Has a decade of film provided as much fodder for doctoral theses as the 1950’s? So much covert and overt political activity, what with Red-baiting, McCarthyism, the House Committee on Un-American Activities and blacklisted screenwriters sidelined. And all of this spilled over into science fiction films, those black-and-white classics that remain so much fun to watch even now.
Enter my all-time favorite in the genre, 1951’s “The Thing (From Another World).”
There are so many urban legends about this movie, from who really directed it (Howard Hawks or Christian Nyby?) to whether the film was cut to remove a scene showing exactly what the Thing did to those scientists in the greenhouse (depends on who you talk to). But let’s start with the basics. The source material of “The Thing” is the classic 1938 sci-fi novella, “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr., under the pen name Don A. Stuart. However, the movie version is a major departure from the original, which like “Alien” many years later, is really an elegant horror story (1982’s “The Thing” directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell, is far closer to the novella’s plot).
The 1951 version is one-half classic 50’s paranoia and one-half “Wisecrackers at the North Pole.” The action takes place at an Arctic outpost manned by a group of scientists, headed by Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite) who marches to his own drummer and who sports what would in a few years be labelled a beatnik’s goatee. Naturally he butts heads with Air Force Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) and his men, who’ve been dispatched to help investigate a UFO that crashed into nearby ice. Along for the ride is Scotty (Douglas Spencer), a journalist apparently embedded with the military (he follows the Air Force guys everywhere), and, in true Howard Hawks fashion, a sophisticated brunette (Margaret Sheridan) serving as Carrington’s secretary who has a thing for Hendry (and vice versa).
The fun really starts when the alien creature (James Arness—yes, Marshall Dillon himself), frozen in a block of ice, is brought into the scientists’ compound. It’s impossible to watch any of the 50’s sci-fi films and not believe “alien” is code for Communist. In movie after movie they infiltrate, they change shape, they take over your mind! They can be anybody! And as Peter Biskind, in his excellent critique of 50’s film, “Seeing is Believing,” states, audiences of that era were equally taught to beware the fellow traveller, i.e., a person like Dr. Carrington who wants to make nice with the invader. Biskind hilariously calls Carrington a “Thing-symp[athizer]” and points out his Russian-style fur hat and coat (In appearance he does bear a startling resemblance to the way Rod Steiger would look and dress a decade later in “Dr. Zhivago.”)
The Thing, though a mass of vegetable matter, thrives on blood, both canine and human. So after sucking a couple of sled dogs dry, he goes after the scientists, two of whom are later found in the greenhouse “hanging upside down, like in a slaughterhouse,” per Captain Hendry. But Dr. Carrington, not to be deterred, starts cultivating Baby Things from the monster’s seed pods and nourishes them with plasma. His actions creep out even his fellow scientists, but before they can do anything about it the Thing returns, ultimately to be electrocuted by the intrepid (conservative) men of the Air Force. But you can never rest easy—as Scotty warns in the radio broadcast that ends the film, we have to “keep watching the skies!”
While you can knock yourself out with the symbolism and the Red-baiting angle, there’s so much more to enjoy in “The Thing.” First, the script by Charles Lederer, screenwriter of “His Girl Friday,” with its overlapping dialogue, never stops. Whether the banter is between Captain Hendry and would-be squeeze Nikki, or Scotty and just about everybody, it’s classic Hollywood. The score, by Dimitri Tiomkin, is one of the best of its era, and makes you wonder what he and his contemporaries would have done if the theremin had never been invented. And the actors really look like the characters they play—no glamor. If you’re a Groucho Marx fan, you’ll recognize George Fenneman, his “You Bet Your Life” announcer, as the varsity sweater-wearing scientist, and if you’ve got a good ear, you’ll realize that Paul Frees, another scientist, was later the voice of Boris Badenov and Inspector Fenwick of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” fame, among many other cartoon characters, including Ludwig von Drake. Both Eduard Franz and Robert Cornthwaite would go on to long careers as character actors, and Kenneth Tobey, who appeared in so many black-and-white films, would startle audiences with his red hair when he finally showed up in color.
“The Thing” is on DVD , though in a somewhat bare-bones version, with no commentary or extras beyond the theatrical trailer. I’d love to see a reissue with all the bells and whistles that can be mustered, including the final word on who directed it (the majority of those in the know say Hawks, the titular producer) and that missing scene (two people who saw “The Thing” in its first release insisted to me it was included). In the meantime, we’ll just have to “watch the skies!”