This rouses the men folk, who head off on the run to investigate. “A bent twig!” Brand notices. “I told you I was part Indian!” He leads them in the direction indicated. They quickly discover the plane wreckage, but Susan isn’t to be found. (Amazingly, Gordon forgoes the ‘giant footstep,’ which actually seems a little odd.)
They continue on and soon find themselves out sci-fi cinema’s most famous cave, the Eastern Portal of Bronson Caves in Bronson Canyon. This provided the homes of Ro-Man, Gor, Octaman, Eegah, the giant arachnid from Gordon’s own Earth vs. the Spider and about a thousand others. (The west portal, meanwhile, provided the entrance of the Batcave for the old Adam West TV show.) This time it has a middling-sized papier-mâché boulder parked in front of it, and there’s more plane debris lying around.
Mysteriously, they find more plane parts, including the engine, inside the cave itself. Then they hear some whimpering, and notice a shell-shocked Susan crammed into a small niche of the cave. A bit of yelling and shaking rouses her, although she remains somewhat incoherent. “The Eye!” she sobs, as Bradford manhandles her. I guess she should just be glad he doesn’t prescribe a good slapping.
She rouses, however, when Melville finds some items strewn about the cave, including a watch. Sure enough, she identifies it as being Bruce’s. Then they hear a roar from outside the cave, and up pops our star attraction. And say what you will about Gordon, but the beastie’s bulbously one-eyed, melted, partially skeletal face is pure nightmare fuel. I imagine more than a few sugar-buzzed 10 year-olds, raised on the era’s generally much goofier and sedate movie monsters, nearly crapped their pants when this guy shoved his face at the camera.
The Cyclops shoves the aforementioned boulder, which now boasts a completely different shape and is much, much bigger,* in front of the cave entrance. Then he pokes his kisser over the boulder again and inspects his guests, all while issuing a series of Igoo the Rock Ape-like bellows.
There then follows the obligatory bit where the characters squeeze themselves into the very back of the cave, which puts them about two inches past the reach of the Cyclops when he sticks his hand in there. For what it’s worth, this features some of the film’s best compositing work, as the photo-enlarged hand manages to remain entirely opaque throughout the sequence.
[*Actually, of course, it’s smaller. The ‘boulder’ seen before was scaled against the actors playing normal-sized characters, while this one has been photographically enlarged along with the guy playing the Cyclops.]
To his horror, Melville is confronted with the worst case of “Pull my finger” in human history.
After a bit of futile groping the Cyclops wanders off for a while. Bradford muses that despite the beast’s great size, it’s only the beginning. “Its growth will never stop,” he muses. He begins rambling on about Science Stuff. “How can you be so cold-blooded?” Susan replies. Being a woman, she’s naturally as empathic as Bradford is analytical. Indeed, when she accuses him of enjoying the situation, he says, “I am, as a scientist.” Meanwhile, Brand is presumably thinking about flying in Texas, and Melville about swimming through a huge tank of money, Scrooge McDuck-style.
In fact, Melville is thinking, most emphatically, about getting out of there. Despite the fact that this would seem to be the normal reaction, it is instead presented as further proof of his general unmanly skittishness. Luckily, the other fellows are more level-headed, and point out that “our rifle would never kill him.” Well, maybe. It would probably drive him off pretty good, though, and would certainly blind him. But then giants in these movies are always plus-10 against bullets, and sometimes artillery.
Anyhoo, we now enter another blah-de-blah-dah segment of the movie, while Gordon marshals his financial resources for the upcoming end of the picture. For instance, the issue of communicating with the creature is raised. Then they go to sleep. Later that night, Melville sneaks away the rifle and sticks it under his bedroll. I think even the Cyclops could see where this is going.
Then it’s time for further wheel-spinning. Melville panics again, and attempts to jump the wall. Actually, this seems quite achievable, and I’m not sure why you wouldn’t try it, especially given the apparent multi-hour absence of the Cyclops. Sitting around in the cave with no supplies for days on end sure doesn’t seem like much of a strategy. But no, Melville is a Coward, and Branford the Rational Scientist is against the idea, so obviously it’s a bad one. As such, Branford is entirely justified to plant one in Melville’s kisser, proving this right to be God King by dint of both smarts and a manly right hook.
Later they’re napping, or something, and the Cyclops is seen quizzically gazing upon the slumbering Susan. This wakes her, but she now gazes upon their captor without fear. Bradford notes the beast’s comparative calm, and decides its time to try to talk their way out. Bradford notes that a woman’s voice would be most soothing, so Susan is elected to make the first parlay.
So she steps forward, and talks to the beast, and we know it’s working because a mawkish violin play in the background. Predictably, the conversation soon turns towards her favorite subject, but even so, she seems to be getting through to the creature. So, needless to say, this is when Melville panics, grabs up the rifle, and starts blazing away. I mean, really, what else could have happened? Western Union didn’t telegraph things this effectively.
Sure enough, just as Bradford predicted—he’s a scientist, after all—the gunshot merely pisses the beast off. He reaches in and (sort of) bumps off his tormentor, and then (what else?) grabs up Susan via one what may well be the all time worst traveling matte in film history.
Occasionally aware of his limitations, Gordon has the Cyclops put Susan down by the time we cut outside. To be fair, he didn’t go the ‘obvious doll’ route, a technique employed to generally hilarious effects in dozens of other films.
No that no one’s shooting at him, the Cyclops again mellows out a bit and once more takes to gazing upon Susan. “Look, he’s trying to remember something,” Bradford asserts. Huh? I’m not sure how he came to that conclusion, since the Cyclops isn’t leafing through a gigantic Day Planner or anything, but that’s the idea. I’m sure even the pre-teeners in the audience have figured out the Cyclops’ ‘secret,’ but hey, that’s what we’ve got.
Suddenly, a giant snake appears. I mean, hey, it worked in King Kong, right? In fact, this bit is clearly as close an approximation—the dangerous yet sympathetic monster, the cave, the prostrate heroine who attempts to escape in the confusion, a big snake to tussle with—as Gordon would afford. The Cyclops staggers around some with the snake draped over his shoulders, long enough to allow us to see that the snake’s mouth has been quite evidently taped shut. Given that the snake was, as the credits indicated, provided by “Nature’s Haven,” the reptile is handled in a fairly gingerly manner. Eventually it’s just lowered off-camera back onto the ground, presumably dead, I guess. Although I’m not sure why it would be.
“No, you idiots! I wanted a feather boa!”
Having surmounted this fearsome foe, the (at least in some shots) bloodied Cyclops is seriously hacked off to find that his playmates, especially Susan, have scampered. Meanwhile, our remaining trio runs past their campsite. “Get the food and water!” Branford yells. Uhm, why? Surely your plan now is to get back to the plane ASAP and get the heck out of Dodge before the Cyclops comes looking for them. Stopping to grab supplies thus seems less than optimal, given the circumstances.
And indeed, the Cyclops is hot on their trail. They scurry on, followed by a series of rather goofy roars and nonsense sounds. That night, they pause for rest. Brand decides to reconnoiter. When Susan expresses worry, he quips, “Don’t worry, I’m 1/16th Indian.” This allows Susan (who’s changed from her previous tan torn-up blouse to a new, black torn-up blouse—she looks like a model for the Clark Savage Jr. Collection for Women) and Branford to chat.
Susan is feeling weirdly perturbed, although she can’t put her finger on why. Branford has to lay it out: The Cyclops is (are you sitting down?) none other than Bruce. Now, on the one hand Susan’s inability to put the pieces together can arguably make her seem more than a bit dense. However, I think the idea is more subtle than that. Susan doesn’t want to admit that that is true, even to herself. After three years of fanatical devotion to finding her lost fiancée, she now has faces a discovery worse than his actual death would have been. Bruce is alive, but a horrible, freakish, nearly subhuman monster who can never return to civilization.
The next morning Brand returns to base and reports that the Cyclops is indeed still hunting for them. However, the beast is currently sleeping. Brand unsurprisingly suggests they take off while the getting is good, but Branford says he needs to take a look at the giant. Because, again…SCIENCE! It’s also implied that they need to walk directly past him to get to the plane, even though we can clearly see that this isn’t so. Indeed, there’s a clump of trees about ten feet away they obviously could have used as a screen.
The Cyclops lies snoring on the ground, and the trio carefully sneaks by but a couple of feet away. Susan pauses,* however, presumably seeking to find some sign of Bruce in the beast’s ruined visage, and perhaps to make her silent goodbyes to him. This isn’t a particularly great piece of filmmaking craft. Even so, it’s fair to note that the aforementioned violin seems a lot less saccharine at the moment, while Talbot proves a good enough actress to actually make the brief scene fairly affecting.[*Despite Branford’s demand to take a close look at the Cyclops, he barely pauses to do so. Is it possible his actual motive was to provide Susan an opportunity to accept the fact that Bruce is forever gone for her? Maybe I’m reading more into this than Gordon intended, but then again, maybe not. In any case, I don’t think it’s wildly generous to give him the benefit of the doubt here.]
It would be poetic to end the movie here. However, Gordon had his own eye on those thrill-seeking matinee audiences, so the thrills—such as they are—continue. Needless to say, this mainly involves a lot of walking. Well, trotting. Eventually, though, they return to the valley where the plane is stashed. Branford scrambles to find the keys, but Brand reveals that he had an extra set all along. (Yeah, you’d think.)
However, as they jump into the plane, the Cyclops pops out from behind a nearby rock and begins to approach them. There follows the obligatory “will the engine turn over?” scene, the direct analogue to the horror movie trope of “will the car start?” With the Cyclops now quite close, Our Heroes jump from the plane and scramble up a nearby hill.
However, this leaves the plane behind to be possibly damaged. Once the group is safely hidden, Branford leaves to draw the Cyclops away from their only hope of escape. He calls out, and then grabs a stick that Brand used as a walking staff for much of the movie. (I guess this was to establish why there was a long, strait stick lying around, although it seems like a lot of bother considering.)
He manages to get the Cyclops’ attention, and then scrambles up another hillside. (Remember, the plane is in a rocky valley.) The Cyclops swipes at him, but naturally fails to connect. On the other hand, it’s not like he’d have very good depth perception, would he? Anyway, Branford manages to grab some nearby dry straw (!!) and secures it around the pole and makes a torch. Well, isn’t that convenient?
In fact, it’s more MacGyver-y than that, even, as Branford has indeed fashioned himself a very unconvincing flaming spear. Needless to say, despite its obvious aerodynamic inplausibility, the missile flies true. It predictably lodges itself in the beast’s one remaining eye, leaving one to want both tip one’s hat and slap Gordon’s face regarding his rather cheesy nod to the classic story of Ulysses. Again, though, one can only imagine the flying popcorn and squeaking cries of “Holy crap!” as the youngsters in the audience witnessed this grisly ocular incident.*[*Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering that Branford was supposedly Bruce’s onetime pal, one who have spent the film trying to make time with his bereaved fiancée, and has now rendered his former buddy not just a horribly disfigured giant mutant trapped in a land of similarly oversized monsters, but a blind one to boot. The idea that Susan is going to end up with this dick, all provided evidence to the contrary, strikes me as highly implausible.]
“HOLY SH*T, DUDE!! SERIOUSLY, WHAT THE F*CK?!”
The trio reenters the plane, while we get to watch the mewling beast draw the stick from the wreckage of his one remaining eye. Ouch! However, he is drawn to the sound of the plane engine, and blindly staggers towards it as it taxis for take-off. Unsurprisingly, they just manage to get past the creature, and to make it up over the surrounding hills by the skin of their teeth. We last see the Cyclops lying on the ground. Is he dead? I guess.
Then, because this is the TV version, we get a bookend concluding text crawl.
The earth returns to its
pristine calm. In it remains
the Cyclops, that mutate of
a pre-historic event.
Perhaps an atomic blast*
will some day bring it forth
monsters of the dinosaur
They might well have the
whole earth to themselves
until nature re-asserts
itself…and the natural
processes of evolution create
another era of the world
as we know it.
Perhaps this time
[*Read “atomic blast” or “surprisingly successful box office receipts.”]
Well, you can’t argue with that.
That’s right, there was a time when you could go to theaters and see a Gloria Talbot monster movie double feature. Go on, tell me movies are better today.
The Films of Bert I. Gordon
Although a minor entry even by Bert I. Gordon’s standards—primarily because it got far less TV play back in the day than many of his other sci-fiers—reviewing this film achieved what I believe to be one of the goals of the B-Masters’ most recent roundtable. I may not have filled in a larger hole in my cinematic education as represented by a more famous film. However, I did see something that made me reexamine and freshly consider the work of a filmmaker I was previously familiar with.
The Cyclops really advanced the idea, at least for me, that Gordon is an actual auteur. This movie connected in several ways with his various other gigantism movies, in ways that made manifest a clear through line in his work that I hadn’t previously detected. This doesn’t make Gordon’s individual efforts any better, really. However, it does indicate that he was hashing things out until he could get his films closer to what he sought them to be.
Gordon had talent as a filmmaker, but it’s not exhibited consistently. He’s probably strongest as a director, but his scripts are often inadvertently hilarious and his homemade special effects are frequently dreadful. Still, it remains a genuine achievement to make a film at all, one that should be respected. Astoundingly, while The Cyclops was Gordon’s second movie as a hyphenate-filmmaker, it was one of six pictures he churned out in a single two-year span. And again, that was while writing, directing, producing and providing the special effects for each.
Getting the production order of the films seems a bit dicey, but here’s the most likely line-up for the amazingly fecund two-year stretch that marked his return to filmmaking following his hiatus after 1955’s King Dinosaur:
The Amazing Colossal Man
Beginning of the End
Earth vs. the Spider
War of the Colossal Beast
Attack of the Puppet People
Although Gordon would go on to make nominally better films than these, these are film that sealed whatever cinematic immortality he has accrued. His obsession with oversized menaces—derived how much, one must wonder, but his initials of BIG—is clearly on display here. However, although it’s easy to focus on the flaws of these films, several of them also display some strengths. For what it’s worth, and I realize this is a minority position, but I always thought Earth vs. the Spider was a better movie than Universal’s comparatively posh Tarantula.
Having established himself, Gordon slowed down appreciably, producing throughout the ‘60s one less film than he did during this berserk period. Indeed, the ‘60s saw him make five films, as did the ‘70s, but three during the ‘80s, and his final film being released in 1990. Mr. Gordon is still around as of the writing of this review in 2009, having been born in 1912.
And if Gordon never really became more than a competent filmmaker, there is a definite upward trend line in his early films. Indeed, the leap in quality between this film and The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel War of the Colossal Beast is pretty impressive. (Again, special effects work aside.) All the more obviously because The Cyclops, now that I have seen it, clearly functions as a dry run for those two films,* arguably Gordon’s most famous and iconic works.
[*Meanwhile, the scenes where the Cyclops hold the comparatively diminutive humans captive in the cave act as a dry run for Gordon’s (fittingly) Dr. Cyclops-inspired Attack of the Puppet People, which sees a maniacal doll maker reduce several people to the size of toys and then keep them prisoners to assuage his loneliness.]
Indeed, The Cyclops functions as a sort of missing link between Gordon’s first film, the consistently ludicrous King Dinosaur (easily his worst picture) and Colossal Man / Beast. Making his first film, Gordon went a markedly economical route—even for him—by making what might be called a ‘strolling picture.’ Characters went (supposedly) to another planet, where they basically walked around. Occasionally they came across some ‘dinosaurs’ and other oversized beasties.
The Cyclops goes this route, too. Following the opening in *ahem* Mexico (surely shot in some Hispanic neighborhood near his California house), the film locates the bulk of its action in some fields…probably the same ones featured in Dinosaur. Sure enough, a long stretch of the picture consists of the characters just basically walking around and occasionally coming across some giant beastie or other.
The tarantula with the weird keening cry recalls the giant beetle from King Dinosaur.* Looking forward, it not only anticipates the giant arachnid of Earth vs. the Spider, but a similarly huge tarantula in 1965’s Village of the Giants. The macrovisioned mouse eaten by the hawk here predates the horde of giant vermin in Gordon’s 1976 effort The Food of the Gods. Meanwhile, Village of the Giants was a (intentionally) comic version of the H.G. Wells story that inspired Food of the Gods. Gordon’s works could easily prompt one of those charts where you have arrows pointing from each myriad point to most of the others, all densely crisscrossing to create a crazy-looking mass.
[*One of the odder elements of Gordon’s work is the consistently inappropriate sound effects assigned to giant bugs in his films, from King Dinosaur to Empire of the Ants.]
The Amazing Colossal Man, Gordon’s (perhaps) next film, again represented a genuine leap forward in the filmmaker’s ambitions. Admittedly, he probably overreached, and again particularly in terms of his special effect prowess. Still, presumably have a bit more money to work with, and—perhaps more importantly—proved that he could, indeed, make a movie—Gordon opened up Colossal Man so that it featured his beast not in some secluded, remote location, but in the heart of civilization.
Well, Las Vegas, anyway.
And while Beast’s hideously disfigured protagonist was indeed found in a remote area of Mexico, it was only to explain why he hadn’t been seen since his apparent demise at the end of Colossal Man. Following that, the action again relocated to big city America. And whereas his first two films (basically) featured casts of only four actors, Colossal Man featured a full complement of characters.
Cyclops most obviously prefigures the Colossal films in its bald, irradiated, gigantic protagonist. The Cyclops’ literally monstrous disfigurement obviously paves the way for the Colossal Beast, while the tragic element surrounding the Cyclops is explored much more successfully in The Amazing Colossal Man.
Gordon achieved this mainly by focusing the latter film on Glenn Manning, the Colossal Man himself. Only in the sequel does Manning’s own fiancée become, like Susan Winters before her, the central character. And that’s basically because by then Manning is, like Bruce Barton the Cyclops, now a brutish monster unable to carry the necessary human aspects of the plot on his own massive shoulders.
And as I noted in my Empire of the Ants review, which represented the first time one of Gordon’s films appeared on this site, “The Amazing Colossal Man is, once you get past the frequently awful effects work and some other ludicrous elements, a surprisingly meaty and often intelligent film.” Much like I Was a Teenage Werewolf,* it’s easy to gloss over the fact that past all the obvious defects, the film offers much that warrants some respect.
[*Notably, I Was a Teenaged Werewolf was produced by Herman Cohen, another filmmaker whose pictures followed one theme diligently. Just as gigantism was Gordon’s perennial topic, a troubled young person (or chimp…seriously) turned into a killer by an authority figure charged with the unfortunate’s welfare was his.]
As noted, The Cyclops not only recalls the highly economical King Dinosaur in its rural locations (allowing for a much more controlled shoot), but in its small cast. Following what is basically an extended prologue in ‘Guayjorm,’ we pare the cast down to but four actors, again matching King Dinosaur.
While this represented the first time Gordon blew part of his budget on a (sort of) ‘name’ actor, Lon Chaney Jr., it was something he occasionally did throughout the early years. Peter Graves, for instance, had had a big, showy role in the Oscar-winning POW film Stalag 17 (which Hogan’s Heroes was a jape on) back in 1953. That’s right, Graves made Beginning of the End after he appeared in Stalag 17. That’s show business for you.
By the time Gordon hired him in 1957, Graves must have been wondering if his career was doomed to be mostly roles in junk like that, Killers in Space (which made Gordon’s film look like Stalag 17), It Conquered the World, and Red Planet Mars. It’s hard to imagine, moreover, that Graves wasn’t comparing his sci-fi films with those of his brother, James Arness, who during the same period starred in The Thing from Another World and Them! Both brothers found lasting success in television, ultimately, with Arness playing Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke for 25 years, and Graves starring in popular fare like Mission: Impossible.
Past that, the ubiquitous John Agar starred in Gordon’s 1958 flick Attack of the Puppet People. A past-his-prime Basil Rathbone hammed it up in his junky but fun kiddie fantasy flick The Magic Sword. And so on. By the mid-‘60s, Gordon’s budgets had grown enough that he was able to regularly feature, if not big names, at least familiar names on a regular basis. These include Tommy Kirk, Beau Bridges, Ron Howard, Johnny Crawford, Don Ameche, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Orson Welles, Pamela Franklin, Chuck Connors, Vince Edwards, Neville Brand, Marjoe Gortner, Ralph Meeker, Ida Lupino, Joan Collins, Robert Lansing and Sylvia Kristel.
Chaney was his first stab at that sort of thing, although I’m sure he didn’t represent a huge investment or anything. Chaney’s glory days of toplining Universal (mostly) ‘B’ horror pictures was well behind him by this point. He still occasionally got small roles in major studio pictures (High Noon, The Defiant Ones), but generally worked in low budget genre schlock and episodic TV work. The Cyclops, sadly, is a pretty accurate example of his career at this point.
The other three main cast members mainly worked in episodic TV roles. It’s unsurprising that Gordon cast actors with this background. What TV work demanded more than anything was the ability to get in, learn your lines and deliver them with a minimum of money-wasting rehearsal time and blown takes. The ability to actually act would have been a distinct advantage, but not the primary issue. Luckily for shoestring filmmakers like Gordon, there was a fairly deep pool of such actors back in those days. They were hard-working veterans not only of B-movies and television, but also of radio acting in its waning years.
James Craig (Bradford) was 46 at the time, and had been working steadily doing mostly bits parts in small films since the late ‘30s. For instance, he had a minor role in the 1939 Boris Karloff flick The Man They Could Not Hang. In 1941 he got what he must have hoped was a career-making break, snagging the role of Jabez Stone, the farmer who sells his soul to Walter Huston’s devil in the classic fantasy film All That Money Could Buy. It was a big enough movie that Huston was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. However, nominal star Craig was predictably overshadowed by both Huston and co-star Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster.
Even so, for a while things looked up, and Craig co-starred in major films like The Human Comedy and Kismet. The long-term effect, though, was to boost him enough that he starred in low grade pictures, but never really made it in big studio films. The ‘50s also brought, predictably, a lot of TV work. The Cyclops was just another notch on Craig’s belt, one of a hundred credits listed on the IMDB. Junk movie fans, meanwhile, might also remember him as the sheriff in 1970’s Bigfoot, while Jabootuists honor him for his role in 1972’s deliciously awful Doomsday Machine.
Tom Drake (Brand) had even more credits than Craig by the end of his career, 137 listed film and TV appearances between 1940 and 1978. He occasionally scored a halfway decent part in major films like 1944’s Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St. Louis and 1965’s The Sandpiper, opposite Liz Taylor and Dick Burton. However, he stayed busiest in television, appearing on dozens of well-remembered shows, from to Rawhide to Wild, Wild West to Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
Susan, meanwhile, was played by Gloria Talbot. Ms. Talbot was (unsurprisingly) younger than her co-stars—Craig was born in 1912, she in 1931—but even so she was by this point also a veteran working actor. By the early ‘50s she was working steadily in television. In 1955, she had a decent supporting role in We’re No Angels, appearing with Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, Peter Ustinov and Joan Bennett. She also co-starred in Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, which toplined Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson and Agnes Moorehead, who had all starred a year earlier in Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession. The latter is a rather important film around these parts.
That proved the peak of her career, however. Otherwise, it was mostly TV work. However, Ms. Talbot did achieve a slight but persistent sliver of immortality by, like many others, starring in the sort of junky sci-fi and horror fare that everyone at the time must have considered her most disposable work. Aside from her role here, she starred in 1957’s Daughter of Dr. Jekyll for cult director Edgar G. Ulmer, and then in 1960’s The Leech Woman (1960). Her most notable such starring role, however, was as the heroine in the quite decent I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958). Ms. Talbot retired after starring in the 1975 Spaghetti western An Eye for an Eye.
Finally, there’s Duncan ‘Dean’ Parkin, who played the mutated Bruce Barton. His sole other listed ‘acting’ credit was as the similarly disfigured and brutish Glenn Manning in War of the Colossal Beast. (Glenn Langan originated the full-faced and rather more suave Manning in The Amazing Colossal Man. One would have to think Mr. Parkin got these dialogue-free parts mostly because he was willing to wearing the presumably highly uncomfortable make-up appliances each part demanded, not to mention a diaper.
I remember getting pissed off while watching Isn’t She Great. Actually, I remember getting pissed off numerous times while watching that film, but here I refer to one scene in particular. The movie’s hideous version of real life author Jacqueline Susann, as perpetrated by Bette Midler, is appearing as a celebrity guest on a really lame fake ‘50s game show.
In a burst of satiric hilarity, one of her co-guests is a borderline retarded (more retarded than borderline, actually) blonde bimbo named Bambi—wow, that’s droll—who stars in sci-fi films like the fictional “It Came From Beneath the World.” The entire point of the scene is to contrast how (supposedly) smart the acerbic Susann is compared to starlet Bambi. Of course, making her smarter than a character you’ve assigned a two-digit IQ isn’t exactly proof of the protagonist’s genius.
The more annoying point, however, was the implication that all ‘50s starlets, particularly those who appeared in sci-fi films were idiots who solely played idiots. As I noted then, “If a real life ‘50s sci-fi actress like Mara Corday saw this movie, she’d kick screenwriter Paul Rudnick’s ass.”
Yes, by today’s lights, most of the women characters in ‘50s sci-fi films were to some degree or other retrograde, many of them hopelessly so. Well, duh, of course they were—those movies were made 60 years ago. Even so, for the time, women often got a fair shake in these movies, even the cheapies. Even aside from the films of Roger Corman, probably the only legitimately feminist filmmaker trolling the field at that time, sci-fi movies feature many strong women characters.
Admittedly, even these were of a stripe to annoy those who insist that every woman be a nuclear scientist rather than a homemaker, and moreover that she not have a man in her life to weigh her down. And indeed, from that perspective there are probably few women who will make the cut. Dr. Pat Medford from Them! is a rare example. Even there, I suppose some will chafe at her patience and non-confrontational attitude (not to mention implied romantic interest) towards he-man FBI agent James Arness. Still, it’s notable that in one scene she forthrightly pulls rank on him, and he is forced to take it, whether he likes it or note.
And yes, there are plenty of examples of completely useless female characters in these things, of the sort who stand by screaming as their man fights some villain while ignoring the gun that’s slid directly beneath her feet. And yes, there are the women whose chief role seems to be to serve coffee to the men folk, even if the woman is herself a fully credentialed member of some scientific team. And it’s hard not to laugh (or steam, if that’s your cup of tea) at the female astronaut in Cat-Women from the Moon who immediately after fighting the severe G-forces of take-off pauses to brush her hair and check her make-up.
However, there are also cases where a strong woman character drives the plot. This lowly flick is an example of such a film. Yes, Susan Winter is looking for her fiancée, and thus motivated for an arguably retrograde reason. And once the ‘action’ portion of the movie starts (such as it is), Bradford takes center stage.
However, Susan is yet someone who’s spent three years obsessively refusing to give up on her mission. Indeed, she’s introduced in the act of standing up to a male authority figure—one in a foreign country, no less—who insists she that do so. A shrinking violet, she isn’t. (Ironically, Beverly Garland plays a very similar character in The Alligator People, my other candidate for this article. Both films also co-star Lon Chaney Jr.) Meanwhile, Bradford is introduced haplessly, and ultimately futilely, trying to buy an American magazine in a spot where there’s no reason to expect one would be sold. The contrast is telling.
Of the team members, the one who gets croaked is the one who refuses to defer to Susan, which both Bradford and Brand consistently do. Obviously pushing this film as a feminist manifesto would be laughably exaggerated. Still, the fact remains that even in a film like this we’re given a strong female lead. Paul Rudnick can kiss my fat ass.