Friday, April 10, 2009

King Dinosaur (Lippert, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I picked the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a 1955 Lippert release called King Dinosaur, produced by Al Zimbalist, directed by Bert I. Gordon, written by Tom Gries from an “original” (in quotes) story by Zimbalist and Gordon, and featuring Gordon’s career-long obsession with the artificially enlarged. The gimmick here is that four astronauts — two men, Dr. Ralph Martin (William Bryant) and Dr. Richard Gordon (Douglas Henderson), and two women, Dr. Patricia Bennett (Wanda Curtis) and (presumably non-Dr.) Nora Pierce (Patti Gallagher) — are sent up on a newly developed spaceship to explore a recently discovered planet called Nova, which turns out to have a topography similar to that of Earth (or at least that of Bronson Canyon and Griffith Park, where most of it was filmed) and also an Earth-like atmosphere (so we don’t have to see the actors — especially the pretty female ones — walk around in spacesuits), and where some of the fauna (alligators, owls, vultures) are the same size as Earth’s but others (notably bees and lizards) are far larger than what we’re used to.

Oddly, King Dinosaur is actually a not-bad sci-fi cheapie for the period; though liberally filled out with stock footage (a fact the MST3K crew inevitably made fun of), narrated with the usual obviousness by Marvin Miller and suffering from the fact that we’re supposed to accept ordinary, living lizards filmed on miniature sets as “dinosaurs” (in the film’s worst line, one of the characters compares the lizard that’s menacing them at the opening of the cave they’re hiding in to Tyrannosaurus rex, and one’s tempted to yell at the screen, “It doesn’t look like T. rex at all!” — it’s walking on all fours whereas anyone whose science education stopped in grade school knows that T. rex walked upright), its plot at least makes a certain degree of sense; the two-male, two-female casting of the astronauts (and the only humans shown in the film, at least in footage actually shot specifically for it) is innovative and proto-feminist even though it’s only motivated by the desire to form two romantic couples (though I couldn’t help but remix the film in my head and have the two men pair off with each other, and the two women ditto — and there are enough choice shots of William Bryant with his chest exposed, revealing lots of nice body hair and a good pair of nipples that probably showed even better when this was shown in theatres, that it’s not only straight men who will get a sexual charge from this film!); and the special effects are actually pretty good — the process work is surprisingly convincing for the time and the budget and only that rather washed-out looking bee (so washed out that I have to take the MST3K crew’s word for it that it was supposed to be a bee and not some other species of insect) is too bad an effect to allow the viewer to suspend disbelief.

The big problem with this film is the lizards — and particularly the fact that the filmmakers didn’t at least think of shooting them in slow motion to make them look sufficiently ponderous to be believable as giant-sized beasts; when one of them scampers quickly across the screen the way real lizards dash into the bushes when humans approach, all believability is lost instantly. Still, this was a good MST3K presentation because it achieved the right balance for their formula: a movie good enough that it retained some entertainment value but not so good that one would resent hearing it mocked (as was the case with some of MST3K’s later presentations, notably I Was a Teenage Werewolf and The Space Children, both flawed films but of sufficient quality they didn’t deserve the MST3K “treatment”) — and since King Dinosaur, like most Lippert presentations, was only about an hour long (Lippert’s name did end up on a few genuinely good films, but those were all foreign films which Lippert simply distributed in the U.S.), the MST3K crew filled it out with X Marks the Spot, an embarrassingly bad traffic-safety film produced by the state of New Jersey in the 1940’s featuring the heavenly-court gimmick of a very bored-looking God passing judgment on a recently deceased driver and some of the worst acting of all time (notably by a New Jersey state commissioner named Magee, who was so awful he couldn’t even play himself) — and some of MST3K’s all-time best jokes, including two Fibber McGee and Molly references that probably sailed over the heads of most of their viewers!