Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Beginning of the End (AB-PT Pictures, 1957)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of the film Beginning of the End (note the absence of a definite article at the beginning of the title), a particularly favorite bad movie of mine because of the marvelous scene towards the end of the film in which a clutch of giant grasshoppers — inadvertently created by not-so-mad scientist Dr. Ed Wainwright (Peter Graves) when he exposed plants to radiation, hoping they’d grow bigger and thereby end world hunger, not knowing that the little insects were also taking in radiation and growing to be not-so-little (hadn’t this guy seen Them!?) — attack Chicago.

In order to show the grasshoppers attacking the Wrigley Building, where Wainwright and his crew have their headquarters, Bert I. Gordon — director, producer and special-effects guru — had actual normal-sized grasshoppers walk across a photo of the Wrigley Building, and naturally they frequently set foot on the parts of the photo that were supposed to represent sky. Needless to say, the entire grasshopper invasion force was done with real-life grasshoppers cavorting on miniature sets — though (surprisingly for such a teeny-budgeted movie) the process work was actually pretty good: yes, the grasshoppers had the tell-tale black lines around their bodies (meaning that one film shrank relative to the others when the components were printed together), but the effect was still relatively convincing and probably better than Gordon could have done with stop-motion models given the budget he had (or didn’t have).

The MST3K crew had a lot of fun with this one — though I could have done without Crow’s repeated imitations of Graves’s voice as the host of A&E Biography — especially at the end, in which they showed some postcards that had been (supposedly) sent to them by viewers, maneuvered toy grasshoppers across them and said (Mike Nelson said, anyway), “And you can use these postcards to do Bert I. Gordon special effects!” Beginning of the End was produced by an infinitesimal production company called AB-PT Pictures Corporation, which only made this and three other movies, though it was originally released by Republic (probably because the film processing had been done at Republic’s parent company, Consolidated Film Industries, and someone at the company probably realized that if they wanted to get paid for developing it they had to ensure that this film got released somewhere!) and has made the rounds of other companies since; on the print MST3K showed there was a copyright notice but the AB-PT name had been blacked out.

Beginning of the End suffered from the attempts of writers Fred Freiberger (yes, that Fred Freiberger, the one who fucked up The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and the third season of the original Star Trek) and Lester Gorn to give it “significance,” starting with that doomy title (though at least it gave the film a cheap patina of distinction that calling it Attack of the Giant Grasshoppers wouldn’t have) and some of the most pretentious dialogue heard in a cheapo monster movie from the 1950’s, though they also gave the film a nicely cheeky female protagonist: Audrey Aimes, a former Life (though the name was carefully not mentioned) photojournalist turned photographer for the National Wire Service (and how the MST3K missed the obvious joke on that name — “Our wires are just fine, thank you” — is a mystery to me), played by Peggie Castle, whose blonde good looks and cool, efficient manner while refusing to take the inevitable patronization from the male characters is an appealing throwback to Joan Blondell’s and Glenda Farrell’s similar roles in 1930’s Warners films.