presentation or identity. While nudity and violence were quickly reintegrated into film canon following the abandonment of the Production Code, LGBT characters remained taboo. For decades after LGBT characters were allowed to appear in films, their sexuality and gender was shrouded in thinly-veiled innuendos and visual cues. If a character was to be openly same-gender attracted or transgender, they would be gruesomely killed or presented as morally corrupted. (Cleghorn)
Like the Code’s authors, film critics tend to examine the film itself, and not the discursive acts that surround a film and play a sometimes central role shaping its meaning(s). Contemporary gay and lesbian film criticism of Production Code era films operates on the same principle, with the added limitations that historical evidence and homosexual “images” censored. Thus, in order to ensure “the survival of subcultural identity within an oppressive society,” gay and lesbian film critics have employed a wide range of interpretive strategies to recuperate a history of homosexual images from the censored screen. The emphasis, therefore, has been on “subtexting” censored films from a singular presentist perspective. (Sophie Cleghorn)
*Mike Mashon & James Bell for Pre-Code Hollywood Before the Censors-BFI Sight & Sound Magazine (April 2019)
*Archives Unbound (1http://gdc.gale.com/archivesunbound/)
*Sophie Cleghorn: The Hollywood Production Code of 1930 and LGBT Characters.
*David Lugowski-Queering the (New) Deal)
During the period of Pre-Code, queer humor appeared in films such as Just Imagine (1930) and The Warrior’s Husband (1933). The male characters were feminized because of their affinity for writing poetry. This asserted that they must be queer.
The Warrior’s Husband directed by Walter Lang, is a film primarily cast with women. Yet the air of queerness permeates throughout because the women, featuring a butch Queen, are Amazons. Gender is inverted and several other female rulers cross-dress and exude a lesbian vibe. It is inhabited by independent women and swishy men who camped it up as ‘queens’ amusing themselves by flirting with all the good-looking men.
The Warrior’s Husband image courtesy Peplums Blogspot.com
Like so much self deemed culturally aberrant, the homosexual appears with greater frequency and readier acceptance in Pre-Code Hollywood cinema “The thirties was surprisingly full of fruity character comedians and gravel-voice bulldyke character comediennes” film critic Andrew Sarris observed in his touchstone study The American Cinema “but it was always played so straight that when ((character actors) Franklin Pangborn or Cecil Cunningham went into their routines, it was possible to laugh without being too sophisticated.” Maybe in the later thirties the homosexual was played straight but in the Pre-Code era, he and she was playing queer. No sophistication was needed to read the same sex orientations as gender disorientations.- Pre-Code Hollywood; Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.
Miriam Hopkins got the part of free-spirited Gilda in Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living 1933. This original Noël Coward play actually featured a Ménage à Trois between the three Bohemian lovebirds in Paris in the decadent thirties. The film also starred Gary Cooper as artist George Cooper and Fredric March as playwright Tom Chambers. The liberated Gilda becomes the girl both men fall in love with. The three make a pact to keep their mutual attractions platonic, but that doesn’t last too long, and they each begin a sexual relationship. When George comes back from a trip to Nice, he finds that Tom has taken up with Gilda. “I can’t believe I loved you both.”
Ben Hecht’s screenplay didn’t have a trace of any of Coward’s romantic relationship between George and Tom. Ernst Lubitsch, known for his sophisticated style, directed memorable witty interactions between all four players. Edward Everett Horton as Max Plunkett plays Miriam’s bland suitor. Horton is, as usual, a whimsical idiosyncratic delight to watch. And Franklin Pangborn Mr. Douglas, Theatrical Producer is a perfect theatrical queen who is thoroughly annoyed when Gilda approaches him in the restaurant about Tom’s (Fredric March) play “Good Night Bassington”, as she leaves him with this thought, “There, read it, I’m sure you’ll adore it, it’s a woman’s play…”
Al Jolson “Boys will be boys” Wonder Bar (1934)
Any portrayal of on-screen “sex perversion” or homosexuality, even those connected with various tropes of ‘deviant’ sexual behavior were restricted after the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934.
Lending the Code moral authority even within the limits of pure love, asserted the Code delicately certain facts have been universally regarded by lawmakers as outside the limits of safe presentation Father Lord and Mr. Quigley saw no need to defile the document by typesetting long lists of “pointed profanity” or “vulgar expressions” Likewise, the prohibition against homosexuality dared not speak the name, but it didn’t need to spell it out. “Impure Love” the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been named by divine law… must not be presented as attractive or beautiful.”-Pre-Code Hollywood; Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 by Thomas Doherty.
Different From the Others (1919) Conrad Veidt and Fritz Schulz two musicians in love — during the period of Pre-Code.
But, outside of the United States, films were a little more adventurous. Austrian director Richard Oswald’s film bravely shows two men in love. The “third sex” was eventually mocked. One of the earliest films to feature two men in love was the 1919 silent film from Germany, Different From the Others. Director Richard Oswald’s story of two male musicians in love had a typical unhappy ending, but it depicted gay people in a positive light. The film condemned the German law known as Paragraph 175, which outlawed gay behavior. Different Than the Others was censored soon after it was released. Starring Conrad Veidt it is considered the first pro-gay film.
Joseph Breen viewed any meaningful treatment of queer cinema as perverted. Conrad Veidt also gave an emotionally evocative role in The Man Who Laughs 1928, playing a violinist who falls for his student and is then blackmailed for it. The rising Nazi party in Germany attempted to erase these films from the screen, and this made Oswald flee to America.
But, the Hays Code made certain that no films of this type would be seen in the United States. Even books and plays with gay, lesbian, or bisexual narratives were reworked and any content related to the subject was erased in order to meet the social code of the time.
Other non-American films included Dreyer’s Michael (1924) and Mädchen in Uniform (1931) directed by Leontine Sagan and again in (1958) with Lilli Palmer as Fräulein Elisabeth von Bernburg and Romy Schneider as Manuela von Meinhardis. And Viktor Und Viktoria (1933) directed by Reinhold Schünzel.
Mädchen in Uniform (1931) was directed by Leotine Sagan, and starred Dorothea Wieck and Hertha Thiele.
William Dieterle’s Pre-Code German film Sex in Chains (1928) stars the director as Franz Sommer a man sent to prison for manslaughter who, though longing for his wife, develops a close relationship with his cellmate. A fellow inmate informs Franz that he’s “lived to see someone unman himself, just so he could finally sleep.”
In 1927, during the Pre-Code period, director William Wellman’s Wings won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and it also depicted the first gay kiss between two men in American cinema.
Wings follows two Air Force pilots in World War I, Jack (Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Dave (Richard Arlen) who at first rivals for the affections of the beautiful Mary (Clara Bow) before they discover the underlying love they begin to feel for each other. During a boxing match at training camp gets too rough and Jack knocks Dave bloody and silly. Dave gazes up at Jack with an epiphany and the two walk off arm and arm as close ‘buddies’. The relationship is referred to as friendship, but the film paints a picture of two men falling in love.
Dave is mortally wounded in combat at the end of the picture, Jack embraces his dying ‘friend’ with a tender yet impassioned kiss while Mary looks on, framed with her on the outside looking in. Wellman humanizes the men’s close relationship in this scene when Jack leans into Dave to embrace him as he dies. He lets him know that nothing has meant more to him than their relationship. The moment feels sympathetic instead of exploitative, yet he mourns Dave’s death. And though it is tinged with homoerotic elements, the case can always be made that it is a story about war, which brought two men closer together.
The Knocking Knees dance. Horton’s homosexuality – comedic, subtle, and acceptable in The Gay Divorcee (1934)
In The Gay Divorcee (1934) crossing the threshold is the archetypal ‘Sissy’, Edward Everett Horton. Marginalized audiences were looking to the movies for any indication of the familiar, any little crumbs left as a trail to be picked up. For instance, there is a moment in Johnny Guitar, the fiercely burning with sensual brawn, Joan Crawford. Bigger than life up on that screen, androgynous in her black cowboy shirt, strides down the stairs, gun in her holster waiting to confront coded dyke, Mercedes McCambridge. Many women’s chests, mine included, heaved a little with delight. That flutter of excitement hit us again when Doris Day sings the sentimental “Secret Love” in Calamity Jane (1953).
In Myrt and Marge (1934) Ray Hedges plays the flaming stagehand Clarence Tiffingtuffer he’s told “Here put this in the trunk and don’t wear it” speaking about one of the show girls costumes. In his boldly effete manner “If we got the runs on the show, the way the girls got in their stockings, I could put the 2nd down payment on my Kimono.”
Clara Bow, Willard Robertson, and Estelle Taylor in Call Her Savage (1932)
From Call Her Savage 1932 purportedly the first on-screen gay bar.
In director William Wyler’s These Three (1936) the relationship between Miriam Hopkin’s Martha and Merle Oberon’s Karen was delicately subtle and though to mainstream audiences might be seemingly obvious to interpret as two women attracted to the male lead, Joel McCrea. It revised Hellman’s play that centered around Martha’s love that dare not speak its name, for Karen. Sam Goldwyn bought the rights to Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, a story depicting the supposed ‘carryings-on’ of two female teachers at a private school for girls. Though, These Three on its face is the story of a love triangle between two women and a man, it could read as Martha being more uncomfortable with the presence of Dr. Cardin (McCrea) because he is intruding on her closed relationship with Karen. The later screenplay adapted into the film, The Children’s Hour (1961) directed by William Wyler, was boldly more explicit and revealed the true nature of Martha’s predicament and her struggle with her love for Karen.
These Three (1936) Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins.
The Children’s Hour (1961) Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn.
Coded characters in the film were on the screen relaying messages and signaling to those of us who understand and who are “in the life: that movies can reflect the existence of a queer reality. These representations were not necessarily positive, but films showed evidence that we exist. You would see it in a revealing gesture, or an air of difference about them, though it would be inconspicuous to audiences that were unaware of the cues.
Continue reading “Chapter 2 – Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”
Aurora over at Once Upon a Screen… offers a wonderful & witty tribute to James Whale’s campy Old Dark House themed film The Old Dark House that set the trend for Old Dark House movies!
Last night Aurora, myself and my girl Wendy had the thrilling pleasure of sitting side by side, popcorn in hand and funny & intelligent yet respectfully quiet commentary in the darkness of a traditional cathedral of film (one of the 5 original movie palaces in the NYC area). A truly great theatre –The Landmark Jersey City Loews for a James Whale/Boris Karloff dynamic double feature. They showcased the 35mm prints of the sublimely brilliant Kenneth Strickfaden-filled laboratory designs, and Composer Franz Waxman’s exhilarating score for The Bride of Frankenstein 1935 and The Old Dark House 1932. Both with outstanding cast members and characters alike! Including the live pipe organist who is there for all of these wonderful events! So without any further hold up…
Head over to the most informative, funny and heartfelt blog and get yourself a Halloween slice of joy, and while you’re at it… “Have a potato!” haha Ernest Thesiger gets me every time he says those three little words as only he can deliver…
Your EverLovin MonsterGirl sayin’ if you live in the Tri-State area please help keep this historic movie palace alive, they offer a wonderful night’s entertainment and thank you Aurora of Once Upon a Screen… for being the best movie pal!
Source-courtesy of Getty Images
Directed by Charles Lamont. Starring those 2 brilliant comedians Budd Abbott and Lou Costello, as Lester and Orville. With Mari Blanchard as Allura, Robert Paige as Dr. Wilson, Horace McMahon as Mugsy, Martha Hyer as Janie Howe, Jack Kruschen as Harry, Jean Willes as Capt. Olivia and Anita Ekberg as a Venusian guard.
From Keep Watching the Skies by Bill Warren –“To children in the 1940s and on until the mid-50s, a new Abbott and Costello movie was better than a trip to the circus.”
We all noticed that Bud Abbott was the straight man and Lou Costello was the mechanism to draw out the comic gags. At times Bud even came across as Warren says, “cruel” to Lou and I know for me it made me a bit uncomfortable even back then. Lou was lovable and wasn’t considered an idiot, but rather like a little boy trapped in a man’s body. Again I cite Bill Warren who sums it up beautifully-“His curiosity and haplessness got him into trouble and assured that he would stay there, but the film’s essential unreality always made us feel that Lou and Bud would be out of problems by the end…[…] There was always a sadness to Lou Costello, as there is with almost every clown.”
Directed by Charles Lamont who did all of Bud and Lou’s films here, Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953) Bud plays Lester, a handyman who works for a rocket research institute, and Lou plays Orville, a handyman who works at an orphanage. Of course the story’s title indicates that they take a trip to Mars, when the pair accidentally launch one of the rockets with them on board! They take a short trip, a very short trip as unbeknownst to Lester and Orville they haven’t landed on Mars, but in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. So when the outlandish and bizarre costumes parade around the duo, they have no reason not to think they’ve landed on another planet…
The film co-stars two wonderful character actors Horace McMahon who plays Mugsy (Naked City tv series 1960s) and Jack Kruschen who plays Harry– both are bank robbers on the lam, who have used spacesuits they stole from the ship as a disguise when pulling the heist. The two criminals hide away on the spaceship equip with paralyzer guns and lots of science fiction gadgets. And it gets launched yet again with our two characters Lester and Orville. This time they are heading for Venus. To go with this silly gendered plot line you’ll have to take it that Venus is run by a Matriarch name Queen Allura (Mari Blanchard)
Allura has banished all the men from the planet 400 years earlier because the King had been unfaithful to her. She also falls in love with Orville. Lou has eyes for Anita Ekberg (who wouldn’t…) she plays a Venusian guard. Queen Allura finds out that Lou is also unfaithful ‘like all men’ and goes crazy with anger. The passengers of the renegade ship manage to get away and crash land back on Earth. There’s a funny scene as they zip around Manhattan in the ship they make the Statue of Liberty duck then they zoom thought the Holland Tunnel giving New York a piece of science fiction slapstick. The film also co-stars Robert Paige as Dr. Wilson, Martha Hyer as Janie Howe, and Jean Willes as Captain Olivia.
In Jim Mulholland’s The Abbott and Costello Book he talks about the film, “The futuristic sets on Venus look expensive , but the film is so silly and is so obviously geared to kiddie matinee audiences that it is almost impossible to endure.”
Well if the adult child in you still adores seeing the antics of Bud & Lou then it should be included in their list of films you want to see.
Mary Blanchard as Queen Allura
Anita Ekberg as a Venusian Guard
Venusian #1: “What is it?”
Allura: “I could be wrong, but I think it’s a man.”
Venusian #2: “That’s a man?”
Again directed by Charles Lamont. Lee Loeb and John Grant wrote the screenplay working from a story by Sid Fields, based off the character from Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal science-fiction fantasy novel. With camera work by cinematographer George Robinson (Son of Frankenstein 1939, Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman 1943, Tarantula 1955)
With make up both Mr. Hyde and the mouse mask by Bud Westmore!
Our two heroes Slim and Tubby meet Boris Karloff as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.
Bud and Lou had already met Frankenstein, Dracula, the Invisible Man and The Wolf Man, it was just a matter of time until they met the conflicted dual personality of Dr. Jekyll and his darker alter ego Mr. Hyde. It was the first time the boys came up against a monster since 1951.
Bud and Lou are American detectives who tag along Scotland Yard, and come to find out that that the menacing Mr. Hyde has been terrorizing London for years. Meanwhile the mild mannered Dr. Jekyll is one and the same man… Boris Karloff. Of course, Lou tries so hard to get Bud to believe that the kindly Dr. Jekyll is actually Hyde. The other players in the film include Craig Stevens as Bruce Adams a newspaper reporter who is in love with Vicky Edwards (Helen Wescott) which poses a problem as Dr. Jekyll himself is in love with Vicky as well.
Bill Warren writes- “This romantic triangle is extremely artificial-Karloff at all time seems avuncular, not predatory-and was apparently added for the obligatory romantic elements, to enlarge the plot beyond Bud & Lou fleeing from Hyde.”
The film shows as Warren points out a “series of set pieces” as they chase Hyde around a wax museum, filled with homages to other films like wax likenesses of the Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula.
Sadly, the film was not well received, people had started to tire of the ‘meet’ films of Bud and Lou and the popularity was waning. Universal had actually been planning a Abbott and Costello Meet the Creature from the Black Lagoon but it never got off the ground.
Craig Stevens co-stars as Bruce Adams, Helen Wescott as Vicky Edwards and Reginald Denny as the Inspector with John Dierkes as Batley.
Slim: Now look! You can’t make two persons out of one. If there’s a monster, there’s a monster. If there’s a Dr. Jekyll, there’s a Dr. Jekyll. But one can’t be the other.
Tubby: Now listen Slim. All I know is that I locked up the monster and when I came back, Dr. Jekyll was there. You know I’m no magician.
Eugène Lourié who was an art director working with Jean Renoir. Directed The Colossus of new York 1958, The Giant Behemoth 1959, and Gorgo 1961. He started out designing ballets in Paris, was the art director for Strange Confession 1944, The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry 1945, Limelight 1952, Shock Corridor 1963, The Naked Kiss 1964, The Strangler 1964. Eugène Lourié designed one of Renoir’s most influential films, Rules of the Game (1939), he also designed work on The Southerner (1945) Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) and The River (1951) To say the least he has had a wide range of eclectic films.
Eugène Lourié worked with the master Ray Harryhausen on the special effects and the creature which are spectacular!
Screenplay by Bronx born Fred Freiberger ( Garden of Evil 1954, Beginning of the End 1957)
The film stars Paul Hubschmid as Professor Tom Nesbitt, Paula Raymond as Lee Hunter, Cecil Kellaway as Prof. Thurgood Elson foremost paleontologist , veteran science fiction hero Kenneth Tobey (The Thing 1951, It Came from Beneath the Sea 1955) as Col. Jack Evans, Lee Van Cleef as Corporal Stone, Steve Brodie as Sgt. Loomis, Ross Elliot as George Ritchie, Frank Ferguson as Dr. Morton and King Donovan as Dr. Ingersoll.
A ferocious dinosaur awakened by an Arctic atomic test terrorizes the North Atlantic and, ultimately, New York City. The film begins when they are testing a nuclear device inside the Arctic Circle, which winds up freeing a prehistoric ‘Rhedosaurus’ which is a carnivorous giant beast that walks on four legs and lives under water and can walk on land too! Tom Nesbitt played by Paul ‘Hubsschmid’ Christian is the only survivor to tell about the prehistoric creature, but no one believes his story.
Eventually the Beast emerges again and sinks a small ship with that survivor telling the same story, identifying the ‘Rhedosaurus’. Cecil Kellaway plays a well known paleontologist that Nesbitt seeks out for help. Now the Beast starts moving toward New York City believed to be the ancestral origin and breeding ground for the Rhedosaurus. It comes ashore on Manhattan, right near the Fulton Fish Market. Elson is lowered in a type of diving bell called a bathysphere so the paleontologist can study the creature up close. Unfortunately he becomes a tasty morsel, a hard candy with a soft center… Yikes!
It then proceeds to smash and stomp everything in it’s path, until it returns to the river. What complicates things is that while it becomes wounded, they discover that it’s blood is highly infectious and deadly, so they need to find a way to destroy it even more than ever.
The wounded Rhedosaurus takes refuge in an old fair ground on Coney Island near a roller coaster which it takes out it’s aggression on by snapping it like twigs in it’s massive jaws and claws.
Prof. Thurgood Elson: [in the diving bell, to view the monster] “This is such a strange feeling, I feel as though I’m leaving a world of untold tomorrows for a world of countless yesterdays….[…] It’s unbelievable he’s tremendous!”
Professor Tom Nesbitt: “The world’s been here for millions of years. Man’s been walking upright for a comparatively short time. Mentally we’re still crawling.”
George Ritchie: [referring to the A-bomb test] “You know every time one of those things goes off, I feel as if I was helping to write the first chapter of a new Genesis.”
Professor Tom Nesbitt: “Let’s hope we don’t find ourselves writing the last chapter of the old one.”
Directed by editor Arthur Hilton, who worked on noir classics The Killers 1946, and Scarlett Street 1945. The film stars Sonny Tufts as Laird Granger, Victor Jory as Kip Reissner, Marie Windsor as Helen Salinger, William Phipps as Doug Smith, Douglas Fowley as Walt Walters, Carol Brewster as Alpha, Susan Morrow as Lambda, Suzanne Alexander as Beta, Cat-Woman are Bette Arlen, Roxann Delman, Ellye Marshall and Judy Walsh. originally in 3D– it’s Schlock at it’s very best!
An American space crew is led by the uptight straitlaced Laird Granger (Sonny Tufts) who does everything by the book, but as Kip (Victor Jory) says “some things aren’t in the book” And that’s for sure, when you wind up on a planet with Cover Girls in black leotards. From the moment they leave the base on route to the moon, the crew find themselves in trouble when a meteor creates trouble for the ship, a fire in the bottom of the craft started by acid forces them to land, suggested by Lt. Helen Salinger who is the ship’s navigator and Laird’s girlfriend. She picks the area in between the dark and light sides of the moon. This makes Kip very suspicious though he’s pretty skeptical about most things that’s why he carries a gun with him at all times.
Don’t be too impressed with Windsor’s character playing a Lt, after they crash land she still has to grab for her compact and fix her face, and powder her nose. Marie Windsor (whom I adore) is sultry and perfectly suited for film noir (Force of Evil 1948, The Sniper 1952, City that Never Sleeps 1953, The Killing 1956, The Narrow Margin 1952 ), and is a joy to see in this film even if it’s a true stinker! She’s much better suited for the science fiction obscure gem that has it’s shocking moments, The Day Mars Invaded Earth (1963).
Helen leads the crew when they go out to investigate their surroundings and find a nearby cave, they realize that the atmosphere is exactly the same as it is on earth. There’s water and oxygen and so it is safe to take their space suits off. The gang is attacked suddenly by some cheesy hairy horned spiders which they manage to kill. In the meantime someone has stolen their spacesuits and helmets. They go deeper into the cave until they stumble onto an ancient Greekesque city inside the moon where they are greeted by women who look like a dance troupe for Martha Graham and Twyla Tharp in their black leotards. Helen slips away to meet Alpha (Brewster) the leader of the Cat-Women who are telepathic.
They are called Cat-Women for no reason I can glean, or that emerges from the entirely silly narrative. Alpha tells Helen- “Our generation predates yours by centuries.”
The Cat-Women led by Alpha (Carol Brewster) has been in telepathic communication with and controlling Lt.Helen Salinger for years, unbeknownst to the men in the crew. There are no men on the moon but Zeta (Alexander) explains, “We have no use for men.”
Alpha tells Helen-“You are one of us now.”
Alpha has been controlling Helen by imprinting an image of the moon, a white spot on her hand. Once this spot is covered it breaks the control over her.
It’s not that the Cat-Women haven’t been enjoying their lives cavorting around with each other dancing and creeping around in their oh so Mod-erne leotards, it’s that their planet’s atmosphere is breaking up and in order to survive they must seek out a new planet. So the plan is to steal the crew’s rocket and go to Earth, c0ntrol the mind of the Earth women and eventually take over the planet! First they must truly gain Helen’s male compatriot’s confidence in order to find out how to run the ship.
Of course the cynical Kip doesn’t want any part of these gorgeous moon gals…
Kip secretly in love with Helen gets her alone, puts his arms around her, which breaks Alpha’s spell, and Helen tells him what’s going on.
Once Kip (Jory) figures this out he covers Helen’s hand and quickly asks her three questions, two that inquire whether she’s truly in love with Laird or him, the other is to find out how to get away.
But Alpha has already gotten information out of Laird and Walt has taken Zeta back to the ship to show her how it operates.
It was Alpha who helped Helen get her assignment to the space crew. Of course, the men become enamored of Cat-Women in leotards, except for Kip (Victor Jory) who is suspicious of these beguiling tribe of moon temptresses. Walt Willis (Douglas Fowley) wanders off with one of the women to explore the cave that is filled with gold, she stabs him but not before he teaches her how to fly their spaceship. Another of the Cat-Women has fallen for one of the crew members, Lambda (Susan Morrow), falls hard for Doug Smith (Bill Phipps) the radio operator. All she wants is to go back to earth with Doug, romp around on a sandy beach drinking a Coca Cola.
In this soap space opera, the staid and steady Laird has fallen for Helen, and under a sort of mind control has given all the information the Cat-Women need to take over. They make plans to return to earth with Alpha and Beta (Suzanne Alexander). Lambda tries to intervene but gets brutally conked on the head with a large rock and killed. Kip shoots the evil Zeta and Alpha off screen, the remaining earth crew kill the rest of the Cat-Women, escaping with Helen and head back to earth.
Cat-Women of the Moon is one of those so bad it’s good movies that’s just fun to watch! It’s more space soap opera than science fiction but those girls are so outré Mod-erne in their black leotards BUT no physical attributes that make one think of any similarity to cats, their features nor feats of skill… The best part of the film is the dance scene by the Hollywood Cover Girls in their unlike cat costumes. The film was remade in 1959 called Missile to the Moon.
As Bill Warren illustrates how badly filmed this is and in particular how ‘excruciatingly stupid’ the script and visuals are… (i.e.) the chairs the crew sit in are standard swivel desk chairs that roll around the floor on castors.– “Take the spaceship cabin. Ignoring the fact that it looks like someone’s front room and that down is always in the direction of the floor, even when the ship spins end-for-end in an effort to make the meteor fall off (which it does), there is still enough in the room to make a good technical director faint.”
Laird Grainger: “The eternal wonders of space and time. The far away dreams and mysteries of other worlds. Other life. The stars. The planets. Man has been face to face with them for centuries, yet is barely able to penetrate their unknown secrets. Sometime, someday, the barrier will be pierced. Why must we wait? Why not now?”
Alpha: “Four of us will be enough. We will get their women under our power, and soon we will rule the whole world!”
Directed by Felix E. Feist (The Devil Thumbs a Ride 1947, The Man Who Cheated Himself 1950)
Based on a story written by Curt Siodmak who wrote the script for The Wolf Man 1941, with the script co-written with director Feist. This above average Science Fiction suspense stars Lew Ayres as Dr. Patrick J. Cory, Gene Evans as Dr. Frank Schratt, Nancy Reagan as Janice Cory, Steve Brodie as Herbie Yokum, Tom Powers as Donovan’s Washington Advisor, Lisa Howard as Chloe Donovan.
Donovan’s Brain is perhaps the caviar of Brain in a Tank films to all the other Velveeta films of that sort. Although it is a remake of the quite engaging Lady and The Monster (1944) and Vengeance (1962) both based on the novel Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak.
Siodmak’s story has been retold several times, first with director George Sherman’s The Lady and The Monster (1944) starring Erich von Stroheim, Richard Arlen and Vera Ralston. Then in 1962 it was re-visioned as a British Sci-fi chiller directed by Freddie Francis called The Brain starring Anne Heyward. Because of Siodmak’s talent at storytelling the film is an intelligent and compelling film
And there was at least one radio adaptation I believe through the Suspense series, which is a wonderful version, I own cast with Hans Conried, Jerry Hausner, John McIntire, and Jeannette Nolan.
And Boris Leven’s set design lays out the eerie ‘science gone awry’ landscape, with tanks filled with brains, it doesn’t hearken back to Strickfaden’s elaborate mad scientist milieu but it works for this particular science fiction/horror narrative.
Bill Warren-“One of the few sets apparently actually constructed for Donovan’s Brain is the laboratory, which looks satisfactorily jury-rigged and inexpensive. Unlike most ‘mad scientists’, Pat Cory hasn’t bothered to build elaborate consoles with labeled switches. The tank for the brain is literally a large tropical fish tank, again adding to the air of improvised science.”
Essentially Dr. Patrick Cory (Lew Ayres) and his associate Dr. Frank Schratt (Gene Evans) are doing brain research, they’ve been trying to remove a monkey’s brain and keep it alive outside of the body, though the foundation for doing these experiments aren’t truly spelled out. We just hear that it’s “for the good of humanity.” In these fascinating Science Fiction tales where science hubris and it’s idolization by often well meaning doctors –often see their experiments go awry.
Assisting them is Pat’s wife, Jan played by Nancy Davis, who had just become Mrs. Ronald Reagan. Now, the experiment with the monkey was encouraging –“A brain without a body, alive!” I suppose in 1953, these three hadn’t met Jan in the Pan (The Brain that Wouldn’t Die 1962), or they wouldn’t have been that excited over the prospect of live brains in tanks looking like a benefit to humanity.
As fate would have it, the same day they have success with the monkey brain, a small plane crashes very close to the lab, being doctors Cory and Schratt are called upon to help the victims. There is but one survivor, a multi-millionaire named Warren H. Donovan. Donovan is close to death so the two operate on him, but it’s no use and the millionaire dies. But, it is Dr. Pat Cory who has the idea –“Science can use Donovan’s brain,” though his wife Jan and partner Frank fervently object at first. “What an idea, stealing a man’s brain”-they go along with Pat’s operating to remove the dead man’s brain and keep it alive in the tank…
In many ways, looking past the sci-fi elements of the story, it is a stark crime thriller about the evils of power. This is also one of those science fiction morality plays that informs us that is it ‘science’ itself that is the villain and is ‘evil and dangerous’, especially in the hands of a scientist, even if he is altruistic at heart. Dr. Pat Cory is a good man, who happened to trigger a very bad series of events. It is a story about “tampering with things man (and women) was not meant to know.” In the end he tells us, “I did many foolish things.”
The 1953 film is the closest to the novel. Dr. Patrick Cory, the scientist, attempts to save the life of millionaire Donovan “Donovan carried to an extreme the independence of the self-made man”, Dr. Pat Cory, who is working with the research of the powers of the brain, seduced by the potential of unlocking the secrets of the brain, seizes the opportunity to explore his theories. The danger ensues once he removes Donovan’s brain from the severely damaged body and under very clandestine experimentation not unlike our old Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Pat Cory manages to keep the brain alive in a tank in his laboratory.
W.H.Donovan had been a very famous yet shady character in his business dealings, so his death draws a lot of media attention. So Pat and Frank have to keep their experiment a dark secret. The two scientists also run into a free-lance journalist Herbie Yocum played by Steve Brodie, who wants to take some sensational photos like the operating table where Donovan died. This, Pat Cory agrees to because he doesn’t want to create any suspicion around his death, especially near his laboratory. But Yokum takes a photo of the brain in the tank.
The experiment is a success and Donovan’s brain is taking in all the nourishment it needs to become stronger, it actually begins to increase in size. The equipment in the lab also indicates that there are thought waves occurring in the brain. Donovan’s brain is actually sending out thoughts telepathically. “Donovan’s brain is giving out thoughts. All I have to do is use my brain to receive them.” Pat Cory tells Frank. So he sits in front of the tank and concentrates leaving his mind open, and it works, he goes into a trance and starts to write notes in W.H. Donovan’s handwriting. This terrifies Jan and Frank, who worry about Pat’s state of mind. The next day, Donovan’s brain takes hold of Pat once again, this time actually causing him to limp the same way Donovan used to when he was alive. At this point Donovan is in complete control of Dr. Pat Cory.
But Donovan alive was a very powerful and ruthless business man , one of the wealthiest men in the world who is still asserting his influence from his remote tank. He forces his will over the poor scientist and actually possesses Dr. Pat Cory like an evil demon. Lew Ayres is a wonderful actor who does a great job of playing Dr. Pat Cory. So good at playing sensitive civilized men, here he is at the mercy of a very strong willed cutthroat, who wants to see his missions carried out as planned right before his plane crashed. Pat charters a plane where he takes Donovan’s favorite suite in a hotel he was famous for hanging out in, and he closes out his bank account for $27,000 that Donovan kept under a false name. He purchases new equipment so the poor doctor can now boost his brain power even more. He even orders suits like the ones Donovan used to wear and takes up his dirty business dealings.
Pat runs into Yocum, who has figured out the truth behind all the secretive veil surrounding Donovan’s death/life. He knows that Donovan is still alive and starts to blackmail Pat Cory.
Steve Brodie who plays the smarmy reporter Yocum pays the price of finding out about Dr. Cory’s stealing Donovan’s brain and his plan to blackmail the doctor backfires. It isn’t long before, the ruthless mind of W.H. Donovan takes over Cory’s body again hypnotizing Yocum and sending him off into the desert so he can drive his car off a cliff into a fiery mess…
Gene Evans is very subtle as the inebriated colleague Dr. Frank Schratt. Donovan forces Dr. Pat Cory to continue his tax evasion scheme. He also cuts Donovan’s children out of his will, and plans to have his brain placed in permanent residency at a special installation to house and protect his criminal brain..
Frank tries to shoot the brain in it’s tank-“It’s unnatural, unholy”-but it forces him to shoot himself instead.
From Bill Warren- “When the brain takes over, Ayre’s transformation from Good Dr. Cory to Bad W.H. Donovan are subtle and powerful.”
During a moment when Donovan is not in control, Pat Cory takes the opportunity to send a message to his wife, with instructions on how to destroy the monstrous brain, but we do not hear what he instructs her to do. Later Donovan thinks that Frank (Gene Evans) and Janice (Nancy Reagan) are in the way and plans on having them taken care of the same way he did with Yokum. That’s when Frank tries to shoot the brain as it forces him to turn the gun on himself. Once Donovan has taken over Pat Cory’s body fully, the doctor no longer exists. He tries to strangle Janice Cory, during a thunderstorm, when a bolt of lightning strikes the lab’s lightning rod, which we now learn was part of Dr. Pat Cory’s instructions. He has hook up a special conduit so when the bolt of lightning hits, the juice charges the tank and Donovan’s brain becomes fried dumplings.
Of course Dr. Pat Cory must pay for his profane crime of tampering with science and using an unauthorized brain in his experiments,but his faithful wife Janice promises to wait for him.
Gene Evans (The Giant Behemoth 1959, Shock Corridor 1963) plays the good friend who drinks too much, but he’s dependable and likeable. And have no fear, though he shoots himself he does not die by the film’s end.
Dr. Patrick J. Cory: [after Cory wakes Dr. Schratt up from a drunken stupor] “My dear Dr. Schratt, you sober up with more—[pauses and shrugs] grace than anyone I ever saw. You’re terrific. C’mon, let’s go.”
Dr. Frank Schratt: “Are you kidding?—[He hold out his shaking hand]—Look! Nope.”
Dr. Patrick J. Cory: “Frank, don’t let me down.”
Dr. Frank Schratt: “What’s more useless than a surgeon with a hangover? I’m a drunken zero.! I pass!”
Dr. Patrick J. Cory: “No, you don’t. I’d rather have you do a corneal transplant for me drunk than anyone else sober—[Pulls him by the arm] Let’s go boy.”
Dr. Frank Schratt: “You’re brilliant but not normal.”
Dr. Patrick J. Cory: [Laughs] “So are you, but are you and who is?”
Dr. Patrick J. Cory: [after Cory wakes Dr. Schratt up from a drunken stupor] “My dear Dr. Schratt, you sober up with more.” [pauses and shrugs]
… Grace than anyone I ever saw. You’re terrific… C’mon, let’s go.”
Dr. Frank Schratt: “Are you kidding?” [He holds out his shaking hand]
… Look! Nope.”
Dr. Patrick J. Cory: “Frank, don’t let me down.”
Dr. Frank Schratt: “What’s more useless than a surgeon with a hangover? I’m a drunken zero.! I pass!”
Dr. Patrick J. Cory: “No, you don’t. I’d rather have you do a corneal transplant for me drunk than anyone else sober.” [Pulls him by the arm]
… Let’s go boy.”
Dr. Frank Schratt: “You’re brilliant but not normal.”
Dr. Patrick J. Cory: [Laughs] “So are you, but are you and who is?”
Dr. Patrick J. Cory: -“Perhaps I’ll cure Frank and every other alcoholic if I can solve the mystery of Donovan’s Brain. I think it’s a matter of chemistry how the brain thinks. The problem is to find out what chemical combinations are responsible for success… failure… happiness… misery.”
Janice Cory: “Sounds impossible.”
Dr. Patrick J. Cory: “But it is not. It can’t be. There has to be a way.”
Directed by Terence Fisher this is a rare and obscure little film! Stars Barbara Payton as Lena/Helen, James Hayter as Dr. Harvey, Stephen Murray as Bill, John van Eyssen as Robin, Percy Marmont as Sir Walter.
Photo courtesy of: Alamy
1950s had some memorable science fiction films within the genre that entertained us in the decade that saw the heyday of the illusory American dream—where the books and films forged out of fantasy were a great release from the anxiety of WWII and the advent of McCarthy Era paranoia. It was rarity to find American science fiction films of the early 50s that were based on novels of the same name. This was even more of an oddity for British films. Then there was the very provocative Four-Side Triangle, adapted from the novel by William F. Temple and scripted by the prolific Terence Fisher who also directed, co-scripted by Hungarian born Paul Tabori who went on to write several science fiction novels himself, the most well known being The Green Rain. The novel was published in 1939. A first fantasy feature by Hammer with director Fisher’s that predates his stint with the Hammer brand horror/sci-fi The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958)
Four-Sided Triangle wasn’t received very well, and it’s still considered quite dreary and so it remains pretty obscure today.
And I find it sort of possesses an air of deviance and a serious curiosity piece concerning a love triangle that becomes a twisted kind of quadrangle. The films stars Barbara Peyton who plays a dual role —the object of both men’s desire.
Lena who returns to her English home town to see her old child hood friends, Robin (John Van EYSSEN) and Bill (Stephen Murray) have invented a machine that can duplicate objects by reconstructing matter into energy. Not unlike the transportation device in The Fly (1958) that messed with atomic particulars that re-assembled matter then sends it to another location re-assembling it, sans any contamination in the field like let’s say a house fly… “Eeeeeee….Help me, Help me!”
They try out their experimental machine first using a totally innocuous object — a watch, which they manage to duplicate. Meanwhile Lena and Robin get engaged and leave to get hitched, leaving Bill to mess around with their new discovery. He uses a living subject instead of just an inanimate object. He’s also madly, tragically in love with his brother’s girl, Lena. This is where the story becomes if not risqué it bares the element a of twisted Sci-Fi melodrama. His brother Robin returns from the honeymoon and heads out to London on business. Poor lovesick Bill asks Lena to please submit to his very profane request… to allow him to duplicate her, using the machine, so that he may fulfill his desire for her in some way.
Lena actually agrees to this, and her doppelgänger Helen is born. But as they say careful what you wish for, and while the machine is effective in duplicating the subject, it does exactly that! And what happens… Helen falls in love with brother Robin as well. Oh what a tangled web we weave. It’s a theme about life’s song of irony and the lesson that we shouldn’t meddle with nature. The constant trope that runs through most to all Science Fiction stories. Not to play god, not to tamper with the nature of things, nor to be as bold to force our will upon other people or the natural world, at least not without paying the consequences for these sacrilegious actions.
Of course Bill is devastated by the outcome, and instead of learning his lesson, he delves deeper in the dark recesses of his lower self and tries to wipe out Helen’s memory, in hopes of being able to seduce a blank slate. Bill does wash her mind clean, by electronically eradicating Helen’s memory but there is a fire in the laboratory and one of the women is killed.
I’m sorry, but you get what you deserve when you’re willing to create a woman in a machine that mimics the object of your desire. It is pathetic and outré creepy, and it says that that any woman will do as long as she’s from the same atomic particle ‘mold’ rather than accepting fate. It doesn’t create much sympathy, even if it is born out of a broken heart. Get over it, or get a puppy!
Lena: An empty mind… and a new beginning!
Directed by innovative designer William Cameron Menzies who directed (Things to Come 1936) a surreal & beautiful science fiction dreamscape with a screenplay by Richard Blake. Starring Helena Carter as Dr. Pat Blake, Arthur Franz as narrator/Dr. Stuart Kelston, Jimmy Hunt as David MacLean, Leif Erickson as George MacLean, Hillary Brooke as Mrs. Mary MacLean, Morris Ankrum as Col. Fielding, Max Wagner as Sgt. Rinaldi William Phipps as Sgt. Baker, Milburn Stone as Capt. Stone.
Cinematography by John F. Seitz (The Lost Weekend 1945, Double Indemnity 1944, Sunset Boulevard 1950) and music composed by Raoul Kraushaar (Cabaret 1972)
Invaders From Mars is perhaps one of the most recognizable science fiction gems of the 1950s partially due to William Cameron Menzies eye and experience for artistic design, he creates a dreamlike colorful yet terrifying landscape, with the feel of a comic book horror/sci-fi/fantasy. It’s a vision of alienation, alien occupation and paranoia that we can all relate to at some point in our lives. I know it effected me as a kid, while not growing up in the 1950s I certainly was fed a substantial dose of the product of horror/sci-fi/fantasy that came from the contribution of literature and film that preceded my childhood growing up in the following decade of the turbulent 60s.
The story uses as it’s protagonist a little boy who experiences a nightmare journey that recycles itself in the end, creating the dreaded sense of entrapment. The young protagonist finds his “Own reality is being twisted into the kind of horror…[…] the story is literally a nightmare.”
The story is told from the point of view of David MacLean played by Jimmy Hunt. Bill Warren in his terrific overview Keep Watching the Skies published by McFarland. “Children operate with a different kind of logic than adults: events proceed from cause to effect, but the causes adults and children see don’t produce the same effects, and vice versa. Adults and children are not frightened of all of the same things, nor do they find the same things interesting. It takes a special imagination to achieve this kind of viewpoint.”
David is a young star gazer who is awakened one night by a flash of bright light when he looks out his bedroom window and sees a flying saucer land out over the hill. He wakes his parents, George and Mary (Leif Erikson and Hillary Brooke) to inform them of what he’s seen. The artistic direction and color palette reminds me of Finnish painter Hugo Simberg. The set pieces have a surreal, simplistic yet fantastical color scheme and composition.
Menzies art directions were “like a daisy chain” of dream sequences.
In the morning, father George goes out to investigate near the place David saw the craft go down, the fence seems to disappear into the sand dune. A mysterious hole in the sand swallows up George, who doesn’t return home, his wife phones the police, until George suddenly comes back but with a completely different temperament. He seems like a changed man. He has no emotions at all, yet he bares a strange ill-tempered streak, verging on violent when unprovoked he strikes David hard with the back of his hand, when David questions him about a strange mark on the back of his neck.
“Say dad when you were out there did you see anything?”
“lets not start that flying saucer nonsense again.’
he notices the implant in the back of his father’s neck “Hey dad” “Yeah what do you want!” “what happened to your neck, it looks like there’s a ….?”
Imagine the nightmare of a twist of fate where the people who love you now hate you and the ones who are supposed to keep you safe, become the most dangerous!
The next to disappear in the sand pit are the two policemen Douglas Kennedy and Charles Kane -called out to find David’s father. Once they return they appear to have the same eerie ill mood as George, zapped of any human emotion. Now, when a little girl also disappears, seemingly swallowed up by the sand and disappears in front of David, he tells his mother, but she too returns just as a fire starts in the basement of the little girl’s house. David panics and goes to the police station. Seeking out the symbol of authority and protection right… wrong…!
The little guy talks to the chief. “You wouldn’t believe me.”
“What makes you think the chief will?”
One of the cops who has been taken over by the invaders asks, “What’s the trouble Mac?”
it’s a very creepy tone, that seems menacing in it’s coldness…
David sees that the guy has the same wound on the back of his neck. Pulling his collar over it to conceal it.
When the little guy runs into the police station asking to see the chief, it goes to that place where we feel most vulnerable and the panic sets in when we realize there is no one you can trust, no one to believe you. There is no safe place. And those you love are gone. The threat goes to the issue of trust and sense of safety and not just about creepy aliens lurking around. A film of paranoia and insecurity.
Spielberg says that Menzies gave himself the license to work on the film doing homages using BERTOLD BRECHTIAN sets, because it was a dream. Also the fear that it kept recurring is the notion that there isn’t any escape you can wake up from the nightmare, but it only begins all over again. “It’s a trap. It’s absurd. it’s deadly frightening.”
There the chief of police Bert Freed has also been taken over by the Martians who have submerged themselves in the land behind his house. David is locked up until a psychologist Dr. Pat Blake played by Helen Carter who comes to see him and realizes how genuinely frightened he is. He is petrified when his parents come to pick him up, his mother now showing the same frozen demeanor as his father. So Dr. Blake keeps David in her care and takes him to see a colleague Dr. Stuart Kelston played by Arthur Franz. Dr. Kelston is also an amateur astronomer who not only believes that David saw a space craft land in the back field, but that the earth could very well be under siege by Martians, an immanent invasion could be near. That they might be trying to interfere with local rocket experiments being launched in the area. And of course, that’s where David’s father works.
Kelston has a telescope and he, David and Dr. Pat Blake see David’s father lure General Mayberry (William Forrest) to the sand dune that swallows him up. Soldiers are sent to surround the sand pit, overseen by veteran science fiction supportive actor Morris Ankrum who plays Colonel Fielding along side Sergeant Rinaldi (Max Wagner). Meanwhile the Martians are systematically sending out their possessed humans to sabotage the works. The Martians act like puppet masters who can also control their subjects by exploding the devices implanted in their brains –the marks on their necks are where they’ve been drilled. Lovely thought…
David is told that his parents are getting their control devices taken out through surgery, just as the sand trap opens up right under his and Pat’s feet, they fall beneath the sand into the underground lair that the Martians have been operating from. We get to see two green Martians who walk like they shuffle (excuse me for saying, back in the day my older brother used to say that they walked like they had shit in their pants) actually these Martians do sort of qualify as ‘pants monsters’.
Anyway, the two Martians bring David and Pat unto the grand Martian leader, a very kitschy Martian –a goldish green head including shoulders with nasty tentacles encased in something like a glass orb. The main Martian telepathically uses it’s eyes to communicate it’s creepy menacing power not with squinting veracity but more with a comical sort of soulessness.
The nefarious Martian Intelligence is portrayed by Luce Potter.
Thank God the military saves the day as Fielding, (poor General Mayberry gets killed), enter the Martian’s underground chambers and rescue David and Pat, she was just about to get her brain drilled into, they blow up the spacecraft. After this climatic seen as David is on the surface running away, he awakens from this nightmare, (the rolling flashback in his head is a terrific touch) as it was truly a nightmare… runs into his parents bedroom, thank god the nightmare is over, he goes back to his room falls asleep until he is again awakened by a space craft landing out in the field behind his house, the entire cycle of events to repeat all over again. It’s quite a stunning conclusion… that doesn’t give us any release.
In honoring Menzies incredible eye for design, and how the film was envisioned as if we are experiencing the nightmare through a child’s eyes, I defer to the way Bill Warren sums up some of the visual highlights of the film- “The jail set is especially impressive. The only things on the set are those that would impress themselves on a boy; (I’ll ignore that presumptive gender bias) there is a police chief, one sergeant at a towering desk, and on the wall behind him a clock with hands that don’t move, one cell and one key to the cell. The walls are white and almost not there at all; the hall from the front door to the desk is long and tall, it is a set out of a dream, as if it is only partially real…[…] The interior of the Martian flying saucer is equally imaginative and equally minimal. It’s composed almost entirely of greenish plexiglass. There are no instruments visible at all, there are a couple of tubes which reach up out of sight and a large inexplicable hole in the floor. The sphere with the Martian Intelligence inside rests on a pillar, and is brought to it brought to its perch by the giant green mutants.”
Not to mention the surreal space behind David’s house, the sand pit and the fence that disappears out of site, the winding trees that melt into space. It’s all very much a dreamscape. A reduction of images in which the minimalist elements actually add to the eerie atmosphere the opposite of Grand Guignol and Gothic old dark house set pieces. How can something so simplistic be so menacing. I guess that’s why Menzie’s film is still so gorgeous to experience today.
Actor Mark Hamill-“The Invaders From Mars were no angels. They were here to bend our minds. They were the thieves of love and trust. The film was directed by the great art director William Cameron Menzies who gave it a memorably surreal design on a tiny budget.”
Director Steven Spielberg talks about how Invaders From Mars turned his world around “it got to a primal place which basically says the first people not to trust is your father and mother.”
Director James Cameron “What is the deep seated psychological fear that’s happening here. Maybe it’s a simple and elemental as you’re in a relationship with somebody whether it’s child/parent husband/wife but you never really know what that other person’s thinking. And they might be evil.”
Steven Spielberg “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.”
When the father hits his son so violently that it knocks him down, as Spielberg says “it’s a shattering primal attack on us.”
I had the same reaction, I came home one night and felt like my parents had been exchanged somehow. they were not cruel like David’s parents in Invaders from Mars, yet I felt that they were somehow duplicates. I walked around the block for an hour afraid to go inside the house. These movies certainly made impressions in that deep rooted primal way. The subtleties of films like Invaders from Mars will still leave their mark on your psyche.
The giant green Martian Mutants must have zippers up the back of their velour costumes…
The idea of not being believed works as a trope and it possesses a powerful persuasive tone that seeps inside and effects you as a kid watching Invaders From Mars.
All of a sudden, parents turn into aliens, monsters and cruel. It could be a metaphor for any number of difficult issues children might confront, like alcoholism, abuse etc. It is the changes that the child experiences in private where they cannot convey to people outside the home, that tells the story of alienation and estrangement. It is a terrifying journey they must navigate on their own, while they try to negotiate what is happening to them.
The ship has crashed into the land, over the hill. The sand sinks down like quicksand that drags down anyone who walks over it. The mutants who walk like my brother used to say to me, like they’ve got shit in their pants, worship and serve this giant tentacled head in a glass orb. The whole vision of the ground ‘literally’ collapsing where you stand. it gives the idea that you can’t even feel safe where you stand. It will suck you down into the bowels of the earth where evil creatures will turn you into a mindless image of yourself.
Spielberg says “What really unseats you as a child seeing that movie. it’s all a dream. He wakes up and his mom’s normal and his dad is normal and they don’t believe him, but what happens in the last scene.”
“It starts all over again… It’s the groundhog day of science fiction —lol I thought the same thing Spielberg. that’s pretty much what it is…. he’ll just go through the whole loop and then wake up over and over again. There’s a twilight zone episode like that where Dennis Weaver keeps getting sentenced to death by a jury and goes thought the execution only to wake up and do it all over again… Spielberg puts it like this “it’ll be a never ending mirror tunnel of nightmares.”
Narrator: The heavens. Once an object of superstition, awe, and fear. Now a vast region for growing knowledge. The distance of Venus, the atmosphere of Mars, the size of Jupiter, and the speed of Mercury. All this and more we know. But their greatest mystery the heavens have kept a secret. What sort of life, if any, inhabits these other planets? Human life, like ours? Or life extremely lower in the scale? Or dangerously higher? Seeking the answer to this timeless question, forever seeking, is the constant preoccupation of scientists everywhere. Scientists famous and unknown. Scientists in great universities and in modest homes. Scientists of all ages.
From a story by the master of fantasy and science fiction Ray Bradbury
The science fiction film that brought us the amorphous bubbly one eyed Xenomorph.
Jack Arnold’s amazing foray into an alien crash landing that involves stolen identity, invasion fear and the possibility that life on other planets might be benevolent but still really really creepy.
The film stars Richard Carlson as displaced reporter John Putnam, the wonderful Barbara Rush as Ellen Fields, Charles Drake as jealous Sheriff Matt Warren, Joey Sawyer as Frank Daylon, Russell Johnson as George, and Kathleen Hughes as June.
Art direction by Robert F. Boyle (North by Northwest 1959, In Cold Blood 1967, Cape Fear 1962, The Thomas Crown Affair 1968) and Cinematography by Clifford Stine (This Island Earth 1955, The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957,Touch of Evil 1958, Imitation of Life 1959, Operation Petticoat 1959, Spartacus 1960, Patton 1970) Read Stine’s credits on IMBd they are far too many to list! The mesmerizing musical score is by an un-credited Henry Mancini, Irving Gertz and Herman Stein. The memorable visual effects are by David S. Horsley-(The Killers 1947, Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein 1948, This Island Earth 1955) It Came From Outer Space was also filmed in the sensationally hyped 3D!
The music is wonderfully inspiring to the mood, especially with the desert’s sense of estrangement and when the presence of the Xenomorphs are near. I think they use it as some of the stock music for Night of the Living Dead… I need to check that out… From what I see about their contributors I cannot link to any of the three music contributors to It Came from Outer Space… but I always get a thrill when the ‘coming near’ motif music happens in both!
In reading Bill Warren’s–Keep Watching the Skies his overview of It Came from Outer Space, gets into the discrepancies about Ray Bradbury’s full participation in writing the screenplay, being totally replaced by Harry Essex who is credited for the screenplay, if it was his memory that was failing in recollecting what happened or if he had been misunderstood and his work co-opted by Essex because Universal didn’t like Bradbury’s treatment of the script. Warren is totally supportive of Bradbury being an un-credited contributor to the script. While he delves into the weeds a bit more about the mystery and contradictions about the facts behind-the- scenes, I think I’ll just stick with Jack Arnold’s beautifully executed science fiction master work here. But the entire section on the film is fascinating if you want a good read and 1950s science fiction is of particular interest, pick up a copy of Keep Watching the Skies by Bill Warren, it’s a sensational compilation of a decade of gems and stinkers, informative, funny engaging even including old published reviews of the films during the time of their theatrical release. I highly recommend it.
First of all,this is one of those science fiction films that’s actually a really good film, with so many elements that work fabulously to transcend genre. This is one of the first major studio Universal – International to release a film in 3D, and one of the first to be shown in what was called wide screen and in stereophonic sound.
It was also the first science fiction film to be directed by Jack Arnold. (YAY!!!) The first using the southwestern desert as a location— the Mojave desert to be exact and not the Arizona desert as plotted out in the story—Donovan’s Brain was set there but made little use of the area as a central focal point. The desert already has an eerie, isolated vibe to it…
The film stars Richard Carlson as John Putnam and Barbara Rush as Ellen Fields.
Ray Bradbury wrote the original story on which the film is based, He was at the height of his writing with The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man and Fahrenheit 451 which brought his genius into light.
The story opens as a meteor cuts through the evening sky like a glowing fireball high above the alienating desert landscape. For the locals, this brings about many different reactions, including that of John Putnam, amateur astronomer who’s having dinner with his fiancee Ellen Fields. This gets John so excited that he immediately wants to drive out to the sight to investigate. He and Ellen hop on a helicopter and go and see where the meteor left a large crater.
Meanwhile from the view of what ever the alien life force is, it moves from the crashed spacecraft, revealing that it wasn’t a meteor at all. —“Bradbury describes quick shots of animals fleeing in fright from the alien visitor. The jack rabbit, for instance. At this point, he does not mention the use of a subjective camera technique , which has so often been commented on in relation to the film.” -Bill Warren.
Putnam arrives at the crater and approaches the object that has crash landed in a gaping hole, nearly burned to molten rock. Suddenly a landslide occurs and covers up the opening and the space ship.
Bill Warren–In a sequence (not in the finished film) almost certainly suffused by Billy Wilders’ Ace in the Hole /The Big Carnival 1951, which also took place in the Southwestern desert, earth moving machinery arrives in an effort to uncover the buried pilot. No one believes Putnam’s story. Eventually everyone give up and goes home, including Ellen and Putnam. A strange shape crosses the highway in front of them, they stop to look for whatever it was and a Joshua tree in the dark frightens Ellen, but they do not see the strange shape again. The alien, with the first-person camera emphasized (the camera’s point of view is the Alien’s) watches them leave.
The next day Putnam is interviewed by hostile reporters. A few days later, the excitement of the meteor has died down. They drive into the desert alone. stopping to look around. “It’s alive” says Putnam “it looks so dead out there. And yet, it’s all alive and waiting around us and ready to kill you if you go too far from the road. The sun will get you, or the cold at night, or the snakes and the spiders or a sudden rain that floods the washes will get you. Ohm there are a thousand ways you can die in the desert.”
Here’s Essex’s version of the same scene, which is in the film, “It’s alive.” say Putnam. Ellen nodding adds, “And yet it looks so dead out there.” Putnam goes on. “But it’s all alive and waiting for you… And ready to kill you if you go too far. The sun will get you or the cold at night… a thousand ways the desert can kill.” There isn’t much difference though some of the dialogue is shared by Ellen which is a nice touch.
Putnam and Ellen drive on and meet the phone linemen. Putnam climbs up the ladder to listen to the strange sounds on the wire that the linemen have been noticing since the crash. The elder lineman says —
–“In all my years nothing like that sound. Like Someone’s on the line. Down that way maybe, tapping the wire. Or up the other way, tapping the wire. listening to unlike we’re listening to him… After you been working out in this desert for fifteen years like I have you get funny ideas. There’s that sun in the sky and the heat, and look at the roads, full of mirages. And the sand out there, full of rivers and lakes that are fifty, a hundred miles away…. And sometimes you get to thinking maybe some nights, or some noons like this noon , the sun burns on the wires and gets in the wires and listens and hums and talks like this talk and that’s what you hear now. And sometimes you wonder if some of the snakes and the coyotes and the tumbleweeds don’t climb the poles at noon, far off where you can’t see them, and listen in on us human beings.”
“Once again, Essex condenses and duplicates this speech without understanding the poetic paranoia behind the words. Fortunately director Jack Arnold and actor Joe Sawyer did, and the scene is one of the most famous and best like in the finished film.”-Bill Warren.
Putnam and Ellen decide to help the linemen find out what’s happening to the wires, and head off in the opposite direction from the one the linemen take. The linemen meet the alien , the scene cuts to Putnam and Ellen. who turn around and go back. They meet the alien masquerading as the younger lineman (Russell Johnson) When he quietly walks up and taps Putnam (Ellen in the film) on the shoulder, Putnam spots a body behind a mesquite bush, assumes the linemen are dead, and that what he is talking to isn’t human.
The scene that follows, one of the only two in the film in which Putnam is not the central figure, was added to the screenplay by Essex. In it, the alien George (Russell) tells the real Frank (Sawyer) that they have landed by accident and that they have the power to make themselves look like us.
Bill Warren passionately tries to defend and clarify this.. “I could continue through the entire storyline in this fashion , it would be profitless. Despite all claims by everyone else to the contrary, the story and the best elements of It Came From Outer Space were written by Ray Bradbury, not by Harry Essex. Because of the many influences of this film, Ray Bradbury’s therefor far more responsible for the look, the feel and the approach of 1950s science fiction movies than he has ever been acknowledged or even suspected before.”
In the finished film the aliens apparently literally take on the form of other people, they are actual shape shifters their bodies are malleable enough that they can actually restructure themselves to resemble anyone. In Bradbury’s script, the effect is the same but the power seems to come from hypnosis —the aliens resemble lizards in Bradbury’s treatment.
I learned something really interesting from reading Warrens analysis of the film. I myself have often confused Richard Carlson with Hugh Marlowe at times. Here is partly the answer to that
“In the draft actually called It Came from Outer Space, almost all of the film that was to be was created by Ray Bradbury. In this draft (begun October 1, 1952) Bradbury emphasized scenic and character descriptions much more strongly than the had in his earlier drafts. probably on studio orders. In so doing he created the standard science fiction her of the 1950. who was to be played by Richard Carlson or the nearest equivalent through most of the rest of the decade. Hugh Marlowe, John Agar, Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason. The characters they played were almost always variations on John Putnam the dedicated slightly strange and earnest young researcher. The actors often physically resembled Carlson.”
When it all comes down to it, what Bill Warren is asserting is that he found evidence that Essex’s script was a duplication of Ray Bradbury’s treatment, meaning the result –he isn’t getting the credit for his contribution and Essex is getting credit for Bradbury’s work. And he feels that what Essex did manage to change slightly, didn’t work at all, including inventing some of the poorly envisioned scenes.
What does happen by the end of Bradbury’s final draft is how his incredibly fluid and convoluted description of these alien came to life as close to the poetic description Bradbury put forth. The few times the aliens show themselves they are hard to assess, in form, with the emphasis on their milky jelly like eye in a gigantic impression of a head, surrounded by a foggy mist, with sparkles and glistens like a jello mold … but in the end, the film shows them as close to their poetic description that Bradbury had envisioned. Different than some man in a lizard type pants monster suit with bug eyes, or layers of monster make-up, the floating amorphous alien really does seem to exist on the extra terrestrial plane.
“One of his main contributions to It Came from Outer Space seem to have been the shimmering bullseye effect used whenever the camera ‘is’ one of the aliens. The subjective camera “playing’ the aliens at time is Bradbury’s idea. but the refinements seem to have been Jack Arnold’s–Bill Warren
Another aspect of these aliens is that they are not quite hostile, though they are not benign either. it’s sort of a unique view of them. They are panicked and desperate to get off the Earth, and get back to their original destination “Our mission was to another world, only an error dragged us to Earth” Some of the aliens, such as the one in the guise of Ellen that tries to kill Putnam,are indeed hostile to people. Others are just nervous, such as the Putnam duplicate. or openly friendly , like the one that copied George the lineman. In short, just like real people, they don’t have a common attitude they are not of one mind. They reveal an individual spirit. It’s quite a break away them from other aliens who are a collective group on a mission, unified.
This being director Jack Arnold’s first science fiction film leads with a focus on how the alien relates to this world he has invaded. The result that his films seems less fanciful and more realist than most other of this period, such as The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957.
Ellen Fields: If we’ve been seeing things, it’s because we DID see them.
Sheriff Matt Warren: [three-shot, characters gazing toward sky into which meteor-spaceship has rocketed] Well, they’ve gone.
Ellen Fields: For good, John?
John Putnam: No. Just for now. It wasn’t the right time for us to meet. But there’ll be other nights, other stars for us to watch. They’ll be back.
Continue reading “🚀 Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s: The Year is 1953”
It’s that time of year once again when Movies Silently, Silver Screenings & One Upon a Screen host a momentous event…. The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon 2016 which will begin August 5th -10th, 2016.
Science fiction is a genre of speculative fiction dealing with imaginative concepts such as futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, faster than light travel, parallel universes and extraterrestrial life. Science fiction often explores the potential consequences of scientific and other innovations, and has been called a “literature of ideas. –Wikipedia definition of Science Fiction
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 Features on Channel 5, or Fright Night on 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
The Brain from Planet Arous 1957* Attack of the Crab Monsters 1957* The Killer Shrews 1959* The Giant Claw 1957 *Beast From Haunted Cave 1959 *The Monster from Piedras Blancas 1959 *Invasion of the Saucer Men 1957 *The Monster that Challenged the World 1957 *Not of this Earth 1957* The She-Creature 1956* The Man Who Turned to Stone 1958* Invisible Invaders 1959* Attack of the 50 Foot Woman 1958* The Hideous Sun Demon (1959) * Monster on the Campus 1958* The Unknown Terror 1957* Creature with The Atom Brain 1955 * The Unearthly 1955 * From Hell it Came 1957,
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!
It all started with Georges Méliès 1903 fantasy A Trip to the Moon
Le Voyage Dans La Lune 1902 – Georges Méliès
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’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, re-envisioned time and time again.
John Barrymore lifts 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)
The odd yet visually stunning Russian spectacle Aelita Queen of Mars (1924) aka Revolt of the Robots.e
There were a few early visions of fantasy, magic & Science Fiction films from all around the world- At 3:25 aka The 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!
And Transatlantic Tunnel (1935) Scientists construct a tunnel under the ocean-stars Richard Dix, Leslie Banks and C. Aubrey Smith.
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 Laughton is 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)
Then there was the 1936 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ Things To Come (1936) directed by William Cameron Menzies and starring Raymond Massey as Oswald Cabal, Ralph Richardson as The Boss, Margaretta Scott as Roxanna/Rowena and Cedric Hardwicke as Theotocopulos.
“What is this progress? Progress is not living. It should only be the preparation for living.”
Flash Gordon and similar serials provided super heroes for generations of young people in the 30s & 40s, planting the seeds for the future that would give us the Star Wars legacy.
Audiences between the World Wars preferred horrors of a Gothic nature– James Whale’s Frankenstein 1931 & Bride of Frankenstein 1935, as they helped exercise demons conjured up from the 19th & early 20th century.
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 Clive becomes 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.”
From The Twilight Zone “The Shelter” season 3 episode 3
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?”
Some films that reflected the paranoia of the period were well regaled by a Hollywood studio system that was itself at the center of the controversial House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) targeting screenwriters and actors as ‘communist sympathizers’ and no one could be trusted. -Just like Invaders from Mars 1953, Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956, X the Unknown 1956, The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957, and I Married a Monster From Outer Space 1958.
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 Odyssey of 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.
Then we shot past the moon in cinema and went straight to the red planet with Flight to Mars 1951!
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.
War of the Worlds 1953 and When Worlds Collide 1951 had as Phil Hardy states, ‘religious dimensions’ that accused us of bringing about catastrophic punishment because of our misdeeds and transgressions.
H.G. Well’s view of Martian invaders 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 Domergue you 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 1951 which 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?
There is the outsider narrative, diminishing human forms as in Bert I. Gordon’s Attack of the Puppet People 1958 where obsessed and lonely puppet maker John Hoyt loses his marbles. Although mad -bad science has shrunk down people before the 1950s in The Devil Doll 1936 and in the hands of crazed Albert Dekker in Dr. Cyclops 1940.
There is the quintessential existential crisis, the beautifully thought provoking film by director Jack Arnold starring the eternally transcending man Grant Williams in, The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957.
And of course there is the matter of GIGANTISM!
Giant insects, sea creatures and people who ran around half crazed and scantily dressed were a by-product of the atomic age!
George Lucas —“Ou