Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Flying Saucer (Colony Productions, Inc., 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Recently I got a three-DVD boxed set called Watch the Skies! from Image Entertainment via, which had ended up on my “save for later” list because I hadn’t been sure Charles and I would be able to make the Golden Hill “Vintage Sci-Fi” screening at which one of the items in the box, Stranger from Venus, was shown. As things turned out we did see that screening, so I decided last night to make our movie program for the evening from the other two films in the box, The Flying Saucer (1950) and The Cosmic Man (1959). There are two feature films called The Flying Saucer listed on, one from the U.S. in 1950 and one from Italy in 1964 (directed by Tinto Brass, who later made Caligula — the film which became infamous because writer Gore Vidal had his name taken off the credits because of what Brass did to his script, and then Brass had his name taken off the credits because of what the producer, Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione, did to his cut, and starring such luminaries of Italian cinema as Alberto Sordi, Monica Vitti — Antonioni’s favorite actress — and Silvana Mangano), but the one we have here is the 1950 version. It was produced, directed and written by its star, Mikel Conrad (so that horribly pretentious spelling of the first name “Michael” is nothing new!), which means that Conrad the actor had no one but himself to blame for the silly lines Conrad the writer made him say and the equally silly things Conrad the director made him do. (That may not be quite accurate since Conrad the writer only came up with the original story and someone else, Howard Irving Young, is credited with “screen adaptation,” but still the original “inspiration,” if you can call it that, was Conrad’s.)

The film was obviously an exploitation piece aimed at grabbing a then-current title and making a quick buck off it; New York playboy and “sportsman” Mike Trent (Mikel Conrad, as if you couldn’t guess) is summoned to Washington, D.C. by Col. Marikoff (Lester Sharpe, a character actor Charles and I remembered seeing even though we couldn’t recall his name) and told to go on a mission to Alaska, where he grew up, to investigate reports that a flying saucer has landed and forestall the efforts of Russian agents to capture the saucer and learn its technology so they can build their own fleet of flying saucers and use them to A-bomb the U.S. Mike is reluctant to go back to his home state until he’s told that he’s going to be traveling as a patient suffering from nervous exhaustion and going to the Alaskan countryside with a nurse to take care of him. He suddenly changes his mind when he gets a look at the “nurse,” Vee Langley (Pat Garrison), and while she’s not that drop-dead gorgeous she’s easy enough on the eyes he immediately decides to take the trip with her in hopes of adding her ass to his trophy wall. Alas, he’s bored silly by the trip, which seems to be a flight to Seattle followed by a lo-o-o-o-ong boat journey up the west coast of Canada until they finally get to Juneau — though producer Conrad must have acquired every frame of stock footage of rural Alaska he could find because the vistas they see, including the glaciers, are really spectacular and in fact the most entertaining parts of the film. (Through much of it we wish the silly people in front of the process screens would get out of the way and just let us enjoy looking at all that spectacular Alaskan scenery.)

Mike and Vee finally make it to their destination, the ranch house where he grew up, and which he’s not allowed to leave even though his real desire is to high-tail it back to Juneau so he can experience at least something of a night life as well as getting his ashes hauled with someone, since Vee isn’t about to put out for him. He also wants to look up an old friend named Matt Mitchell (Frank Darien, playing essentially a Walter Brennan role), and at one point Mike slips his keeper and maneuvers his motorboat across the late to Juneau, where he does a pub crawl that seems to last forever and shows us more about Juneau’s bar scene c. 1950 than we really wanted to know. Eventually he and Mike do hook up, and it turns out Mike has been renting his boat to those nasty Russian spies so they can look for the flying saucer. Just about everyone in the cast other than Mike and Vee seems to be on the Russians’ payroll, including their manservant at the ranch, Hans (Hantz von Teuffen), who gives himself away to the audience, if not to the other characters, through one scene in which he’s shown lurking at the door and trying to listen to the conversation going on behind it. (Later, when he offered the characters breakfast, Charles joked that he’d give himself away by serving Russian breakfast foods: kasha, blinis, symiki.) In about the film’s only legitimate surprise, the flying saucer (which we barely see — just a couple of shots of it zooming across the screen and a longer sequence showing it at rest) turns out to be not a craft from outer space but an advanced experimental aircraft developed by scientist Dr. Carl Lawton (Roy Engel), whose reclusive existence in upstate Alaska makes Rotwang from Metropolis look like a Rotarian by comparison — though Lawton did venture forth from his arctic redoubt long enough to try to sell the craft to a Seattle-based airplane manufacturer, who turned it down. Of course Lawton’s assistant Turner (Denver Pyle) is also a Russian spy, ready to turn the saucer over to the Russkies for $1 million in cash and the thrill of striking a blow for Communism, and there are a number of scenes in which Mike and Vee stand up for the U.S. and seem to be facing insurmountable odds until a glacier ex machina buries all the dirty Russkies and allow Mike, Vee and Lawton to escape. The saucer is destroyed in the process when Turner tries to steal it and Lawton destroys it in mid-air by blowing up a bomb he concealed in it as a booby trap, but Lawton still has his memory and, presumably, the saucer plans so he can always build a new one.

 The Flying Saucer could have been, if not a masterpiece, at least a reasonably good movie even with the budget (or lack of budget) they had, but what Conrad came up with is a film too dull to be entertaining on its own merits and not bad enough to work as camp (though one could imagine the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew doing a good job on it). That interminable drunk scene, complete with Mike being cruised by a loose woman named Nanette (Virginia Hewitt) — and of course attracting a jealous response from Vee when she sees them together — which made me wonder why the bar Mike was in at the moment felt he needed a B-girl when he was already getting plastered and thereby making them money without one — is the low point and about the only downright offensive sequence in a film that otherwise is just stupefyingly dull. One imdb reviewer said “the film plays largely as if it were funded by the Alaska Board of Tourism — ENDLESS tableaux of glaciers, and wildlife, and rivers, and more glaciers, but precious little action, and even less in the way of FX” — but in fact the footage provided by the Alaska Board of Tourism, or whoever shot it in the first place, is far more entertaining than the human antics going on in front of it! The biggest enigmas surrounding The Flying Saucer are over which companies were involved in making it: the extant print credits the production to “Colony Pictures, Inc” (“Before they declared their independence,” I joked), says the studio work was done at Hal Roach Studios (and the art director, Charles Hall, was employed by Roach after he reached mandatory retirement age at Universal), but there are a couple of sets we recognized from previous Universal films (the abandoned mine where the final shootout took place in Ken Maynard’s 1934 Western Smoking Guns and the cavern leading up to the sulfur pit from the endings of Son of Frankenstein and Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff) and the final “The End” credit (I miss “The End” credits!) is in the typeface used for decades by Paramount, while the original theatrical trailer (included on the DVD as a bonus item) is from Realart Pictures, Universal’s usual reissue label!