Watching Horror and Science Fiction movies from the 1950’s is a serendipitous journey back to my boyhood.
Yes, Virginia, before film noir, I was a Monster Kid.
Growing up in the greater New York metro area during the pre-cable and video era, I feasted on scary fare shown during weekend evenings on WPIX-11’s Chiller Theatre, WOR-TV-9, Supernatural Theatre and Million Dollar Movie and WNEW, Channel 5’s Creature Features.
This trailer may bring back some fond memories for 1960’s era denizens of the N.Y./N.J. metro area.
In retrospect, a lot of these films can’t endure the slightest critical scrutiny, yet I retain a soft spot for many of them: She-Demons, The Cyclops (featuring the worst special effects in movie history), The Hideous Sun Demon, (made by RKO contract actor Robert Clarke and some film students for about $1.50), Indestructible Man (a mute Chaney Jr. running amuck through mid 20th century downtown L.A and riding Angels Flight up to Bunker Hill.) Neanderthal Man, The Giant Behemoth … the list is seemingly endless.
However, it is too easy and downright unfair to classify all of these films as simple camp. More than a few hold up extremely well as credible entertainment. Many of these top quality genre films are among those being screened at the American Cinematheque’s Seventh Horror, Sci-Fi and Fantasy film festival at the Egyptian Theatre this month.
When the American Cinematheque kindly asked me for programming and guest assistance, I immediately homed in on several key films and invited some of original participants to attend the screenings. The screenings on Friday and Saturday nights of the 10th and 11th of August constituted an eerie trip down a darkened Memory Lane.
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) was more than just a science fiction or fantasy film; it was and remains one of the seminal movies of the 1950’s. I remember Journey as a major childhood event; I was entranced by the story, the brilliance of the Cinemascope wide screen color and the myriad special effects (even if I realized back then that the dinosaurs were pet shop iguanas with plastic fins glued on their backs).
It was dually delightful that 20th Century Fox provided a new 35mm Cinemascope print of Journey and star Pat Boone accepted my invitation to munch some popcorn and enjoy his best remembered movie that has endured for nearly half a century. I am happy to report that the picture retains its joyous ability to entertain and enthrall modern audiences.
Bulletin to Fox Home Entertainment: It is time to start on the 50th anniversary edition of Journey to the Center of the Earth that should be laden with special features headlined by the surviving actors.
Attired in white shirt, pants and boots, Pat Boone exudes the same youthful energy at age 73 that he did while exploring Jules Verne’s inner world in Carlsbad Caverns where selected sequences of the film were shot. His recollections of the two and a half month filming of Journey to the Center of the Earth were detailed, amusing and harrowing:
“We filmed in the Caverns at night to avoid the tourists” … I was taking a nap once, heard something above my head, turned and saw the hugest albino rat looking right at me!”
Boone nearly knocked himself unconscious on a rock formation while scrambling to get away from the cavern-dwelling marsupial.
The rat saga was one of several stories related by Pat Boone about the Journey shoot during the post screening Q&A. It was a movie that apparently needed an adjunct M*A*S*H* unit to patch up the injured actors.
Co-star Arlene Dahl was carted off to the infirmary on a couple of occasions. During the ocean sequence that had thousands of gallons of water being spewed on the actors who were lashed to a raft, the saturated actress sputtered for the director to cut the scene. Boone remembered James Mason – a total pro who knew everyone’s lines – telling Dahl to pipe down and Arlene literally treaded water until the shot was completed. The ascension up the Icelandic mountain with the actors dressed out in full kit and shivering due to the implied cold was another occasion for first aid. Pat Boone advised that the mountain location shoot was staged in sweltering Needles, California with a colored camera lens used to simulate frigid Iceland. Miss Dahl was overcome by the oppressive heat and again borne off for medical assistance.
As the production returned to the Fox back lot, Boone ended up breaking a big toe by kicking what he thought was a fake Styrofoam rock (it was real) while showing off for tourists and was nearly suffocated during a sequence where he fell through what appeared as a huge deposit of subterranean salt. The scene was filmed on an ingeniously designed set with four cameras stationed on a vertical plane with a series of trap doors that opened sequentially with Boone falling through as a ton of gypsum dust rained down on him. The danger became apparent after he landed at the bottom of the trap with the actor being unable to move or breathe as he was literally being buried alive in gypsum. As director Henry Levin was checking the cameras and the gypsum piled up to his nose, Pat remembered that, “…a grip up in the scaffolding looked down and yelled to Levin, ‘You better get Boone out of there’. The cavalry arrived just in time.
Pat Boone’s most cherished memory of Journey to the Center of the Earth was the inadvertent nature of a project he took on with considerable misgivings that became an incredibly profitable annuity over the years. He remembered being “arm-twisted” into doing the movie because, “…it wasn’t a musical”. Fox finally gave him a percentage of the movie to his production company that clinched the deal. Through re-releases, video and DVD, the iconic film has proved to be one of the most profitable ventures of the singer, songwriter and actor’s storied career.
Although I hadn’t seen World without End (1956) in over forty years and never before in color, the new Cinemascope print from Warner Brothers didn’t disappoint; it was nearly flawless.
An added plus was the presence of screening guest Lisa Montell who had one of the principal supporting roles in the film. Miss Montell didn’t remember too much about the production (she confided that the youthful Rod Taylor became a bit too amorous during a brief kissing scene) outside of the hot Iverson Ranch location. Lisa also expressed mild embarrassment when we viewed Taylor tussling with the absurdly fake giant spider that resembled an arcade prize.
Veteran Hollywood hand Edward Bernds wrote and directed this Allied Artists sci-fi tale that desperately needed an infusion of increased funding from Walter Mirsch. Bernds held out for Sterling Hayden and Frank Lovejoy. He ended up with Hugh Marlowe and Christopher Dark; no wonder he was unhappy. Truth be told, the picture has some striking moments, a memorable score by Leigh Stevens and earnest work by Nelson Leigh, Taylor, Nancy Gates (great gams!) and Miss Montell.
The time travel opus of astronauts arriving back on Earth hundreds of centuries later to discover that nuclear Armageddon had occurred was a strikingly original yarn in 1956. The resultant strife between the surviving “mutates” who dwell on the surface and the normal humans clinging to a dysfunctional underground existence (all of the women are young, beautiful and in heels with the men appearing elderly, weak and beyond ready for the invention of Viagra) is resolved with good old American know-how. The Cold War version of Yankee ingenuity is characterized by the manufacture of a bazooka that allows the stranded astronauts to cow the surface dwellers into submission after a final bout of stunt combat between the one-eyed chief mutate (appropriately named “Na-Gah”) who is efficiently dispatched by an physically underwhelming Marlowe. In sum, the attributes of World without End outweighed the deficits that included an eye-popping exhibition of hamming by Booth Colman that elicited sporadic laughter from the audience and old pro Everett Glass uttering lines like, “…the weapons… the accursed weapons!”
Several of my favorite 1950’s horror films were shown on a triple bill the following evening. These films are distinguished by the pulsating musical soundtracks composed by the estimable Gerald Fried. Fried’s “B” film compositions are seldom compared to the pantheon works of Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa, Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but his work shares a distinctive characteristic with these masters; once you listen to a Fried score, you never forget it. Gerald Fried possessed a distinctive, dark-edged musical style that was perfect for noir, horror and science fiction.
Gerry Fried was a world-class oboist who graduated from Julliard and followed his boyhood friend from the Bronx, Stanley Kubrick, out to Hollywood in the mid 1950’s. He scored Killer’s Kiss, The Killing and Paths of Glory for Kubrick before moving on to a series of horror films, Westerns and gangster pictures. Fried’s career resume of memorable small screen orchestrations include the original Star Trek series (remember the episode where Spock got married and fought Kirk?) Roots, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Lost in Space.
I Bury the Living (1958) takes supernatural suspense to horrific extremes and is greatly bolstered by Fried’s creepy score that includes a haunting harpsichord accompaniment.
A “pre-Paladin” Richard Boone reluctantly becomes the chairman of the Immortal Rest Cemetery Committee. Much to his distress, Boone discovers after he accidentally puts some black pins into the cemetery burial plot map, the corresponding people assigned to the plots unexpectedly wind up dead.
The surreal atmosphere becomes oppressively frightening as the map assumes a supernatural cast with Boone gradually cracking under the strain of the ever-increasing body count. Despite a microscopic budget, director Albert Band managed to design a far-fetched tale penned by Louis Garfinkle into a considerable suspense film that had the early Saturday night crowd at the Egyptian leaning forward in their seats.
Dick Boone is well-matched by a youthful Theodore Bikel who plays an elderly Scottish cemetery groundkeeper sporting a rich brogue straight from the Grampian Hills. Bikel, who was artfully aged at least four additional decades in the film via the labors of pioneer horror make-up artist Jack Pierce, attended the screening and joined me for a Q&A session afterwards.
The professional resume of Theodore Bikel is so talent-laden and studded with artistic accomplishments that it cannot be related in any deserving detail in this blog entry. Mr. Bikel’s web site provides a comprehensive summary of this true Renaissance Man.
Bikel recalled the twelve day shoot on I Bury the Living with Richard Boone as a distinct pleasure, tabbing the actor as, “a star without the ego of one”. Location filming in what is now called the “Hollywood Forever Cemetery” was a similarly smooth exercise. According to Bikel, the place was run fifty years ago, “…by an old woman who offered to reroute scheduled funeral processions to ease our production schedule!” Only in Hollywood.
Queried about the film’s finale that annoyed some horror purists, Bikel shrugged and said that the ending was discussed on the set and what was seen on the screen was as appropriate a denouement as any other.
“What else would you do? Have them (the dead people) come to life and start walking around?”
Theodore Bikel discussed his storied career in the movies from The African Queen to 200 Motels, demonstrated his astonishing facility with accents (he is conversant in more than seven dialects) by alternately imitating George Cukor’s lisp, a Cockney accent – he wanted the Stanley Holloway role as Eliza’s father in My Fair Lady, but had to wait to play it on stage – and his Southern sheriff in the iconic movie The Defiant Ones for which he was nominated for a Best Support Actor Oscar.
Bikel is always on the go, winging off to myriad lectures, folk-singing gigs, concerts and plays; He remarked that his principal residence is “seat 3B”. Demonstrating a razor-sharp memory and boundless energy midway through his eighth decade, this consummate performer did allow that Hollywood has changed and not for the better.
“Today they want you to be the character at the first meeting, as if you are auditioning when you shake hands. And if they don’t see it right away…. “
I asked Theo Bikel if he ever had a casting whippersnapper ask him the dreaded, “So what have you done?”
“Not exactly” replied the veteran of over 130 movies, television shows and countless plays and concerts. He then grinned wickedly. “However my response would be, “you go first’.”
The following two Saturday evening screenings were a pair of the best independent horror films of the 1950’s: The Vampire (1957) and Return of Dracula (1958).
Both films were scored by Gerald Fried, directed by former Universal Studios cutter Paul Landres, and produced by Gramercy Pictures.
Gramercy was formed by a trio of WWII vets who served in the Army Air Corps Motion Picture Unit: Jules Levy, Arthur Gardner and director Arnold Laven (The Rack, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue). After cutting their teeth with a snappy noir programmer, Vice Squad (1956), the company moved into the science fiction-horror genre. The trio would later strike gold when their television series The Rifleman became a smash hit over a four year period from 1959-63.
(Note: I invited Arthur Gardner to the screening and after he reminisced over the phone about appearing in All Quiet on the Western Front with Lew Ayres in 1930 -Mr. Gardner is 97 years old and goes in to his office every day- he regretfully had to decline due to a scheduling conflict. )
One of Gramercy’s more astute decisions was promoting a young production assistant, Pat Fielder, to pen the scripts for their quartet of horror features. The UCLA Theatre Arts graduate would go on to have an extremely successful screenwriting career, writing numerous episodes of The Rifleman and Geronimo (1962) for Levy-Gardner-Laven.
At the screening, Miss Fielder was reunited with Coleen Gray, star of The Vampire with the women discussing their different roles in the production.
The Vampire is a wholly different type of Dracula movie. In fact, it is not a Dracula movie at all. Purists will search in vain for the usual vampire trappings. Native soil, wolf bane, garlic necklaces, Lugosi sartorial capes and crucifixes are notably absent.
A small town sawbones (John Beal) is accidentally given some experimental pills derived from vampire bats in lieu of his migraine medicine by his young daughter. Beal becomes a fiendish blood sucker who murders nocturnally (causing “capillary disintegration”; he’s a vampirism disease carrier!) after fruitlessly attempting to eschew the pills that quickly have him resolutely hooked. Beal’s struggles with hellacious withdrawal symptoms makes Frank Sinatra’s cold turkey turn in Man with the Golden Arm seem like a walk in the park while tearfully sending his daughter away to protect her from his murderous angst comprise some of the highlights of a strikingly believable performance.
Beal’s killing spree incorporates the demise of the ubiquitous Dabbs Greer as a fussy psychiatrist who additionally gets incinerated for his trouble. Only after Beal turns on his nurse (Coleen Gray) after she stops him from committing suicide is the kill-crazy doc finally chased down by detective Kenneth Tobey and dispatched with a couple of .38 slugs courtesy of copper Herb Vigran.
Both Pat Fielder and Coleen Gray agreed that John Beal’s performance distinguished the film by avoiding what a lesser actor might conveyed as unconvincing parody. Miss Fielder recalled that she drew on both Val Lewton’s Cat People and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for inspiration in writing a story that thematically addressed the ultimate horror of a Father flirting with the destruction of his own child.
Shooting the picture was a two week exercise performed mostly out of doors in suburban Culver City with Miss Fielder doubling as production assistant. The ominous suggestion of horror and fright was uniquely suited for The Vampire. One sequence with the maddened Beal stalking Coleen Gray in a darkened neighborhood – she barely makes inside her front door to safety – is an emblematic, white-knuckled tribute to the best of Val Lewton.
I asked the ever-beautiful Coleen Gray if she distinguished between her roles as a film noir icon in films such as Kiss of Death (1947) and Nightmare Alley (1947) with horror pictures like The Vampire and The Leech Woman (1960). A thorough trouper, Coleen said she gave every part her all and was always grateful to be a working actor who was putting bread on the table. Besides, the ageless star thinks it is fun to now be both a Dark City Dame and Horror Scream Queen!
The final film of the evening, Return of Dracula (1958) had the most deliriously crescendo of Gerald Fried’s music with tympanis pounding, woodwinds wailing and brass bleating. The macabre score was a perfect compliment to the offbeat oddness of Francis Lederer’s Dracula, an impressive performance that has earned greater respect from horror fans over the preceding years. Lederer’s Bohemian accent and cruller-coiffed hair made for a convivial, yet deadly Count.
“…and you will put the cross down now, Rachel, yes? Because your arm, it feels like lead, no?”
Fielder’s script was a paean to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. Instead of Uncle Charley as the Merry Widow serial killer, stepping off the train in idyllic Santa Rosa, California, we have Cousin Bellac appearing out of the mist at the depot of mythical Carleton, California, planning to set up a blood donation program for the undead in the land of milk and honey.
With Lederer being stalked by the Interpol version of Dr. Van Helsing (John Wengraf) it is only a matter of time before the Count is dealt his just desserts. The finale occurs in that venerable setting of so many “B” movies, the Bronson Canyon caves in L.A.’s Griffith Park. There are few better endings for a horror movie. As Lederer thrashed around in a mock agony worthy of Vlad the Impaler, it occurred to me that this was a perfect conclusion to a darkly delightful night of fantasy and horror in the Egyptian Theatre.