Hollywood fifties sci-fi – a tribute to the golden age of cheesiness

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.

“Quickly, in this future year of 1957 we must shoot down the invading alien flying saucers before they steal all Earth’s water and marry every American woman!” Public domain, via Wikipedia.

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

  1. 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

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24 thoughts on “Hollywood fifties sci-fi – a tribute to the golden age of cheesiness

    1. Yes, I should do a post on those wonderful ‘Godzilla’ adventures, not to mention ‘Mothra’ which appeared to be a kind of metaphorical reversal of the Second World War, using a giant radioactive moth…

  1. From your list, I would most recommend Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was filmed in something like two weeks. Better yet, read the book by Jack Finney, one of my favorite science fiction writers even today. I am impressed with more recent “smart scifi” for its sophisticated treatment of higher concepts. In no particular rank, I like Arrival, Deja Vu, Insterstellar, and The Adjustment Bureau.

  2. I’ve seen all but #4 on your list. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, for me, was terrifying because it delivered on the psychological scares. It might have been science fiction, but it penetrated your brain and stayed there. It has for me all these years. Forbidden planet remains my favorite. I’ll never forget the “monster” trying to penetrate the forcefield. Again, it had a story that dove deeper than mere adventure. Psychological examination. Excellent special effects, especially for the time. Adventure. Romance. A classic. I always thought the leadership triad was a preview of Star Trek given the doctor’s heightened role. There was even an original Trek episode that mimicked the plot, Requiem for Methuselah.

    1. I first saw the movie on TV, in black and white, as a kid – and that scene with the id monster and the force field always haunted me. So did the one where it was trying to break in through the lab door. Later I saw the movie in colour, as an adult, and it was no less impressive. Apparently it was animated, literally, using cartoon techniques with backlit projection.

  3. What? No entry for “Destination: Moon”?

    Or, “When Worlds Collide”?

    I was about to write, what about the BBC’s “Quatermass” series but remembered you did say “Hollywood.”

    1. I never saw either of them! I didn’t want to comment on a movie I hadn’t seen… And yes, I do need to see both of them! I agree, the Brits were producing some excellent movies of their own at the time – Quatermass particularly. Much of their sci-fi, then and later, always had a certain quirkiness about it which to me always summed up the British approach – to me summed up not by Gerry Anderson’s material (which was geared for the US market) but ‘Moonbase 3’ (BBC 1973) – deliberately made as ‘realistic’ human drama.

  4. I saw Invasion of the Body Snatchers at the local [tiny] cinema on a Saturday, along with a whole bunch of other young kids. I guess I must have gone there with a friend. All I can remember though is being scared out of my mind. That movie had an impact, I can tell you. I /think/ I saw the Forbidden Planet but I really can’t remember it if I did. Funny how a love of something starts from a very young age. I was about 8 when I fell in love with all things Japanese as well. Thanks for the reminders. 🙂

    1. It was a seriously scary movie – and not because of the ‘horror’ factor per se. I saw it as a teenager, in a local art gallery cinema; that was well after it had been released but still quite a long time ago (cough cough) – yet I can still bring to mind the extremely scary concept of somebody who can see doom approaching and is absolutely helpless to stop everybody being sucked into it.

      1. Yes, it was that utter helplessness that was so awful. And that terrible fear that if you went to sleep that would be it, the real you gone, pfft.

    1. Good point. I haven’t seen ‘Them!’ but know it by repute. Definitely, a good deal of the fifties sci-fi was a metaphor for the social fears of the period, among other things – including what worked commercially when engaging that thinking.

  5. I saw 1 & 5. If I watched the Bodysnatchers now I’m sure I would find it ridiculous but at the time it was frightening and scared me half to death! Good post, Matthew!

  6. I watched most of these and many similar in the early 70s as a child, when the local stations ran these in the early afternoons. The movie that stuck in my mind was The Day the Earth stood still, that and the countless spaghetti sci-fi for their cool costumes LOL

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