Savant Column

Saturday September 30, 2017

Hello! A Book Review today.

Ha! Universal has nothing on author Tom Weaver. The studio fibbed when it claimed that This Island Earth took 2.5 years to film. After promising McFarland that his book on Universal’s monster movies of the 1950s would be ready in two years, Tom delivered it in just under twenty!

Written with David Schecter, Robert J. Kiss and Steve Kronenberg, Universal Terrors 1951-1955: Eight Classic Horror and Science Fiction Films is 440 pages of monster fan Nirvana, a fully-detailed rundown on practically everything known about eight Universal shows in the first half of the decade of Eisenhower and 3-D. It’s got gothic chillers with Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton, the initial moneymakers from producer William Alland and an exotic horror item that’s now most noted for its gallery of future TV stars. Tom Weaver is no stranger to this territory. I’ve reviewed several of his in-depth tomes on individual movies, and his books of classic-era monster movie interviews have made him the go-to authority for years. Tom was the first and the fastest to nab the horrible truth from the filmmakers and actors of our favorite pictures. His 1980s book on Universal’s classic horror pictures, written with Michael and John Brunas, remains the best-researched resource on those pictures, as well.

This book wisely limits its purview to eight films, so as not to go chintzy on the details — a second volume is planned, and hopefully not for 2037. As is Tom’s custom, he divides up the territory. Robert J. Kiss covers the distribution of the pictures — he knows where and with what each picture was double-billed, if you happened to see it first-run. David Schecter provides an essay on the music scores in equally obsessive detail, although I most enjoyed his overview of Universal’s music department for those years. Steve Kronenberg writes up serviceable review-essays on each title as well.

I think that Kronenberg has been set free to make with the critical opinions because Tom’s own modus operandi has never been to dictate what we ought to like in these pictures. The book’s real meat & potatoes is his meticulous production notes, which throw a very wide net: basic facts, personnel profiles, etc. Tom pieces together ‘who wrote what’ and ‘who did what’ directly from his research. That’s not easy, considering how often he’s faced with contradictory ridiculously contradictory testimony. Even more interesting is Weaver’s almost day-by day account of the filming of each show, with locations and special problems that weren’t expected, such as the monster frogman that didn’t work out on the first Creature sequel. Since Tom has vaccumed up every bit of publicity and Trade Paper mention in the public record, he has it all — the legit facts on each movie contrasted with the publicity baloney that often found its way into print. These end off each chapter with what amounts to a scrapbook of addenda and tangential information.

We learn some surprising things about the on-set personalities of Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff, and hear the first-person stories of then- ingenues like Barbara Rush (swoon) and Kathleen Hughes (swoon swoon), who were learning how to get ahead in the fight for decent roles, and how to avoid the unwanted advances of liberties-taker Jack Arnold. Tom gives a pretty good account of how most of the special effects were done, without becoming technically fixated to the point of distraction. He acknowledges the input of other researchers, like Robert Skotak. Since Tom is not shy about detailing the personal problems of our favorites — John Agar’s drinking, Lance Fuller’s apparent major problems with reality — I was a bit disappointed not hearing a definitive account of what happened to optical whiz David S. Horsley, who the rumor mill says held out for better effects and more recognition on This Island Earth and found out the hard way that he could be replaced. Although we learn about every stray note of music from Mr. Schecter, we don’t find out much about Clifford Stine, an effects camera whiz and problem solver behind many of the best scenes in these movies. Nobody was taking down the memoirs of the technical talent, it seems.

To his credit Tom Weaver will never be accused of being a gushing fan-boy; if anything he at times seems a little too hard on these film, with a joking attitude about bad actors or weak visuals that can be a little cruel. We assume that some of these shows are among his favorites, so maybe that’s a good stance to take — he’s not like a lot of other film writers, trying to convince us to love the pictures because they saw them at age five.

Taking this slightly standoffish position, Tom Weaver tells us more about the films’ success as money earners for the Studio, and as training grounds for actors in need of seasoning (Rex Reason, for one). This allows Tom to be brutally honest when relating the various hi-jinks of the men who made most of the pictures, several of whom come off as liars, knaves, credit-stealers and garden-variety Hollywood dastards. Producer William Alland claims to have initiated every show concept. He stuffed the writing credits for his films with his cronies, including a couple of no-talents that swiped authorship from Ray Bradbury, not to mention each other. Good director Jack Arnold must have felt stifled by the small pond of the Alland film unit, for in later years he tried to take credit for everything, even the partial direction of movies he had nothing to do with. It’s so depressing that we have to remind ourselves that some solid entertainment came out of this den of backbiting careerists.

The proof of the fun of Universal Terrors is that reading each chapter renewed interest in seeing the films again, even those I’ve seen too many times to count. The chapters on The Strange Door and The Black Castle are mostly new news to me. The bigger canvas allowed Tom to tell more of the story of the making of It Came from Outer Space than I knew, and I thought I knew a lot. I expected repetition from his earlier book on the first two Creature-Gill Man movies, and was pleased to read fresh material and (I think) see new photos. The out-and-out monster romp Tarantula is packed with new info, much of it concerning helpful deviations from the screenplay, like Nestor Paiva apparently changing his lines to give various scenes an extra bite: “THEY won’t stop it!” Cult of the Cobra concentrates on its interesting cast, with more info on Faith Domergue, the vixen from the perplexingly cool/klunky space epic This Island Earth.

This Island Earth is the one film where I think Tom’s literal, just-the-facts reportage can’t quite encompass what’s on the screen. The show can be called infantile, inconsistent or incompetent, yet it’s a genuine classic, a piece of unexpected film poetry. That’s I think why Robert Skotak loves it so much. Tom does the right thing, slamming the Mystery Science Theater mangling of the film as an unwanted act of cultural mutilation. We KNOW the effects are uneven, but (sigh) in the long run it doesn’t make a difference. TIE and the first Gill Man epic The Creature from the Black Lagoon make the leap from camp matinee nonsense to something greater.

Also setting Tom’s work apart from other coverage of these favorites is his insistence on documentation. Take away his jokes and there’s not a single unsubstantiated fact in the book, and when he extrapolates or makes a judgment call, he’s very clear about it. For instance, he has testimony from the filmmakers of Tarantula that the little spiders were placed on plaster of paris mini- landscapes to match the film clips in which they were to be inserted. Then the spiders were guided by little puffs of compressed air. I first wrote that exact description long ago (like, the 1970s) and have repeated it many times, but I now have no idea where I got it. It’s good to find out that, if I’m a scoundrel who just made it up, I guessed right.

Universal Terrors 1951-1955 has an attractive, nicely designed cover, a full index and an appendix with even more tidbits from the Weaver fact files on these pictures. Here’s a link for the McFarland website and their telephone order line: 800-253-2187.

Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson


( note: a test link to A Chronological Review List for 2017 )