Posted in Books, Movie Reviews

Watch the Skies!

The-Thing-from-Another-World-logoHas 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.”)

Enemies Within
Enemies Within

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!”

Military Know-How
Military Know-How

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!”

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Posted in Movie Reviews, Music

That Hollywood Sound (Part I)

Before there was John Williams or Ennio Morricone or Danny Elfman, or for that matter, any of the other film composers working today, the movie studios had at their disposal an incredible pool of talent whose classic works remain a cut above the rest: Erich Korngold, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa, Dimitri Tiomkin—all European emigrés—along with the home-grown Bernard Herrmann, David Raksin and Alfred Newman (the leader of a musical dynasty whose brothers [Emil and Lionel], sons [David and Thomas] and nephew [Randy, of course] all composed for the movies).

Like the films they scored, the work these composers produced was considered somewhat ephemeral, merely an accompaniment to the stars whose faces adorned the screen. This seemed to be the general view until the early 1970’s when Charles Gerhardt, a music producer for RCA with a modest conducting background, began to record an extraordinary series of albums devoted to the compositions of these men and the actors whose films they wrote for. Initially released on LP, the albums reappeared on CD in the 1980’s, and last year were remastered and re-released. I’ve been listening to the most recent version, and I can’t believe the depth of sound. Quite an eye (ear?)-opener—I honestly don’t remember the music being this full or detailed even on vinyl.

Gerhardt’s reassembly of these scores involved some painstaking detective work, which is detailed in the program notes for the “Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores” album. Speaking of which, that album contains two important selections written by the composer whose work surprised me the most in this series—Dimitri Tiomkin, whose music until this point I had never really cared for. Despite his Russian origins, he wrote for a lot of Westerns, most prominently “High Noon” (“Do not forsake me/Oh my darlin’/On this our wedding day”), “The Alamo” and TV’s “Rawhide.” But Gerhardt’s Tiomkin album contains an extended suite from “Lost Horizon” which is pure genius, with the composer depicting Shangri-La and its people seemingly without meter, a sly pun, perhaps, on their eternal life. There’s also the love scene in the barn from “Friendly Persuasion,” which sounds almost Copland-esque, ultimately blooming into the familiar theme. Best of all, on “The Spectacular World of Classic Film Scores” you can hear a suite from “The Thing (From Another World),” one of the most unusual soundtracks ever written. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I must (sadly) tell you that Gerhardt opted to use an ondes Martenot and four countertenors in place of a theremin. The former instrument produces a rounder, more mellow sound than the wiry, put-your-teeth-on-edge theremin, but Tiomkin’s weird intervals, buzzing trumpets and trilling piccolos still bring “The Thing” to life in all its glory.

Gerhardt’s David Raksin album covers only three films, but two were instant classics (the third, “Forever Amber,” still hasn’t made it to DVD). Has there ever been a lovelier movie theme, before or since, than “Laura”? Gerhardt’s selection begins with the underscoring of the classic scene in which Detective McPherson, obsessed with Laura and her murder, falls asleep in her apartment, only to awaken to find her alive and standing over him. The suite from “The Bad and the Beautiful” makes you very aware that Raksin’s score is a virtual mini-symphony, with extensive and formal theme development.The same can be said for Miklos Rosza’s music for “The Red House,” though I enjoyed Gerhardt’s selections from “The Lost Weekend” and “Spellbound” far more—particularly the latter, which includes the music from the dream sequence that Gregory Peck’s character relates to Ingrid Bergman’s mentor. And while we’re on the subject of theremins, Rosza uses this instrument extensively in the scores of both films to depict Ray Milland’s DTs (the “bat and mouse” sequence has got to be one of the most revolting things ever put on film) and Gregory Peck’s zone-outs when he sees wavy lines. Gerhardt also includes some of Rosza’s outstanding work for the Kordas in England, the best of which is the sequence from “The Four Feathers” when Ralph Richardson loses his pith helmet and gets sunstroke.

Even though I’ll be discussing a number of other albums in the Gerhardt series in the weeks to come, I’m going to reveal my favorite now: the CD devoted to Franz Waxman’s music. The selections couldn’t be any better, featuring his back-to-back Oscar-winning scores for “Sunset Boulevard” and “A Place in the Sun,” the sparkling theme from “The Philadelphia Story” and the mysterious “Rebecca.” Talk about an embarrassment of riches. The overall impression, though, is one of the composer’s thoughtfulness in what he’s writing about—that brooding alto saxophone and later the lush strings that mark the love theme of “A Place in the Sun,” the ghostly Paramount theme during the scene on the back lot and the pseudo-Oriental accompaniment to Norma Desmond’s madness at the end of “Sunset Boulevard.” But best of all is the music that brings “The Bride of Frankenstein” to life, complete with that riot of a solo for ondes Martentot:

Next week: Korngold, Herrmann and Steiner!