Classic Hollywood Science Fiction Films from the 50s: PART ONE

In the 1950s, Cold War paranoia met the first wave of visual effects, and a genre was born! Enjoy Part One of Professor Paul’s series this month on the Hollywood sci-fi classics that captured the world’s imagination!

Fair Warning: Paul’s Irish and not afraid of a little opinion in the water. We’d love to hear yours too!


by Paul J. Bradley, CMR Contributor

The rising fears and paranoia created by the Cold War, especially the threat of an atomic attack, manifested itself into parts of the American media and turned the near-moribund science fiction genre into Hollywood box office gold during the fifties.

Although there are notable science fiction dramas produced in previous decades, such as the acclaimed German silent Metropolis (1927) and the British classic Things to Come (1937), it was the science fiction films made in Hollywood between 1951 and 1957 that has become known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction Movies.

Most of the films released during this golden age were produced on a low budget. Many are unimaginative and cliché-ridden, but there are also several influential and outstanding releases.

Beginnings: Destination Moon and Rocketship X-M

Destination Moon was arguably the first movie to deal with the scientific and engineering challenges of space travel. This Technicolor production was co-financed by its director George Pal [producer of our movie from Episode 68, War of the Worlds!], and stars John Archer, Warner Anderson and Tom Powers. The matte paintings by astronomical artist Chesley Bonestell are visually striking, but the same cannot be said about the dull plot, the lackluster script and the wooden performances.

Rocketship X-M is a reasonably entertaining early science fiction movie which was released by the lower budget production company Lippert Pictures in 1950. It tells the story of a moon expedition that goes wrong, which has the crew ending up on Mars. The cast includes Lloyd Bridges as Colonel Floyd and Osa Massen as Dr. Lisa Van Horn, and the film was quickly made in order to be beat Destination Moon on release.

The Thing from Another World

The Hollywood 50s science fiction movie craze really began in style with the release of science-horror film The Thing from Another World (sometimes referred to as The Thing) on April 27, 1951.

The film is set in Alaska where a U.S. Air Force crew, scientists and a journalist fly to Polar Expedition Six at the North Pole at the request of the Novel laureate scientist Dr Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite).

Dr. Carrington reveals that a UFO has landed, and the Air Force sends in a team under Captain Hendry (Kenneth Tobey). They discover a crashed spaceship and a humanoid body frozen in ice. They bring the frozen alien back to their base camp, but it is accidently thawed and goes on the rampage.

The Thing from Another World was produced by Edward Lasker and Howard Hawks, and directed by Christian Nyby for RKO Pictures. Charles Lederer is credited as the screenwriter, but Howard Hawks and Ben Hecht contributed to the rewrites.

The dialogue seems to have all the hallmarks of Howard Hawks, such as the overlapping dialogue, which has made many historians question if Hawks had more than a hand in the directorial duties too.

The cast, who are excellent, play realistic characters. They are led by the knowledgeable Captain Hendry (expertly played by Kenneth Tobey), who is professional, gritty but not a typically overly heroic Hollywood leader.

The appearances by The Thing (played by James Arness) are brief and abrupt, which only enhances his menacing presence and the effective scare moments.

The action sequences are terrific, especially the fire sequence which seems to happen in real time. The suspenseful build up to each encounter with the alien is expertly handled, especially the shock moment in the doorway.

The Thing from Another World is immensely enjoyable. Although the spirited John Carpenter 1982 version is closer to the original 1938 short story Who Goes there? by John W. Campbell, The Thing from Another World is an enduring science fiction classic and is regarded as one of the great science fiction films of the decade.


Outside the System

The best science fiction film made outside of Hollywood in 1951 is Alexander MacKendrick’s The Man in the White Suit. Made by Ealing Studios in England, The Man in the White Suit is a satirical comedy about a chemist who invents everlasting fibre and creates a perfect suit. The cast, especially the impressive Alec Guinness, is a joy, and the film is simply magnificent.


Comment and tell us your favorites! Professor Paul might cover them in upcoming posts.