(7/10) In a nutshell: Brought to you by King Kong director Ernest B. Schoedsack, along with multiple Oscar winning teams of set designers and special effects technicians, Dr. Cyclops (1940) paints an imaginative picture of mad scientists and shrinking people in the Peruvian Jungle. Unfortunately there was no money left for actors and screenwriters. Nonetheless, this film stands as one of the best sci-fi flicks of the forties (which isn’t saying all that much, though).
Dr. Cyclops. 1940, USA. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by Tom Kilpatrick, Malcolm Stuart Boyley. Starring: Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian, Frank Yaconelli. Produced by Dale van Every, Merian C. Cooper for Paramount. Tomatometer: 100 %. IMDb score: 6.4
If anyone remembers Dr. Cyclops today, it is mostly as a curiosity – but it does deserve a slightly better reputation, although it is by no means a masterpiece. But it is notable for a number of reasons, of which the biggest is the amazing special effects, although not flawlessly executed, and aged today. Following the premise of a mad scientist shrinking his nosy colleagues, this was not the first film to toy with the idea of miniature people, but perhaps the most striking that had come along in 1940, and it probably held that title all the way up to the in many ways superior 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man.
There is a curious tangle of references between director Ernest B. Schoedsack, Frankenstein (1931, review) mastermind James Whale and Casablanca director Michael Curtiz. Now, when one thinks of one of the great science fiction directors, Schoedsack is rarely the first one that comes to mind. But Schoedsack made three of the best science fiction/fantasy films in the thirties and forties, a feat only rivalled by James Whale. Whale started off the sci-fi horror genre with Frankenstein, which without doubt was one of the reasons that Schoedsack’s and Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 blockbuster King Kong (review) got greenlit with such a big budget.
The idea of miniature people were first introduced to the screen in 1935 with James Whale’s brilliant film The Bride of Frankenstein (review), where Doctor Pretorius brings out his little band of homunculi in bell jars, and toys around with them for a good five minutes or so. The concept was expanded on greatly with the 1936 film The Devil-Doll (review), which features another mad scientist – this time shrinking people and making mini-zombies out of them. That film was directed by Michael Curtiz, better known for films like the aforementioned Casablanca (1942) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). The third director to take to the idea was Schoedsack, who had played around with a giant ape in 1933. While the shrunken zombies played an integral role in The Devil-Doll, they were mostly used as props, and Dr. Cyclops is therefore the first film to take the mini-people’s side, as it is our protagonists that find themselves on the wrong side of the radium radiation (yes, here we go with the radium again).
In 1933 there were two films that awed the audience with their astounding special effects, that included split-screen, rear projection, travelling mattes and ”black screen” – Schoedsack and Cooper’s King Kong and James Whale’s The Invisible Man (review). The first science fiction film shot in colour was the 1932 movie Doctor X (review) – directed by none other than Michael Curtiz. It was filmed in 2-strip Technicolor, allowing for red and green hues. The first science fiction film shot in full colour with 3-strip Technicolor was Dr. Cyclops. After the abysmal sci-fi decade that was the forties, Schoedsack brought quality back in 1949 with the fantasy film Mighty Joe Young, perhaps the best big ape film ever made – although since I can’t really classify it as sci-fi I won’t be reviewing it – King Kong wasn’t really sci-fi either, but I made an exception then because of its significance to the genre.
The film starts with one of the best horror opening sequences ever; bathed in a sickly green light is Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) in a pair of giant blackened goggles, hunched over some strange glowing machine. When his colleague Dr. Mendoza (Paul Fix) implores him to stop his crazy experiments, Thorkel grabs him and shoves his head into a radium beam, killing him with special effects showing his glowing skull through his face.
After this, the film moves into almost constant sunlight, and unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to the expectations awakened by that first scene. Part of the problem is the script. What follows is a very awkward 15 minutes of exposition and character presentation, where an unlikely crew is called together by Dr. Thorkel, who resides in the Peruvian jungle. We have the small, proud and stingly Dr. Bullfinch (Charles Halton), the young Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan, described by contemporary reviews as ”comely”) and the lazy playboy genius Dr. Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley, probably one of the worst actors of all ages). Along tags mule owner Steve Baker (Victor Kilian), whose character I don’t remember doing anything of interest after the first twenty minutes, although he is present throughout the film. Arriving after a long journey to the stockade of Dr. Thorkel, we are introduced to our last link, Thorkel’s assistant Pedro (Frank Yaconelli), playing the standard silly South-American.
Turns out their job is simply to peer through a microscope for a few minutes and confirm a detail for Dr. Thorkel, whose eye-sight is failing behind his coke-bottle glasses, they are promptly told they have done their job and are ordered to go back home by the good doctor. Taking offence at having been dragged to the far side of the world simply to peer through a microscope for a minute, the group demand to be included in Thorkel’s work, where by they are tricked and shrunk by Dr. Cyclops’ strange machine. And now try and remember the story of Odysseus and the Cyclop, add some Frankenstein and Schoedsack’s manhunt film The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and you have your premise for the story.
Our heroes are trapped by Dr. Cyclops to become test subjects, and most of the action involves them fleeing from his experiments and later his wrath, when he realises they are slowly but surely growing back to their own sizes and will take their revenge unless he kills them.
The best thing about this film is the wonderful way in which the miniatureism is filmed. The most magical shots come from the many superb super-sized sets – we move about in several rooms filled with props, we get a canoe enlarged to the size of a frigate, a patch of cactus that becomes a green fortress to hide in, giant doors, chairs and tables become mountains to climb, wooden boxes turn into caves to take cover in, a little grass fire is a deadly forest blaze. House cats get replaced by giant monster tigers, and alligators by dinosaurs. It is done with such attention to detail and brilliant editing that these scenes just blow you away.
The visual effects are uneven by today’s standards, and partly even for 1940. Do bear in mind that this kind of trickery was still quite unusual in films, although not necessarily a novelty. Some scenes are absolutely brilliant, like one with a miniature horse quite early, which is the first time in the movie that a shrunken creature is shown. The horse and Thorkel seem to completely blend in to each other’s shots, and it immediately sells the idea to the audience. One must also tip one’s hat to the scenes where rear projection, a giant robotic arm and a live actor is combined. The scenes must have been absolutely painstaking to make. But is also in these shots that the crudeness of the process is sadly revealed. First of all there seems to be a problem with depth of field, as the rear projection image of a giant Dr. Cyclops by his desk is almost always a bit out of focus. The colours of the rear projection don’t really match up with the live action either. And this is where Dr. Cyclops becomes more challenging than The Devil-Doll, that was made in black and white. Where in the old days it was enough to approximately match the lighting, things get a lot trickier when colour is involved, especially since it isn’t natural colour, but rather Technicolor shot with three different strips of film, through in-camera filters, all producing different colour tracks, that then have to be matched to the colour produced by a projector showing a piece of film filmed earlier. And it is worth remembering that almost all sci-fi films of the forties were still filmed in black and white, and many would continue to be so into the fifties.
The colour itself is a bit curious as it somehow manages to be both lush and a bit pale at the same time, however that is possible – but it does give the film a very fantastical look, a bit like a comic book. And the same goes for the story. It is ultimately not a horror film at all, but a rather silly adventure story akin to all those lost world tales that were churned out in the thirties and forties. As mentioned before, one of the characters is completely forgettable, and not even the dashing hero Bill Stockton manages to bring out any specific recollections a few days after viewing the movie. Once the shrinking is commenced, all dramatic developments between the protagonists go out the window, and since they are mostly filmed as a group from a distance, it is hard to invest real emotions in them. Thus few audience members react with more than a shrug when Pedro heroically sacrifices himself.
But on the other hand, Dr. Cyclops is a brilliant character, but that has less to do with the writing, than with the superb acting by Albert Dekker in what may possibly be his best role ever. As Richard Scheib of Moria puts it: ”Dr Thorkel is an interestingly shaded mad scientist, much better characterised than most of his contemporaries”. Apart from that the acting is unfortunately uniformly bad. Charles Halton as Bullfinch manages to coerce a few chuckles with his pompous performance – unfortunately he is killed off about halfway in. Italian-born Frank Yaconelli in his perhaps best remembered role does a very stereotypical clumsy, fat ”Mexican” as a comic relief character. When all other protagonists fathom togas out of handkerchiefs, he wears a big, red diaper and speaks in staccato baby talk phrases in broken English. Ain’t it funny? But he does manage to come off as the most sympathetic of all characters.
Let’s be clear about this: this is in all senses of the word a B-movie. But in my opinion, one of the best sci-fi B-movies, if not the best, of the forties. Nevertheless, this is a film that has divided some of my favourite reviewers. Scheib at the above mentioned Moria gives the film 4/5 stars, but while Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant praises both the effects and Dekker, he seems unimpressed with the film as a whole. Dave Sindelar at AMMR calls it ”solid”.
The same can be said about the contemporary reviews. Benjamin Crisler at the New York Times loved the film. In one of his last reviews for NY Times, he wrote: ”Incidentally, as a cinematic spectacle, “Dr. Cyclops” is the best bad picture of the year, an epic of silliness, and, more than that, a triumph of the process screen and the department of trick effects all combined very tastefully – and what matter if the taste is almost uniformly bad? – with Technicolor”. Variety, on the other hand, wrote ”idea gets lost in a jumble and pancakes off for a dull effort”.
Perhaps one of the reasons for my enthusiasm for the film is that I have viewed these pictures chronologically. After watching Boris Karloff stiffly hamming himself through a number of mad scientist films it is wonderful to see an actor with a wide range in the role as the antagonist, and when George Zucco and John Carradine would carry on Karloff’s legacy of mysteriousness and stiffness, Dekker brings a whole new energy to the part. In the midst of low-budget films of black and white Victorian mansions, dark basements and never-ending scenes of men in suits discussing exposition in sparsely decorated offices, it is such a joy to have a film presented in lush colour in a Peruvian jungle (be it that it looks very much like a backlot with potted plants).
It is true that the script is seriously lacking in energy and personal drama, and does feel a bit dragging at times. It is also true that the acting is almost uniformly bad, Dekker not counted. More could have been done with the cinematography, but all-in-all one really can’t accuse Schoedsack and cinematographer Henry Sharp of not trying to do their best with what must have been an extremely heavy and cumbersome three-strip camera. The jokes in the film are bad, but there is quite a bit of funny situation comedy, and the film retains a light air throughout the whole business, sometimes perhaps too light. The ethnic comedy of Pedro might come off as slightly offensive today, on the other hand I tip my hat to the fact that the female protagonist actually becomes an equal member of the group, and contributes to their survival, rather than being a damsel in distress. Ah, and an old sci-fi bit-part favourite, Frank Reicher, is along for the ride in a very small role.
Albert Dekker unfortunately didn’t make any other science fiction films. He was a respected character actor throughout the thirties and forties, and got his start on Broadway rather than in films. Today he is perhaps best known for his roles in the Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner film The Killers (1946), the James Dean vehicle East of Eden (1955), and for his last role as detective Harrigan in the classic The Wild Bunch (1969). Decker had quite an eventful life, including the tragic death of his son, who accidentally shot himself while working in a silence for his rifle. Dekker was also a Democratic politician who held a chair at the California State Assembly. He was an outspoken critic of McCarthyism, which had him blacklisted in Hollywood between 1952 and and 1955, during which time he worked on Broadway. His death was the object of a slight scandal, when in 1968 he was found kneeling, bound, gagged and asphyxiated in his bathtub with two dermatological needles inserted into his arm and lewd lipstick-writing all over his body. It was ruled that he had apparently accidentally strangled himself during some bizarre autoerotic ritual.
Paul Fix was a staple character actor who mostly appeared in westerns, but he did play Dr. Piper in the 1966 episode Where No Man Has Gone Before of Star Trek, and appeared in an episode of the original Battlestar Galactica series in 1978, as well as in an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1964. He also had a bit-part in the 1940 Karloff film Black Friday. Charles Halton was a respected stage actor who specialised in either weasely or officious characters. Frank Yaconelli is best known as the Cisco Kid’s sidekick Baby in a number of films in the forties. Dr. Cyclops was Thomas Coley’s first and only film role (and for some reason he was thrust directly in the game as the leading man), although he did some bit-part work in a few TV-series in the fifties. Janice Logan only made six films and Dr. Cyclops is by far her best known.
Cinematographer Henry Sharp is mostly remembered for his work on The Marx Brothers film Duck Soup (1933) and Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1944). Screenwriter Tom Kilpatrick contributed to 9 films and his crowning achievement besides this film was writing an episode of Lassie in 1956, which sort of says it all. Editor Ellsworth Hoagland was nominated for an Oscar for The Lives of a Bengal Lancer in 1935, and won an Emmy for his work on Bonanza in 1959.
The brilliant set design is no surprise when you learn that is was made by none other than three-time Oscar winner (and another 20[!] nominations) Hans Dreier. German-born Dreier was a veteran to the genre, having designed the sets for the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (review), as well as Island of Lost Souls (1932, review), both made by Paramount, like Dr. Cyclops. Dr. Cyclops was part of a string of horror films he designed in the early thirties. His glory days came late in his career. He earned Oscars for Frenchman’s Creek (1944), Samson and Delilah (1949) and Sunset Blvd. (1950). His most famous film is A Place in the Sun (1951), starring Montgomery Clift, Shelley Winters and Liz Taylor. The film won 6 Oscars, including best directing and writing, and a Golden Globe for best film, and was nominated for the Grand Prize at Cannes.
The make-up for the film (not especially striking, though) was done by legendary gorilla actor, make-up artist, suit maker and set designer Charles Gemora. In addition to designing his own gorilla suits, he also did a few alien suit designs. He played a gorilla in dozens of movies, including Island of Lost Souls. He also played a Martian in The War of the Worlds (1953, review) and an alien in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1959).
Overseeing the Technicolor process was Winston Hoch, pompously credited as ”associate director of photography”. But he did indeed become a very successful cinematographer in later years, winning three Oscars, and two of them back-to-back – for Joan of Arc (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and The Quiet Man (1952). In later years he became a sci-fi staple, making films like The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and Aliens from Another Planet (1982). He also did work on the series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964), Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Time Tunnel (1966-1967). He worked alongside Technicolor color director Natalie Kalmus, wife of Technicolor inventor Herbert Kalmus. Natalie worked on over 360 films between 1933 and 1950, including many of Hollywwod’s greatest box-office hits.
The special effects team was an equally impressive bunch. It was led by Farciot Edouart, who was for many years one of the top men in his field, who won two Oscars and received a number of technical awards for his advancement of special effects. As longtime head of Paramount’s special effects department, he is especially remembered for his advanced in rear-projection and glass shots. His work with rear-projection (although not perfect by today’s standard, as noted) on Dr. Cyclops is often cited in the industry as one of the films revolutionising the method. He also worked on some of the most influential sci-fi films of the fifties. Edouart’s other sci-fi films include When Worlds Collide (1951, review), The War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space (1955, review), The Colossus of New York (1958), Visit to a Small Planet (1960), Robinson Crusoe on Mars. In addition to this, he worked on films like Vertigo (1958), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
Included in the long-standing special effects team was two-time Oscar winner Gordon Jennings and matte artist Jan Domela. The film was co-produced by Schoedsack’s longtime collaborator Merian C. Cooper.
Dr. Cyclops. 1940, USA. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by Tom Kilpatrick, Malcolm Stuart Boyley. Starring: Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian, Frank Yaconelli, Paul Fix, Frank Reicher. Music: Gerard Carbonara, Albert Hay Malotte, Ernst Toch. Cinematography: Henry Sharp. Editing: Ellsworth Hoagland. Art direction: Hans Dreier, Earl Hedrick, Robert Odell. Makeup: Charles Gemora. Assistant director: Hollingsworth Morse. Sound: Harry Lindgren, Richard Olson. Visual effects: Farciot Edouart, W. Wallace Keeley, Gordon Jennings, Paul K. Laerpe, Jan Domela. Technicolor assistants: Natalie Kalmus, Winston C. Hoch. Produced by Dale van Every, Merian C. Cooper for Paramount.