"Had we not pursued the Hydrogen Bomb, there is a very real threat that we would now all be speaking Russian. I have no regrets."--Edward Teller, physicist
The 1950s was an intriguing era in movies and popular culture. The films produced during this time were rife with imagination and creativity, whether their budgets demanded it, or not. The influx of technological advances contributed to the preoccupation with certain genre plot devices that were a sign of the times in post war America, but also seen abroad, as well. With the discovery of DNA, the first hard disc drive, the launching of Sputnik-1 and the founding of NASA all during the 1950s, the Space Age was just around the corner. However, not all discoveries during the 1950s would equate to advancement, but total extinction. A number of international red flags and "Red Scares" raised global fears of the possibility of yet another World War. The cinema of this decade--like the scientists who toiled on weapons of increasingly and incredibly destructive power--was the cinematic progeny of the Atomic Age.
"The human race cannot coexist with nuclear weapons."--Iccho Itoh, Mayor Nagasaki
With the Cold War heating up between the US and the Soviet Union, the United States entered the atomic age in 1950 as President Truman approved the Hydrogen Bomb program after Russia showed they had no intentions of enabling the United Nations to hold a monopoly on nuclear power any longer. Both sides were watching each other closely and in the Kremlin's case, too closely; by using espionage, the Soviets were able to build their own bomb rather quickly adding fuel to an already rapidly rising flame between Russia and America. After Russia's first atomic test in 1949, Truman announced the pursuit in the creation of the "Super Bomb", the Hydrogen Bomb. A truly frightening weapon, the A Bombs more destructive successor is more than 25,000 times more powerful than the previous 'Fat Man' and 'Little Boy' that was dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Essentially unleashing the power of the sun if detonated, an H Bomb would make life uninhabitable for a good number of years.
"Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you."--Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party
If all this wasn't enough to heighten global awareness, the Korean War also began in 1950, becoming the first military conflict of the Cold War, which only heightened the growing tension of the arms race leading to a feared, and quite possible confrontation with the U.S.S.R.. Resulting from the Allied victory after WW2, Japan's rule of Korea was over and the state was divided into Northern and Southern territories. Overseen and occupied by US and Soviet forces, both sides backed different political figure heads leading to a split in the Korean nation as well as tensions that extend to this day. This incident also begat the paranoia surrounding the threat of communism infiltrating America during this decade. After two devastating World War's and America's involvement in this smaller scale, but nonetheless deadly conflict, Americans were exhausted having survived the Great Depression and also having reinvigorated the stagnant economy while soldiers gave their lives for freedom during WW2. Both television and theater screens would quickly be invaded by all manner of friendly, but mostly unfriendly visitors from other worlds and also creatures born from man's own ignorance in tampering with mother nature.
"Watch the skies! Keep Looking. Keep watching the skies!"--Ned "Scotty" Scott in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD
The 1950s was a decade dominated by science fiction tales that featured invasions from outer space by aliens of various sizes and appearances. The agendas of said intergalactic interlopers varied as well. One of the most famous examples of 50s mass hysteria and possible Armageddon came in the form of the significant and still powerful Sci Fi classic, WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). Based on a novel by H.G. Wells, the book also provided a visceral experience for radio listeners back in the late 1930s in a bit of ingenious, if cruel examples of "reality radio" wherein Orson Welles caused alleged widespread panic by insinuating an actual alien invasion was taking place. This incident foreshadowed nationwide sentiment of the 50s in relation to the possibility of another war as well as the invasion of communism from outside forces that "looked just like us". WAR OF THE WORLDS was a big and loud effects extravaganza that still maintains much of its power. Like some other science fiction epics of the early 50s, WAR OF THE WORLDS also implements a religious plot device into its narrative.
"It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."--Klaatu in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL
While these alien beings from another galaxy were predominantly hostile forces, some were benevolent beings, but possessed power far greater than man could possibly imagine. The most famous example being THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL from 1951. Just as potent in this day and age as it was during its original release, the film was a metaphor for world peace and is seen by many to contain a deep theological subtext. In addition to the message of peace brought forth by the alien named Klaatu, he also brings with him a message of unremitting annihilation should the Earth not cease its hostilities and construction of weapons of mass destruction.
Other films with political underlying themes include George Pal's big budget masterpiece, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE also from 1951. Like Wise's THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, Pal's picture also had glaringly obvious religious allegory at its heart. While it was purely escapist entertainment, the threat of world wide destruction and civilization's desire to survive at any cost was a reflection of the global genocide facing cultures around the world.
While Pal's movie showed mankind as anything but coming together during a time of crisis, the threat of planetary extermination reached the shores of Japan in several classic examples beginning in the mid 50s and carrying on to the early 1960s. The major difference in Japan's depiction of a 'world coming to an end' is that in all their interpretations, mankind is shown to work together for survival whereas their American counterparts featured man stripped of his normalcy in a bid to survive in a world gone wild. While some of these Japanese fantasies were serious films (1962's GORATH, a film that bore similarities to Pal's WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE), others were deadly serious (1961's THE LAST WAR) and others were just grand science fiction (1957's THE MYSTERIANS and 1959's BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE).
"Of thousands of others, nearer the centre of the explosion, there was no trace. They vanished. The theory in Hiroshima is that the atomic heat was so great that they burned instantly to ashes - except that there were no ashes."--Wilfred Burchett, journalist
The Japanese, more than anyone else, can relate to the horrors of war and the potential and calamitous results of widespread conflagration between world powers. One such film, and one of the most powerfully potent cinematic forms of political subtext is Japan's personable project from Toho Studios, the 400 foot representation of atomic devastation, 1954's GODZILLA. While both English and Japanese versions hammered home the 'giant monster as atomic bomb' analogy, the original Japanese release contained numerous additional scenes that radiated a sensitivity the US dubbed release with Raymond Burr lacked. If ever there was a culture who truly fathomed the harsh realities of atomic power and its biocidal fallout, it's the Japanese.
Back in America, the burgeoning advancements in science, technology and the modern weapons of war gave birth to a slew of threats that were (predominantly) man-made, but just as deadly as any outer space adversary. Not only were these movies fantastical and grossly exaggerated interpretations of the horrors of atomic irresponsibility, underneath all the text book escapism were notions that there are some things better left unknown. 1953 saw scientists learn of the existence of DNA and the hard disc drive is created by IBM the same year. 1953 also saw the emergence of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS. Freed from its icy tomb in the Arctic by an atomic test, this scaly and imaginary creature called a Rhedosaurus swims across the Atlantic eventually rampaging through the streets of New York City before a gigantic poisonous isotope (fired by Lee Van Cleef!) puts an end to the monsters destruction. As with dozens of giant monster movies of this time period, atomic testing is more often than not the cause while the varied and myriad monsters were the effect.
The effects seen in BEAST were the work of famed and celebrated animator, Ray Harryhausen. Up to 1958, Harryhausen would design other B/W beasties for a few other films including the giant octopus (atomic testing again) of IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), the martian invasion of EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) and the reptilian Venusian of 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957). Martian movies of the 50s were prominent, but in 1954, the metaphor of the atom bomb reached an all new level with the release of THEM!, a film about gigantic ants that leave a string of corpses and destruction in their wake before being subdued beneath the streets of Los Angeles.
THEM! was a huge success and one of the best, most suspenseful films of its type. It also is the first of the 'Big Bug' movies of the 1950s and responsible for the onslaught of other outsized insect flicks whose cinematic invasions marched on theater and drive in screens across America for a good three years before their appeal ran out of steam by the close of the decade. The sub-genre re-emerged in a giant bug-killer critter Renaissance in the 1970s, which was again recycled in the late 1990s and into the 2000s with results far less memorable and fun than the much earlier examples.
The big bug movies were especially important to the template of the atomic age in movies. Whereas the weapons of war and their destructive properties were man-made, the gigantic Earth born creatures seen in the films were the result of mans folly in tampering with nature and exploring dangerous territory better left untouched. Science is often viewed as an inadvertent evil with nature's mistakes sometimes being born out of the pursuit of good rather than the creation and eventual testing of a device prone to destroy as opposed to create. The pattern for these 50s films followed the same style from one picture to the next with little in the way of variance, although plot contrivances would be swapped occasionally. You'd have one, or more scientists, a tough, square jawed hero and a female co-star who frequently needs saving. In nearly every film the hero and the heroine end up in each others arms by the time 'The End' appears, emblazoned in front of the now dead monstrosity. There was also a string of "shrinking movies" with the likes of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957) and ATTACK OF THE PUPPET PEOPLE (1958) among them.
"Humanity has the stars in its future, and that future is too important to be lost under the burden of juvenile folly and ignorant superstition."--Isaac Asimov, author
During this decade, juvenile delinquency was terribly problematic. After WW2, America emerged from all the chaos of the Great Depression and two World Wars with a now vibrant economy. The Nuclear Family of the 50s could now impart to their children what their parents were unable to do in past decades. More or less left to their own devices, 50s teenagers became far more liberated even rebelling against parental authority. Music (such as the influx of rock and roll led by the King, Elvis Presley), movies and comic books (of all things) were blamed for the increase in crime and disregard for the law, the bulk of which was being committed by youths under the age of 18. This junior crime wave erupted in a string of like minded movies such as thought provoking productions like THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (both 1955). Others like HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL! and HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS (both 1958) skirted the importance of this rising social issue and focused more on the exploitation potential of the subject matter. The flurry of juvenile delinquent movies even expanded to the far reaches of space with the outrageous TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE (1958).
In the 1950s televisions become far more commonplace which led to a steady decline in movie theater ticket sales. Now, patrons could watch TV shows and even movies for free in the comfort of their homes as opposed to venturing out to the local bijou. To counter the loss in theater patrons, the short lived gimmick of 3D was introduced in the early part of the decade.
HOUSE OF WAX (1953) became the first big studio release in three dimensions. Other "In your face" experiences included ROBOT MONSTER (1953; considered one of the worst movies ever made), IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) and its first sequel, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE (1955). 3D would enjoy a brief revival in the 1980s and eventually outstay its welcome in the new millennium. Other 50s filmmakers like William Castle had his own ideas for gimmicks to lure people out of their homes and back into the movie theater.
Like the gigantic insects and prehistoric monsters freed from centuries of hibernation, the news media would also grow and expand, gaining prominence in the 1950s. There were now over 3 million television sets in American homes and what was going on in the world was now easily accessed on the boob tube at home. Although it was born in the decade prior, televised news reports expanded in the 50s featuring news anchors putting a face to the voice behind the action and turmoil unspooling before its audience. Over the years, the news media would mutate into something resembling the grocery store tabloids in that what was REALLY happening in the world would only be half reported, or audiences would only get a certain version of the truth. During the 50s, the evolution and timing of the media was perfect as the country was watching and waiting for the possible threats of nuclear devastation and the infiltration of communism born from the nations interference in foreign affairs.
"Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?"--HUAC question asked of those among the Hollywood Blacklist
The threat of communism reached an alarming rate in the early months of 1950 and soon spread like wildfire from one panic-stricken American to another reaching a fever pitch in the mid 1950s. Although it began much earlier, it hit closer to home in the late 40s with the so called 'Hollywood Blacklist', a list of a few hundred actors, writers and filmmakers and their supposed association with the American Communist Party. This blaze of controversy was stoked by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Akin to the witch hunts of olden times, McCarthy used deceptive tactics to further his own personal and political agenda by playing on public fear whether he had any evidence to back up his slanderous accusations, or not. Anyone with differing views of a political, or religious nature, or even sexual preference were ripe for finger pointing and those being accused rarely if ever learned of who it was that labeled them a communist. Now a nation deep in mass hysteria, thousands in various professions lost their jobs during the McCarthy Era witch-hunts.
"I am concerned for the security of our great Nation; not so much because of any threat from without, but because of the insidious forces from within."--General Douglas MacArthur
Although the mud slinging Senator was soon revealed to be a charlatan, his "Communist Crusade of Crucifixion" led to one of the timeliest, greatest and most penetratingly frightening science fiction pictures of our time--Don Siegel's INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956), a motion picture based on the novel 'The Body Snatchers' by Jack Finney. The film dealt with a growing concern of neighbors in a small California town believing their friends and loved ones to be imposters, totally detached from their more familiar selves. Written off as hysterical ramblings, it's soon discovered that alien spores from outer space are replacing humans with an exact, if emotionless copy when the people sleep eradicating the original host in the process. By the end of the film everyone in the town have fallen victim to the Pod People save for Dr. Bennell as he watches military trucks delivering more Pods for the nefarious purpose of human duplication. The original ending was far more downbeat, but a more optimistic, if ambiguous ending was attached.
"Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America."--Senator, Margaret Smith
Above: Publicity photo for I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958); Insert: One of the little people that participated in the INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957)
Over the years much has been written regarding the purported political allegory hidden within the picture. Contradicting the symbolism of McCarthy's ostracizing and anti communist sentiment, the books author and star, Kevin McCarthy have denied any actual social, or political commentary intended in the either book, or film. The subjugation of the human form was also seen in 50s classic Sci Fi such as Jack Arnold's IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953) and I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE (1958). While both films are interesting and quite well made, neither has had the lasting power, or perceived social subtext of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. The story has been remade a few more times including an equally scary official remake in 1978 starring Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams. Amidst all the finger pointing and unsubstantiated accusations, the printed page, particularly that of the four color variety, was attracting an enormous degree of attention, albeit of the negative sort.
"I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry. As long as the crime comic book industry exists in its present form, no American home is safe."--Dr. Frederic Wertham
The CCA (Comics Code Authority), a stamp of approval created by the CMAA (Comics Magazine Association of America), condemned any objectionable material found within the pages of comic books that were viewed as dangerous to the impressionable minds of young children. This also extended to the depictions of famous monsters such as vampires, werewolves and zombies and even the use of terms such as "horror" and "terror" were now barred as comic titles. Comic book burnings had cropped up in the latter part of the 1940s, but now, with juvenile delinquency on the rise in the early 1950s, graphically violent imagery of crime and death came under fire by the United States government. In an attempt to correlate the 'Crime & Comic Book Connection', psychologist Fredric Wertham wrote an incendiary book that debuted in 1954 entitled 'Seduction of the Innocent'. In it, Wertham unspooled a ridiculous diatribe against comic book publications which seemed to be aimed squarely at the types of illustrations found in William Gaines's EC collection of horror and crime titles.
Much like the McCarthisms of the era, Wertham spouted a lot of unfounded rhetoric with little, to no evidence to back up any of his claims, despite his assertion that his findings were "based on eight years of scientific clinical studies". But EC alone wasn't under the knife; Wertham drew bizarre conclusions from other popular titles particularly those from DC Comics. By Wertham's estimation, various big name comics featured dynamic duos that were allegedly gay lovers and the stamp of "Truth, Justice & the American Way" was a fascist! All this came to a head on April 21st, 1954 during the 'Kefauver Hearings' before the Senate Subcommittee To Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. A number of child therapists appeared, in addition to Wertham, himself, for this looming and detrimental blow to the comic industry.
EC founder, William Gaines went to the hearings alone while other comic publishers sat on the sidelines anxiously awaiting the sinking of the EC ship. One of the main point of contention regarding EC was the cover to Crime SuspenStories number 22. The cover featured a man holding a bloody axe in one hand and the decapitated head of a female in the other. Another cover was showcased, that of Crime SuspenStories number 23, this one featuring a man strangling a woman in a boat using a crowbar pressed against her throat. This and other depictions of gruesome imagery led to the ultimate demise of the notoriously lurid EC style. With all the backlash from social groups, the efforts of Dr. Wertham and the committee hearings all combined to successfully close the coffin on EC's popular horror and crime line for good. Famed EC artist, Johnny Craig ultimately disassociated himself with horror comics altogether and EC creator, William Gaines, attempted a new line of EC comics (called New Direction Comics) that failed to ignite and soon focused his attention solely on MAD Magazine. In later years, interest in EC's controversial line of grim tales garnered renewed popularity with a slew of reprints in both comic and hardback form. Witch hunters and purveyors of decency with ulterior, or misguided motives would crop up again in the 1980s covering the gamut of pop culture entertainment.
As the 1950s drew to a close, the Cold War remained a hot topic as Russia launched Sputnik 1, the first satellite to orbit the Earth, in 1957. Again, Science fact grew at a rapid rate equal to the science fiction of any giant bug found in a 50s creature feature. NASA (National Aeronautics & Space Administration), a government agency formed for the development of space exploration and scientific discovery is founded in 1958. The microchip, an integrated circuit made up of electronic components imprinted onto semiconducting material is invented in 1959 paving the way for the future computers. With the 1960s approaching, the less serious side of cinema would soon be replaced by an increasing seriousness to the look of both horror and science fiction that would assume a mature status heretofore unseen. The decade would also see a series of more personable trends and shocking incidents take center stage that would thrust the country into chaos and eventual division despite civilization making headway in race relations.
CONTINUED IN PART 3 CHAPTER 1...