PART TWO: CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD SCIENCE FICTION FILMS FROM THE 50S

By: Paul J. Bradley

 

The Day the Earth Stood Still

One of the finest films of the science fiction genre is The Day the Earth Stood Still, produced and distributed by Twentieth Century Fox and released on September 18, 1951.

Based on the short story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a cautionary tale of a humanoid alien, accompanied by an invincible eight foot tall robot, who visits Earth to deliver an important message of the terrible fate that awaits the human race.

In the opening sensational sequence, a radar tracks an unidentified craft circling the earth at mind-boggling speed. A frightened crowd, along with a fully armed military unit, greets the saucer-shaped craft as it lands in Washington,D.C. A humanoid (Michael Rennie) emerges from the ship with a message of goodwill but is shot down by a nervous soldier.

The humanoid heals himself as he recovers in hospital. He confirms his name as Klaatu to the visiting secretary to the President and says that he has to deliver the important message that will affect the future of humanity. Klaatu demands to talk to all world leaders at once, but that proves to be difficult. Then he considers an alternative plan which means having to integrate with ordinary people, but his request is refused. Klaatu later escapes from the hospital and stays at a boarding house, posing as Mr. Carpenter.

Klaatu befriends widow Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) and her son Bobby (Billy Gray), as the country is on alert for the missing alien. Will Helen and Bobby work out the real identity of the mysterious Mr. Carpenter?

The Day the Earth Stood Still is a great film. It boasts a sharp screenplay from Edmund H. North, a stunning score from the legendary Bernard Herrmann and a perfect cast, especially Michael Rennie as Klaatu and Patricia Neal as Helen, a character unique for the time because she is a working mother. Her son Bobby (Billy Gray) is portrayed as an intelligent and inquisitive child, which is also against the usual child character type.

The film is brilliantly directed by Robert Wise, who is best known as the Academy Award winning director of West Side Story and The Sound of Music. Wise also received acclaim for his editing work on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, and for his brilliant directorial work on the classic horror film The Body Snatcher, but The Day the Earth Stood Still ranks as one of his greatest films.

Much loved by audiences and critics, The Day the Earth Stood Still works wonderfully well. It is an intelligent and superbly crafted picture, which sets it apart from most films in this much-derided genre.

 

It Came from Outer Space

James Arnold is best known as one of the leading directors of science fiction films of the era. Affectionally described as one of the hardest working B-movie directors of them all, Jack Arnold made his science fiction breakthrough with the release of It Came from Outer Space in 1953, which was also the first 3D movie of the genre for Universal-International.

The story begins with author and astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his fiancée schoolteacher Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) stargazing when they notice a meteorite crashing into the earth.

They awaken a neighbor, and they all travel on the neighbor’s helicopter to the crash site. Putnam begins to explore inside the crater and discovers that the object is not a meteorite but a large alien ship. After a landslide, the ship sinks into the ground.

Putnam struggles to convince the sheriff (Charles Drake) and the media of the alien craft. His wife, although cynical, supports him. It is not long until strange things begin to happen, and the sheriff begins to believe Putnam’s story.

It Came from Outer Space was released in 1953 during the rising tensions of the Cold War and is clearly a warning against paranoia and xenophobia. Based on the story by Ray Bradbury, and adapted by Harry J. Essex, It Came from Outer Space is mostly notable as the first science fiction film about alien visitors taking human forms.

Along with Jack Arnold’s vigorous direction and Clifford Stine’s excellent cinematography (which does not need to be seen in 3D to fully appreciate the moody atmosphere), It Came from Outer Space is another enjoyable and thoughtful addition to the 1950s science fiction genre.

 

Other Notable Releases

By 1953, more science fiction movies were released, including the unfunny spoof Abbott and Costello Go to Mars. One of the more popular films science fiction films from that year is William Cameron Menzies’ Invasion from Mars which looks good despite its low budget. It is, however, dramatically unpersuasive due to poor dialogue and one-dimensional characters.

Other films released during this period include Donovan’s Brain (an average film based on a risible premise) and the rather enjoyable but ultimately silly The Beast of 10,000 Fathoms (which boasts impressive Ray Harryhausen special effects).

 

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