Has anybody seen much 1950s-era Hollywood sci-fi? By 1950s I mean more than just 1950-59 (or 1951-60, depending on how you count) – I mean a mind-set that broadly kicked off at the end of the 1940s, which lasted at least until the early 1960s – and which spawned a whole era of amazingly silly sci-fi movies.
In the US that was the era of Cold War paranoia, jets, rockets, atomic everything, and astonishingly large cars in two-tone pastel with mammoth V8 motors, half South Africa’s annual chrome output plated into every bumper, and a fuel efficiency of about 4.2 miles per gallon. But they were great to take to drive-in cinemas where the screens flashed with lurid stories of flying saucers and alien monsters – all, inevitably, out to either steal Earth’s water or capture America’s women. The underlying themes of national insecurity, fears about the virility of American manhood, and so on, weren’t far beneath the surface.
Most of them were amazingly cheesy, not so much ‘B’ as ‘Z’ grade flicks. There were flying saucers, robot monsters in gorilla suits, floating brains from Planet Arous and more. Occasionally there’d be stories about mutant monsters bent on destruction, unless they were humanoid in which case they were bent on reproducing themselves by capturing American women (I’m talking Return/Revenge of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1955). I saw the latter in anaglyph red/green 3D.)
Some of these turkeys were so low-budget you could even see the piece of 4 x 2” timber the prop guy was using to move the ice-cream cone-shaped alien monster, because it got into shot and there wasn’t a budget to re-shoot the scene. I am not kidding. It’s from It Conquered the World (1956), and Frank Zappa wrote a song about it.
But some of the movies of the era were gems – smart, mostly with A-level budgets that paid for good scripting, acting and sets, and with clear social commentary firmly in their sights. Some of them were just great movies by any standards. I particularly remember these five:
- Invasion of the body snatchers (1956)
Don Siegel’s quintessential take on cold war paranoia, ruined by the studio who insisted on adding a ‘happy ending’ scene for first release (it’s been fixed since). Aliens try to invade Earth by replacing the bodies of everyday people with pod-grown doppelgangers – so you don’t know whether they’re an alien or not, and nobody listens to the one guy who knows. The idea of ‘invisible threat from within society’ was revisited in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (2003-09), and for much the same reasons: pithy commentary on another social panic.
- This Island Earth (1955)
Earth is drawn into an interstellar war between Metaluna and the Zagons. Damn. But there were some cool (if cheesy) gadgets, including the legendary Interociter, which was not merely a communications device, it could do other things. These were never specified, but the thing was like a modern smartphone, except it was 18 feet long and weighed 8 tons, or something similar. All of this sounds like it was very dumb, but actually the movie was pretty good.
- Forbidden Planet (1956)
Best sci-fi movie of the decade – and one of the best sci-fi movies ever made – featuring Leslie Nielsen in a serious role. Basically it was The Tempest, jacked up into space. The art direction and stylings – all extensions of ‘American Modern’ – heavily influenced a lot of 1960s TV sci-fi from Star Trek to Lost In Space. (The latter’s ‘Jupiter 2’ was heavily based on Forbidden Planet‘s C-57D star cruiser, and actually featured the Forbidden Planet robot, Robbie, in at least one episode). Forbidden Planet also featured Bebe and Louis Barron’s all-electronic soundtrack, labelled ‘tonalities’ in the credits to get around a studio spat with the musicians’ union. The main processor of the sounds was a ring modulator, the same device used to give Daleks their characteristic bark.
- I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958)
This was a lot better than it sounded. No really. Basically it was a commentary on US 1950s family life and values, including the social pressures brought on by the period expectation that married couples should produce families, using the metaphor of aliens (the type that have to reproduce by getting married to American women).
- War of the Worlds (1953)
The technicolor George Pal adaptation of H. G. Wells’ classic story was set in contemporary 1950s America and envisaged hovering Martian war machines with a kind of vacuum-cleaner nozzle on top that shot out the heat ray. Force-fields protected them even from nukes (delivered by futuristic flying-wing jets).
Have you seen any of these? Is there 1950s sci-fi that impressed you – for its smartness? Or its dumbness?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017