A Conversation with Television Icon 📺 Jerry Mathers

Jerry Mathers is an American Icon whose presence undoubtedly continues to contribute to our collective consciousness. Born on June 2, 1948 in Sioux City, Iowa, he started as a child model from the age of two, and that led to his television and show business career in live television in the early 1950s. Jerry first worked on the popular Spike Jones live show. Jones was an American musician and bandleader Spike Jones and his City Slickers whose signature concept The Musical Depreciation Revue was satirical arrangements of popular songs, loud and not-quite-jazz-music of the 50s featuring musical riffs punctuated with unconventional noises like gunshots, whistles, and outrageous farcical vocals. His drummer would use trash can lids as cymbals and the trumpet players would use toilet plungers as mutes. The slapstick gimmick was certain whimsical instrumentals would cue Spike to drop his pants revealing his very loud boxer shorts.

When Jerry Mathers was about 3 years old he would walk out on stage with a big sign and start pulling on Spike’s coat tails. The sign read ‘commercial’ to let him know that he had to take a break. Spike would chide him and shoo him away and then eventually go to the commercial. Working on the Spike Jones Show brought Jerry more work, because people saw that he could go out on stage with the irascible Jones and not get rattled.

Jerry’s Mathers’ first foray into television was his debut in 1950 for a Pet Milk commercial with Ed Wynn on the Colgate Comedy Hour. The set up: A huge bar room scene with cowboys fighting one and other and actor Ed Wynn tending bar. Jerry comes in through the swinging doors — amidst all the stuntmen brawling and breaking bottles over each other’s heads — in diapers, a ten gallon hat, six guns, and his big cowboy boots. One of the cowboys picks little Jerry up and sets him down on the bar where he pounds his little fist and utters his very first lines, “I’m the toughest hombre in these parts and you better have my brand” as Ed Wynn puts a can of Pet Condensed Milk on the bar! ( I wish there was an existing copy of this commercial )

Jerry as David Myer in This is My Love (1954) starring Linda Darnell

Jerry Mathers began to get cast in many early 1950s television programs, variety hours and early live dramatic shows. And in 1954, he made his film debut in This is My Love starring Linda Darnell and Dan Duryea.

Soon after appearing in a major motion picture his impish, precocious ways caught the eye of master director/storyteller Alfred Hitchcock who cast Jerry as Arnie Rogers for his mystery/comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955) starring John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine in her first role, and some of the best character actors– Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock and Edmund Gwenn. Next up at age 5 Jerry appeared with Bob Hope in two major motion pictures as Bryan Lincoln Foy, the black licorice lovin’ little rascal in The Seven Little Foys (1955) co-starring James Cagney and George Tobias. And he played the wonderful Norman Taylor in That Certain Feeling (1956) co-starring Eva Marie Saint, George Sanders and Pearl Bailey.

The Trouble with Harry official trailer:

Bob Hope was wonderful with Jerry Mathers in the hilarious scene with the cute little guy eating his black licorice both actors’ body comedy was spot on — Hope choreographed the scene brilliantly with Jerry. It was pure genius. Jerry’s tugging at Bob’s coat, kicking and screaming the whole way.

Bob Hope actually played a part in saving Jerry Mather’s life on the set of the vaudevillian biopic The Seven Little Foys. Back then they used candles to light the stage. Jerry was sitting up in the catwalk and the stuntman was supposed to put gasoline on the curtain so it would ignite and all the extras were supposed to panic and run out of the theater, with the stuntman dressed as Bob Hope climbing up and saving little Bryan Foy (Jerry Mathers) from the flames. Well, Jerry was sitting up on the catwalk when they accidentally put too much gasoline on the curtains, that caught fire. The extras who were supposed to be fleeing the theater saw all these  flames and actually did panic, and the stuntman dressed as Bob Hope got pushed out the door and no one realized that Jerry was still up on the catwalk but Bob Hope.

Bob courageously threw a blanket over himself and ran through the flames, grabbed a ladder, and got Jerry out safely. In another interview Jerry said that he remembers the flames but it was also dripping like raining fire fragments because the cloth as it burned was dropping off. It must have been terrifying! So thanks to Bob Hope for saving Jerry’s life. They couldn’t even use the footage from the first fire. They had to re-shoot the entire scene all over again, because there was too much smoke and flames and they couldn’t see Bob Hope climb up and rescue Jerry so the very next day they had to do it all over again with A LOT less gasoline on the curtains. They didn’t even use a stuntman, they shot it with Bob Hope who went up and got Jerry but the scene was a lot more toned down.

I found a small clip from the film which includes the re-shot recreation of the fire at the Iroquois Theater — with a little less gasoline this time!– and Bob Hope climbing the ladder and not a stunt man as planned. Hope is not only a comic genius, but courageous!

Jerry talks about Bob Hope –

“He was really a fun person to work with. I did That Certain Feeling with him too and actually I did The Seven Little Foys first and I had a very small part in that and he liked me so much that in the next one in his next movie I had a very very big part and it was with Norman Panama and Melvin Frank who were some great writers if you go back and look at some of the things they’ve done and they both directed, I think they were writer/producers but because there were two directors we would do some scenes twenty and thirty times and the one would come over and say you do it this way and then they’d come back and say okay now do it this way and you just kept doing it so as a child it was I imagine now as an adult actor I would even think its tedious. It’s a great movie. And he always made it fun. You know we’d sit there and do this same scene and he just made it so much fun as I say most people know him by seeing him on stage and he was just fun loving and just a great person to work with.

…Bob Hope was always seen as this very lovable person but George Sanders in a lot of his movies played, not villains but he had kind of an edge to him so when I first met him it was actually kind of scary and the other person.”

Among the other cast members he was very taken with Pearl Bailey who sung to him in the film, he liked her very much and thought the world of her.

 “She made the movie so much fun and her and Bob Hope used to clown around it was just so much fun to watch.”

Jerry Mathers in That Certain Feeling (1956)

Jerry Mathers in The Seven Little Foys (1955)

Other major motion pictures of the 1950s Jerry Mathers appeared in:

Men of the Fighting Lady (1954) and director Nicolas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) starring James Mason and Barbara Rush. The gritty and obscure film noir The Shadow on the Window (1957) starring Philip Carey, Betty Garrett and John Drew Barrymore. And The Deep Six (1958) starring Alan Ladd.

“Our generation is the first to have grown up with TV. I’m one of the first kids that they watched grow up on television.” –Jerry Mathers

It was the advent of television. TV was something new, and it was all live studio work. Jerry Mathers explains that while there were child stars in motion pictures, there weren’t really any television child actors, so they thought they could pool from child models who were used to being out on stage and could follow direction.

Heinz 57 was sponsoring and premiering a lot of television variety shows and pilots and after a year or more of languishing it was actually General Douglas MacArthur who was on the board of Remington-Rand (Typewriters) who decided to option the series. The pilot for the show was initially called It’s a Small World.

There was a cattle call for the pilot show where over 5000 young boys of varying ages turned up to audition for the part of both brothers and their friends. His mom wasn’t sure she wanted Jerry to do a series. After many weeks of showing up for the grueling audition schedule, Jerry started to get a bit tired of the process of sticking around, saying his lines, and being told to come back the next day as they weeded out the potential actors for the series. It came down to the last 10 kids and the day he was supposed to show up at the casting call, he had his first cub scout meeting, so he didn’t want to go. Writers Joe Connolly and Bob Mosher both had big families and were used to the machinations of children. They noticed that Jerry was acting pretty fidgety on the rehearsal stage. He agreed to go to the audition only after his mother fixed it so they could go to the audition and his cub scout meeting right afterwards, Jerry even wore his cub scout uniform to the audition.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, 1957-63, Hugh Beaumont (kneeling), Bob Mosher (co-creator), Jerry Mathers, Tony Dow, Joe Connelly (co-creator) (sitting), Norman Tokar (director) (kneeling), 1958, on-set

It seemed like it took forever watching each kid to go in and run their lines. Finally he was called in. Young Jerry went inside, said his lines and came right out in a short period of time. His mom asked why he was done so quickly, he told her that they asked him if he wanted to be there and he said “no,” he’d rather go to his cub scout meeting. That night they called and said he’d gotten the job! They’d rather have a boy that wanted to go to a cub scout meeting rather than be an actor. The producers chose him because they wanted a boy who possessed the genuine spirit of a real little boy.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Jerry Mathers, Hugh Beaumont, ‘The Black Eye’, (Season 1), 1957-63

And of course Connolly and Mosher just loved young Jerry every time he showed up for each exhaustive part of the audition process. Jerry Mathers is the consummate professional. He began his career at age 2, he took direction well, learned his lines perfectly, and gained immeasurable experience in the early infancy of television with variety shows and dramatic live performances. He is such an extraordinary actor and a natural talent that he makes you believe he wasn’t following direction at all, and somehow he had manifested Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver as a very real character — a universally lovable little guy. And after listening to interviews and talking to the actor himself, he makes it clear that there was a little bit of himself in Beaver, and a bit of Beaver in Jerry Mathers. The skill involved makes you think that what you’re seeing is real, and that is an art. A lot goes into the process of creating, not only a believable and beloved iconic character, but a television series that will go on to last decade after decade. And as you will learn from my conversation with Jerry Mathers, that lovable little boy was very serious and focused on the craft of acting all while having the time of his life!

“You know, working isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. I wonder why older people do it so much?” —Beaver Cleaver

On Friday October 4th 1956, months after the pilot aired, Leave it to Beaver debuted on CBS and began a legacy of the magic and innocence of childhood. The iconic television sitcom Leave it to Beaver is about an inquisitive and often unsuspicious little lad whose misadventures within the world of his suburban middle-class life symbolized the idealization of the American family during post WWII.

The first sublimely marvelous episode ‘Beaver Gets Spelled’ introduces Beaver and Wally navigating the tricky mechanism of kid vs school and authority. It includes a scene where they feign taking their baths by running the tub, dampening towels and throwing in some turtle dirt so it leaves a ring. The next episode ‘Captain Jack’ which made television history by featuring the first toilet shown on TV. Beaver and Wally send away for a pet alligator from the back of a comic book. In the 1960s, I ordered all sorts of things as a kid, including a giant rubber fly, sea monkeys, and x-ray glasses! It’s a quirky entertaining episode with wonderful moments — for instance when Ward accuses Minerva the cleaning woman of getting drunk on the job when she says there’s an alligator in the basement sink. In 1997 ‘Captain Jack’ was ranked number 42 in TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.

In 1957, radio, film and television writers/producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher conceptualized a television show that would feature the family life of an average suburban couple and their young children. Connelly and Mosher met in New York City while working on the radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, which they continued to be involved with after it moved to television in 1950. What set the show apart from other family sitcoms and domestic comedies of that time period like Ozzie & Harriet or Father Knows Best is that their show would be conveyed through the eyes of the children and not their parents, which introduced a new direction for a mainstream family genre, a series being told from the kid’s point of view. Leave It to Beaver is a thoughtfully lyrical insight of middle-class American boyhood.

Both Connolly and Mosher had kids of their own and actually got their inspiration for the characters, plot lines and dialogue from their own personal lives and conversations from their children. Most or all 234 episodes, 39 per year for 6 years, were taken from real life situations.

Joe Connolly collected stories in a notebook over the years with anecdotes based on things that really happened to family and friends, embellishing a bit along the way. “If we hire a writer we tell him not to make up situations, but to look into his own background. It’s not a ‘situation’ comedy where you have to create a situation for a particular effect. Our emphasis is on a natural story line.” -Joe Connolly

“The Haircut” episode, for example, is based on something that happened with Bob Mosher’s son who had to wear a stocking cap in a school play because he gave himself a terrible hair cut like the one Beaver gave himself with the help of brother Wally of course!

Even the name Beaver was inspired by a merchant marine friend of Joe Connolly’s during WWII. Both Connolly and Mosher became executive producers on the show having initially written all the earlier episodes. Later on they began accepting scripts from other writers.

The series cinematographers were Mack Stengler, who shot 122 episodes between 1958 and 1962, and William A. Sickner who worked on 37 episodes between 1957 and 1959, and later included Fred Mandl, and Ray Rennahan. The cinematographers often keenly lensed the series using angles that emphasized the world from Beaver, Wally and their mischievous friends’ perspective.

Director Norman Tokar, who had experience working with children, directed most of the episodes for the first three years and developed the characters of Eddie Haskell and Larry Mondello. Other directors involved in the series include Earl Bellamy, David Butler (who had worked with Shirley Temple), Bretaigne Windust, Gene Reynolds, and also Hugh Beaumont directed various episodes. Norman Abbott directed most of the episodes during the run of the last three years.

Leave it to Beaver is so memorable for us because it’s an allegorical journey of innocence and the magical world of childhood. Beaver is the ‘innocent’ while Wally is the ‘transitional’ character. Wally tries to explain to his brother what the world is really like, because he’s been out in the world longer. Beaver often looks to Wally for guidance as he tries to navigates the awkward and often perplexing situations he gets himself into.

Beaver grew up on the television screen, and we watched his trajectory of his adventures and life lessons through his perspective. The show shared the valuable and straightforward morals he learns about life, love, and friendship. And amidst all the shenanigans and mischief, Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver is a very loyal, caring and kind little fella. Leave it to Beaver has touched fans’ lives immeasurably at the core of our collective hearts.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Jerry Mathers on-set, (1959), 1957-63

Not only is Leave it to Beaver known as the first television show to reveal a toilet on air but quite a few scenes occurred in the boys bathroom. There’s even an episode where Beaver allows a bum to come in and take a bath getting all sudsed up in Ward and June’s bathroom. Then he takes one of Wards best suits! It’s a crazy bit of trivia but tubs and toilets were what the censors took notice of!

Jerry has mentioned in other interviews as well as in our conversation that the environment on the set was geared toward everyone involved feeling like a family, and making sure that the crew’s families felt welcomed and included. Writers Joe Connolly & Bob Mosher visualized the series with a very conscious aim at representing the idealization of the American family and the American Dream of the 1950s but somehow they managed to narrate finely drawn messages within the framework of the story lines. They even contributed to The Munsters which was a way to invert the average All-American ideal using an unconventional family of monsters to introduce not so subtly, the idea of ‘difference.’

Leave It to Beaver was filmed at Republic Studios in Studio City, Los Angeles during its earliest run of Season 1 and 2. Then the production moved to Universal Studios for the last four seasons of the show. All the exteriors, including the façades of the two Cleaver houses, were filmed on the both studio’s back lots.

One of the intros for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was done on the set of the Cleaver home. The studio went around looking for places and they decided on the Cleaver living room. If you know the design of the house, and all the furniture – notice the foyer and as Jerry Mathers says- “It’s probably a murder mystery – but they actually filmed on their set (Leaver it to Beaver) one day…”

One of the significant elements of the series was the musical theme song at the opening of Leave it to Beaver and it’s incidental music throughout. Each episode was accompanied by whimsical, evocative and poignant melodies that help elevate the story lines in moments that invoked either the adventurous spirit, the curious imagination, or tap into the bonds of affection and kindness. The opening spirited theme song “The Toy Parade” was written by David Kahn, Melvyn Leonard and Mort Greene. For the rest of the wall to wall incidental music CBS utilized stock music from their Television Orchestra library, suggestive of shows from that decade and early 1960s. There are expressive melodies used in Leave it to Beaver that can be heard in the studio’s other shows, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The final season showcased one of my favorite composers Pete Rugolo who scored many television series of the 1960s.

Essentially the typical set up for each episode of Leave it to Beaver places Beaver or Wally or both boys in situations where they get into some sort of mishap or predicament. First they try to noodle their way out of it somehow by covering up or avoiding the issue, eventually coming before his wise but not infallible mother and father June and Ward for his/their admonishment. Often June and Ward would discuss their own shortsightedness in handling the boys, ultimately admitting that they have a lot to learn as parents. This is part of what makes the show so earnest and endearing. And the affectionate and often humorous chemistry Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont share comes across as real as can be.

Frequently Ward tries to impart some kernel of wisdom referring to classical myths and literary characters as models for teaching the boys moral lessons about making good choices, and solving problems. Ward often idealizes his own childhood, forgetting the various ways boys can get in trouble. He gives the boys Tom Sawyer to read, forgetting that the book is full of Tom’s bad habits and delinquency. Applying the logic to their own lives, for example when Beaver fights with Larry, and Ward tells him the story of Damon and Pythias, and the boys make a friendship pact that at first backfires on Beaver when Larry takes advantage expecting him to ‘die even’ for him by giving him his math homework. Ultimately, Wards story gets through to Larry, and the boys learn a valuable lesson about integrity, loyalty and friendship.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Barbara Billingsley, Jerry Mathers, Hugh Beaumont, 1957-63

One of the tenets of the show is emphasis on cleanliness and the importance of good grooming habits, manners, your appearance and caring for your personal belongings. Like not throwing your grubby socks under the bed or in contrast to June’s wishes that the boys take a bath, the two run the tub, dampen towels, and then throw some of Beaver’s turtle dirt in to create a ring.

While girls were still ‘creepy’, It’s a mischievous ruse that would eventually be left behind as Wally grew up and pampered and preened himself once he started to notice girls. Beaver’s awakening came a bit later, though he did have sweet crushes on Miss Canfield (Diane Brewster) and Miss Landers (Sue Randall), he wasn’t above coming up with great verbal scourges like telling Violet Rutherford “You do too drink gutter water” after she gives him a black eye and calling Linda Denison ‘a smelly old ape’ when the other kids accuse him of being her boyfriend.

And Leave it to Beaver dealt with issues that were pretty enlightened for it’s era. There was an episode that dealt sensitively with alcoholism as Beaver becomes aware of the issue within a very tender friendship with the house painter. There is a story line where one of June’s college friend’s son Dudley comes to spend time with the Cleavers. Wally is asked to befriend him and introduce him to his friends. Dudley is gentile and cultured, playing piano, and wearing an overcoat and fedora. He carries a briefcase to school which serves as fodder for Eddie Haskell to ridicule the young man for being an oddball. Dudley was an outsider, the idea of his difference was blaring and the show handled it to subtle perfection. It was a very interesting character as he represented a very ‘different’ sort of teenage boy.

There was also the episode that showed a Latino immigrant family whose little boy Chuey communicates with ease, without Beaver speaking Spanish embracing their new found friendship without prejudice, until Eddie Haskell injects his cruel joke laced with racism when Beaver asks Eddie to teach him a Spanish phrase to surprise Chuey with, Beaver innocently tells Chuey he has ‘a face like a pig’. Even the episode with Lillian Bronson as the local ‘witch’ who was really just an older woman living by herself in a spooky run down house was a lesson in not judging people by their appearance.

Then there was the episode that dealt with classism involving the Junkman’s kids. While June worries a bit that the boys will be playing in a dirty environment surrounded by garbage and rats and boys who might be rough around the edges — boys from the other side of town–  she learns that there is understanding and alternate wisdom to be shared from unexpected places and it teaches her not to judge people by their station in life, as they share endearing observations about June and Ward that impress not only Beaver and Wally who have a new perspective on their parents seeing them “through the eyes of the Junkman’s kids.”

Leave it to Beaver in it’s own innocuous way even Introduced esoteric themes of the supernatural in a humorous fashion with the episode Voodoo Magic where Beaver believes he’s inflicted a curse on Eddie Haskell by sticking pins and nails in his Raggedy Andy doll. It’s one of my favorites of the series. Ward in his calm and sagely manner even teaches Beaver than you can beat a bully like Lumpy Rutherford by not becoming like him. But Ward learns his own lesson when he realizes that he sabotages Beaver’s self-confidence when he is disappointed that he’s only playing a yellow canary in the school revue and not a bald eagle. His underlying dismay at his son representation of masculinity by playing a whimpy bird sends Beaver into a panic on the night of the show.

And Beaver catches the capitalist fever in Water, Anyone? when the water main is shut off, and he gets inside information from the water department guys digging up the road. Beaver proceeds to try and sell his jugs of water from his wagon to the neighborhood, inciting one of the local housewives to call Ward up and invoke the word ‘communism’ in her rant. It’s another of my favorites. And there’s more than one episode that shows Beaver’s sensitivity and caring for all creatures great and small.

After hearing Miss Landers recite a poem about trees, he is so moved that he goes to rescue the tree given to him on his birthday a few years back, that is still rooted at his old house. Beaver digs it up with the help of Larry Mondello and sneaks it back to replant it at his new house. What might seem like simple childhood exploits, there is always a small shining gem of wisdom within the narrative.

Some people may assess the show as syrupy or fluffy but the show is way more nuanced about unconditional love, acceptance, tolerance, difference and embracing the vast untapped qualities revealed by a child’s flourishing imagination.

“Give the shrimp a paddle!”

Therefore the show shouldn’t be constrained by 1950s standard. Uncle Billy and Aunt Martha who is an elitist, were single adults with no experience raising children, Billy is painted as sort of the ‘black sheep’ on Ward’s side of the family, a braggart and exaggerator who travels and doesn’t have a stable lifestyle and June’s Aunt Martha doesn’t seem to be in touch with how to raise boys in a contemporary manner, dressing Beaver in short pants that lead to him getting into a brawl at school. Even Mrs. Mondello has to raise the problematic Larry as her husband is always out of town and rarely taking charge at home, leaving her to scramble for advice, often looking to Ward to help straighten out Larry when he gets into mischief.

Of course Eddie Haskell is an archetypal anti social troublemaker who is the counterbalance to Wally’s clean cut, always follow the rules kind of idealized All-American boy.

The series offers us drunks, bums, effete males, bullies, fat shaming, and the emotional subject of divorce. A friend of Beaver’s from camp Konig spends the weekend. He is bought off by gifts and cash to keep him placated while he’s left alone amidst a hostile divorce, where the parents remarry every other year. This episode features another fine child actor, Barry Gordon who was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Nick in A Thousand Clowns on Broadway revising the role in the film in 1965.

Jerry Mathers is both fortunate and burdened — he will be forever associated with an eternal boy in the mind of the collective American audience. He will be typecast forever in our imaginations as a part of the cultural iconography of nostalgia for believed better by gone days.

Beaver is an ‘every kid’ and each episode is filmed almost like a fable. There is a sweet alchemy that creates a world that feels comfortable and comforting amidst an early suburban enchantment that is gratifying. Beyond the nostalgia there is an incredibly nuanced sentiment within the series and the performances — clever morality plays which are veiled in the everyday adventures that wind up mattering a whole lot.

There’s just wonderful ‘time period’ aspects to the show that are steeped in nostalgia. And you’ll hear expressions like ‘creepy”rat’ ‘gosh’ ‘grubby’ ‘wise-guy’ and ‘A hunk of milk’ or a hunk of anything really. The worries were whether you washed your feet, not throwing your dirty socks under the bed, not losing your library book and not playing hooky from school!

Or you could be like Beaver, climbing into a giant steamy cup of billboard soup, ditching dancing class, spitting off a bridge, building a club house, camping out in the yard during a torrential downpour, selling perfume that smells like an old catchers mitt, getting a black eye from a girl, and sneaking an alligator into the house…

I’ll just mention a few predicaments Beaver gets himself into, especially with the help of his best friend Larry. Beaver lets Larry talk him into drilling a few holes in the garage wall, and after Ward tells him if he doesn’t pay attention to the rules, they’re going to have nothing but trouble between them. So Beaver tells him he’s running away so Ward never has to be troubled with him hanging around there — no more. Of course he gets as far as Larry Mondello’s dinner table with three desserts while June is frantic and Ward won’t bend… at first!

The boys are so late to school for the third time in one week when a truck crushes their lunch boxes that they play hooky and wind up on a television commercial at the local grocery store. One day the boys smoke from the Austrian Meerschaum pipe Mr. Rutherford sends the family – first they try just some coffee grinds then used cigarette butts Larry collects from last nights’ company–they both get sick, and Wally is the one who gets blamed for smoking. Beaver believes Larry who tells him that Mrs. Rayburn has a spanking machine in her office closet then gets himself locked inside the school that night and needs the fire department to get him out — making himself a ‘most conspicuous’ character. Then the very next day he gets his head stuck in the iron fence in the park, making himself yet again that’s right — ‘conspicuous’.  I got my own head stuck in the wrought iron railing in our house when I was about his age. Let me assure you… It’s not fun!

Continue reading “A Conversation with Television Icon 📺 Jerry Mathers”

🚀 Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s: The Year is 1954

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Find previous editions of Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s here: 1950, 1951, 1952,1953

A GILL MAN , A DEVIL GIRL , ROCKET MEN , KILLERS FROM SPACE and JULES VERNE…!

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

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20000-Leagues-Under-The-Sea-1954

20-000-leagues-under-the-sea-1954

A visual masterpiece directed by Richard Fleischer (Soylent Green 1971) and a screenplay by Earl Felton, who chose to weed out the extremely detailed and descriptive novel by Jules Verne and create a fast paced visual fantasy that became this fabulous adventure. The film is scored by Paul J. Smith (The Parent Trap 1961) whose splendid music creates a world of majesty surrounding the sets with wonderfully colorful and inventive art direction by John Meehan, (The Strange Love of Martha Ivers 1946, The Heiress 1949, Sunset Blvd 1950, Studio 57 1955-58, M Squad 1957 -58 Boris Karloff’s THRILLER-ep.A Wig for Miss Devore 1962), production design & un-credited art direction by Harper Goff (Fantastic Voyage 1966, Willy Wonker & The Chocolate Factory 1971 also un-credited set design on A Midsummer’s Night Dream 1935,The Life of Emile Zola 1937, Sergeant York 1941, Casablanca 1942) and set direction by Emile Kuri (It’s a Wonderful Life 1946, The Paradine Case 1947, Rope 1948, The Heiress 1949, Dark City 1950, A Place in the Sun 1951, Detective Story 1951, War of the Worlds 1953, The Actress 1953, Shane 1953) brought the enigmatic ship to life as almost creature-like, flaunting interiors that are lavish with gadgets that flirt with scientific-industrious designs of the future!

The film stars Kirk Douglas as Ned Land and James Mason as Captain Nemo. Co-stars Paul Lukas as Prof. Pierre Aronnax, Peter Lorre as Conseil, Robert J. Wilke as first Mate of the Nautilus, Ted de Corsia as Capt. Farragut, Carlton Young as John Howard, J.M Kerrigan as Old Billy, and Percy Helton as the coach driver. 20,000 Leagues helped Peter Lorre step out of his sinister-mystery roles and add great comedic versatility as a character actor to his full career.

20,000 Leagues under the sea

"20000 Leagues Under the Sea" Kirk Douglas 1954 Walt Disney Productions ** I.V.
“20000 Leagues Under the Sea”
Kirk Douglas
1954 Walt Disney Productions

Nautilus

Walt Disney began to depart from the expensive endeavor of producing animated features, and started to experiment with live action films. Disney became aware of George Pal’s desire to persuade Paramount to allow him to produce Verne’s beloved novel initially utilizing a screenplay by Kurt Neumann. Disney got George Pal to relinquish the rights and took over the project, hiring Richard Fleischer (Follow Me Quietly 1949, The Narrow Margin 1952, Compulsion 1959, Fantastic Voyage 1966, The Boston Strangler 1968, Tora! Tora! Tora! 1970, 10 Rillington Place 1971, See No Evil 1971, The New Centurions 1972, Soylent Green 1973), to direct, and Neumann’s script was out.  It’s no wonder Fleischer was tapped to do more fantasy science fiction films, though his psychological thrillers/documentary style crime films are outstanding contributions.

Adapted from Jules Verne’s fabulous adventure the action takes place in the 19th century – where sailors told tall tales of giant sea creatures that wrecked and devoured sailing ships and the oceans held deep unknowing secrets as unfathomable as the heavens above. The legend of a strange horned sea monster has been wreaking havoc with sailing vessels in the South Pacific. Professor Pierre Arronax (Paul Lukas) and his side kick Conseil (Peter Lorre) join an American expedition that includes crooning whale hunter Ned Land (Kirk Douglas) in search of this calamitous sea creature. The trio are confronted by the beast and are swept overboard then taken prisoner by the mysterious Captain Nemo (James Mason) whose drill ornamented submarine ‘the Nautilus’ turns out to be the sea monster of legend.

Nemo turns out to be a fanatic who’s dark mission is total destruction of all the warships responsible for the evils of mankind. There’s a memorable underwater hand to tentacle fight with a giant squid!

Capt. Nemo: Think of it. On the surface there is hunger and fear. Men still exercise unjust laws. They fight, tear one another to pieces. A mere few feet beneath the waves their reign ceases, their evil drowns. Here on the ocean floor is the only independence. Here I am free! Imagine what would happen if they controlled machines such as this submarine boat. Far better that they think there’s a monster and hunt me with harpoons.

Captain Nemo: “The natives over there are cannibals. They eat liars with the same enthusiasm as they eat honest men.”

Ned Land: There’s one thing you ought to know, Professor: Nemo’s cracked. I’ve yet to see the day you can make a deal with a mad dog. So while you’re feeding him sugar, I’ll be figuring a plan to muzzle him.

IMDb Trivia: Actors portraying the cannibals chasing Ned Land painted humorous messages on their foreheads (not legible on-screen). In particular, one actor wrote “Eat at Joe’s” while another actor behind him wrote “I ate Joe”.

The climactic squid battle on the Nautilus was originally shot with a serene sunset and a calm sea. Director Richard Fleischer was troubled by the look of it because the cams and gears that operated the squid could easily be seen, making it look obviously fake. Walt Disney visited the set one day and Fleischer told him about the problem. Disney came up with the idea of having the squid battle take place during a fierce storm (another story is that it was actually screenwriter Earl Felton who came up with the idea). The scene was reshot that way and is considered by many to be the highlight of the film.

One of the models of the Nautilus created by Harper Goff was a “squeezed” version which could be filmed with a standard lens and still look normal when projected in Cinemascope.

Creature from the Black Lagoon

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Clawing Monster From A Lost Age strikes from the Amazon’s forbidden depths!–Creature from a million years ago!… every man his mortal enemy… and a woman’s beauty his prey!–From the Amazon’s forbidden depths came the Creature from the Black Lagoon

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Creature From the Black Lagoon showcases Universal’s iconic Gill Man directed by science fiction & noir icon Jack Arnold. (The Glass Web 1953, It Came from Outer Space 1953, Tarantula 1955, The Incredible Shrinking Man 1957, Man in the Shadow 1957, The Tattered Dress 1957) Stars Richard Carlson as Dr. David Reed, Julie Adams as Kay Lawrence, Richard Denning as Mark Williams, Antonio Moreno as Carl Maia, Nestor Paiva as Lucas, Whit Bissell as Dr. Edwin Thompson.

The Creature or Gill Man is one of the most famous monsters that has endured, and perhaps one of the most emblematic figures of 1950s science fiction. His suit designed by Bud Westmore and team of uncredited designers. As Tom Weaver points out the creature suit “is so logical in design that designers of other underwater monsters have to be very careful not too obviously to imitate the monster they are imitating”  Visionary Master Guillermo del Toro’s team of designers and special effects artists did an outrageous job of paying homage to the Gil Man while still maintaining an original, and arresting modern edge to the Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water (2017) The Gill Man still remains the most iconic monster of the 1950s

Creature From The Black Lagoon was also adapted to be shown in 3D! It was after Universal had a hit with Jack Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space 1953 that they saw the potential for box office success with a science fiction film especially one they could easily adapt to 3D format.

Producer William Alland –(according to writer/historian Tom Weaver)– had heard of a legendary half -man half-fish creature who lived in the upper regions of the Amazon. The Creature suit was extremely form fitting, too tight to be worn over aquatic breathing equipment. The swimmer would have to hold his breath for extended periods of time. Ben Chapman played the part out of the water wearing ‘the land suit’ modeled with paint (a dark silvery green and red highlights) by Millicent Patrick– Chapman not being a good enough swimmer.Ricou Browning wore the underwater suit which was lighter is color in order to make it stand out in the darker underwater scenes. Because he was able to hold his breath for five minutes, Browning was responsible for the stunning underwater scenes.

“Jack Arnold, started adding fins and gills to a sketch of the Motion Picture Academy’s Oscar statuette, and arrived at the basic look of the new monster. Arnold and Alland did play their originating the design , but actress and artist Millicent Patrick was chiefly responsible for the look of the Gill-Man. At the make up shop, Chris Mueller developed a bust of the Creature using one of Ann Sheridan as the basis. Also contributing to the design were Jack Kevan and Westmore himself, head of the make up division.”

Both Browning and Chapman had full body molds made, so that suit would fit their bodies perfectly. “The result is a remarkably convincing monster, which looks like a suit almost solely because it has to be a suit (…) a tendency fir the suits to look a little rubbery around the joints, The Gill Man is life-like, enough so as to engender a happy suspension of disbelief by most viewers, as the film proved enormously popular.”

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Lucas:-There are many strange legends in the Amazon. Even I, Lucas, have heard the legend of a man-fish.”

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We can sympathize with monsters, like Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s undead creation, & The Gill Man from Creature From the Black Lagoon. We can find our involvement (at least I can), as one viewed with empathy toward the monster’s predicament. Embedded in the narrative is a simultaneous pathos, that permits these monsters to express human desires, and then make sure that those desires are thwarted, frustrated and ultimately destroyed.

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Richard Carlson Julie Adams Richard Denning and Whit Bissell as Dr. Edward Thompson study the fossil of an amphibian man found near the Amazon.
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The crew catches something in their net… and whatever it was… has ripped a giant Gill Man size hole in it leaving behind a claw!

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Mr. ‘It’s mine all mine” and Kay and Mr. “But think of the contribution to science!” looking at the poor trapped Gill Man-a lonely prisoner of scientific hubris and egocentric men.
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The creature trapped in a bamboo cage… floats, quietly thinking deep thoughts–while the three look on pondering what to do with him..

‘The Outsider Narrative” of 1950s science fiction can be seen so clearly in Jack Arnold’s horror/sci-fi hybrid Creature From The Black Lagoon. Film monsters like The Gill Man form vivid memories for us, as they become icons laying the groundwork for the classic experience of good horror, sci-fi and fantasy with memorable story telling and anti-heroes that we ‘outliers’ grew to identify with and feel a fondness for.

As David Skal points out in The Monster Show, he poses that films like Creature From the Black Lagoon …are the “most vivid formative memories of a large section of the {American} population…{…} and that for so many of these narratives they seem to function as “mass cultural rituals.”

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Continue reading “🚀 Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s: The Year is 1954”

🚀 Keep Watching the Skies! Science Fiction Cinema of the 1950s: The Year is 1953

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BUD & LOU, CAT-WOMEN, JEKYLL & HYDE, HOSTILE BRAINS and HOSTILE MARTIANS… IT CAME FROM… AND MUCH MUCH MORE!

Abbott and Costello go to Mars

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They’re too wild for one world!

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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.”

Go to Mars

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…

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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)

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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.

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Mary Blanchard as Queen Allura

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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?”

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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The Laughs Are Twice as MONSTER-OUS as Ever Before!

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!

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Our two heroes Slim and Tubby meet Boris Karloff as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.

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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.

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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.

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Craig Stevens co-stars as Bruce Adams, Helen Wescott as Vicky Edwards and Reginald Denny as the Inspector with John Dierkes as Batley.

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Abbott and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Hyde

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.

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The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

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FANTASTIC SEA-GIANT CRUSHES CITY!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!”

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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.”

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Cat-Women of the Moon

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SEE: THE DEADLY CAVE OF MOON-GOLD!

SEE: THE BLOOD-THIRSTY BATTLE OF MOON MONSTERS!

SEE: THE LOST CITY OF LOVE-STARVED CAT WOMEN!

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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!

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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).

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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!”

 

Donovan’s Brain

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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?”

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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.”

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Four Sided Triangle

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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.

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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.

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Lena: An empty mind… and a new beginning!

Invaders from Mars

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Murderous Martian creatures from out of space! From out of space… came hordes of green monsters! Mankind’s oldest fear…The Alien’s last conquest!

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.

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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.

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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.

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Menzies art directions were “like a daisy chain” of dream sequences.

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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.

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“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 ….?”

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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.”

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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.

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Invaders from Mars

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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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…

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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.”

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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.

It Came from Outer Space

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XENOMORPHS INVADE OUR WORLD! They can look like humans or change to objects of awesome terror!–From Ray Bradbury’s great science fiction story!–Amazing Sights Leap at You in 3-DIMENSION

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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’sKeep 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

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“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

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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.

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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”