(5/10) In a nutshell: In his second OSI film producer Ivan Tors teams up with writer Curt Siodmak and director/actor Richard Carlson to to train a group of unwitting volunteers to become USA:s first astronauts. Although the film is presented in a refreshingly sober and scientific manner, the basic scientific premise of it is pure hogwash. The documentary feel lends it a nice calm, and although Carlson directs his actors well, he doesn’t quite have the chops for the climactic action sequence. Enjoyable, but no classic.
Riders to the Stars (USA, 1954). Directed by Richard Carlson and Herbert L. Strock. Written by Curt Siodmak and Ivan Tors. Starring: William Lundigan, Herbert Marshall, Richard Carlson, Martha Hyer, Dawn Addams, Robert Karnes. Produced by Ivan Tors for Ivan Tors Productions. IMDb rating: 5.6/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
With its January 14 US release, Riders to the Stars was the first science fiction film of the brave new year of 1954. The film was the second in producer Ivan Tors’ trilogy about the Office of Scientific Investigation – a sort of FBI for nerds. The previous one was the charming The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), which made good use of special effects shots from the German 1934 film Gold (review). The last one is perhaps the best known; Gog, which was released in 1954 as well (review). The two latter films were filmed in colour.
The plot, briefly, is pretty familiar territory today: 12 men with ”suitable characteristics” are chosen from the US populace and invited to take part in a number of tests, the purpose of which they are not told. In reality they are tests designed to choose a crew of four pilots to send on the first manned mission in outer space. The 12 assemble at the OSI test facilities in California, where we get to see two of these tests – a psychological test in which the 12 are all locked in a room for a few hours, and a G force test. Four men are chosen, and one of the four opts out of the mission upon hearing its true nature, leaving Dr. Stanton (William Lundigan), Dr. Lockwood (Richard Carlson) and a Mr. Walter Gordon (Robert Karnes) to all take off in different rockets to try and catch a meteorite. But only one of them returns …
We are also introduced to Dr. Lockwood’s photo model girlfriend Susan (Dawn Manners) and a female OSI scientist called Dr. Jane Flynn (Martha Hyer), who develops a relationship with the film’s protagonist Dr. Stanton. Running the whole operation is Dr. Stanton Sr. (Herbert Marshall), who just so happens to be the father of Dr. Stanton (stop me when there are too many doctors).
The reason for the operation is that the OSI scientists have found out that their rockets turn brittle and crumble due to bombardment from cosmic rays in outer space. However, meteorites that falls to Earth do not. Thus, Dr. Stanton Sr. figures, the meteorites must be coated with some layer of protective material, that burns away when they enter the Earth’s atmosphere. It is imperative that US scientists catch a meteor and bring it back to Earth for study. And because this is the time of the cold war, it must be done as soon as possible – unless YOU-KNOW-WHO should get the upper hand in the military space race.
Producer Ivan Tors, born i Hungary as Iván Törsz, started out as a journalist and playwright before writing screenplays in Hollywood, and eventually producing films for his own company. The OSI trilogy was produced for A-Man Productions, later renamed as Ivan Tors Productions. Today Tors is perhaps best known as the creator of animal-themed TV shows like Flipper and Daktari, but throughout his career he championed so called hard sci-fi, based on existing scientific knowledge, and had no affinity for outlandish sci-fi themes such as aliens, monsters or time travel. That’s not to say that he didn’t stretch the limits of of science, or that his films were actually realistic. Another one of his ideals was that his productions were to be non-violent, and you’ll seldom see guns or other weapons in his films and series. The heroes in Tors’ films were seldom military men or police officers, but more often than not scientists.
Riders to the Stars also had a number of scientific consultants, and the script was written by none other than legendary Curt Siodmak. Siodmak did have a fairly good grasp of science himself, but often liked to take a sound scientific fact, for example that brains function with electrical impulses, and turn it into something wildly outlandish, as he did with his 1943 book Donovan’s Brain, which tells the story of a ”brain in a vat” taking control over the minds around it. For more on that, see my review of the 1953 movie with the same name. And even though Riders to the Stars gets a lot right in the science department, there’s also a lot that it gets completely wrong.
Case in point: the central premise of the film is that cosmic radiation crystallises metal and other materials outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. This is utter nonsense, and this was very well known to scientists in the early fifties. Of course, Siodmak and Tors had to get our heroes up in space somehow, but off the top of my head I can think of at least three better reasons as to why they would want to catch an asteroid. When the scientists in the film find out what actually covers the asteroids, it is utterly absurd, and lets just say that if OSI had in mind covering all their ships and space stations in the material, they would have to boost their budget significantly, robbing a lot of girls of their best friends in the process. Then there are just simple inaccuracies that have no bearing on the plot, that could have just been checked up or left out. Like when one of the astronauts is said to have an elevated temperature during a tough training regime: elevated as in over 170 degrees F, or 50 degrees C – a body temperature even a child knows is instantly lethal. Or when one of the astronauts exits the ionosphere at ”5 000 fet”, when in reality it’s something like 100 000 feet.
However, these inaccuracies don’t detract all that much from viewing experience, since they are minor details, and don’t exist to enable the characters to do outlandish things or the plot to take absurd turns. True, today it seems ridiculous that astronauts wouldn’t have more than two weeks’ training, but on the other hand, the films works on the premise that flying a space rocket isn’t all that different from flying an airplane, and all prospects seem to have war-time flying experience. And they aren’t training for moon landings or space walks, but rather to pilot the rocket into space, scoop up a rock, and return to Earth.
What I do like about the film is that it takes its subject seriously, and that director Richard Carlson and Siodmak, with the help of art director Jerome Pycha Jr., have gone out of their way to give the film an air of actual science. For example, actual stock footage of V2 and WAC rockets were used in the film, and for once the filmmakers have tried to replicate the real rockets for their miniature props (not entirely successfully, but still). Actual footage of rats in zero gravity was also used. According to Tom Weaver’s book It Came from Horrorwood actor Michael Fox’ wife Hannah was a mathematician, and helped the filmmakers to incorporate the computers in a realistic way – that is: to make calculations from large samples very quickly. Much of the stock footage of the computers at work had been seen before, for example in Destination Moon (1950, review), but it is used smartly in the movie.
Neither does the film use the standard dashboards with lots of blinking lights that were so popular in sci-fi films at the time, instead the technical equipment looks like it could belong at a primitive rocket launch site. The film also has what is probably the most accurate and most good-looking space suits up until that point. According to John Johnson’s book Cheap Tricks and Class Acts, the suits were close replicas of navy pressure suits, and cost as much as 1 800 dollars to make. They were so close that some have speculated that actual decommissioned pressure suits were used in the movie. To further step up the game a notch, co-director Herbert Strock went to the University of Southern California to film the scenes of the G-force test in an actual G-force testing facility. Actor William Lundigan was strapped onto the accelerator, and the footage they get from that is amazing.
I can’t find figures on the budget of the movie, but its predecessor The Magnetic Monster cost around 100 000 dollars to make, and that was in black and white and used loads of footage from another film. The budget of Gog is estimated to around 250 000 dollars, and I would put Riders to the Stars somewhere in the same price range. Today, of course, you wouldn’t get a decent Hollywood actor out of bed for 250 000 dollars, but in 1954 250 000 dollars was an acceptable budget for a small Hollywood film without star names in the cast, somewhere between an big low-budget movie and a small mid-budget movie.
The special effects were designed and filmed by Jack R. Glass and Harry Redmond Jr., a capable if not visionary team, who had behind them work on films like King Kong (1933, review), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Two Lost Worlds (1951), Tales of Robin Hood (1951), The Man from Planet X (1951, review), The Magnetic Monster and Project Moonbase (1953, review). The effects are certainly better than the standard low-budget sci-fi quality, even though the rockets still look like miniatures and are clearly suspended by wires. Space is very obviously a matte painting. But the effects of the final climax are very well done, especially the weightlessness of one of the pilots is nicely handled, and the jump-scare of another one floating by a cockpit as a skeleton inside his spacesuit would surely have given audiences a fright.
The acting isn’t stellar, but capable, and you don’t see any of the wooden planks masquerading as actors that you find in may other low-budget sci-fis. Science fiction stalwart Richard Carlson is one of our favourites on this blog, I have always loved his charm and intelligence. Even if his range is rather limited, he always does extremely well within its bounds. Carlson saw himself as something of an Orson Welles, as he started as a screenwriter, made the move into acting and had his sights set on directing. His deal with Tors for Riders to the Stars was that he would forego his acting fee if Tors would let him direct the film and have a slice of the profits. He had played the lead in The Magnetic Monster, and Riders to the Stars also sets him up as the hero, although things take an unexpected turn at one point in the film.
Carlson directs with a sombre, almost documentary style, which works very well in the build-up to the space flight and lends a sense of realism to the movie. There is a bit too much of people sitting in rooms talking science – which according to Michael Fox was very much the influence of Tors, who wanted to cram as much science into his films as possible. One would have liked to see more of the actual testing and training of the astronauts. But the absence of this should probably be more blamed on Tors and Siodmak than on Carslon. Unfortunately Carslon doesn’t handle the finale very well, as he doesn’t seem to be able to build very compelling action sequences – one wouldn’t want to blame editor Herbert Strock, who was one of the best in the business at the time. But the dramatic finale does feel a bit phlegmatic. This is partly due to the music by Harry Sukman, which works well during the first part of the movie, but falls flat when we get into outer space.
There’s been a lot of speculation about how much of the film Carlson actually directed, just like there was with The Magnetic Monster. According to some sources, it was Herbert Strock who did most of the directing on both films. Strock has confirmed that he did more or less take over from Curt Siodmak in the first film, but denies that Carlson would have had any major flaws as a director. Strock did, however, direct the scenes in which Carlson was acting, since Carlson didn’t think it was a good idea for him to direct and act at the same time. Strock would later go on to become an accomplished B movie director himself. He does have this to say about Carlson though: he went over budget because he was trying to do too much at the same time: writing, acting directing and even editing, which Strock put an end to. Michael Fox says he never got along with Carlson, because they were both actors with directing ambitions, and their egos tended to clash – Fox also worked as a dialogue coach on the movie. But even though he didn’t get along with Carlson on a personal level, he tells Bill Warren that he did like him as a director, since he was an actor’s director. Fox says his small role as the training facility’s psychiatrist is one of his all-time favourite roles. Strock and Carlson got on very well, and Strock has often expressed his admiration for Carlson. Strock would finally get his first directing credit with Gog.
The proof of Carlson’s handling of the actors is in the pudding: William Lundigan, a jock with a pleasant voice, does one of his best roles ever in this movie, even though he is extremely bland, as he tended to be in most of his roles. Lundigan was set up to be one of MGM:s stars when he had been discovered before WWII, but although he avoided the draft because of a sports injury, he volunteered for service, infuriating MGM bosses, who dropped him. Lundigan did have a few supporting roles in A films starring actors like Erroll Flynn and James Cagney, but spent most of his career on the B side of the fence, even there relegated to “the other man”, along with a few leading man roles in minor pictures. He is perhaps best known today for his turn as leading man in the 1959-1960 TV series Men into Space. One of Lundigan’s leading man roles on the big screen was in the sci-fi movie Underwater City (1962).
But it is Carlson that shines throughout the film. At this point in time he was perhaps the biggest of the admittedly low-profile science fiction genre thanks to his heroic roles in the surprise hit It Came from Outer Space (1953, review) and The Magnetic Monster. He would further enhance this reputation by playing the leading man in the Universal classic Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954 (review). To a broader audience he was known as the star of the successful TV series I Led 3 Lives (1953-1956). He continued his TV career as the title character of Mackenzie’s Raiders (1958-1959). He briefly returned to science fiction in the sixties with The Power (1968) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969). His directing career never quite took off, though, as he directed a handful of B movies and some TV. His best known work as a director is probably the western Four Guns to the Border (1954) starring Rory Calhoun, a film that gave George Nader a Golden Globe as Best Newcomer. Sci-fi fans will know Nader from the cult movie Robot Monster (1953, review). For more on Richard Carlson and Ivan Tors, and a few other members of the Riders to the Stars crew, please check out my review of The Magnetic Monster.
The role of the elder Dr. Stanton went to a Herbert Marshall past his commercial prime time. The British veteran actor isn’t very memorable in his part, but does a very fine job, as he always did. Never the biggest actor in Hollywood, Marshall nevertheless caught the eye of directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Ernst Lubitsch and William Wyler, and starred in a number of high-profile films. He was also a very respected stage actor. All this despite the fact that one of his legs was amputated below the knee in WWI, and he starred all his career with a wooden leg. According to Herbert Strock, the prosthetic leg caused him immense pain during he filming of Riders to the Stars and Gog, but one would never know he even had one while watching the films. Strock told Tom Weaver that during the filming of Gog, he thought Marshall’s slight limp was part of his character in the film, and felt incredibly bad after telling him it was a “nice gimmick”. But Strock, like Michael Fox, described Marshall as the kindest and most gentlemanly of people. Sci-fi buffs may know that Marshall also played Inspector Charas in the horror classic The Fly (1958) and the British prime minister in Irwin Allen’s Jules Verne adaptation Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962).
Martha Hyer might not be a name that rings too many bells with contemporary moviegoers, but the actress playing Dr. Jane Flynn had a long and rather successful career. Hyer is perfectly cast as the capable female scientist, and to the film’s credit it never belittles her knowledge or “nerves” because of her sex. This is one of those rare fifties sci-fi films were a female neither trips over while running or faints, even if there is some of the typical whimpering and hand-wringing. Hyer is perhaps best when she doesn’t have to show a lot of emotion – as soon as things get hairy she succumbs to over-acting.
Apart from playing leading ladies in B movies, she started getting offers for A films in 1954. Her career was in its prime in the latter part of the fifties, and in 1958 she was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress in the Frank Sinatra movie Some Came Running. Riders to the Stars wasn’t Hyer’s first sci-fi, as she went to Mars with Abbott and Costello on 1953. In 1960 she played the lead in German-French-Italian sci-fi tinged film directed by William Dieterle, called Die Herrin der Welt, or Mistress of the World. As if Mars wasn’t enough, in 1964 she also went to the moon in Nathan Juran’s H.G. Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon. Unfortunately, Hyer got typecast as “icy blondes”, but that didn’t stop her from having a very lucrative career in the late fifties and early sixties, and she soon started to live the life of her upper class movie characters; fur coats, mansions, diamonds and all. But, as Hyer confessed in her 1990 biography, she was no good with money, and spent more than she made. At one point she boasted in an interview to have run out of wall space for her French impressionist paintings: “It’s very embarrassing when you are forced to hang an original Renoir in the bathroom”, according to an obit in The Telegraph. Her career dwindled in the sixties, she had problems with alcoholism and was millions of dollars in debt, and she might not have survived the loan sharks, had it not been for her husband, director Hal B. Wallis calling in the FBI to help with her debt problem. She dropped out of acting in the mid-seventies and lived a quiet retired life after finding religion in the eighties. Hyer passed away in 2014.
One of the most publicised roles of the film was British Dawn Addams’ as Richard Carlson’s girlfriend Susan, despite the fact that it was a minor supporting role. Addams leaves no lasting impression, but neither does she have much to work with. Addams did not have an outstanding Hollywood career, but fared slightly better in Europe. She is fondly remembered for her roles on future James Bond actor Roger Moore’s hugely successful spy series The Saint (1963-1966). In Germany she made a splash in the lead of legendary director Fritz Lang’s Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, 1960). One of her more bizarre roles was in the British science fiction softcore exploitation film Zeta One (1969), slapped together after the success of Barbarella (1968). She also appeared in several episodes of the British/German sci-fi series Star Maidens (1976).
Robert Karnes, who plays the astronaut Walter Gordon, isn’t bad, but about as bland as a cup of stale tea. After failing to make it big in motion pictures in the fifties he carved out a career as a guest and bit part player on TV. He had a bit part in Project Moon Base and a supporting role in Half Human: The Story of the Abominable Snowman (1958), starring John Carradine, the butcher job based on Ishiro Honda’s Yu jin yuki otoko (1955, review)
Michael Fox appeared in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), as well as Gog. He also appeared in Conquest of Space (1955, review), War of the Satellites (1958) and The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), as well as a number of TV series.
The government agent recruiting the would-be astronauts in played by King Donovan, who previously starred as Richard Carlson’s wing man in The Magnetic Monster, doing a wonderful job as the sympathetic but nerdy agent. Donovan is equally superb here, but unfortunately underused. Donovan’s greatest claim to fame is playing one of the leads in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955). Prolific character actor and acting coach James Best is seen here in a small role. He is best known for his role as Sheriff Roscoe Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-1985). He had bit-parts in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Forbidden Planet (1956), as well as starring roles in a number of episodes of The Twilight Zone (1962-1963). Some fan at IMDb has written that The Dukes of Hazzard was ”far below his talents”, but that writer should have taken a better look at his resumé and found out that he also played the lead in The Killer Shrews (1959) and The Brain Machine (1977), and I’m not sure how much lower you can go.
Co-director Herber L. Strock, who was mainly an editor, had previously taken over directing duties from Curt Siodmak on The Magnetic Monster, and as mentioned, also directed Gog. He also directed Blood of Dracula (1957), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), The Crawling Hand (1963) and Monster (1980), and 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.
Screenwriter Kurt Siodmak started out as a journalist, author and screenwriter in Germany, and contributed to the German/British/French sci-fi film F.P.1. Does Not Answer (1934, review), and the British movies The Tunnel (1935) and Non-Stop New York (1938, review). In 1939 he made the move to Hollywood, and would soon gain fame as horror and science fiction writer and changed the first letter in his name to C.
He also wrote the sci-fi horrors Black Friday (1940, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) and The Ape (1941, starring Karloff). With his script for The Wolf Man (1941) Siodmak invented a whole new mythology for the werewolf. It was Siodmak that first came up with the idea that only silver can kill a werewolf. He was also the first to tie in the werewolf with the wolfbane plant.
Curt Siodmak went on to write scripts or novels that inspired scripts of a whole host of horror and sci-fi films. These included Invisible Agent (1942, review), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). In the fifties he contributed to the scripts for The Magnetic Monster, Riders to the Stars, Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, review), and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). In 1942 he wrote the novel Donovan’s Brain, which became the template for so called brain-in-a-vat films. It was first adapted in 1944 as The Lady and the Monster (review), and then in 1953 as Donovan’s Brain. 1968 he wrote a pseudo-sequel to Donovan’s Brain called Hauser’s Memory, which became the film Hauser’s Memory (1970).
Trying to emulate his brother Robert’s success as a director, Curt Siodmak also tried his hands at directing a few times, first with Bride of the Gorilla in 1951, and later with The Magnetic Monster, and a handful of B-movies, as well as a short-lived TV series filmed in Sweden.
The initial photography was done by the renowned cinematographer Stanley Cortez (born Samuel Krantz), known for shooting Orson Welles‘ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) and Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955). Mostly, though, Cortez worked as a studio hack, and had a hand in a number of science fiction films: The Walking Dead (1936, review), The Neanderthal Man (1953, review), The Angry Red Planet (1959), The Madman of Mandoras (1963), They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968, TV movie) and Doomsday Machine (1972). However, Cortez was fired from the production of Riders to the Stars soon after principal photography had begun, because he knocked down a wall to improve the lighting, after being explicitly told not to knock it down.
Cortez was then replaced with Joseph F. Biroc, another highly respected cinematographer. He had previously worked on Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life. He had a prolific career, but got something of a second coming in the seventies and later with Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Superman (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974), where he photographed the action sequences and was awarded an Oscar for the effort. Biroc also did comedy blockbusters like Blazing Saddles (1974), Airplane! (1980), and Airplane II: The Sequel (1982). He photographed a number of episodes of Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), as well as the sci-fi films Red Planet Mars (1952, review), The Twonky (1953, review), (1953), Donovan’s Brain, The Unknown Terror (1957), and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957). However, for contractual reasons Cortez was credited as cinematographer on Riders to the Stars.
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. As mentioned earlier, Harry Sukman’s original music is quite effective in the first two thirds of the film, but as the movie itself, it sort of deflates when things get going in space. Sukman won an Oscar for his music for Song Without End (1960) and was nominated for two more Oscars, two Emmys and an International Film Music Critics Award. In the sci-fi field Sukman also worked on Gog, Colossus of New York (1958) and a couple of TV films. Interestingly, Riders to the Stars is one of the few sci-fi movies that has a theme song with lyrics. The song, Riders to the Stars, was written by Sukman and sang by jazz vocalist Kitty White. A renowned singer and recording artist based in Los Angeles, White also did some work for films, like The Lullaby Song in Night of the Hunter, and a duet with Elvis Presley in King Creole (1958).
Special effects director Harry Redmond Jr. is one of the rather unsung heroes of special effects, as he was never nominated for any major awards, despite working for some of the greatest directors of Hollywood in the thirties and forties. Redmond’s practical effects for King Kong (1933, review) are mostly overlooked because of the groundbreaking work done by stop-motion animator Willis O’Brien in that film. He worked for directors like Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, David O’Selznick, Fritz Lang, and many others, mostly uncredited. In the fifties he became producer Ivan Tors’go to-guy, working an all of Tors‘ Office of Scientific Investigation films, as well as the TV series Sea Hunt and The Aquanauts. He also worked as the principal special effects creator on the anthology series Science Fiction Theatre (1955-1957) and The Outer Limits (1963-1964). He retired in the late sixties. We have also covered his work on Donovan’s Brain.
The movie generally got decent reviews upon its release, which was very uncommon for a science fiction film at the time: Monthly Film Bulletin, Boxoffice and Variety all summed it up as quite enjoyable, and one of the better films of its genre, while Hollywood Reporter called it “an absorbing thriller”, according to Bill Warren. The New York Times, typically hostile to sci-fi, called the film predictable and filled with “pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo“. But as Warren states in his book Keep Watching the Skies!, the film doesnt quite feel as exciting to a modern viewer as many of the other sci-fi films of the era, that the reviewers at the time didn’t like half as well as this film. I do think that the film holds up quite well while still planted on terra firma, even though the story is a little slow to get going: I could have lived without the romantic subplot of Dr. Lockwood, which takes up unnecessary time, and would have liked to see more of the testing and of the interaction between the would-be astronauts. Unfortunately the space scenes are rather bungled, partly due to the low budget and rather inadequate special effects, and there is something very wrong with the pacing of the space sequences, and one of the astronauts “space madness” lacks believability. I like the warm colours of the movie and its calm scientific approach, even though the science is a bit off sometimes. As stated: a quite enjoyable mid-budget movie with a few too many kinks and imperfections to make it a classic.
Riders to the Stars (USA, 1954). Directed by Richard Carlson and Herbert L. Strock. Writen by Curt Siodmak and Ivan Tors. Starring: William Lundigan, Herbert Marshall, Richard Carlson, Martha Hyer, Dawn Addams, Robert Karnes, Lawrence Dobkin, George Eldregde, Dan Riss, Michael Fox, King Donovan, Kem Dibbs, James Best. Music: Harry Sukman. Cinematography: Stanley Cortez, Joseph F. Biroc. Editing: Herbert L. Strock. Art direction: Jerome Pycha Jr. Makeup artist: Louis Philippi. Sound: Jack A. Goodrich, Joel Moss, Cathey Burrow. Special effects. Harry Redmond Jr., Jack R. Glass. Produced by Ivan Tors for Ivan Tors Productions.