(7/10) Dishing out the best visual effects in US sci-fi up until 1955, This Island Earth is the smartest sci-fi film of the fifties all the way to the middle of the movie, when the two hack screenwriters deviate from author Raymond Jones’ novel, and we plunge into comic book territory. However, this first space opera remains one of the best sci-fi films of the decade, despite a clumsy mutant and the fact that the writers forget to add any actual plot once we get to a distant planet. Features the first ever Miss Finland.
This Island Earth (1955, USA). Directed by Joseph M. Newman & Jack Arnold. Written by Franklin Coen & George Callahan. Based on the novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones. Starring: Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, Faith Domergue, Lance Fuller, Russell Johnson, Douglas Spencer. Produced by William Alland for Universal International Pictures.
IMDb rating: 5.8/10. Tomatometer: 71% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A.
In first half of the fifties, primarily three major studios dabbled in science fiction. Paramount was the front runner, thanks to the lavish Technicolor sci-fi epics of George Pal. Warner got in it for the money when they realised there was a profit to be made from giant radioactive monsters like those in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review) and Them! (1954, review). Universal was probably the one that made the most interesting pictures, because of their range and their quirks. And in 1955, the studio made their most expensive science fiction film to that date, This Island Earth, an ambitious space opera in Technicolor with impressive effects and artwork.
Space opera was a subgenre that hadn’t been explored much on film prior to 1955. The literary roots of the genre lay as far back as around 200 AD, when Lucian of Samosata wrote the book True History. The book retells the story of how Lucian and a group of adventurers set out on a ship, and are carried to the moon by a giant whirlwind. There they find themselves embroiled in a full-scale war between the king of the Moon and the king of the Sun over colonisation of the Morning Star, involving armies with stalk-and-mushroom men, acorn-dogs and cloud-centaurs. And moon spiders. All sorts of proto-space opera was written throughout the centuries, and with the growing knowledge about the universe, as well as the technological breakthroughs of the late industrialisation, stories of interplanetary warfare and the colonisation of space started popping up during second half of the 19th century. But it wasn’t until the 1920’s that anything resembling modern space opera started appearing in pulp magazines and comic books.
Ray Cummings’ Tarrano the Conqueror (1926), E. E. ”Doc” Smith’s Skylark of Space (1928) and Edmond Hamilton’s Crashing Suns (1928), all published in pulp magazines, are generally counted as the three first examples of pure space opera, and they in turn inspired comic books like Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and Superman, that started emerging in the mid-thirties.
One can view George Méliès‘ A Trip to the Moon (1902, review) as a sort of space opera, as well as the Danish film A Trip to Mars (1918, review). They both involve a trip to another celestial body, and encounters with alien cultures. But they lie closer to the Martian adventure stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, beginning with A Princess of Mars in 1912. Such is also the case with the 1930 science fiction musical comedy Just Imagine (1930, review). The first true space opera of the big screen was the motion picture serial Flash Gordon (review), starring Buster Crabbe, that rolled out in 1936, closely followed by Buck Rogers, Undersea Kingdom (1937, review) and other science fiction serials. Space opera invaded TV in 1949 with the live-aired kiddie series Captain Video and His Video Rangers (review), that spawned rivals on other networks, like Tom Corbett, Space Cadet as well as Space Patrol.
The first motion pictures that might be regarded as actual space operas are Flight to Mars (1951, review) and Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review). Even though they are primarily adventure stories set on other celestial bodies than Earth, both contain at least an underlying element of a struggle between worlds, and the fanciful descriptions of the alien cultures, along with moon spiders and highly evolved Martian civilisations do fit snugly into the narrative of space opera. The War of the Worlds (1953, review) doesn’t really count, as it is wholly Earth-bound. But as far as feature-length movies are concerned, the first movie to actually depict interplanetary travel, show us far-off alien civilisations and feature a full-blown war in outer space is This Island Earth, and can perhaps therefore claim the title as the first space opera film.
Released in 1955, This Island Earth is based on a short novel by the same name, written by Raymond F. Jones. Even though not counted among the greats of the genre, Jones wrote well-crafted hard SF stories with a steadiness that few could match, and between the early forties and the late fifties he put out an impressive bulk of material in a number of different subgenres. His stories are often rooted in science, have a bright intelligence to them, and often tackle broad political, scientific, philosophical or moral questions. His stories are sometimes a bit over-complicated and wobbly because of the many ideas and themes that struggle for space, and the human element tends to be under-developed in some cases. Nevertheless, Jones was a rather popular writer within the genre during his two most active decades. We have covered his work before on the blog, as one of his stories formed the base of the splendid episode The Children’s Room on the live-aired TV show Tales of Tomorrow (1952, review). This Island Earth is not his best novel, but it is his best known, thanks to the film.
The novel itself is a reworking of three of his novelettes published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949 and 1950. They went by the titles The Alien Machine, The Shroud of Secrecy and The Greater Conflict, and as a trilogy they had the umbrella title The Peace Engineers. I haven’t read the three original novelettes, but I understand that they were somewhat reworked when put together into the novel This Island Earth, published in 1952.
The film and the book follow each other fairly closely during the first half of the film. Genius electrical engineer and former WWII pilot Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) and his colleague Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) receive a new electrical condenser from a strange company simply called Electronic Service – Unit 16. Shaped as a small red bead, it can take over 30 000 volts before breaking. Later they receive a strange catalogue printed on some sort of flexible metal sheets, describing how to build something called an ”interocitor”. They don’t know what an interocitor does, but Meacham is determined to build one, and the parts arrive on cue. Once built, the interocitor turns out to be a machine with a large triangular screen, that promptly lights up when the thing is completed (oh, and it has lasers, too). A strange man appears on the screen, congratulating Meacham for passing his test. The man, called Dr. Warren in the book and Exeter (Jeff Morrow) in the film, offers Meacham a job with a group of scientists called The Peace Engineers. Once the video conference is over, the machine self-destructs, along with the manual.
On a foggy morning Meacham enters a radio controlled plane sent by the mysterious engineers, and ignores Wilson’s warnings about going. After a long flight he lands in Georgia, where he is met at the air strip by a Dr. Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), who picks him up by car. In the film, Meacham seems to remember that the two went skinny-dipping together at a conference in Virginia a few years back. Adams says that she is flattered, but that he has her mixed-up with some other girl (although her body language tells a different story). The book doesn’t mention any previous romance, but the change is for the better, since one of the flaws of the book is that it fails to explain how or why a sudden love grows between the two protagonists.
After this the movie starts to slightly veer away from the book, even if the basic premise is the same up until halfway through. Meacham is introduced to a luxurious mansion where a few select scientists from all over the world work for the Peace Engineers, and meets Exeter, a strange man with a bizarrely high, knobbed forehead, a top of bright white hair and a suspiciously even tan. When his right-hand man, Brack (Lance Fuller) shares these characteristics, there’s not a single person in the audience that doesn’t go: ”hey, these here are some aliens if I ever saw some”. In the book the Engineers are describes slightly ”off”, but not this obviously non-human, and one of the problems of the film is that the human characters never mention their strange appearance. Exeter explains that the Peace Engineers are working in secret on the means to end all war, and have recruited Meacham because he is ”on the verge of discovering an endless source of energy” through his experiments in turning lead into uranium. Although not entirely convinced by Exeter about who the Peace Engineers are, or what their end goal is, Meacham accepts the job and is shown to his lab. He also meets a certain Dr. Steve Carslon (Russell Johnson), who seems to be conspiring together with Dr. Adams, and both seem afraid and tense whenever one of the Engineers are nearby. It is revealed that the two share Meacham’s doubts, but are afraid to discuss matters, since the Engineers have a habit of brainwashing people who start to ask too many questions. Realising they are, in fact, prisoners in the mansion, they plan an escape.
But the Engineers make the first move by starting to shut down the facility, and to avoid brainwashing our trio of friends dash to a car, but are chased by a giant flying saucer that rises from the green hills of Georgia and starts bombarding them with laser cannons. Carlson is killed in the pursuit, but Meacham and Adams reach an airplane and take off. Naturally, the best way to escape a UFO capable of traversing universes may not be in a propeller plane, and soon a green tractor beam catches the airplane and pulls it into the flying saucer, where they meet Exeter who explains to whole matter. The Engineers are in fact from the planet Metaluna, a planet engaged in a long war with the planet Zagon. Metaluna is under siege from Zagonian bombs, their supply of uranium has ran out, and they desperately needed the Earth scientists to find a way of creating more of the precious material. Time is running short, the Zagonians are breaking through the Metalunan force shield, and as a last resort Exeter has now kidnapped (in a very friendly and unhostile way) Adams and Meachum so they might perfect a method on his own planet.
None of this is in the book, but we’ll get to that later.
We spend some time on the UFO, where Adams and Meacham get ”conditioned” for the great atmospheric pressure on Metaluna by way of disintegration and molecular restructuring in tubes foreshadowing the ones in Forbidden Planet (1956) and the Star Trek transporter beams. In fact, the tubes are eerily similar to the ones used in Forbidden Planet, which went into pre-production long before This Island Earth. There’s the obligatory near-hit with an asteroid (really, did EVERY space film have to have one of those?), and soon they arrive at Metaluna, a burnt-out world with only a handful of survivors trying to escape the burning meteorites that the Zagonians are hurling towards the planet. They are taken to the sinister Monitor (Douglas Spencer), leader of the Metalunans, who is hardly impressed with the new Earth specimens, and orders them to be brainwashed at once. However, Exeter has spent too much time on Earth and learned the ways of human love and exceptionalism for this to happen, so the trio heads for the UFO, but have to fight off a ghastly Metalunan mutant in order to get there. As the final defences of Metaluna break, the three head for their escape vehicle, in a desperate attempt to return to Earth. But will they all survive?
By the time Adams and Meacham attempt their escape from the mansion, the film takes off in a completely different direction from the book. In the book Adams, Meacham and a certain Swedish scientist called Ole Swenberg are taken to the moon, where the Llannans, as the aliens are called in the book, have set up a base. Exeter is an amalgam of two different characters, Dr. Warner and the Chief Engineer, Mr. Jorgansovara, and Jorgasnovara explains to the scientists that the Llannans are involved in a several thousand years long intergalactic war with the Guarrans. The novel’s odd name is explained in WWII terms: Jorgasnovara draws parallels to the way in which Americans used small Pacific islands as bases for their operations during the war with Japan. Even though the native people had no comprehension of the war that was being fought around them, they were useful to the Americans in the sense that they could be drafted to build air strips and take care of other menial tasks to serve the American war effort. In the same way, Jorgasnovara explains, Earth is a small Pacific island in this intergalactic war. Nobody is really interested in the planet itself, but its chief scientists can be drafted to manufacture simple machines, like interocitors. See, in the novel Meacham isn’t trying to create uranium, and the Llannans are simply running a factory on Earth, building interocitors.
Then the book simply has Adams, Meacham and Swenberg return to Arizona, where the plant is set in the book, to oversee the production of more interocitors for the Llannan war effort. The middle part of the book then goes into a convoluted subplot of the business of manufacturing interocitors, and the management of a worker’s strike, organised in fact by Guarran sleeper agents, such as Meacham’s old college buddy Ole Swenberg. Written as it was in 1949, this part of the book was probably meant to address communist infiltration, the unions and the workers’ movement, but the whole segment bogs the story down, and I am not surprised that the screenwriters decided to take a different direction with the story. We also meet scaly lizard agents from Guarra, get into fisticuffs and begin the third part of the book with the news that the Guarrans have surprisingly broke through the intergalactic front line, and decided to attack Earth, a meaningless speck in the conflict. The Llannans, relying on calculations from their computers, deduce that Earth is of no strategic interest, since ”push-buttons” like interocitors can be manufactured on countless other planets, and decide to leave Earth to its fate. Now the last portion of the book then deals much with talks about military strategy, as Meacham tries to explain to the Llannans that they are fighting a losing battle by relying too much on their computers. As the Guarrans also have computers that will tell them exactly the same thing that they tell the Llannans, they will know every move the Llannans make if the Llannans keeps doing everything their computers tell them to do. Instead Meacham calls on both the Llannan’s moral obligation to protect Earth, since they are the ones responsible for dragging the planet into the conflict, and on the strategic advantage of doing something that the Guarrans don’t expect, i.a. protect the Earth.
To be honest, the second part of the book is a bit of a snoozer, and the third part becomes too much of an academic exercise to be rendered into an exciting film, so I can wholly understand why the screenwriters decided to completely re-write the second half of the movie. The problem with the second part of the film, though, is that a bit too much time is spent on the flying saucer, and once the group arrive on Metaluna, there’s not much time for exploring a new storyline on the planet if the filmmakers want to keep he movie under a reasonable programmer duration of an hour and a half – it clocks in at 87 minutes. The whole plot of going to Metaluna is to get there, see the sights and escape, making it a rather meaningless exercise, even if it is beautifully rendered and quite exciting. People who love to point out from which movies Alien (1979) has ”stolen” bits and pieces will also note that this is the first film in which a monster sneaks aboard a space ship and starts to wreak havoc – as one of the mutants hitch a ride on the trip back toward Earth.
In addition the film has a typical US cold war ethos attached to it. As explained further down, the original script had a strong, almost paranoid, anti-communist sentiment, which producer Alland partly removed, and it was further softened by Jeff Morrow’s attempts at making Exeter more of a good guy, but the theme is still there, in the shape of alien spies infiltrating USA to steal its scientific secrets. Because of the opposing views of the original screenwriter, Alland and Morrow, the moral of the film gets rather muddy, and exactly what it is trying to say is unclear, except that Earth is a haven worth fighting for. But it is difficult not to draw parallels between the Metalunans, who turn out to be just as bad as the enemy they are fighting, and the Soviet Union. This would make Earth America, and we only meet good people from Earth in the film. The movie also has a very positive view of nuclear power, and the technology is only ever mentioned as a boon for humanity, a promise of free and endless electricity and the solution to all our modern problems. The downside of nuclear technology is never mentioned with a word.
The movie cost around 800 000 dollars to make, making it the most lavish science fiction movie Universal had produced up until that point, and the money shows. Filmed in beautiful Technicolor, the striking colours pop at the viewer, from the warm, lush, greens and yellows of the first half to the blue and purple world of Metaluna. The direction is workmanlike, but producer William Alland keep things interesting with great sets, props and probably the best special effects seen on screen up until that time in movie history, save for The War of the Worlds. The 30 meters long (210 feet) miniature of Metaluna is stunning. Designed by art directors, double Oscar winner Alexander Golitzen and Richard H. Riedel, Metaluna has a hollow planetary crust riddled like Swiss cheese with holes where Zagonian meteors have penetrated the surface, and through the holes the camera shows the Metalunan cities underneath.
This must be one of the most inspired sci-fi designs of the fifties, and some the best miniature landscapes on screen after the lavish European science fiction movies of the twenties and thirties. They sure don’t fool anyone as far as realism is concerned, but boy, are they beautiful to look at. Unfortunately some of the magic is ruined by the UFO docking area, which is simply a miniature foreground and a very unrealistic matte painting in the back. However, the actors are very well composited into the shot. Add to this the constant fireworks of flaming meteorites and explosions, some done on the miniatures, some matted into the frame, and This Island Earth makes for one of the best-looking special effects film of the fifties, narrowly edged out from the top spot by The War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, and perhaps one or two other films. But it is most certainly in the Top 5. A shout-out should also go to the set decorators, double Oscar winner Russell A. Gausman and only the second woman to win an Oscar for best production design, Julia Heron, who shared the award with Gausman for Spartacus (1960).
The wirework, of which there is a lot, including several space ships, airplanes and meteors, is mostly well done, and the wires are visible only on a few short occasions. Seldom have there been so good-looking explosions on screen: multi-coloured gasoline and tinted powder explosions make this film a joy to behold. The flaming meteors were made by filling plaster spheres with magnesium powder. It was Fred Knoth that was responsible for the practical effects, and his team also designed the space ships for the film. Knoth was one of the many geniuses on the Universal lot who were involved in dozens of films but were never credited.
The optical and visual effects are, to be honest, a bit uneven, but mostly good. There’s only one particular moment whith a jarring amount of bluescreen colour leakage. For the most part the travelling mattes are well done, and the composite work is splendid. A memorable scene is where Meacham and Adams are disintegrated and reassembled in the tubes, disappearing before our eyes, layer by layer; first we see veins, then muscles and finally the skeletons. This is a fairly simple lap-dissolve, as used in a number of invisible man films, but it is beautifully executed, especially since it’s in colour. The matte work is largely superb, with the exception of that one unrealistic shot. Stars have probably never looked as good in a space film – there is a real depth to outer space, and its is also probably the best-looking Earth put on screen at that time – not to mention the wonderful way on which Metaluna was rendered from far away. I can’t wrap my head around how they did the effects for that shot.
The optical effects team was led by David S. Horsley, who was aided by Clifford Stine, who also worked as director of photography on the film. According to Bill Warren’s fifties sci-fi bible Keep Watching the Skies, the optical effects photography occupied most of the shooting schedule, and it certainly paid off. At least Horsley knew what he was doing, as he had worked on the special effects team of Universal for over 20 years, and was responsible for the effects in films like The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), The Invisible Ray (1936, review), four Invisible Man films, a number of Abbot & Costello movies with sci-fi and horror effects and It Came from Outer Space (1953, review) – and would go on to work on Tarantula (1955, review). Clifford Stine did effects photography on King Kong (1933, review), and worked on It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula, The Mole People (1956), The Monolith Monsters (1957), The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Land Unknown (1957), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), War of the Planets (1958), Monster on the Campus (1958), and the TV movie The Creeping Terror (1964).
Roswell A. Hoffman was in charge of the visual effects photography, and was not a lesser wizard than the two previously mentioned, as he worked on films like Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and the Charlton Heston disaster film Earthquake (1974), as well as sci-fi flicks like the original The Invisible Man (1933, review), The Invisible Woman (1940, review), Invisible Agent (1942, review), It Came from Outer Space, The Land Unknown, and The Incredible Shrinking Man. One of the miniature builders was an unsung hero of Universal’s; Cleo E. Baker, and man who had been around since the making of the original dinosaur movie, The Lost World (review) in 1925, and worked on Frankenstein (1931, review), and kept on working all the way into the eighties, but was almost never credited for his work.
This being Universal’s biggest science fiction film to that date, one would expect to see Jack Arnold’s name as director, as he had created the studio’s previous science fiction hits of the fifties, It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review). However, the nominal director is a man called Jospeh M. Newman. Newman made his directorial debut in 1942, and his resumé was rather unexciting, but solid, consisting of around a dozen well-regarded but unspectacular adventures films, westerns and film noirs. However, after leaving 20th Century-Fox in 1953, he bought the rights to the novel This Island Earth, and had his friend George Callahan turn it into a script. Callahan really had no experience with science fiction, even if he did provide the script for the sci-fi-tinged Charlie Chan film The Jade Mask (1945, review). His expertise apparently was in writing entertaining detective mysteries, and about a third of his writing credits are for Charlie Chan films.
Newman offered the rights to the book to Universal, who were looking for their next science fiction movie, and were interested. However, Newman had an ultimatum: if they wanted the book, they would also have to buy the script, and put him in the director’s chair. Said and done, although Universal’s science fiction producer William Alland didn’t like the original script. He thought it had too much communist-bashing and lacked a moral message, which he thought good sci-fi should have. Oddly enough, he handed the script over for re-writes to Franklin Coen, who up until that point in his career had written nothing but westerns, and would write almost nothing else for the rest of his career, before he, by some strange coincidence, ended up doing a few blaxploitation films in the early seventies. In his defence, he was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the 1966 film The Train.
The writing duo handle the first half of the film really well, though. Like the book, they don’t rush things, instead they manage to keep a sense of mystery, that slowly unfolds. The audience of course know from the poster that aliens are going to be involved, and as soon as Exeter shows himself we realise he is not, in fact, an ordinary man. But the script doesn’t give anything away to the audience, who can enjoy the luxury of unravelling the mystery of the strange Peace Engineers and their plans along with the protagonists. Newman also handles this part of the story very well, and aided by the film’s crack team of designers, artists and cinematographers, he takes his time, letting the story build momentum and excitement, as the script retains the intelligence of the book.
However, as soon as the script deviates from the book, it goes from intelligent pulp fiction to comic book territory. Hence the alien mutant, the evil Monitor and the near-hit with the meteor. And when the movie left its Earth-bound setting, Newman was apparently out of his depth as well. Although never officially acknowledged by Universal, several people involved in the production testify to the fact that Alland threw out most of what Newman had directed on the Metaluna sets, and brought in his old pal Jack Arnold to re-shoot almost all of this sequence. A long scene of Adams and Meacham in a brainwashing room was completely scrapped, as Alland thought it brought nothing to the film, except a badly disguised reference to evil communists.
One of the major drawbacks of the second half of the movie is that Adams suddenly undergoes a complete personality change. From being an intelligent, capable female lead, she suddenly turns into staple sci-fi damsel in distress, swooning, screaming and tripping over her own feet. Because as we know from the movies, women have awful trouble with motor control anytime something remotely scary happens. Apparently their evolutionary fight or flight response gets overloaded, so that when someone attacks them, their legs completely stop functioning, and apparently their brains as well. See for example Revenge of the Creature (1955, review), where the Creature takes a leisurely shuffle around a beach, completely ignoring the kidnapped damsel of the piece, who could have easily gotten on her two feet and sprinted the ten yards required to reach safety. Instead, she sits her ass down in the sand, tosses her blonde hair around like she was at a metal gig, and screams. Thus: Adams trips, screams into her knuckles and swoons, sometimes all of the three simultaneously. Nuclear scientist Meacham, on the other hand, becomes a bone-headed slugger. Fortunately Coen and Callahan at least manage to write some good material for Exeter, who in the end comes out as the self-sacrificing hero of the movie. However, the credit for this should probably go to actor Jeff Morrow, who had great input into his character and fought for him to be more of a sympathetic and layered person.
The acting, at least in the first half of the film, is rather good without being great. Rex Reason always comes off as a bit wooden, but that’s partly because he is such a big, broad guy. He’s no Shakespearean actor, but has a kind charm about him, and also a nice bit of charisma and a certain glint in his eyes, which makes him pleasant to watch. As opposed to many other leading men, you can actually buy him as a nuclear scientist as well. His role deteriorates a bit in the second part of the movie, but that’s all to be chalked up to the writing and not to Reason.
Born in Germany to American parents, Rex and his brother Rhodes were brought up by a mother who was, in Rex’ words ”the biggest movie buff in the world”, and she brought up both her boys to become actors. After serving in WWII, Reason worked on stage for three years, before landing a lead role in a minor MGM film in 1952. He was picked up by Universal in 1953, and for some inexplicable reason, the studio decided to change his birth name – the Hollywood-friendly Rex Reason – to Bart Roberts, which he despised, and only tolerated for two movies, including Taza, Son of Chochise (1954), where he played a Native American, slathered in brown body paint, with a likewise brownface Rock Hudson as his brother. This was one of his few beefcake roles. In 1955 he landed the lead in This Island Earth, which was a clear sign that he was not on Universal’s list of top leads; big names didn’t do sci-fi. Just like another hunky leading man, John Agar, Reason had difficulties holding his own against the small group of big-time leading men that Universal was grooming, including actors like Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis. Agar had starred in Revenge of the Creature the year before, and the next year Reason found himself as the lead in The Creature Walks Among Us.
However, Reason has very fond memories of filming This Island Earth, which he said had a ”good vibe”, as it was fairly highly prioritised by Universal, and because it was produced by William Alland, who he says was a very hands-on producer who constantly had ideas and opinions about the film: ”William Alland had a lot of imagination. He was always fascinated with whatever he was doing”, reason tells Tom Weaver in the book Double Feature Creature Attack. Reason considered this one of his best roles, thanks to co-star Jeff Morrow, who kept pushing him to always up his acting a notch: ”Jeff Morrow was to me the professional – he was very stimulating to watch and work with. He was always ‘in’ his part, and he had a lot of respect for his fellow actors. And as a result I was better.” About Faith Domergue Reason says that she was a ”sport” and did all of the tough work on the film, like escaping explosions, grappling with the monster and being submerged in ice-cold water, without ever complaining once. Reason’s career never quite took off as he had hoped, although in 1961 there could have been a chance, as he was cast in the lead of The Manchurian Candidate. However, after much deliberating, he decided to leave acting behind and concentrate on religious pursuit – he later lent his almost unearthly baritone voice to records of christian poetry. Then he became a real estate broker. He passed away in 2015. For a great in-depth post on the Reason brothers, please check out a Poseidon’s Underworld post cleverly titled I’ll Give You Two Good Reasons.
Faith Domergue, for her part, does vividly remember the hardships she had to go through on the film. ”Although there were technically ‘no accidents’ on the film, I was black and blue from shoulder to feet, when I was battling that monster”, she tells Michael Fitzgerald in another book of Weaver’s; I Was a Monster Movie Maker. ”And oh, remember when Rex Reason and I get into that lake? Well it was freezing cold and not clean. They had the explosives, so we had to go underwater! I’ve always said that special effects try to kill me.” Another hardship she had to struggle with was the Metalunan space uniform she was made to wear in the latter part of the movie. The uniform pants were so tight that she couldn’t wear underwear under them, and had to have help from an assistant to get them on at all. In fact, she tells Paul Parla in his book Screen Sirens Scream that the strange slanted chairs in the UFO, where she, Reason and Morrow half-sit, half-stand had to be created especially for her, because she wasn’t able to sit down in the suit.
Domergue was still at teenager when she got picked up by Warner, but spent most of her time in the studio’s school, and only had a walk-on part in 1941. In 1942, aged 16, she started dating legendary wacko aviation millionaire and movie producer Howard Hughes who signed her to a three-picture deal with RKO, and gave her the lead in the expensive flop Vendetta. Principal photography was started in 1946, but the production was marred by trouble, and the movie wasn’t released until 1950, to abysmal reviews. Also released in 1950 was Where Danger Lives, another highly publicised movie, starring Domergue, Robert Mitchum and Claude Rains. Domergue’s face was on the cover of every magazine leading up to the two premieres, and Hughes apparently put millions into publicising her. When both films bombed, it was the end of her career as an A-list actress.
Despite receiving decent reviews for many of her roles, her career was further hindered by a miscarriage, two pregnancies, her history with Hughes and other troubles, leaving her to make only five pictures between 1946 and 1952. She freelanced for a while, mostly in B westerns, and was picked up by Universal in the early fifties. In 1955 she emerged as a scream queen with four genre films: Cult of the Cobra, This Island Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea (review) and the British Timeslip (review, released as The Atomic Man in the US). These four remain her legacy to this day, and after this she moved into TV, where she had guest spots on a number of series, and made the occasional western or crime drama. She also did the American re-shoots for the film Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet (1965), a butcher-job off the 1962 Soviet sci-fi film Planeta Bur, picked up by AIP and Roger Corman. In the late sixties and seventies Domergue did a few exploitation films in Italy and two low-budget horrors in Hollywood, opposite an ageing John Carradine, before retiring in 1976, and settled down in Europe, where she had moved in 1968, first in Italy, then Switzerland and Spain. She returned to the States with the death of her Spanish husband in 1991, and passed away in 1999. Modern viewers may recall a short but memorable scene in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator (2004), where Leonardo DeCaprio’s Hughes interviews a 15-year old Domergue, played by Kelli Garner, in a movie screening room, and asks her to remove her lipstick.
Faith Domergue was a better actress than her credits suggest, certainly above most of the science fiction leading ladies of the fifties, often cast more for their looks than for their talents (with a few notable exceptions). Unfortunately these kind of films seldom gave their actresses much intelligent dialogue or dramatic material. However, Domergue had the luck of receiving a couple of really decent roles as intelligent female leads, and one of them was in This Island Earth, especially the first half of the film.
Jeff Morrow steals every scene he is in, and not only because it is impossible not to look at his bright white hair. The hair, he says, was so bright that they had problems with it registering only as a white blob on film. They tried dimming the lighting, but that made him look orange in his make-up. The solution was that the hair stylist had to carefully prepare all the white wigs every day so that they would have waves in them to create some subtle shading. The makeup is very good, the high brows do lend themselves to parody if one is in the mood, but they are not too outlandish, and rather tastefully done. Had there only been one character in the film with such a makeup, one might even have harboured the idea that he simply had some defect. But of course, as soon as the second white-haired, knob-browed character shows up, the audience is in on the gag.
Morrow was a veteran of the stage, a Shakespearean actor with experience from radio. He made his screen debut in 1953 with a lead in the spectacular A-picture The Robe, one of the first to be filmed in Cinemascope, and got rave reviews for his performance. However, for one reason or the other, he wasn’t able to follow up on the hype, and spent most of the fifties alternating between A and B movies as a very respected character actor, but never a commercial star. He was picked up by Universal in 1955, as the studio wanted him for This Island Earth. In fact, the six weeks of principal photography started ten days before his contract, so he didn’t have to do the film. He did, however, like the ideas in the script, but didn’t like the way Exeter was portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. He fought for the role to be changed, so that Exeter would become a character who is a scientist deeply worried about the consequences of his actions, and of the actions of all intelligent beings in the universe, which is why he stands up to the evil Monitor in the end, and is ready to sacrifice himself to save both Adams and Meacham, as well as Earth. So we have Morrow to thank for what intelligence there is in the final third of the movie.
Highly praised by both Reason and Domergue, Domergue did feel that Morrow was a hard man to get friendly with, as he would always stay in character, and often kept to himself off-set. The next year, he teamed up once again with Reason in The Creature Walks Among Us, where he plays an eccentric and memorable character. In 1957 he starred in another quite intelligent science fiction film called Kronos, in which he played a scientist. That same year he starred in one of the most unintentionally hilarious science fiction films in history, The Giant Claw. And much later, in 1971, Morrow did a walk-on part in Harry Essex’ abysmal Creature from the Black Lagoon remake Octaman, filling in for an actor who got sick. Morrow tells Weaver it was one of the few things he acted in that he never saw.
While no fan of science fiction himself, Morrow told Tom Weaver that while he thought much of the schlocky sci-fi output of the fifties were made with kids in mind, he also realised that there was a completely different science fiction audience that was ”made up of older, intelligent, concerned people, who are genuine science fiction fans. They’re not what I call ‘the idiot Godzilla fan’. I think at that time there were about five or six science fiction pictures that had considerable merit – The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet and perhaps a few others.” And he did like This Planet Earth, not just because it was the film he received most fan mail about during his entire career: ”The thing I felt was important about This Island Earth was the fact that there was a sense of hope – that if we do ever come to meet people from another planet, in some way we’ll be able to communicate on a human level of understanding.”
An actor of some interest for sci-fi fans is Lance Fuller, playing the Metalunan assistant, Brack. Fuller’s first sci-fi outing was actually as a Vasarian villager in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review) when he was 15, which was also his first film appearance. He worked himself up through the ranks of Universal and in the fifties he started getting billed supporting parts, however as her career didn’t advance further, he was either let go from or left Universal to go freelance, and started getting bigger parts ans even second leads in low-budget pictures. He soon became a favourite of Edward L. Cahn at the cheapo studio AIP, known for producers like Alex Gordon and Roger Corman. Then finally on 1958 his chance as an actual leading man came – but unfortunately the film was Bride of the Gorilla, directed by Ed Wood. He also appeared in Voodoo Woman (1957) and had a walk-on part in The Andromeda Strain (1971).
Russell Johnson, playing Steve Carlson, is best known for his recurring role as Professor Roy Hinley in the TV series Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967). The name change from Ole Swenberg is quite natural, since no American is going to be able to pronounce Ole correctly (it’s a long deep O like in ”ghoul” and a sharp, short e like in ”red”; ”Oouhhle”). The ”Carlson” part may or may not be a nod to sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson, leading man of a number of well-regarded sci-fi films you can find on this blog. Johnson also appeared in It Came from Outer Space, Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and Jack Arnold’s The Space Children (1958), after which he mainly focused on TV, carving out a rather comfortable career for himself. Neither Fuller nor Johnson leave any deeper impression on This Island Earth, but handle their duties well.
Although the role of the Monitor is straight out of a comic book, it is nicely handled by B movie and TV character actor Douglas Spencer, best known for uttering the legendary line ”Keep watching the skies!” in The Thing from Another World (1951, review). Robert Nichols is also good as Joe Wilson, Meacham’s assistant. Incidentally, he also appeared in The Thing from Another World, as Mac. He also appeared in The 30 Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and the original Westworld (1973) movie, which now seems to be all the rage on TV, although I haven’t had a chance to catch up on the series yet.
Among the bit-parts there are a number of interesting characters, but I’ll single out one that lies especially close to my heart, partly because I am quite proud of the research I did on her. As regular readers of this blog may know, I live in Finland. Thus, it intrigued me when in a dinner scene at the Peace Engineers’ mansion, I distinctly heard a line uttered in Finnish, as the filmmakers are trying to establish that we are dealing with an international team of scientists. Now, Swedes have been a staple in Hollywood since the twenties, so there’s nothing special about hearing a few lines of Swedish here and there, but very few Finns have made it in Tinseltown, and Finland is such an obscure country, that people don’t stick in lines in Finnish in films just for fun. So, I thought, there must be some specific reason as to why it was there.
The character’s name is Dr. Marie Pitchner, so it’s obvious that she wasn’t written as Finnish. As far as I could tell none of the writers, producers or directors had any connections to Finland, and nothing very special happened in Finland in the mid-fifties science community that might have made a connection with movie-goers. So, I thought, it had to be the actress that had some connection to Finland, and thus had learned Finnish. And I specifically thought ”learned” because the spoken Finnish wasn’t pitch-perfect, but rather sounded like coming from someone who speaks Finnish as their second or third language. The line goes ”Moozartti on oikein kaunista”, as she is commenting on the background music, saying that the music of Mozart is very beautiful. The way the name of Mozart is distorted is proof that this is a person who’s actually lived in Finland, because that’s the way Finns with bad knowledge of European languages would distort names.
The problem was that the actress’ name didn’t give me any clues: Lizalotta Valesca, which certainly doesn’t sound Finnish. The surname sounds Italian or perhaps Spanish, but Lizalotta just isn’t a name in any language, there’s Lieselotte in German and Liselott in Swedish, so Lizalotta was almost certainly an artist name, and Valesca probably a name taken in marriage. Valesca’s IMDb page was completely empty, save for the fact that she was noted for appearing in This Island Earth. So I started googling. And it turned out that Lizalotta Valesca was born Ragnhild Nyholm in Southern Finland, a Swedish-speaking Finn just like myself, which would account for the fact that her Finnish didn’t sound quite right.
Ragnhild Nyholm was in fact the first ever Miss Finland, crowned in 1930 or 1931, the year varies in different sources, as there are no surviving documents from the first Miss Finland pageant. Apparently Nyholm moved to California in the thirties, as so many Europeans fleeing the war, and took up modelling, which brought her to TV and movies, where she apparently worked a bit as an uncredited extra. She married, but I can’t find any record of the husband, and had children. She seems to have divorced, since travel documents list her as travelling on long sea journeys to Europe and Africa alone. On one of these journeys (to Spain) she met diplomat and globetrotter Virginia Hamill Biddle, who writes letters about spending much time with her wonderful Finnish friend Lizalotta on the journey in 1956. Apparently a health-nut, Lizalotta would not drink anything but tomato and orange juice, but had lots of stories from her exciting life, such as being proposed to by the Maharajah of Jodhpur. The two women went on adventures on their own, renting cars to go sightseeing, and seem to have made an impact on the ship’s captain, who would invite them to his cabin for dinners.
In 1955 Valesca moved to New York, and worked in different jobs on stage, in entertainment and as a modelling instructor, and also found time to act as an American agent for Finnish wood-carving artists. In 1961 she wrote a book called More Than Beauty – quite a tome – in which she, 60 at the time, explains how to live a healthy life and stay young and beautiful even in your senior years. The book is available on online stores for 100 dollars, and covers everything from diet, exercise, breathing techniques, cosmetics and hygiene to sex and reproduction, as she – brought up in the famous, liberal Finnish education system – perhaps felt that Americans where appallingly uneducated in matters of sex. The book was a success, and she became a popular lecturer, and appeared on numerous TV shows over the next ten years, such as The Steven Allen Playhouse and The Dick Cavett Show, talking about health, beauty and sexual education. I actually managed to find a clip from a Finnish TV program from 1965, where she is interviewed about her book. Her Finnish was so rusty that she answered the interviewer in English. You can watch it here (if it doesn’t have some stupid geographic restriction) – her segment starts at about 7.30 minutes into the clip.
From newspaper archives I was also able to glean that Valesca once sued an eccentric European immigrant who called himself ”Baron” Andrew Von Salza for 12 000 dollars on a loan, plus 13 500 dollars in interest. The circumstances are not clear, but it seems that she at some point borrowed him money to start a health clinic, but was never repaid. She probably didn’t know how to find him until she read in the paper that he was involved in another lawsuit, in which two women sued him for swindling them of 15 000 dollars worth of treatments at his ”youth spa”, where he claimed to be able to cure all sorts of ailments, reproductive problems and reverse ageing with the help of a therapy based on fertilised egg yolks. Apparently it didn’t work. The papers don’t reveal whether Mrs. Valesca ever got her money back, but Von Salza seems to have later bounced back as a ghost hunter.
Now, there it is, told to the best of my ability, the life and times of Miss Finland Ragnhild Nyholm, or actress and health guru Lizalotta Valesca. She apparently knew the secret to a long and healthy life as she lived to be 93 years old.
The most lasting legacy of the film is probably the mutant, which just shows what shrewd businessmen the people at Universal were. There’s some confusion about whether the mutants were written into the first script draft, or if Universal stuck them in because they wanted a monster, but however it happened, this is one of the weaker designs from the studio, considering their last creation had been the creature from the black lagoon. The big-brained mutant’s design partly drew on unused sketches from the alien of It Came from Outer Space, and there seems to have been something of a design battle going on, between whether it would look like it had simply been distorted by Metaluna’s great atmospheric pressure, or if it should look more insect-like. In the end they went for a mashup of the two ideas, giving the creature an enormous brain, but pincers for arms, bug-eyes and a torso and arms resembling the exoskeleton of a bug. The legs were meant to have the same design, but to save time and money, the makeup team, led once again by Bud Westmore, decided to simply give it pants.
The mutant was primarily played by stuntman Regis ”Regie” Parton, but Eddie Parker also took turns in the stunts. Their combined resume include Flash Gordon, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Batman (1943, review), Captain America (1944, review), Superman (1948, review), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, review), Bride of the Monster (1955, review), Tarantula (1955), The Mole People (1956), The Incredible Shrinking Man, the three original Planet of the Apes films, The Ultimate Warrior (1975), Heartbeeps (1981) and Alien Nation (1988).
One particular problem that the makeup team had was what to use as blood in the climactic scene aboard the space ship in the end, when the mutant is bleeding due to the change in pressure. They tried theatrical blood, but it stained the foam rubber suit, so they had to repaint it after every shot. They tried different kinds of bloods and paints, but then finally settled for the obvious: ketchup. Makeup assistant Beau Hickman describes the problems with ketchup in John Johnson’s book Cheap Tricks and Class Acts: ”So poor Regie, he’s in this thing and after a while it started to stink! Ever smelled rotten tomatoes?”
The mutant does look a bit like it wandered off from a film with a distinctly lower budget, and comes off as jarringly out of place in this otherwise cerebral and low-key science fiction story. It does add some excitement at the end of the film, but it just looks to hokey to be taken seriously. It was a favourite with kids, however, which was naturally what Universal had counted on.
Universal tried to re-create the musical boldness of The Creature from the Black Lagoon by using the same three composers to write the score: Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein. The score does do its job, but is a bit uninspired for a film like this, and often sounds a bit too much like the score of any staple adventure or war film. The only real stand-out is the eerie title music played, sometimes mistaken for a theremin score, but actually played on an electric organ, a precursor of the synthesizer. The sound design for the film is a work of small genius, and the film is constantly whirring a humming and beeping cracking with strange noises, drawn-out high-pitched noises, etc, etc. But in fact, almost all of the ”alien” noises were recorded from radio telegram receivers, and the sounds were played around with in post-production.
The movie’s critical response was mostly positive, with special praise given to the effects and the design. But the film, for whatever reason, didn’t become the cash-magnet that Universal had hoped for, making it their last effort at doing a big-budget sci-fi film for years. After this, Universal stuck strictly to the tried and tested formula of scary monsters, cheap, in black and white, for the rest of the decade. This is a movie that could have been one of the real classics of fifties sci-fi cinema, but unfortunately it doesn’t hold up all the way. It is a very good film about an hour into the proceedings, and the remaining half hour really isn’t that bad either. The problem is that the screenwriters haven’t come up with anything interesting for the protagonists to actually do on Metaluna, which makes that sequence fall a bit flat, despite the stunning visuals. A highly recommended film, nonetheless.
This Island Earth (1955, USA). Directed by Joseph M. Newman & Jack Arnold. Written by Franklin Coen & George Callahan. Based on the novel This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones. Starring: Jeff Morrow, Rex Reason, Faith Domergue, Lance Fuller, Russell Johnson, Douglas Spencer, Robert Nichols, Karl Ludwig Lindt, Spencer Chan, Richard Deacon, Edward Hearn, Regis Parton, Olan Soule, Lizalotta Valesca. Music: Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein. Cinematography: Clifford Stine. Editing: Virgil W. Vogel. Art direction: Alexander Golitzen, Richard H. Riedel. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman, Julia Heron. Costume design (gowns): Rosemary Odell. Hair stylist: Joan St. Oegger. Makeup supervisor: Bud Westmore. Sound: Leslie I. Carey, Robert Pritchard. Special photography: David S. Horsley, Clifford Stine. Special effects: Cleo E. Baker. Visual effects: Roswell A. Hoffman, Frank Tipper. Mutant designer: Milicent Patrick, et.al. Produced by William Alland for Universal International Pictures.