Probably not considered Columbia Pictures’ finest moment, The Giant Claw has the distinction of featuring perhaps the silliest looking monster of any 1950s Sci-Fi flick. Genre vets Jeff Morrow and Mara Corday had no idea what they were in for when they signed on for this cheapie.
In many respects, the film is archetypical, following all the familiar trails blazed in (mostly) The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Them! It opens with a shot of (ahem) the Earth, as seen rotating from outer space (remember, this is before anyone had actually seen the Earth from outer space). A portentous sounding narrator expounds some gobbledygook about how science has changed things, as the spinning globe cuts to some stock footage of an isolated military installation. This same setup was probably used start a dozen or more similarly uninspired flicks.
Among the scientists running some radar tests is Sally Caldwell (Corday). The pilot actually testing the stock footage of aircraft, er, the radar equipment is Mitch McAffee (Morrow). Over the radio he laughs about the “Lady Mathematician,” and she looks annoyed. Then he buzzes the hanger and she looks annoyed again. It’s pretty obvious Mitch and Sally are going to fall in love. We also learn that Mitch gets away with such antics because he’s not really a professional pilot, but an electrical engineer. Huh?
Suddenly, we enter The Creeping Terror and Beast of Yucca Flats territory, as the film’s soundtrack apparently went missing. So instead of expository dialog, the narrator (at boring length) fills us in on what’s we’re watching: Mitch spots a blurry UFO, which fails to show up on the nifty new radar being tested. Taking no chances, the Air Force releases an entire barrage of stock footage. They find nothing. Mitch is getting chewed out for calling in a false alarm when the officer chewing him out gets a phone call. He’s listens for about eight seconds, then tells Mitch and Sally, in some detail, that a plane has gone missing after radioing in a UFO sighting. Considering how much detail he gets from this short phone call, the guy on the other end must have been a auctioneer.
Mitch and Sally grab a military transport for New York. Unsurprisingly, their plane is attacked by the blurry UFO, causing them to crash. Not, however, before Mitch (taking over for the unconscious pilot) makes some rather heroic efforts to avoid crashing. First, the plane is seen spinning and falling straight to earth like a lawn dart. Somehow, by the next shot, Mitch gets the plane to start gliding down at an angle instead. He’s so good, in fact, that he manages to contravene the laws of physics: at one point in the glide down, the plane noticeably slows and even moves backwards a bit before continuing to the ground. Almost like a model plane that got snagged on its guide wire. Nahh. Like they’d be so cheap they wouldn’t reshoot that if it happened!
After the crash landing, Mitch and Sally drag the pilot out just before the plane explodes. It must be said that all the above special effects are incredibly poor and cheap looking. And to add injury to insult (almost), when the typical flaming debris is tossed near the actors to simulate exploding airplane wreckage, the stuff lands practically right on the actors’ heads. Boy, I’d like to see the footage with the their reaction to almost being killed making this lame flick. It’s undoubtedly more exciting than anything we get to see here.
Mitch and Sally (the pilot having passed away) end up at the farmhouse of a French-Canadian wittily named Pierre. This is a long sequence having no real purpose other than to be “spooky.” There’s lightning and thunder, and Pierre, having seen the Claw, mistakes it for La Cocanya (or something). This is supposedly a mythological giant bird whose appearance portends the immanent death of those who see it (wow!). Such “folk myths” were often introduced in these flicks, and is yet another indication of the paint-by-the-numbers scripting here.
Next, Mitch and Sally grab a commercial flight to continue on to New York. Since Sally is asleep, Mitch takes advantage of the opportunity to kiss her. Luckily for him, these were the days before the phrase “sexual harassment” entered the lexicon. Sally wakes, and they then engage at length in some truly excruciating banter. Luckily, this finally ends Sally uses the phrase “follow the pattern” in a sentence (very awkwardly inserted).
Mitch has a light bulb moment, and whips out a map. He proceeds to mark the spots where the attacks have all taken place (you can see the lightly drawn X’s a stagehand drew on the map so that Morrow would know where to redraw them). He claims to see a pattern: starting with the middlemost X, he draws outward into a spiral, connecting the other locations. Sally, like an early Dana Scully, takes issue with Mitch’s theory, arguing that nothing could cover so much area so quickly, and again pointing out that no trace of a UFO has appeared on radar. However, she fails to point out the most obvious flaw behind his pattern theory: that any five X’s on a map could be turned into a spiral. Then a fellow behind them (obviously meant as an audience member stand-in), leans forwards and says “Look, would the two of you mind being quiet so the rest of us can sleep!” gleaning the thanks and empathy of us all.
The next scene finally provides the audience pay-off, as we get to see our star for the first time. Attacking another toy plane, the Giant Claw is revealed to be a big turkey/buzzard combo, with goofy bulbous eyes, a long wattled neck, a tuft of hair and wire whiskers. Oh, it also seems to be, uh, projecting a lot of strings. The closest description I can make is that facially, it rather resembles Buzzy Buzzard, Woody Woodpecker’s nemesis. Passengers leap from the “plane” only to turn into those plastic army parachute guys one used to have as a kid. This doesn’t save them however, as one by one they are consumed by a back projection of our aerial menace.
Now that the audience is clued in, it’s time for the film’s characters to figure out what’s going on. At a pow-wow with General Buzzkirk, Mitch and Sally are informed that the last missing plane had radioed in that they were being attacked by a giant bird. The General asks Mitch if he got a good like at the UFO (“it’s vitally important!”), apparently because their military response depends on what kind of bird it is. Or maybe they just don’t want to attack the wrong giant bird.
Mitch wishes he had had a camera (though if the UFO was moving too fast to be seen clearly, one doubts he would have had the time to get a camera out and photograph it). Now it’s Sally’s turn to have a light bulb moment: before joining the “radar summit” with Mitch, she had been engaged in “Earth Curvature Calibration work,” (huh?) which, for some reason, included sending cameras up in balloons and on rockets. If those balloons are still up there (for instance, maybe the guys who sent them up forgot about them), then it’s just possible…
Of course the odds against the Claw flying past one of these cameras just as it was taking pictures is astronomical, and of course, when they develop the film they get about four or five good shots of it diving right into the camera. Oddly enough, the photos prior to the ones with the Claw show only the sky. How, exactly, would these help “calibrate” the Earth’s curvature?
Anyway, now that the giant bird has been confirmed, the military sends out fighter squadrons to hunt it. When a squadron finds it, General Considine has the radio transmissions routed into his office, so that he, Buzzkirk, Mitch and Sally can listen to the Claw’s destruction. After some lame fighter jock repartee (“I’ll never call my mother-in-law an old crow again!”), the fighters engage their target. However, their weapons prove ineffective, and the Claw destroys all the planes. As the last pilots’ deaths are transmitted over the radio, Considine turns his receiver off. You’d think he could at least listen to the final words of the brave men he sent out to die, but I guess it was bumming him out. This scene also reveals one of the Claw’s strangest powers: when we see one of the fighter planes by itself it has one shape, but when the Claw attacks it, it completely transforms into another type of plane. Weird!
The gang then pop over to the lab of Dr. Karol Noymann, who has developed a strange and rather incoherent theory that the bird comes from an anti-matter galaxy, and is protected by an anti-matter shield that protects it from projectile weapons. Apparently, the “shield” is anti-matter, but the bird isn’t (then why doesn’t the shield blow up the Claw… oh, never mind). It is noted that the Claw can presumably shut down the screen to use its beak and claws when attacking. However, no one thinks to suggests that, since the Claw is known to eat ejected airplane occupants, they just throw out a dummy with a bomb attached that will detonate once consumed.
Next, the Claw reveals itself to the world, and in an obligatory sequence is shown flying over stock footage of countries around the globe. These sightings cause international giggling, er, panic.
Sally stops by Mitch’s apartment, where he’s been working on a “one-in-a-million” chance of stopping the Claw. After making him kiss her hello and chewing the fat for a while, she somewhat casually mentions that she’s deduced that the Claw is probably building a nest near Pierre’s farm (from the beginning of the movie). Mitch calls Buzzkirk and demands a helicopter so as to search for the nest, although one would think it would be more efficient to inform the military and let them handle it. Mitch, however, is apparently a do-it-yourselfer, and, packing a couple of rifles, heads out with Sally and Pierre to find the nest.
Sure enough, they find the Claw nesting on a big fat egg. Pierre chickens out and splits, leaving Mitch and Sally (“I’m from Montana!”) to use the rifles to blow the egg to smithereens. (Nobody points out that since the Claw is laying on the nest without blowing it up, it must have its screen down, and thus maybe they should try to pump a couple of rounds into it.) The destruction of her egg, not too surprisingly, pisses off the Claw no end, and while searching for Mitch and Sally, the Claw comes across (of course) the fleeing Pierre. Sally notes that ironically Pierre was right: seeing La Caconya did mean his death (wow!).
On the way back from their eggicide, Mitch and Sally are passed by some rambunctious teenagers driving the kind of jalopy that Archie Andrews and Jughead used to have. Ignoring the blackout, the kids are driving with their headlights on, and as soon as one of them tells Mitch, “Hey, Daddy-O, get that tin can off the road!” you know they’re going to get it. Mitch and Sally warn them about the Claw, but one of the girls holds up a saltshaker, laughing that they’ll pour salt on its tail. Just then (big surprise), the Claw shows up and grabs the kid’s car. Examining the wreckage, Sally muses over the saltshaker, the second time that day she got to consider the irony of someone else’s death. Yep, if you want to survive in this world, it doesn’t pay to be a rude teenager. Or a cowardly French-Canadian, for that matter.
Back in Washington, Mitch explains the theory he’s been working on. A great deal of inane, scientific sounding (sorta) jargon is tossed around, finally ending up in the idea that they should try to construct a “mu-meson” cannon. This will supposedly short circuit the Claw’s energy screen (“It just might work!”), leaving it open to attack. No one asks why Mitch, as an electrical engineer, has such an in-depth knowledge of atomic theory (such as it is). After all, a movie scientist is expected to be conversant in all scientific fields. Told that any and all resources are to be made available to him, Mitch requests only the help of Dr. Noymann and Sally, plus the use of Noymann’s one room lab. Maybe the Pentagon’s budget was larger than the movie’s.
Finally, after a montage of the huge effort the team (all three of them) is putting in to create the cannon (and one more hilarious Claw sequence, as it attacks a toy train set), the cannon is finished. Mounted on a plane, in a “tense” scene, the mu-meson cannon deactivates the anti-matter screen, and the Claw is shot from the sky. The final image of our menace is as its claw sinks into the ocean (wow!). The world’s ordeal (and ours) is finally over.
In Bill Warren’s definitive study of 1950s Science-Fiction films, Keep Watching the Skies, he relates a tale told to him by Jeff (Mitch McAffee) Morrow’s daughter. With the special effects farmed out to a Mexican company, there was never a cast viewing of the film after it was completed. Morrow lived in a small town, and the local theater would run the films of the town’s resident “movie star.” Morrow attended opening night, as was his habit, after which he’d hang around and talk with his neighbors. Well, needless to say, when the Claw made its first comical appearance on screen (again, the first time Morrow saw the special effects inserts), the audience started laughing. Morrow was so mortified by what he was acting terrified of on the screen that he slunk out of the theater and met his family in the parking lot when the movie was over, from whence he hastily retreated to his house.
In Science-Fiction movies of the fifties, it was pretty standard for the first person to have seen the monster to be involved in tracking and destroying it for the rest of the movie. Obviously, this usually made dramatic sense rather than common sense. Few films, however, have pursued this idea as strongly as this one did. Indeed, it seems strange that nobody mentions how Mitch seems to be somehow linked with the Claw. For instance, Mitch is not only the first one to see it, he also survives both of the only two aerial encounters with the Claw where there were survivors. He’s the one who manages to track down and destroy its egg (although the nest idea is Sally’s). He comes up with the idea for the mu-meson cannon, is the one who succeeds in making it work, and is the one to eventually install and use it. He figures out the bird’s attack “pattern.” He’s in Pierre’s house when the Claw lands in the field there. It even flies right over his apartment window when he’s on the sofa with Sally, pretty unlikely since it’s supposedly been flying around the entire world. And perhaps most important, he’s the first person to compare the Claw to a Battleship (see below).
A very, uh, similar painting of George Washington appears in both General Buzzkirk’s and General Considine’s office, although the prop master was sly enough to put it in different frames (one of which also appears in Pierre’s cabin).
Sharp-eyed fans of classic Sci-Fi will spot stock footage of mass destruction taken from Ray Harryhausen’s Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers, including the fall of the Washington Monument (odd since the Claw’s attacking New York City) and a barely discernable shot of a Saucer crashing into Grand Central Station.
By the way, the eminent Dr. Noymann appears to have met a horrible fate soon after the events of this movie. In the subsequent film Invisible Invaders (1959), written by the same screenwriter, a scientist named Dr. Karol Noymann is killed in the beginning of the movie, and his body used by aliens attempting to take over the world. Hmm, maybe all Invasion-from-Space movies take place in the same universe.
Helpful opening narration, to help us figure out what’s going on:
“Once the world was big, and no man in his lifetime could circle it. Through the centuries, science has made man’s lifetime bigger, and the world smaller… ”
“An electronics engineer, a radar officer, a mathematician and systems analyst, a radar operator, a couple of plotters [neither of which worked on this movie, apparently]. People doing a job, well, efficiently, serious, having fun, doing a job. Situation: normal. For the moment [bum bum bum!]… ”
Romantic Mitch: “I know another poem: Be plain in dress and sober in your diet/In short, my dearie, kiss me and be quiet.”
General Buzzkirk: “Three men reported they saw something. Two of them are now dead.”
Quipster Mitch: “That makes me Chief Cook and Bottle Washer in a one-man Bird-Watchers’ Society!”
What about his boots, though?
Mournful Pilot, after seeing the Claw consume a team member: “Charlie hit the silk when the bird got his plane, and now it… Charlie’s gone. ‘Shute and all.”
Actually, my crazy plans generally come from Cloud Four:
Sally: “Will it work, Mitch?”
Mitch: “I don’t know. I honestly haven’t the faintest, foggiest idea. It’s one of those cockeyed concepts that you pull down out of Cloud Eight somewhere in sheer desperation.”
Boy, that screenwriter has a vocabulary as big as, uh, as big as…
Narrator: “Something, he didn’t know what, but something as big as a Battleship has just flown over and past him.”
Sally: “Oh, come off it, Mitch, you’ve done enough harm with your flying Battleship… ”
Sally: “If felt like something collided with us up there!”
Mitch: “Yeah, a flying Battleship that wasn’t there.”
Sally: “Oh, nothing so domestic as a flying saucer, officer. Just a flying Battleship.”
Police Officer: “Well, have a good time with your flying Battleship.”
Sally: “Well, flying Battleships, pink elephants, same difference.”
Mitch: “I said it looked like a Battleship, not that it was a Battleship.”
Sally: “Something that seemingly destroyed four planes and just missed you the first time. Something like your flying Battleship?”
Narrator: “Once more a frantic pilot radios in a report on a UFO. A bird. A bird as big as a Battleship.”
Sally: “Did he say what it was?”
General Buzzkirk: “Yes, he did. A bird. A bird as big as a Battleship… ”
Pilot: “It doesn’t make sense. Like we’re hitting a Battleship with a slingshot!”
The Giant Claw is one of four films available in this bargain set: