Yesteryear’s Movies of Tomorrow
By Will “The Thrill” Viharo
In this second installment of our three-part series, B-movie conoisseur Will Viharo ventures into the vaults of vintage sci-fi cinema to highlight the best in classic spaceship celluloid. This isn’t just a lesson in cinematic history, it’s a look deep into the collective American psyche in the mid-20th century. Ready for more? Then pour yourself a refreshing glass of traggle nectar, lean back, and enjoy the continuing journey into uncharted realms known only to diehard science fiction fans.
“PIE PLATES OF PERIL”: EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956)
Fear of an invasion from outer space, spurred by vague but frequent UFO sightings and whispered conspiracies, was as palpable among the panicky population of the ’50s as worry over a nuclear standoff with Russia. And, filmmakers were quick to cash in on this terror-stricken trend. Special effects guru Ray Harryhausen is better known these days for sword-and-sorcery swashbucklers like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, but in the black & white days of the ’50s, his specialty was devising methods for the destruction of various cities, including their most famous landmarks. In Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the first feature film for which he created all the special effects, the prehistoric Rhedosaurus rampages through New York; in It Came From Beneath (1955) a giant octopus ravages San Francisco; in 20,000 Miles to Earth (1957) a Venusian monster called an Ymir makes his last stand on the Coliseum in Rome.
But for Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, Ray’s 1956 alien invaders masterpiece, the creative juggernaut devised ingenious flying saucers that became the most memorable—and mimicked—of all interstellar invasion vehicles (copied outright in Tim Burton’s outrageous 1996 send-up, Mars Attacks). Keeping pace with Ray’s other displays of urban destruction, and taking a cue from Day the Earth Stood Still, the invaders also trash our nation’s capital, but with much more malevolent force than the diplomatic Klaatu: the Washington Monument is totally toppled in the assault!
Also see: George Pal’s seminal and influential classic War of the Worlds (1953), based on the H.G. Wells novel but more inspired by Orson Welles’ infamous radio play, which caused real life panic during its 1938 broadcast; AIP’s drive-in classic Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957) featuring Frank Gorshin and a gang of Paul Blaisdell’s bulbous-headed, cat-eyed, alcohol-clawed space monsters, but only one sad little saucer; Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (1951), the crowd-pleasing classic about a hostile alien veggie-monster-man (James Arness) who crash lands his saucer near the North Pole and proceeds to terrorize a scientific expedition; and The Mysterians (1957), Toho’s entry in the space invader race, as evil aliens armed with a bird-like giant robot named Mogera lay waste to Japan, as if resident giant monsters Godzilla and Rodan weren’t doing their job properly.
“ROBOTS ‘R’ US”: FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)
While many of us want our jetpacks, the homemakers among us yearn for another un-kept promise from the architects of yesteryear: the robot maid. Postwar visionaries often pitched the home of the future as a modern oasis replete with automatic devices, self-sufficient resources and plenty of intelligent mechanisms to aid our leisure. As of this writing in the futuristic year of 2004, they’re still working on ‘em. But, perhaps the most legendary embodiment of this technological Utopia was Robby the Robot, the inhuman star of Forbidden Planet, an interstellar re-imagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest that is arguably the most famous and beloved of all ’50s sci-fi movies.
Robots had been popular in sci-fi literature and pop culture for decades already, but with all the advances made in technology since WW2, people began to actually expect a race of robots to one day serve humankind. Nowadays, robotic humans are regularly seen in political circles or reporting the news, and Arnold’s Terminator is the current standard for our mechanical doppelgangers. But Robby remains the robot for the ages: boundlessly smart, eloquently personable, magically resourceful, and incredibly cool. Only the Robot on the Lost in Space TV series can compete with Robby’s pop cultural standing (and in fact they once teamed up in an episode).
Forbidden Planet is itself a marvel–the vividly colorful sets and costumes of the crew (led by Leslie Nielsen, long before he realized how funny he could be) and the philosophical underpinnings (including a giant invisible monster spawned by the Freudian “Id”) set it apart from its many imitators and descendents. It also boasts the premiere all-electronic score, by Louis and Bebe Barron. Word of a remake has been circulating for some time, but the fact is, only the innocent imagination of mid-century dreamers could create such a warm, vibrant and relevant masterpiece. Though set in a future where interplanetary space travel is the norm, it’s a time capsule treasure of and from the past. Leave it alone.
Also see: Robby’s return in The Invisible Boy (1957); another children’s robot classic, Tobor the Great (1954); and a more menacing metal man in Herman Cohen’s Target Earth (1954).
“SWINGIN’ AMONG THE STARS”: QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (1958)
This was a plot peculiar to the 1950s: a group or horny frat-boy astronauts, including at least one wisecracking sidekick from Brooklyn or someplace like it, sometimes with a pet monkey, land on another planet and encounter a race of Amazonian women wearing high heels, short skirts, thick mascara, red lipstick, and uptight attitudes supposedly caused by years of forced virginity due to the death/disappearance/unexplained absence of all males in their society. Fortunately for the guys, none of the women are lesbians, and after the requisite fights with the local giant spider puppets and whatnot, the mating process begins.
Of course this is the straight male’s wet dream come true, and it came true several times throughout the decade, reaching its zenith in Queen of Outer Space, starring Zsa Zsa Gabor (though she does not play the titular monarch). This wide-screen Deluxe color cult classic is one of the funniest movies ever made, and rumor has it the camp was intentional, years before that became the fashion, so in effect this was the earliest film to spoof its own genre (like much later efforts such as John Landis’ Amazon Women on the Moon). The script was allegedly developed from an idea by the legendary screenwriter Ben Hecht, though no one has ever really substantiated this rumor, especially not Hecht, who probably talked too loud while drunk one night at an industry shindig, hitting on the local talent. This concept was ubiquitous enough, though, so we’ll let Ben off the hook. If there is a cure for humorless political correctness, this is it.
Also see: the sexist 3D thrills of Cat Women of the Moon (1953), and its remake(!), Missile to the Moon (1958); the oddly titled Abbott and Costello Go To Mars (1953), in which Bud and Lou go to Venus and find a bevy of beauty pageant contestants; and Fire Maidens of Outer Space (1956), in which the Brits prove they’re as randy (and as willing to travel for it) as us raunchy All-Americans.
There’s lots more to come, readers. Stay tuned for Part Three of
Will Viharo’s sci-fi cinematic escapades!
Beatnik lounge lizard and writer Will “the Thrill” Viharo and his wife, Monica “the Tiki Goddess,” host a live cult movie cabaret called “Thrillville” at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater in El Cerrito, CA. Will also has a B-movie tiki lounge at home, where he watches his DVD collection while drinking homemade Mai Tais (which may have influenced these reviews somewhat).