In retrospect, the most important film I saw in 1955 was Blackboard Jungle, written and directed by Richard Brooks, adapted from a novel by Evan Hunter. Hunter later wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Under the name Ed McBain he wrote the popular 87th Precinct crime novels. As Richard Marsten he wrote Danger: Dinosaurs!, published in 1953 in the John C. Winston series of science-fiction books for young readers, which I burned through in our school library in ’55 or ’56. It was my favorite book from the series. Several years ago I purchased a copy from a used-book seller at 62 times the original purchase price, but it was worth it.
Blackboard Jungle stars Glenn Ford as a new teacher in an all-boys vocational high school in New York City. The cast includes Anne Francis as Ford’s wife, with Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow, Paul Mazursky, and Jamie Farr as students. This was Poitier’s fifth feature film, Morrow and Farr’s first. Vic Morrow went on to appear in the television series Combat!. He was killed in 1982 at age 53 in a controversial helicopter accident while filming a scene for Twilight Zone: The Movie. Jamie Farr became well-known as the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger in the TV series M*A*S*H. Paul Mazursky became an excellent director and screenwriter, with features such as Harry and Tonto (1974); Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976); An Unmarried Woman (1978).
In the following scene, Richard Kiley plays a teacher whose prized collection of jazz records is destroyed by students led by Vic Morrow. Given the condescending way he speaks to them, one can almost understand why.
While Blackboard Jungle is a powerful look at juvenile delinquency in the classroom in the 1950s, its true significance for me then, as it is now, was its controversial use of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets under the opening credits. This was reportedly the first rock song ever used in a Hollywood feature. It made a lot of people — adults, not young people — very nervous and caused quite a stir. Rock ‘n’ roll, for many, was the devil’s music, promoting sex and — God forbid — race-mixing. Combining “Rock Around the Clock” with a movie about violent juvenile delinquents in an inner-city high school was too much to handle. Many communities tried to ban the film for fear it would incite delinquency. At the urging of Clare Booth Luce, then Ambassador to Italy, Blackboard Jungle was withdrawn as the U.S. entry to that year’s Venice Film Festival.
I didn’t know any of this at the time. To me it was a powerful story kicked off by an incredible song I could relate to. Try to imagine hearing this in a movie theater for the first time in 1955. This was something new. It felt like a seismic shift, and it was. I knew something had changed.
(Bosley Crowther’s review of Blackboard Jungle in the New York Times doesn’t even mention “Rock Around the Clock.” It’s like he wasn’t geared to hear it.) _________________________________________________________
My mom’s mother and step-father lived in Saginaw, Michigan. We would visit every year or so, an 800-mile trip by train or car. When we were there in the summer of ’55, I saw in the newspaper that This Island Earth was about to open in a theater downtown. I knew about this film and was desperate to see it. I knew it wouldn’t get to our local theater for several months, so the thought of seeing it here had me very wound up. The only problem was that the film was opening the night before we were due to head back to Iowa. My parents said I couldn’t possibly see a movie the last night we’d be there. This seemed totally unfair to me; they didn’t understand how important this was. This Island Earth was in color and everything, and promised to be fantastic. Then my grandmother took me aside and calmly talked me down. I resigned myself to my fate and knew I’d eventually see the movie back home at the Vista Theater, but this was a cruel disappointment. I mean, just look at this ad:
So I finally saw it and was thrilled. My disappointment in Michigan was forgotten (well, obviously not entirely). In the movie, scientists are being recruited by aliens with bulging foreheads to help prevent the pending destruction of their home planet, Metaluna. The first three-quarters of the film is terrific. This Island Earth takes its time setting things up. It has mystery and alien presence. But once scientists Rex Reason and Faith Domergue are taken aboard a spacecraft bound for Metaluna, events become very rushed. Worse still, the special effects at this juncture are very tacky. The Metalunan mutant that appears on the ship is pretty cool, though, as can be seen below in an illustration by Basil Gogos, who did many great covers for the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Okay, the mutant is a big humanoid bug wearing pants, with pincers for hands and an exposed, bulging brain. I can’t remember if its function was ever explained.
I think it was on this same trip to Michigan that I bought a copy of Dracula in the Modern Library edition seen here. This was a serious artifact for me to acquire. I avidly read the first section, Jonathan Harker’s diary. But I found the rest of it difficult and tedious, comprised as it was of various journal entries and seemingly inconsequential newspaper clippings. I re-read Harker’s diary several times, but it was years before I was able to read and appreciate the entire book. I have never been able to get through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, however. Maybe someday.
I wrote at the end of Part 1 that I basically liked every movie I saw when I was a kid. I think I already knew, though, that some films were better than others. But it wasn’t until I saw Chief Crazy Horse that something really bothered me. As was the norm at this time, the major Native American roles were portrayed by white actors, so Victor Mature played the Sioux Indian warrior, Crazy Horse. Okay, no problem, but the entire film builds up to Custer’s last stand at the Little Big Horn, and when it finally gets there, the camera tilts up to the sky. We just look at the clouds while we hear the fighting on the soundtrack. To me, this was a huge cheat. Some might see it as a bold choice, but I suspect the filmmakers simply didn’t have the money to actually shoot the battle itself. I don’t know if this is when I became critically aware, but it was a start.
Deserts in the Southwest were frequent settings for science-fiction films of the 1950s, such as Them! and It Came from Outer Space. Tarantula is no exception. The result of experiments involving a radioactive super-nutrient (of course), a spider the size of a golden retriever gets loose from the research lab and terrorizes the desert countryside as it continues to grow. Oddly enough, a gigantic tarantula stomping houses and killing cattle is the least interesting thing in the film. Three scientists, led by Leo G. Carroll, have been infected by the super-nutrient, resulting in advanced stages of acromegaly and finally death in a matter of days. This is probably more compelling and frightening because it’s more human than a 100-foot tall spider. Tarantula was directed by Jack Arnold, who made a number of effective science-fiction films in the 50s, including It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), and my favorite, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Working in television, he went on to direct episodes of Peter Gunn, Dr. Kildare, Rawhide, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, and Love Boat. An interesting career.
Tarantula was also the second film appearance of Clint Eastwood, then a contract player at the studio, Universal-International. In the scene below, he plays a jet pilot leading the attack on the spider as it advances on a town. Clint wears a helmet and oxygen mask, but he’s still easily recognizable.
The first incarnation of Walt Disney’s Disneyland was from 1954 to 1958, and that’s when I was watching it. I couldn’t miss an episode. Davy Crockett hit the scene in ’55, and I was as obsessed as any other kid. I loved the three-episode series, especially the last one, Davy Crockett at the Alamo. All three were edited into a single feature released later in the year, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Disney exploited the merchandising of the Crockett craze to the limit. I didn’t have a coonskin cap (too old for that), but did get the comic books.
Here are some of the other films I saw that year.
Violent Saturday is a film that has stayed with me. I saw it again a few years ago and it holds up well. It’s a good example of a narrative with multiple characters and plot lines that converge at the end. There have been many films with this type of structure since. Violent Saturday is set in a small mining town in Arizona where a group of men have come to rob the local bank. Victor Mature made a lot of sword and sandal films such as Samson and Delilah, The Robe, and Demetrius and the Gladiators. He could chew the scenery with the best of them, but when he was well cast, as he was here and in Kiss of Death (1947), he could be quite good. He plays an executive in the mining company who stands up to the criminals at the end. Violent Saturday was directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer, who made good films in a variety of genres, including Armored Car Robbery (1950), The Narrow Margin (1952), Barrabas (1961), The Boston Strangler (1968), and Soylent Green (1973).
Fewer films in 1956 made a lasting impression on me than in some of the previous years, but Attack! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers definitely did. They’re as good today as they were then. Attack!, directed by Robert Aldrich, is a brutal war film that has lost none of its corrosive power. It concerns a company of army soldiers fighting in Belgium in 1944. Jack Palance is Lt. Joe Costa, a platoon leader; Eddie Albert is Capt. Erskine Cooney, the incompetent and cowardly company commander; Lee Marvin is Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett, the battalion commander. Costa hates Cooney, whose incompetence has already caused the deaths of several men. When the Battle of the Bulge begins, Cooney’s company is ordered to take the village of La Nelle. Afraid, Cooney opts to first send Costa to lead a reconnaissance patrol into the town. Things go badly and Costa is determined to make Cooney pay. Made on a low budget without Defense Department cooperation, Attack! is blunt and bitter. I was knocked out by it as a 12-year-old, and still am.
Even those who haven’t seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers are probably familiar with the term “pod people.” It’s become part of our language. The film, directed by Don Siegel, has a potent concept. Aliens progressively take over the human population of a small California town, replacing people with exact duplicates grown in large seed pods. You become convinced that your wife or husband or friend is not that person, even though they look and sound exactly like that person. Kevin McCarthy, in a career-defining role, plays the doctor who first dismisses those who come to him with their fears, but slowly becomes convinced with a horrible certainty that it is true. Siegel wanted to end the film with Kevin McCarthy shouting “You’re next! You’re next!” into the camera, but the studio imposed a more positive, upbeat ending. Despite that, it’s McCarthy’s desperate warning that stays with you. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been remade several times, though the 1978 version directed by Philip Kaufman is the only decent one. I’ve seen the original many times. It always works for me. Jack Finney’s novel is also excellent. I still have the Dell paperback copy seen above. It’s a great film, well made and well acted by all, and much more subtle than the following trailer would have you believe.
Here are other films I saw in 1956.
The electronic music under the main titles of Forbidden Planet is appropriately other-worldly.
And for those living in New York City, the original Robby the Robot from the film will be auctioned off next Tuesday, November 21 as part of a TCM “Out of This World” auction at Bonhams on Madison Avenue. Previews are this Friday through next Tuesday morning.
Even though I wouldn’t have seen it at the time, the French poster below is too good not to include.
These two films were directed by the same man, Fred F. Sears, but they couldn’t be more different. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers has excellent stop-motion work by the justly-revered Ray Harryhausen, and it’s always fun seeing landmarks in Washington D.C. being destroyed, but otherwise it’s not very good. I think I knew that even then. The Werewolf has the distinction of scaring me so much I had to leave the theater before it was over. It might be that there was something a little too real about it. Werewolves are traditionally supernatural creatures governed by specific genre rules (full moon, wolfsbane, “Even a man who is pure in heart…”, yadda yadda) but this was wasn’t that at all. In it, a stranger from a car accident is injected with an experimental drug containing irradiated wolf’s blood by two scientists trying to find a cure for radiation poisoning. This has the result of transforming this poor guy into a werewolf. Of course it does. Not much real about that, I know. So what was it? The film is set in a small town near the mountains somewhere in the Northwest during the winter. There’s a scene that takes place in the alley outside a seedy bar where the protagonist in werewolf form, though we don’t see him, is attacking a man. All we see are their legs and feet thrashing about, and sounds of struggle, groaning, growling. I found this really upsetting. Maybe it was too easy for me to imagine that anybody could be attacked like this, though probably not by a werewolf. I think the film, up to the point where I left, was too close to the everyday. And with one exception, I didn’t know anyone in this film. It was like they weren’t actors. Whatever was going on with me, I left shortly after this scene. I finally saw The Werewolf on television a couple of years ago. It’s no masterpiece, but there’s still something uncomfortable about it.
Like everyone else in this country, I first saw Godzilla in the Americanized version with Raymond Burr edited into the storyline. It was years before I saw the original Japanese film, Gojira, released in 1954. For the American market, all references to atom bomb testing being responsible for the creation of Godzilla were removed. When the Japanese made Gojira, less than ten years had passed since the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The firebombing of Tokyo was still a recent memory. The original film is dark and disturbing. But yes, it has a giant dinosaur destroying entire cities, so that’s the same.
And of course I saw The Ten Commandments. I’m sure I was suitably impressed. This is a film that renders criticism almost moot. It’s been shown on television every Easter since forever. I think you just have to surrender to it in all its cheesy, overblown, overacted glory. Whatever else, Yul Brynner is great as Rameses. I always remember his delivery of the line, “His God is God.”
Time to lower the curtain on this. These were my formative movie-going years. Early on I developed a love of science-fiction and horror, films of the fantastic. I also saw Westerns, war films, period epics, knights-in-armor, you name it. None of these films took place on an Iowa farm. I didn’t see a foreign film until I started college in 1962. That’s just the way it was. I think I’m still that kid in a lot of ways, waiting in expectation as the theater lights go down and the screen lights up.
This series is dedicated to my mom, who took me to the movies and started me on this path, and to the Vista Theater in Storm Lake, Iowa, where most of this happened. – Ted Hicks