The films at last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi screening were surprising in that, though both were “B”-pictures released by Columbia in 1957, one of the movies had some surprising points of social comment and the other not only had major amounts of social comment but was actually quite a good film. The first one shown was called The Night the World Exploded, and was made by Sam Katzman’s Clover company in association with Columbia. It was directed by Katzman’s go-to director in those days, Fred F. Sears (who also did his rock movies and his production Calypso Heat Wave, which not only featured some odd casting — including Joel Grey, Alan Arkin and Maya Angelou during her brief attempt at a singing career, at which she was quite good — but clearly showed that Sears was more inspired by calypso than he was by rock) from a script by Jack Natteford and Luci Ward. It’s unusual for a 1957 science-fiction film in that a woman is top-billed — Kathryn Grant, who made this film a few months before she became the second wife of Bing Crosby. She plays Laura “Hutch” Hutchinson, collaborator of scientist Dr. David Conway (William Leslie), who’s just invented a device that looks like a giant mimeograph machine (or a small printing press) but actually is a machine to predict earthquakes.
Only Conway and Hutch keep getting readings that indicate far more impending seismic activity than they expected, and the earthquakes not only happen on cue (represented by whatever stock footage Columbia could scarf up of accidents, disasters or wars — much of the footage representing the aftermath of the quakes seems to have come from previous films depicting or dramatizing World War II bombing raids) but keep getting worse. When the film starts Hutch is proclaiming that she will soon be quitting the lab to get married to some guy named Brad, whom we don’t see — yet more evidence of how taken for granted it was in the 1950’s that women had to decide between a career and a marriage, and could not have both. A third person in the lab, Dr. Ellis Morton (Tristram Coffin, though the credits shorten his first name to “Tris”), takes Hutch aside and tells her he knows that her real romantic attraction is to Dr. Conway, but she laments that he sees her only as a co-worker and not a woman. With the quakes and the amount of stock-footage damage they’re doing rising, the three scientists locate the epicenter in Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico — represented by an artfully designed set that’s considerably more elaborate than we expect from a “B” budget — and Hutch freezes with fear as they lower her down a cave in a portion of the cavern that isn’t open to the public. “Wouldn’t you know a woman would pull a stunt like this?,” Dr. Conway chews her out. “You’re all scientists until there’s the slightest bit of danger, then you fold up! Want your mommy and daddy?” — yet more evidence of the extent to which sexist prejudices were simply taken for granted in the 1950’s. Kirk (Paul Savage), one of the park rangers enlisted by the scientists to help them dig under the caverns for evidence of what’s causing the quakes, finds a small black object and, being a rock collector, wants to take it home — only it expands to several times its original size and blows up, taking Kirk and his home with it.
Eventually Dr. Conway deduces that the black substance is a hitherto unknown element, whose atomic number is 112 and which blows up almost instantly when exposed to air. (There really is an Element 112 — it was discovered in 1996, 39 years after this film was made, and in 2009 it was officially recognized and named copernicum — only it’s a highly unstable radioactive element and of its two known isotopes, one has a half-life of four seconds and the other has a half-life of 30 seconds, nothing at all like the “Element 112” in the film.) In the film’s intriguing bit of social comment, Dr. Conway informs the authorities and us that Element 112 once existed so deep in the bowels of the earth that it never came into contact with air and therefore was not dangerous, but all the fossil-fuel extraction the human race has been doing — all that drilling for oil and digging for coal — has opened so many holes in the earth that air is getting down there and coming into contact with Element 112, thereby setting it off and causing the quakes. He and Hutch are finally able to seal off the pit inside the cavern where air and Element 112 were having their explosive unions, and the final shot is of the world saved and Conway and Hutch hugging and kissing for a presumably explosive union of their own. The Night the World Exploded is a pretty good science-fiction movie of the time with some odd touches — nothing special but nothing too embarrassing, either — and an interesting and unusual ecological sub-plot for its time (though the 1948 Columbia serial Superman had also hinted that Superman’s home planet, Krypton, was disintegrating because its inhabitants had so extensively plundered its environment for energy and other resources it could no longer hold together).