TCM GREATEST CLASSIC FILMS COLLECTION
Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: James Whitmore, James Arness, Edmund Gwenn,
Joan Weldon, Hugh Marlows, Nancy Gates, Everett Glass, Booth Colman, Kieron
Moore, Lois Maxwell, Bryan Forbes, Paul Christian, Paula Raymond, Cecil Kellaway,
Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef
Directors: Gordon Douglas, Eugene Lourie, Edward Benrds, Paul Dickson
Audio: English monaural, French
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1 and color, widescreen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Behind-the-Scenes footage, making-of featurette, cast filmographies, photo gallery, production notes, Harryhausen & Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship, trailers
Length: 335 minutes
Release Date: February 2, 2010
“It’s a pity that so much time, money, and intelligence is wasted on making bigger and better bombs.”
On July 16, 1945, a dangerous test conducted deep within the arid deserts of White Sands, New Mexico heralded the start of the Atomic Age. Codenamed “Trinity,” this test represented the first-ever detonation of a plutonium bomb. Observing the destructive might of the Trinity experiment on that fateful day, J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, is said to have remarked, “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
And so, for better or for worse, the dictated path of human existence was irreversibly changed. Would Trinity signal the start of the end for the human race? With the world entering an Atomic Age and still healing from the scars of World War II, fear and uncertainties abounded. Inevitably, this paranoia was reflected in our entertainment, and movies of the 1950’s exploited this fear in everything from somber WWIII dramas (The Beach) to giant monster movies (Godzilla). Who could say what would be the long-term consequences of nuclear fall-out or even another devastating world war?
This installment of the TCM Greatest Classic Films series presents four vintage films from the 1950’s that entertain while providing food for thought and a common voice for the concerns of movie audiences of the day. While in hindsight, some of the fears may seem exaggerated, perhaps a half-century from now our own contemporary concerns regarding the millennium bug or Nostradamus / Mayan prophecies (and how these fears have been represented in recent movies) may seem quaintly amusing to future generations.
Read on below for synopses about the four films in this box set!
1) Them! (1954, 92 min.)
“Man as the dominant species of life on Earth will probably be extinct within a year!”
The monster thriller Them! postulates a theoretical outcome of the White Sands experiment. Like other giant monster movies of the 1950’s, this film played upon the great social anxiety over the power of the Bomb and public hysteria over the unknown effects of nuclear radioactivity. One such concern was that of mass mutations, and what better way to exploit this fear than to forecast the dreaded arrival of enormous radioactive beasts? So was born the likes of giant Gila monsters, giant spiders, giant insects, and certainly that most famous of all nuclear beasts, Gojira (or as Americans know him, Godzilla).
Them! opens in New Mexico when a police patrol with Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) picks up a young girl wandering alone and in shock about the vast desert expanse of the American southwest. Her family’s destroyed camper is soon located nearby but of the family’s whereabouts, no one knows. The girl is apparently the only survivor of a gruesome tragedy, but she refuses to divulge any further information than to shriek occasionally in terror, “Them! Them! Them!”
Clues to the identities of her family's assailants surface in the form of a giant insectoid antenna and an unusual footprint in the camper's vicinity. When a cop is later killed at this crime scene, the ensuing autopsy reveals an extraordinarily high level of formic acid in his corpse. The mystery thickens! What sort of monster uses formic acid to kill? Was it a bug-eyed alien...or an insect, albeit an impossibly huge one?
Sgt. Ben Peterson's investigation soon draws the attention of government special agent Robert Graham (James Arness). The G-man is able to tap into the vast resources of the United States government, enlisting the expert counsel of one Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn). Naturally, the brilliant scientist, arriving in New Mexico, is accompanied by a lovely young female assistant who just happens to be his daughter Patricia (Joan Weldon). These four must somehow solve the mystery at hand quickly, as what had started out as a regional homicide case soon explodes into a top secret nationwide hunt. By the end of the film, even the city of Los Angeles will become besieged by a fiery confrontation between army soldiers and the monsters themselves.
Seen today, Them! still retains a great deal of its original suspense and drama. While the true identity of the monsters is revealed relatively early in the film, Them! establishes much of its dramatic tension not from the still-impressive special effects but rather from the desperate race-against-time of Man versus Monster. The creatures must all be destroyed before they spread and endanger humanity's densely-populated cities, engulfing the world in an epic battle whose only conclusion can be the utter extinction of the human race.
Them! hardly endorses a hard science view of the real consequences of long-term radiation exposure, but it certainly remains enjoyable from start to finish, simultaneously offering deliciously tense stand-offs and screamingly fun "boo" moments. It joins such 50’s horror classics as The Thing or Invasion of the Body Snatchers as films which have stood the test of time.
BONUS TRIVIA: Fess Parker, the future Davy Crockett, has a small role in the film as a pilot deemed crazy and unreliable following his eyewitness encounter with the monsters.
2) The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, 79 min.)
“What the cumulative effects of all these atomic explosions and tests will be, only time can tell.”
Likewise, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is another big monster film that has stood the test of time well. No small part of that longevity is surely due to the participation of Ray Harryhausen, a special-effects wizard whose name is synonymous with spectacular stop-motion animation effects. The Beast from Twenty Thousand Fathoms was an independently made, low-budget film that was also Harryhausen’s first solo effort at creating his effects. Previously, Harryhausen had made his mark animating a giant gorilla for Mighty Joe Young but this time around creates a massive dinosaur awakened from millions of years of slumber through the carelessness of Mankind and its new-found toy, the atom bomb.
The film starts when a nuclear bomb test in the Arctic unwittingly releases an ancient horror from the past. Asleep for millions of years in the ice, the creature now commences a new reign of terror upon unsuspecting, puny humans who stand in its way. Worse yet, the creature, a rhedosaurus, is host to an ancient and highly virulent disease to which Mankind has no resistance.
The rhedosaurus rides the Arctic ocean currents, wracking havoc upon ships and sailors in its wake. Its eventual destination is New York City; after all, what big monster movie would be complete without a metropolis awaiting destruction?
Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) is a brilliant nuclear scientist who is among the first to witness the dinosaur, but his eyewitness accounts are dismissed as hallucinations. He must somehow convince his colleagues not only of the creature’s existence but of the necessity of destroying it in a manner that does not risk further spread of the contagion the rhedosaurus carries. Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond) is the prerequisite love interest, while Professor Elson (Cecil Kellaway) is the expert paleontologist whose reputation and support will prove crucial in lending credence to Nesbitt’s claims.
BONUS TRIVIA: Watch for western film icon Lee Van Cleef as the sharpshooter in the film’s Coney Island finale!
3) World Without End (1956, 80 min.)
“Man was not meant to live in a hole in the ground.”
Humanity has launched its first mission into space! A rocket piloted by four astronauts speeds towards the planet Mars on a reconnaissance mission. The mission is uneventful until something goes dreadfully awry on the voyage home. In shades of Buck Rogers, the astronauts are rendered unconscious, and the rocket returns to Earth not in the 1950’s but more than 500 years later to a world slowly recovering from radioactive destruction. Now, our four lost-in-time astronauts must adjust to a new home inhabited by giant spiders, cyclops mutants, and the dying subterranean remnants of humanity.
The astronauts learn to become hardy, self-reliant, rugged pioneers and, in the process, hope to rebuild human civilization on the planet’s surface. Perhaps these men can reverse the time displacement that has stranded them on this future Earth. Or, perhaps they can repair their rocket and seek out other surviving pockets of humanity. But to achieve anything, they need the help of the underworld dwellers, whose distrust and jealousy threaten to undermine the astronauts’ sincere efforts.
World Without End plays very much like an episode of Star Trek: the Original Series in everything from the music, the set designs, the cinematography and lighting schemes, the seductively beautiful women, and of course the alien-like setting. The special effects are generally low budget and worthy of a few chuckles, but what can one expect from Poverty row studio Allied Artists, which produced this otherwise highly-entertaining film?
Roy Taylor, who stars in World Without End, would later star in the similarly-themed The Time Machine (1960). Co-star Hugh Marlowe hails from another 1950’s sci-fi classic, The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) and also appear in Ray Harryhausen’s Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).
4) Satellite in the Sky (1956, 84 min.)
“And man, having conquered the earth, shall rise into the skies...and reach the stars.”
This British film follows the travails of yet another unfortunate flight mission. This time, the craft is an experimental plane that will carry a new experimental bomb. The extreme power of the bomb means that it can only be tested in space for fear of causing massive destruction through any Earth-bound testing. The powers-that-be hope this display of the new bomb’s potential power will deter any hostile nations from considering future war.
Codenamed Operation Stardust, the mission entails sending the rocket ship beyond the upper stratosphere and into space. There, the new bomb will be tested. Preliminary tests run smoothly, but inevitably, something goes awry, and the threat of a detonation that could destroy the plane and pilot appears eminent.
This film is generally well-paced with moments of true tension and anxiety. Satellite in the Sky also features a very young Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny of James Bond fame) in the role of a reporter who stow-aways on the ill-fated rocket.
Video ** ½
Them! and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are shown in their original black & white, full-frame format, while the other two films are widescreen, color films. Them! was once intended to be made entirely in color and in 3-D, but all that remains of that original plan is an unexpected splash of bright red during the opening credits. The image quality is mildly grainy with only minor debris marks or scratches, nothing that should detract from viewing. For an older film, the picture quality is generally excellent, with solid black & white definition and contrast levels.
The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is shown only in black & white, although Harryhausen recalls that some original release prints had been processed in sepiatone with green tint for the underwater sequences. These prints no longer appear to be available.
The Cinemascope film World without End looks decent with only a few minor dust specks here and there. Faring much worse is Satellite in the Sky, which suffers from a very soft image quality and quite low detail levels, about on par with VHS quality. Grainy stock footage is used regularly, and there is evidence elsewhere of emulsion damage, debris marks, and color bleed. Clearly little if any effort at all was put into the video restoration for the transfer. Simply put, this last film looks horrible, but at least it is in Cinemascope.
The four films in this box set are presented in their original English monaural soundtracks. There is nothing fancy here, and the audio tracks are serviceable.
Disc One is a flipper disc, with Them! on Side A and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on Side B. Both sides offer bonus features corresponding to their films. It should be noted that these are the same transfers and bonus features from previous releases of these films.
The “screaming tabloids”-style artwork for the Them! main menu is quite cool. Consider it 50’s-style sensationalism at its most enjoyable! A small article highlights some of the better entries in the giant monster genre, such as Mothra or the various Godzilla films. Also included are a short cast and crew credits page, a vintage trailer, and an art gallery of various production stills and promotional artwork. Lastly, three minutes of various outtakes reveal the design and operation of the monsters of Them!.
Among the supplement features for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is The Rhedosaurus and the Rollercoaster: Making the “Beast” (6 min.), an interview segment with Ray Harryhausen. The special effects wizard discusses the evolution of the creature design, his matting style for creature photography, and aspects of the production itself. Harryhausen & Bradbury: An Unfathomable Friendship (17 min.) is a joyous discussion between the two Rays as they reminisce over their love for The Lost World, King Kong, She, and other vintage films. The friends discuss their decades-long friendship and their dreams of making dinosaur movies. Bradbury does most of the talking and gushes over many amusing stories, mostly about dinosaurs. Revealed here is how the Bradbury story The Foghorn, published in the Saturday Evening Post, served as the inspiration for the Harryhausen film. Lastly, there are trailers for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The Black Scorpion, The Valley of Gwangi, and Clash of the Titans.
Disc Two contains World Without End and Satellite in the Sky. There are no bonus features on this disc.
Fans of 1950’s sci-fi should have a blast with this new box set from TCM. Yes, the special effects are primitive and the acting is wooden at times but all in the spirit of good old-fashioned fun.