The Day the Earth Stood Still

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(9/10) In a nutshell: Perhaps the best sci-fi film of the fifties, this 1951 movie directed by Oscar winner Robert Wise took a risky move by presenting a leftist peace statement just when the McCarthyist blacklistings were clamping down on Hollywood. Hugely influential on sci-fi tropes, it is remembered for its sleekly designed flying saucer and the menacing robot Gort, as well as for its realistic direction and impressive special effects, and for cementing the theremin as the sci-fi composer’s instrument of choice.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Edmund H. North. Based on novella Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates. Starring: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Lock Martin, Richard Carlson, David McMahon. Tomatometer: 94 %. IMDb score: 7.8

Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Michael Rennie in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Along with George Pal’s Destination Moon (1950, review) and Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World (1951, review), Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still would set the template for science fiction films for a decade to come. Two years in the making, this was the second bone fide A-list sci-fi film in Hollywood, after The Thing (Destination Moon’s budget of 600 000 dollars could be described as an unusually big B movie budget). The money shows, both in the fact that the filmmakers have had time for generous pre-production, and in the talent, the sets and the special effects. Continue reading

Tales of Tomorrow

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Tales of Tomorrow aired on ABC in the US from 1951 to 1953 and was the first exclusive science fiction anthology series. Adult, intelligent and genuinly unsettling scripts are intermingled with more staple mystery and sci-fi fare. The live broadcast sets limits for direction, but genius camera work and editing sometimes surpass these limits. Leslie Nielsen dominates the cast, and watch out for the masterclass in method acting between Rod Steiger and James Dean.

Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953). Created by Mort Abrahams and Theodore Sturgeon. Directed by Don Medford, Charles Rubin, et. al. Written by Man Rubin, Mel Goldberg, Frank de Felitta, Alvin Sapinsley, David E. Durston, Max Ehrlich, Gail Ingram, Theodore Sturgeon, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner, et. al. Starring: Leslie Nielsen, Cameron Prud’Homme, Walter Abel, Edgar Stehli, Theo Goetz, Olive Deering, Edith Fellows, Bruce Cabot, Rod Steiger, Gene Lockhart, Una O’Connor, Boris Karloff, Eva Gabor, Veronica Lake, Joanne Woodward, James Dean, Lon Chaney Jr, James Doohan, Paul Newman, et. al.  Produced by George F. Foley Jr, Mort Abrahams, Richard Gordon for George F. Foley, distributed by ABC. IMDb score: 7.4

Opening credits for Tales of Tomorrow.

Opening credits for Tales of Tomorrow.

I’ve been reviewing a lot of television lately: there was the first televised sci-fi series, Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949, review), the first anthology series featuring science fiction, Lights Out (1949, review), but now we get to the third one, and the last one I’ll be reviewing in a while: Tales of Tomorrow, which ran on ABC from 1951 to 1953. This has the distinction of being the first television anthology series to feature exclusively science fiction, foreshadowing legendary TV shows like The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and The Outer Limits (1963-1964). Continue reading

The Perfect Woman

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(4/10) Science fiction meets British bedroom farce in this 1949 comedy about a robotic woman and her real-life blueprint, who turn the life of a penniless playboy and his butler on end. This Charlie’s Aunt with robots tries to make a feminist comment on the male gaze, but it all gets confused within the casual sexism and the conventions of the romantic comedy. Probably one of the most costly sci-fi films of the forties, and the money shows, but unfortunately the pacing is off and the director isn’t able to break free from the original play’s static setup. Very well acted and occasionally quite funny.

The Perfect Woman (1949). Directed by Bernard Knowles. Written by George Black Jr, Bernard Knowles, Basil Boothroyd. Based on a play by Wallace Geoffrey and Jeannie Frances Mitchell. Starring: Patricia Roc, Stanley Holloway, Nigel Patrick, Miles Malleson, Pamela Devis. Produced by George Black Jr. and Alfred Black for Two Cities Films. IMDb score: 5.9

Nigel Patrick. Patricia Roc, Pamela Devis and Miles Malleson in The Perfect Woman.

Nigel Patrick. Patricia Roc, Pamela Devis and Miles Malleson in The Perfect Woman.

British filmmakers had more or less shunned science fiction since H.G. Wells’ Things to Come (1936, review), which wasn’t so much a flop as it was an extremely expensive undertaking that didn’t quite thrill movie-goers and critics as much as the studio had hoped for, ruining the studio that made it. But in the late forties science fiction again slowly raised its head. We got the crazy comedy Time Flies (review) in 1946, and 1949 gave us both the proto-James Bond movies about special agent Dick Barton and another comedy, The Perfect Woman. Continue reading

Captain Video and His Video Rangers

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(3/10) In a nutshell: The first science fiction TV show, the first TV show to feature a robot, spaceships, aliens and ray guns, the first TV show to be adapted for the big screen. This live broadcast kiddie show aired six days a week in the US for over five years between 1949 and 1955 and had a number of prolific sci-fi authors as screenwriters. It was hugely popular and created an avalanche of similar shows. It was also very shoddily made, extremely cheap, sometimes mind-bogglingly dumb, badly directed, awfully acted and had unrelated clips of old western films spliced into the action to pad out time, save cost and allow for set changes.

Captain Video and His Video Rangers. (1949-1955). Created by Lawrence Menkin and James Caddigan. Directed by Steve Previn et. al. Written by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Jack Vance, Damon Knight, James Blish, Isaac Asimov, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Stephen Marlowe, Wabrocklter M. Miller Jr, Robert Sheckley, J.T. McIntosh, Robert S. Richardson, et. al. Directed by Steve Previn, et al. Starring: Richard Coogan, Al Hodge, Don Hastings, Ben Lackland, Brain Mossen, Hal Conklin, Fred Scott, Ed Condit, Edward Holmes, Jack Orrison, Mary Vallee, Dave Ballard, Ernest Borgnine, Arnold Stang. Produced by Maurice C. Brachhausen, Olga Druce, et. al. for DuMont Television Networks. IMDb score: 7.2

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The opening shot of the early Captain Video episodes, showing the Video Ranger Headquarters.

You won’t see me reviewing many TV shows, since this blog focuses primarily on sci-fi films. But occasionally I will pick up one or two TV shows, as I have done with film serials, if they have an especially important role in the history of the sci-fi genre. Ultimately you can’t pretend to give any cohesive resumé on the history of sci-fi films unless you at least mention TV shows like The Twilight Zone, Star Trek and The X-Files. Now, granted, Captain Video and His Video Rangers aren’t perhaps quite all the way up there with those shows, but it is central to the history of sci-fi as the first science fiction TV show in the world. Continue reading

The superhero serials

The Spider’s Web: ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (5/10)
The Fighting Devil Dogs ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (3/10)
The Green Hornet: ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (4/10)
The Adventures of Captain Marvel ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (6/10)
Superman ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (8/10)
Batman ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (3/10)
Captain America ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ (4/10)

In a nutshell: To a varying degree of quality, the superhero serials of the late thirties and early forties laid the foundations of many sci-fi film tropes, although at the time borrowing heavily from urban crime dramas and western serials. 

The Spider’s Web. USA, 1938. Starring: Warren Hull. The Fighting Devil Dogs. USA, 1938. Starring: Lee Powell, Herman Brix. The Green Hornet. USA, 1940. Starring: Gordon Jones, Keye Luke. Superman. USA, 1941. Animated short films. The Adventures of Captain Marvel. USA, 1941. Starring: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr. Batman. USA, 1943. Starring: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J Carrol Naish. Captain America. USA, 1944. Starring: Dick Purcell, Lionel Atwill. Produced by Columbia, Universal and Republic.

Tom Tyler flying high as Captain Marvel/Shazam.

Tom Tyler flying high as Captain Marvel/Shazam.

As I have mentioned numerous times when reviewing film serials: I don’t review film serials. The problem is, that if you want to write any sort of comprehensive blog on the origins of science fiction tropes, you just can’t leave out certain serials. Especially during the thirties and forties much of what we take for granted in sci-fi today got their humble screen beginnings as serials. That’s why I’ll use this post and to least take a brief glance on a number of the serials that came out of the States in the late thirties and early years of the forties, including: The Spider’s Web (1938), The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938), The Green Hornet (1940), Superman (1941), The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941) and Batman (1943). What sets these apart from previous serials is that they all contain masked superheroes or supervillains. Unlike other posts, though, I won’t go into great detail regarding makers and actors. Continue reading

Undersea Kingdom

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(3/10) In a nutshell: Inspired by Flash Gordon and The Phantom Empire, the young Republic Studios launched their own sci-fi serial in 1936, and the result was an action-packed, but rather brainless concoction relying heavily on horse chases and pointless crowd battles. Occasional good design and an energetic Crash Corrigan, nice action scenes, or even some merited actors can’t save this awfully scripted and blandly acted Atlantis-themed hotchpotch.

Undersea Kingdom. 1936, USA. Serial. Directed by B. Reeves Eason & Joseph Kane. Written by John Rathmell, Maurice Geraghty, Oliver Drake, Tracy Knight. Starring: Ray ”Crash” Corrigan, Lois Wilde, Lee van Atta, C. Montague Shaw, Monte Blue, William Farnum, Smiley Burnette, Frankie Farnum, Lon Chaney Jr, Sinbad the parrot. Produced by Nat Levine for Republic. IMDb score: 4.7

Crash Corrigan fighting off two Black Robes in the Republic sci-fi serial Undersea Kingdom.

Crash Corrigan fighting off two Black Robes in the Republic sci-fi serial Undersea Kingdom.

I’ve stated numerous times that I normally don’t review serials. But I can’t seem to keep away, can I? Well, just to put my review of Flash Gordon (1936) in perspective, I’ve decided to write a few lines on Undersea Kingdom, released barely two months after Flash. The cheap ripoff showcases almost everything that Flash Gordon got right, by getting it all wrong. Nonetheless, for some peculiar reason, the serial seems to hold a very special place in the hearts of the friends of the Republic serials. Admittedly, it is not without its technical merits, and one does learn to enjoy the horrible acting the way one enjoys Plan 9 from Outer Space. Continue reading

Loss of Sensation

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(5/10) In a nutshell: A 1935 communist propaganda film with quite a few enjoyable quirks. Capitalists and communists fight over an army of robots that is controlled by saxophone. Based on a story by “The Jules Verne of Ukraine” and directed with a certain expressionist and avantgarde flair, the film is not without its merits, although the acting is stiff and amateurish and the script and dialogue leave room for improvement.

Loss of Sensation / Jim Ripple’s Robot (Gibel Sensatsii / Robot Dzhima Ripl). 1935, Soviet Union. Directed by Alexandr Andriyevskiy. Written by Georgiy Grebner. Based on the novella Idut Roborati! by Vladimir Vladko (uncredited). Starring: Sergei Vecheslov, Vladimir Gardin, M. Volgina, Anna Chekulayeva. Nikolai Rybnikov, Vasili Orlov. Produced for Mezhrabpomfilm. IMDb score: 6.5

Capitalist robots dancing to modern jazz on a drunken sax in the 1934 Soviet sci-fi propaganda Gibel Sensatsii.

Capitalist robots dancing to modern jazz on a drunken sax in the 1935 Soviet sci-fi propaganda Gibel Sensatsii.

Loss of Sensation apparently made a tour of the modern art circuit in 2012 as a part of a collection of Soviet films, which has led to some commentators euphorically labelling it as a forgotten Soviet alternative to Fritz Lang’s silent sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis (1927, review). Well, let’s start off by putting that one to rest: it is not. Not because Loss of Sensation would necessarily be a bad film, but because Metropolis was made by one of the greatest directors in the history of cinema, on a budget that was the biggest the world had ever seen at that point, and the film subsequently laid the groundwork for futurism, mad scientist films, dystopian films, created the android as we know it and even inspired architecture and interior design, and has frequently been placed among the three best sci-fi films in history. Loss of Sensation has not.

Good.

I’m glad we got that out of the way.

Now to the film. Continue reading