Sunday, October 23, 2016

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (Clover/Columbia, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the videotape of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a 1956 sci-fi programmer from Columbia, directed by Fred Sears, dealing with an alien civilization of ancient, decrepit space travelers who have built themselves spacesuits (that make them look like upright, walking, giant-sized minnows) to hold themselves together, and are fleeing to Earth to take over and thus give themselves a home after their own planet has disintegrated. It’s not all that different a plot from Plan Nine from Outer Space, though the overall production values are superior — Ray Harryhausen got a special-effects credit, and his touch is apparent in the final scene, in which the Washington Monument and the Capitol are credibly destroyed by crashing flying saucers. But the saucers themselves have the kids’-model look common in 1950’s sci-fi movies (not until Star Trek and 2001 did any filmmakers put on screen spacecraft that actually looked like they could fly). — 7/4/95


The Vintage Sci-Fi film screening last night in Golden Hill started with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, a 1956 Columbia production from Sam Katzman’s Clover unit, with Katzman listed as executive producer, Charles H. Schneer as producer, Fred F. Sears (then in the middle of that string of rock ’n’ roll cheapies Katzman’s company was making for Columbia at the same time) as director and Ray Harryhausen in charge of the effects. Charles and I had a VHS tape of this and had watched it ages ago, and my memory was that — like many of Harryhausen’s films — his contributions were the only things that made it worthwhile viewing. The original story was by Curt Siodmak (suggesting that if either he or his brother Robert had directed this could have been a much better movie, with plot portions worthy of Harryhausen’s work) but other, hackier writers like Bernard Gordon (originally billed under a pseudonym, “Raymond T. Marcus,” because he’d been blacklisted, though his true name has been restored on this version) and George Worthing Yates actually turned Siodmak’s potentially interesting story into a script. The plot centers around Project Skyhook, a U.S. Air Force attempt to put 12 artificial satellites in Earth orbit so they can monitor the universe and collect valuable scientific information about the nature of space.

Only the satellites keep disappearing almost as soon as they are launched, and the 12th one doesn’t even get into space at all — the rocket taking it up (a stock shot of an old German V-2) blows up on the launching pad. At the same time flying saucers suddenly start popping up all over the Earth, and the scientist in charge of Skyhook, Dr. Russell Marvin (Hugh Marlowe), deduces that the satellites are being shot down from space by the flying saucers as part of an advance guard for a full-scale invasion of Earth. One of the saucers actually lands on the Skyhook base and uses a death-ray weapon to annihilate everybody on the base except Marvin, Carol (Joan Taylor) — the colleague he had just married when all this started — and General John Hanley (Morris Ankrum), Carol’s father, who got kidnapped and taken to one of the saucers, where the enemy aliens scooped out his own mind and left him a zombie (in the Halperin, not the Romero, sense of the term). The Marvins also end up on board the spaceship, where they find out enough about the aliens’ technology that Russell is able to invent a ray gun of his own that can shoot down the flying saucers — and in a thrilling climax that features the film’s famous shot of a saucer slicing the Capitol dome in half like an errant razor blade-lined Frisbee (about the only part I actually remembered from the time Charles and I had seen it last), the saucers are finally downed and the invasion of Earth is repelled … for now, since there’s always the chance that the invaders (whose origins are carefully unspecified) might come back with bigger numbers and/or better reinforcements. Seeing the Capitol damaged by enemy attack was especially odd given that I’ve been following the recently premiered TV series Designated Survivor, which features the Capitol being blown up by terrorists during the President’s State of the Union address and the resulting annihilation of the entire administration, Congress and the Supreme Court (except for one Cabinet minister who takes over as President, and two Congressmembers).

What I hadn’t realized was that the DVD of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers contains both the original black-and-white version of the film and a colorized version, ballyhooed as supervised by Ray Harryhausen himself (though Charles, when I mentioned the movie to him after I got home, was skeptical: “They probably paid him some money to tell them what colors things were!” he said). The proprietor offered us the chance to see whichever version got a majority vote, and since most people there had already seen the black-and-white original we plumped for the colorized one — which wasn’t bad. One of the ironies of the whole controversy over colorization is that the great movies, the deathless classics like The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, were colorized first, while the not-so-great films were done later, after they had worked the kinks out of the process and the colors were more convincing (even though I think anyone watching this version of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers would probably guess it had been colorized — there’s just something “off” about the colors, the flesh tones in particular — white flesh tones exclusively since there were no people of color in the dramatis personae; I believe the 1960 Columbia production 12 to the Moon was the first science-fiction film ever made that featured a Black character, and he was a Nigerian rather than an African-American). I especially liked the turquoise-green color of the 1953 Mercury sedan the Marvins drove, though the color really didn’t add that much to the overall effect (nor did it detract — this was not one of those movies carefully crafted to take advantage of the atmospherics of black-and-white that actually suffered aesthetically from colorization). In my last go-round with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers I had basically said that Harryhausen’s scenes were the only parts that made the movie worth watching; this time around I noticed, more than I had before, how much the story ripped off from The War of the Worlds, and especially from the George Pal/Byron Haskin film of it that had been made in 1953 (in color!). The filmmakers even bought a stock shot from Paramount of the scene in The War of the Worlds in which the L.A. City Hall is destroyed by the aliens. (The film’s geography is a bit unclear; though the climax is supposed to take place in Washington, D.C., the landmarks include not only the L.A. City Hall but the George Washington Bridge, which is in New York.)

At the same time I also noticed that this film influenced Edward D. Wood, Jr. when he made Plan Nine from Outer Space; though the aliens’ mission in Plan Nine (to neutralize Earth’s war-making capabilities before they become a threat to the survival of the universe) and Dudley Manlove’s big speech explaining it were clear ripoffs of the 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still, plenty of elements from Earth vs. the Flying Saucers turned up in Plan Nine, including the narration explaining that Earth was being invaded by flying saucers from outer space, the scenes of saucers buzzing terrestrial aircraft and freaking out their passengers and crew, and the key plot gimmick of a tape recording that sounds like white noise played at normal speed, but when slowed down is revealed as a message from the aliens prior to their attack. Also, the aliens themselves are dressed in all-over black spacesuits which it turns out they need because their home planet had been so devastated by nuclear radiation (or something) that even on their home world they were too weak to survive without protection — a gimmick British writer Sidney Nation later copied for the Daleks on Doctor Who. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is an O.K. movie, notable not only for Harryhausen’s effects work (even though he was not happy about it; he called it the worst film he ever worked on and said he never again did collapses of buildings with stop-motion animation because it was too difficult and the results weren’t convincing enough to justify the effort — and while the flying saucers are animated effectively, they don’t have the impressive detailing of later movie spacecraft on projects like Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars) but also for a surprisingly effective performance by Hugh Marlowe. He really manages to capture a wide range of emotions, including dedication to his work, love for his wife (though she, reflecting the difficulty 1950’s filmmakers had with independent women, is shown as a helpful colleague in some scenes and a helpless flibbertigibbet in others), genuine sorrow at the loss of his Skyhook colleagues and grim determination to beat back the alien invasion with his scientific know-how. — 10/23/16