Remember how, at the end of the first article in this series, Science Fiction Cinema: The 1950s: Ten Good Ones, I wrote that it would all be downhill from there? Don't worry—we haven't hit bottom yet. In fact, there is a still a ways to go before we get to—well, I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, now, would I?

But we are talking science-fiction flicks from the 1950s, which from our vantage point of more than a half-century later can be regarded with a fair degree of amusement (and sometimes bemusement). The most obvious differences between sci-fi flicks of the 1950s and those of today are in special effects. We are spoiled by what we see today, certainly compared to what was seen sixty or more years ago.

During that time, special effects have undergone quantum changes. In 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey set a standard that held until 1977 and the first Star Wars installment. As computer-generated imagery (CGI) grew exponentially in the 1980s with the concurrent advancements in computer hardware and software, effects became more elaborate—and more convincing. True, what had been considered state-of-the-art at any given time (think: 1982's Tron) could look stale or dated only a few years later—but hasn't that always been the case with films?—although by the time of The Matrix in 1999 spectacular special effects were simply a given.

All of which renders science-fiction films of yesteryear, in our case the 1950s, looking very . . . quaint. And, often enough, cheesy. Which for me is all part of their charm. But for me also, what makes any movie, in any genre, made at any time, compelling enough to follow is its story and characters. Those two elements will make any movie timeless, including our subjects here. That goes for movies of any genre, of course, and that is the challenge that any movie faces. But because science fiction relies so heavily on effects of some sort, any narrative deficiencies, whether with the story or the characters, can seem magnified. If the effects are cheesy, they will make a shaky story or cardboard characters even more so while, conversely, bad special effects can overshadow otherwise sturdy plotting and characters.

Make no mistake: None of the movies here are great, and to be frank, a couple of the movies from our first list were a little sketchy: Both Forbidden Planet and The Fly, from that first list, contained ideas that were stronger in concept than in execution, but those ideas were innovative enough to transcend their narrative deficiencies.

No, the ten movies below are as the title of this article puts it—pretty good. Some might seem derivative, while others might have special effects that do not match the story or performances, but all ten are, I believe, worthy science-fiction films of above-average value that will satisfy fans and won't disappoint the merely curious. Presented in chronological order—and with no spoilers!

Destination Moon (1950)

Destination Moon

"Two years in the making!" trumpets the posters, and this George Pal extravaganza is filmed in glorious Technicolor. Recall how we saw 1950s sci-fi as a reflection of Cold War fears and tensions? A decade before President John Kennedy spurred American efforts to reach the moon, Destination Moon had already urged this endeavor as a necessary expedient of the Cold War. Robert Heinlein, who co-wrote the screenplay with James O'Hanlon and Rip Van Ronkel, based partly on Heinlein's novel Rocket Ship Galileo, salts the story with paeans to American industry, brickbats for government officiousness, and mild alarmism about ceding the high ground of space before Destination Moon settles into a fairly engrossing examination of the nuts-and-bolts issues involved in sending astronauts to the moon.

After watching their conventional rocket fail, scientist Charles Cargraves (Warner Anderson) and space crusader General Thayer (Tom Powers) enlist aviation entrepreneur Jim Barnes (John Archer) to help build an atomic-powered rocket that can reach the moon, convincing other industrialists to contribute using—get this—a Woody Woodpecker cartoon to explain the concept. No joke: Woody Woodpecker illustrator Walter Lantz was a pal of producer George Pal. Spurred by patriotism, they agree, but when bureaucrats try to prohibit the project, Barnes, Cargraves, and Thayer decide to elope with the ship, bringing technician Joe Sweeney (Dick Wesson) with them.

Lee Zavitz's Oscar-winning special effects enhance the hammer-and-tongs efforts of the astronauts to reach the moon—and, having used up too much fuel landing, their desperate attempts to return to Earth, underscored by Leith Stevens's subtly urgent score. Despite its impressive technical aspects, Destination Moon fails to convey the wonder and grandeur of space exploration. That is partly due to the telegrammatic script and to the equally taciturn performances—only Wesson, as the skeptical, wisecracking Everyman, stands out—although the assured direction by veteran Irving Pichel makes full use of the film's efficient running time. (Ironically, Pichel had been among the first Hollywood figures to be blacklisted as a suspected communist, or at least fellow traveler—hardly to be expected in a film that emphasizes the space race to the Moon with the Soviet Union.) Destination Moon salutes the engineer, not the poet, in this not-so-giant leap for mankind.

The Man from Planet X (1951)

The Man from Planet X

Just how celebrated would director Edgar G. Ulmer have been had he actually had a budget to work with on his films? Instead, Ulmer's legacy is as a wizard of "Poverty Row" who managed to work minor miracles—check out his terrific 1945 film noir Detour, which made near-greatness out of nothing. In The Man from Planet X, filmed in black and white, Ulmer came pretty close again—no small feat as he had to accomplish it in a science-fiction thriller about an impending invasion of Earth.

Ulmer did have some help from his actors, who included Robert Clarke, Margaret Field (Sally Field's mother), and William Schallert, and while the story by co-writers and -producers Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg became shopworn through repetition, Planet X was among the first to dramatize this familiar story.

Tipped to the mysterious appearance of a planet soon to pass close to the Earth, California reporter John Lawrence (Clarke) travels to remote Scotland and the observatory of Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond), his daughter Enid (Field), and Elliot's assistant Dr. Mears (Schallert). On the moors, Enid discovers a spaceship and comes face to face with its diminutive occupant (Pat Goldin), and when she brings Lawrence to see it, Mears secretly trails them in shots nicely framed by Ulmer. The alien experiences some distress, which the Earthlings try to help him with, although Mears clearly has a malicious intent, and when the alien disappears, so does Enid—and Lawrence soon learns of greater peril.

Seldom have fog machines, stock footage, scale models, and recycled sets been blended so effectively, with Goldin's mask and costume giving him a creepy otherworldly appearance, while Charles Koff's score carries substantial dramatic weight. Clarke is sufficiently lantern-jawed as the hero, with Schallert a credible villain. Edgar Ulmer gets The Man from Planet X close to being out of this world.

Red Planet Mars (1952)

Red Planet Mars

In our first installment we saw how science-fiction films of the 1950s explored a variety of fears such as the fear of communism—godless communism to be exact. Well, the hand of this Cold War propaganda tract could not be heavier as Red Planet Mars uses science fiction as a cudgel to bludgeon viewers with Western superiority over the godless communism behind the Iron Curtain.

In fact, this political screed was written by John Balderston and co-producer Anthony Veiller, and it was based on the play Red Planet Balderston had co-written with John Hoare. Balderston had been a member of the Committee on Public Information (also known as the Creel Committee), the propaganda body formed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1917 to muster enthusiasm for America's entry into the First World War.

Despite the polemics pounded home throughout and the ginned-up ending, Red Planet Mars is smartly acted and executed by director Harry Horner, enough to sustain interest as a historical curio. Two attempts to contact Mars establish right away the dichotomy: Suburban couple Chris (Peter Graves) and Linda Cronyn (Andrea King) run a cozy mom-and-pop transmitting station near San Diego while former Nazi scientist Franz Calder (Herbert Berghof), now working for the Soviet Union, huddles in a transmitting hovel high in the icy Andes; the Cronyns enjoy middle-class affluence with their two boys while Calder is threatened by his communist handlers. This is in case you have any doubts about the generous superiority of the beneficent West or the bankrupt wickedness of the repressive East.

The science fiction pretense arises when the Cronyns begin to receive messages from Mars that astonish the world before causing global sociological and economic panics—the messages from the Red Planet are apparently so compelling that the Earth's population is helpless to resist acting on them. Furthermore, the increasingly Biblical nature of the short but pointed Martian messages also sparks a religious war behind the Iron Curtain.

Plausibility is highly suspect at this point, but Red Planet Mars proceeds with self-righteous confidence as Calder delivers a startling revelation in a finale that tries to paint a more credible—and terrestrial—explanation before going blooey. Graves and King sell the domestic angle while Berghof and Marvin Miller, as Calder's handler Arjenian, play to stereotype. Nominally sci-fi, Red Planet Mars boldly oversells its message, which is as black and white as its photography. However, this isn't only a must for science-fiction fans—it's de rigueur for Cold War historians as well.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

The Beast From 20000 Fathoms

A groundbreaking film in two respects, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was the first science-fiction movie to feature a creature awoken by a nuclear test—predating Gojira (Godzilla)—and the first to showcase Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion animation and filming techniques. Those two qualities remain the highlights of a tale, based on a Ray Bradbury short story, that sports a sturdy schematic, courtesy of credited screenwriters Lou Morheim and Fred Freiburger, with little filigree or flair.

An atomic test in the Arctic stirs a prehistoric (fictional) Rhedosaurus from its million-year slumber, but only scientist Tom Nesbitt (Paul Christian) witnessed it. He is dismissed as a kook, particularly by eminent paleontologist Thurgood Elson (Cecil Kellaway), until reports surface of fishing boats off the Grand Banks being attacked by a "sea monster." Elson's assistant, Lee Hunter (Paula Raymond), begins to believe Nesbitt as she begins to fall for him, and when one of the fishing-boat survivors corroborates Nesbitt's account, Elson signs aboard too, convincing skeptical military man Jack Evans (Kenneth Tobey) along the way. However, by then the Beast has landed in New York City and prepares to destroy Gotham unless the humans can find a way to arrest its carnage.

Harryhausen's animation techniques might look quaint in the CGI era but for their time they managed to blend plausible models into the live-action shot while establishing a distinctive appearance. Director Eugène Lourié keeps the story moving with a minimum of flab. As the lead, Christian is workmanlike even if his Swiss accent (his real surname was Hubschmid) distracts from his ostensible all-American-ness, while he and Raymond try to strike sparks. Kellaway lends delightful character as Tobey recalls his role in The Thing from Another World; the opening Arctic shots suggest that as well. The concept and techniques trump the standard narrative here. Filmed in black and white, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is an essential sci-fi film from the nuclear-mutations wing of the genre.

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Last modified on Thursday, 22 March 2018 01:52

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