(4/10) In a nutshell: This 1953 film uses least 10 minutes of special effects from the German film Gold and steals its premise from an Arch Oboler radio show, but still manages to come off as something quite original. Made by Ivan Tors and legendary sci-fi writer Curt Siodmak, the film follows a sort of sci-fi FBI, trying to neutralise a radioactive material that keeps growing and threatens to sling the Earth out of orbit. Starring sci-fi cult actor Richard Carlson and features a bit-part by comedienne Kathleen Freeman.
The Magnetic Monster (1953). Directed by Curt Siodmak, Herbert L. Strock (uncredited) & Karl Hartl (uncredited). Written by: Ivan Tors & Curt Siodmak. Inspired by The Chicken Heart by Arch Oboler (uncredited). Edited from the film Gold (1934, uncredited). Starring: Richard Carlson, King Donovan, Jean Byron, Harry Ellerbe, Leo Britt, Leonard Mudie, Byron Foulger, Kathleen Freeman, Hans Albers, Michael Bohnen. Produced by Ivan Tors for A-Men Productions. IMDb score: 6.0
Legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman made many of his most famous sci-fi films by taking lavish European special effects films that were virtually unknown to American audiences or even critics, and intercutting them with newly shot scenes with American actors. The method wasn’t new. In 1943 Edward Dmytryk took a good portion of his Captive Wild Woman (review) about an ape woman from a 1932 lion taming film called The Big Cage. But what probably inspired Corman even more was German expat Curt (Kurt) Siodmak’s 1953 film The Magnetic Monster, which basically took its whole last 20 minutes from the German sci-fi thriller Gold (1934, review).
Karl Hartl’s Gold was the probably the best sci-fi film to come out of Europe in the thirties, and the most ambitious, after Alexander Korda’s and H.G. Wells’ megalomanic Things to Come (1936, review). In it, Germany’s biggest male movie star Hans Albers played a modern alchemist, a chemical engineer kidnapped by a mad businessman to create gold out of crude metals with the help of a giant, expressionist doomsday machine deep beneath the ocean floor.
In The Magnetic Monster producer Ivan Tors and Siodmak put another spin on the story in their screenplay, starting off more like a cross between a forties B horror film and a noir crime thriller, with a distinctly minimalist fifties touch. The film begins with an ominous narration about the new, terrifying world of the atom and its science, and introduces the viewer to the ”Office of Scientific Investigation”, or OSI, and their agents, the A-men, a riff on the G-men of the thirties and forties who were catching spies and crime lords in movies of yesteryear.
The show gets rolling when the wonderfully stuck-up Simon (the always fantastic bit part-actor Byron Foulger), proprietor of Simon Hardware, enters his shop to realise that all his watches have stopped, and after he’s done yelling at his shop clerk Albert (William Benedict), realises that all the metallic objects in the store have become magnetised. All to the utter horror of cashier Joy (Elizabeth Root) who acts out with a hysteria that would make one think that it’s the Frankenstein Monster who’s hiding behind the washing machines. In truth, the delightfully whimsy shop scene is one of the best in the film.
The OSI sends their best men to the job, that’s leading man Dr. Jeffrey Stewart (Richard Carlson) and sidekick Dr. Dan Forbes (King Donovan). Through thorough scientific investigation and powers of logic they trace radioactive radiation to an upstairs makeshift lab. After donning haz-mat suits they probe the place with Geiger counters (the indispensable movie prop of any fifties sci-fi film), and find a dead body and a small container that once housed some radioactive material, that is now loose in the city. After informing his superiors, Dr. Stewart informs us that all law-enforcement personnel have been called in to catch this deadly material on the run, and that the police is ”instructed to shoot to kill”.
The scientists are then called out to all and everyone who have malfunctioning home appliances, and track down the material to an airport. After a tense stretch of detective work, Stewart and Forbes manage to track down the passenger in question to an airplane that has just taken off, and call it back to the airport. It turns out the man in question is a Dr. Denker (Leonard Munie doing his best Albert Einstein impression), who carries the material in a briefcase. This is no mad scientist, but a misguided one, who has been working in secret with ”serranium”, ”bombarding in with alpha particles for 200 hours, until it became unipolar”. It then started to devour everything in sight, and before Denker dies of radiation sickness, he informs Stewart that he must keep up under constant electric charge, because it is ”hungry – it is a monster”.
We are then wheeled in to the headquarters of the OSI a second time, where the filmmakers painstakingly shows off a collection of top-notch scientific gadgetry, including the real-life Los Alamos computer MANIAC and a UCLA differential analyser (seen earlier in a number of sci-fi films), among other things with buttons and flickering lights. What’s more, the computers are actually described as doing exactly what computers in the fifties did, which is unusual in a sci-fi film from the era (or any era, really). Meanwhile, Stewart continues to narrate what is happening, what the machines do, basically how molecular science works. And he isn’t even too far off the mark.
The scientists soon realise that the matter is a threat to the world. Every 11 hours it needs to grow, double in size. For this it needs energy. Unless it can get clean energy, it instead sucks what it can get from any metal objects in the vicinity, causing a massive implosion every time it is hungry. Stewart and Forbes calculate that in a few days time, the monster will create such a magnetic field, that it will throw the Earth’s rotation off its course, causing our planet to spin out of orbit, hurtling through space – unless they can somehow neutralise it. And this is where the film Gold comes into play.
Turns out the Canadians have an experimental machine up in Nova Scotia, that can deliver a charge of 600 million volts, not the 900 million they need to ”over-feed” the monster, but that’s just because it hasn’t been tested for as much. The theory is that if they ”choke” the material with too much energy when it is about to double in size, it will double back on itself and die.
That’s when the actors suddenly don bulky trenchcoats and wide-brimmed fedoras typical of the thirties and early forties, but completely anachronistic in the fifties. This is so that Carlson, Donovan and two other actors (playing Canadian scientists) can match the images of Hans Albers, Michael Bohnen, Eberhard Leithoff and Ernst Karchow from the 1934 film Gold. We are introduced to Otto Hunte’s magnificent set design for the German movie – a monstrously big ”particle generator” that looks like something out of Metropolis (1927, review), with expressionistic angles and shadows, and huge flickering neon tubes and arc generators, inside a gigantic soundstage with Bauhaus-inspired architecture.
The matching of the actors works so-so, mainly because Hans Albers was at least ten centimeters taller than Richard Carslon and built like a brick wall, whereas Carlson is of rather unassuming build. The whole style of the film also suddenly switched from the minimalist documentary style to what can be best described as opera, with dozens and dozens of extras milling around like an operatic choir. The bright imagery of he rest of the movie is switched for dark, murky visuals of the German expressionist era, the editing gets quicker and more symbolic, the tone suddenly fraught with danger, doom and paranoia. Of course the Canadian chief tries to stop Stewart from wrecking his machine, just like American industrialist John Wills in Gold, and – well, read my review of Gold to find out what happens.
There’s also a secondary story here, or more like a romantic relief, knitted into the plot, of Stewart and his Connie (Jean Byron). It is a sweet love story, although it has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the plot. Dr. Stewart and his wife engage in light romantic banter through the film, and Stewart is worried that his wife is way too skinny to be four months pregnant and spends a lot of time trying to get Connie to eat more. There’s a funny breakfast scene where Connie switches their plates to make it look as if she has eaten a mountain of pancakes. This secondary plot of Stewart worrying about his wife and planning to buy a house for the family does ground the agent in reality in a way seldom seen in films like this, and it provides for some welcome warmth and humour in the otherwise slightly stale movie, although one wishes they could have incorporated a woman in the film through some other means than making her a pregnant housewife waiting for her husband to return from work. And it does (probably unintentionally) raise some conflicting vibes when Stewart on the one hand tries to kill the magnetic monster by over-feeding it and on the other hand tries to basically over-feed his pregnant wife.
One reason as to why these segments work, despite being completely irrelevant to the plot, is that the actors are as good as they are. This wasn’t at all a given, this being a low-budget production, but also because of the subject-matter. Despite the fact that science fiction movies were extremely popular at the box office, they were still considered second-class cinema, no matter how well-made they were or how much money was spent on them. With a few notable exceptions, the big Hollywood stars didn’t make science fiction films, unless they were blacklisted or otherwise down on their luck. Never among the brightest stars of Tinseltown, Richard Carlson and Jean Byron were nevertheless surprisingly good actors for a film like this.
Carlson, who came from a wealthy family, originally mastered in English, but instead bought a theatre at the age of 23, and pinned himself as the star, leading to appearances on Broadway, but a rather bad luck with his own plays compelled him to take the bait when offered a contract at RKO, which stipulated acting, writing and directing – although he ended up doing mostly acting – in 1938. But despite stacking up stacking up an impressive record of leading or large roles in mostly B movies throughout the forties, his career never took off the way he had hoped, and that promise of writing and directing never materialised. A third-billed role in the Technicolor smash hit King Solomon’s Mines in 1950 seemed like a big break, but led nowhere.
Instead Carlson in 1953-1954 had a short but intense period as leading man in a number of sci-fi cult films, which remain his best remembered legacy today. In fact, his first contact with the genre was in the TV series Lights Out (1949-1952, review), and he had a small supporting role in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review). But it was The Magnetic Monster that started what would lead to leading roles in The Maze (review) and It Came from Outer Space (review)later that same year, and culminated in the classic Universal monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review). In 1954 he also at last got his chance to direct, and the movie in question was the B-film Riders to the Stars (review), in which he also acted, third-billed. In the late fifties and sixties he concentrated on TV, and is best remembered for playing the lead in the McCarthyist FBI/Communist drama I Led 3 Lives. He made a brief return in elder years to sci-fi in The Power (1968) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969).
Carlson has an introspective, pleasant air about him, channelling the academic that he was in real life, but never leaving any doubt he can roll up his sleeves as an action hero if the moment calls for it. Carlson leads his cast in an effort to transcend the hokey script, and it his the very human aspect he brings to the role that is one of the delights of the movie.
Carlson’s (41 at the time) onscreen banter with the fifteen years younger Jean Byron serves as an emotional anchor in the film, and at the same time as romantic and comic relief. Byron is funny, quirky and believable as the pregnant wife, worrying far less about her condition than her husband. With a background as a radio singer, drama student and stage actress, Byron got her first film role playing opposite an ageing Johnny Weissmuller in the Jungle Jim movie Voodoo Tiger in 1953, and The Magnetic Monster was only her second movie. The really bright lights never beckoned, though, and she continued her career in a number of B movies, as well as semi-regular or guest spots in TV series, including Ivan Tors’ Science Fiction Theatre. In 1959 she starred alongside John Agar and John Carradine in Invisible Invaders. She is best remembered, however, for playing the mother of ”identical cousin” Patty Duke in the hugely popular The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966), whereafter she continued to work mostly on TV.
And to think all this started with a chicken heart! Not to take away from scriptwriters Tors and Siodmak, but the idea of this menace that’s growing and growing and threatening to destroy the Earth is certainly an homage to, if not a ripoff of, writer/producer/director Arch Oboler’s legendary segment The Chicken Heart from his and Wyllis Cooper’s horror/sci-fi radio show Lights Out, that aired in 1937. The segment also clearly inspired Orson Welles to make his famous broadcast of The War of the Worlds in the documentary style that he did, just one year later.
Oboler, who went on the make the sci-fi films Five (1951, review), The Twonky (1953, review) and The Bubble (1966), described the conversations between a group of scientists and other people coming and going in a room, taking in reports from around the States, as an experiment on a chicken heart goes awry, and it continues to grow exponentially, threatening to devour the planet. The idea in The Magnetic Monster is basically the same, only the chicken heart is now an ever-growing, radioactive, magnetic substance. You can listen to an excerpt of The Chicken Heart here.
At its core, however, the film is the usual fifties stock of science scepticism and a warning about nuclear science, the substance serving as a metaphor for the global nuclear armament, threatening to blow up in everyone’s face as a third world war. Unusual for a film like this, however, is that there’s not really a villain in the script, if you discount the Canadian scientist in the last scene, who’s trying to sabotage the whole thing so as to save his expensive machine, but he’s there only to create some tension at the climax of the movie (and because it fit with the footage of Gold). There are no alien invaders, no shady ”communist” threat, no Nazi spies, no roaming monsters. It is probably the first film depicting an imminent threat to the world through some scientific accident, something of course used to great effect in many later virus-out-of-control films.
Curt Siodmak, as Kurt Siodmak was calling himself in the States, had an impressive resumé as a science fiction and horror writer. Siodmak was a very prolific author and screenwriter, who began publishing short stories and novels, almost all of them including science fiction elements, in Germany in the twenties. His novel F.P.1. Does Not Reply was turned into the film F.P.1. Does Not Answer (review) in 1932. After emigrating to the UK in 1934 he helped to pen the British 1935 version of the German 1933 film Der Tunnel (review), and in 1937 co-wrote Non-Stop New York (review), and then he soon found himself in Hollywood. His best known novel to date remains the 1943 work Donovan’s Brain, which he basically re-wrote as Hauser’s Memory in 1968. Donovan’s Brain got its first film adaptation in 1944 with The Lady and the Monster (1944, review), and was made again in 1953 as Donovan’s Brain and The Brain in 1962. Hauser’s Memory was turned into a film in 1971.
In Hollywood he was quickly snatched up by Universal, and contributed to The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review) and The Ape (1940) and Black Friday (1940), which gave him the chance to work on what remains his biggest legacy: the creation of the modern werewolf mythos in The Wolf Man (1941), which he continued in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review) and House of Frankenstein (1944, review). In between he also worked on The Invisible Woman (1940, review) and Invisible Agent (1942, review). He also worked on dozens of non-sci-fi films, mostly thrillers or adventure films, including I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Son of Dracula (1943), The Beast with Five Fingers (1946) and Tarzan’s Magical Fountain (1949). His directorial debut was Bride of the Gorilla (1951), he wrote the screenplay for Riders to the Stars, and wrote and directed films like Curucu, Beast of the Amazon (1946), Love Slaves of the Amazon (1947), and did some work in TV and briefly worked in Germany, before he retired from film in the sixties. His continued to write sporadically in his old age – his final novel Gabriel’s Body came out in 1992, making Siodmak’s sci-fi career span almost seven decades. He published his autobiography in 1997.
However, rumour has it that Siodmak actually didn’t do much directing on The Magnetic Monster, often considered his best directorial effort. According to editor Herbert L. Strock, producer Ivan Tors gave him the order to take over directorial duties quickly, as Siodmak had a hard time making decisions on set, and was insecure as how to line up the scenes with the stock footage from Gold, which Strock at this time knew inside-out, as he had already cut out the parts which were going to be used in the film. He is also said to have more or less directed Richard Carlson’s directorial debut Riders to the Stars, and went on to direct for TV and even a few movies, like Tors’ second film about the OSI, Gog (1954, review), Blood of Dracula (1957), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), The Crawling Hand (1963) and Monster (1980), and he also wrote the latter two. He edited and produced a number of these films, along with Donovan’s Brain. He also has ”special thanks” for Biohazard (1985), as director Fred Olen Ray used his editorial equipment for the movie.
Producer/writer Ivan Tors was yet another Hollywood Hungarian, who had started out as a playwrite in his native country. He had an affinity for non-violent, fact-based science fiction, and The Magnetic Monster was his first foray into this world, under his production company A-Men Productions, later Ivan Tors Productions. It was also his first film in the trilogy following the Office of Scientific Investigation, the others being Gog and Riders to the Stars. Between 1955 and 1957 he produced the TV series Science Fiction Theatre, collaborating with directors such as Strock and Jack Arnold, who made a name for himself with films like Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), as well as Gilligan’s Island (1964) and The Brady Bunch (1970). A last all-out sci-fi series was The Man and the Challenge (1959-1960), starring George Nader of Robot Monster (1953, review) fame.
Tors’ other big interest was underwater shooting, and in 1958 he created one of his most beloved series, Sea Hunt, starring Harold Lloyd, by adding a tinge of science fiction to the action adventure show about a US Navy frogman. He reprised the formula with the short-lived series Aquanauts (1960-1961). Because of his prominence with underwater photography, Tors was called in to direct the famous underwater sequences in the James Bond film Thunderball (1965), and also produced the underwater films Around the World Under the Sea (1966), Daring Game (1968), which both starred Bridges, and the musical comedy Hello Down There (1969).
A third element, one for which Tors is probably best known, emerged in the early sixties: cute animals. In 1963 he made the film Flipper, about the adorable dolphin, which turned into one of the most beloved family series in history, remade as both film and TV series in the nineties (including stars like Jessica Alba, Paul Hogan and Elijah Wood). Among his many animal films and series, the second best known today is probably Daktari, about a veterinarian and his family and staff in Africa, and featuring heavily the friendly lion Clarence.
One actor that should be named beside the two leads is the third wheel in the game, King Donovan as Dr. Forbes, sitting superbly in as a slightly nerdy sidekick to Carlson. Described as a thinking man’s Don Knotts, Donovan also cut his teeth in theatre, before taking small roles in film in the late forties and fifties. The Magnetic Monster provided him with one of his few substantial film roles, as he mostly appeared in minor roles or bit-parts in films like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review) and Riders to the Stars, although some might remember him for his role as Solly in The Defiant Ones (1958), starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. But it was sci-fi that gave him his most recognisable turn, as he appeared as Jack Belicec, one of the central group of five people at the heart of the classic red-scare paranoia movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). From the mid-fifties, however, he got his bread and butter from TV and the stage.
British Thespian and character actor Leonard Mudie does his best Albet Einstein as the scientist who unleashes the magnetic monster, and although his melodramatic lines are somewhat daft, he does the job with great dignity. Mudie appeared in small roles in a number of highly successful films from 1921 (when he appeared in A Message from Mars) to 1965, best known to sci-fi fans perhaps from his role as alien inquisitor in The Story of Mankind (1957). He can be seen as the British ambassador to the UN in George Pal’s When Worlds Collide (1951, review), a role which was symptomatic for his career. He did quite some work on TV, and his last role actually aired 21 years after his death. One of Mudie’s final TV roles was a small part as a survivor in the pilot episode for the original Star Trek series, which began airing in 1966, a year after his death. However, the network rejected the show based on this series, and creator Gene Roddenberry re-cast it for a second pilot, starring the now familiar faces. The Cage wasn’t aired until 1986, as a special.
Byron Foulger was a hugely prolific bit-part actor who appeared in close to 500 films or TV series over his career. He also appeared in the serials The Spider (1938) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940), as well as the sci-fi films The Television Spy (1939), The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review), Man Made Monster (1941, review), Mighty Joe Young (1949), Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review), The Rocket Man (1954), and as a guest star in the TV series Space Patrol (1952), The Twilight Zone (1959) and The Time Tunnel (1967).
Another prolific sci-fi man was Michael Fox, bit-part player in all of the OSI films, as well as Killer Ape (1953), The Lost Planet (1953), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Conquest of Space (1955, review), War of the Satellites (1958) and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964). Fox also worked as dialogue director on The Magnetic Monster.
Another instantly recognisable face, if not name, is John Zaremba. Zaremba appeared in a multitude of sci-fi films and series over the course of his career, such as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956, review), The Night the World Exploded (1957), Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958), Moon Pilot (1962). He was one of the stars of the TV series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) as Dr. Raymond Swain, and had a recurring role in Batman (1966-1969) as Mr. Freeze’s butler Kolevator.
Roy Engel had a good run in many small roles in science fiction, most notably in the TV series My Favourite Martian (1963-1966) and The Wild Wild West, but also turned up a a good number of films, see more in my review of The Flying Saucer (1951, review). Frank Gerstle appeared in The Neanderthal Man (1953, review), Killers from Space (1954, review), The Wasp Woman (1959), Monstrosity (1963), Murderer’s Row (1966), The Silencers (1966) and The Bamboo Saucer (1968).
The best known actor of the movie is without doubt the wonderful Kathleen Freeman, as the switchboard operator at OSI. Terribly underused in this film, Freeman went on to carve out a brilliant comedic career, perhaps best known as the constant comedic foil for Jerry Lewis, with whom she performed in 11 films, and as Sister Mary Stigmata, the nemesis of Dan Akroyd and John Belushi in Blues Brothers (1980), as well as for her role in the third Naked Gun film. Sci-fi fans may spot her in The Fly (1959), The Nutty Professor (1963), Heartbeeps (1981), Innerspace (1987) and The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000). In a small role as a co-pilot we see Strother Martin, a prolific character actor who received some amount of fame in the seventies under the directorial hands of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah. He also appeared in World Without End (1956) and the commercially named Sssssss (1973).
Set decorator Victor A. Gangelin worked on all OSI films, as well as a bunch of A-list film, and won an Oscar for his work on West Side Story. Second Unit director Andrew Marton (another Hungarian) was known for his skill with mass scenes, and won an Oscar for directing the chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959), and was nominated for an DGA award for his work on The Longest Day (1962) although I can’t quite figure for which scenes Tors might have needed him in The Magnetic Monster. Marton also had some directorial prowess himself, making films like King Solomon’s Mines and the sci-fi film Crack in the World (1965).
The special effects were supervised by none other than Eugen Schüfftan, creator of the Schüfftan process, popular before travelling mattes and blue-screen became common. Schüfftan was primarily a cinematographer, and won an Oscar for The Hustler (1961).
The film also consulted experts on radiation and electronics, which is why, at least on the surface, things don’t completely spiral out of control as far as the science is concerned, at least initially. Radiation is portrayed fairly accurately, considering knowledge about the matter was very sketchy back in 1953. As far as I can tell, this is the first science fiction film where people use protective suits when handling radioactive material, although there’s still the common misconception that lingered in many films, that radioactive substances are dangerous mainly if they are touched. There’s also a confused bundling together of magnetism, gravity and radioactivity, three concepts that really don’t have anything in common. The film gets them more or less right when they are handled separately, but when it starts mixing them together it all becomes ”gobbledygook”, to use the words of George Lucas. The ”monster” itself is of course complete fantasy.
The film is a lightweight among fifties science fiction movies, and gets a minus in book for using large chunks from another film without crediting it (which Captive Wild Woman did). At least Otto Hunte should have had a mention for his elaborate special effects, which The Magnetic Monster ruthlessly exploited, especially since Hunte was alive and well in Germany at the time, not to mention Karl Hartl, who was still directing movies. For this the film, which would have been awarded five stars, loses a star.
It is, however, a very enjoyable film, which breezes along at a good pace, and manages to whip up a good deal of tension and suspense. The acting is well done across the board, the direction is patchy and workmanlike, but never bad, perhaps a bit uninspired.
The Magnetic Monster (1953). Directed by Curt Siodmak, Herbert L. Stock (uncredited) & Karl Hartl (uncredited). Written by: Ivan Tors & Curt Siodmak. Inspired by The Chicken Heart by Arch Oboler (uncredited). Edited from the film Gold (1934, uncredited). Starring: Richard Carlson, King Donovan, Jean Byron, Harry Ellerbe, Leo Britt, Leonard Mudie, Byron Foulger, Michael Fox, John Zaremba, Lee Phelps, Watson Downs, Roy Engel, Frank Gerstle, William Benedict, Kathleen Freeman, Jarma Lewis, Strother Martin, Elizabeth Root, Hans Albers (uncredited), Michael Bohnen (uncredited), Ernst Karchov (uncredited), Eberhart Leithhoff (uncredited). Music: Blaine Sanford. Cinematography: Charles van Enger, Otto Baecker (uncredited), Werner Boehne (uncredited), Günther Rittau (uncredited). Editing: Herbert L. Stock. Production design & art direction: George van Marter, Otto Hunte (uncredited). Set decoration: Victor A. Gangelin. Sound: Howard Fogetti, Joe Moss, Bill Naylor. Special effects: Eugen Schüfftan, Harry Redmond Jr, Jack R. Glass, Ernst Kunstmann (uncredited), Theo Nischwitz (uncredited). Produced by Ivan Tors for A-Men Productions.