May 8, 2009

The Fast, Cheap World of Mr. B.I.G.

Nobody ever wanted to sell you a ticket to the drive-in more than Bert I. Gordon.

Even in a decade of film making known for rabid pursuit of naked revenue, where directors and producers like Roger Corman (The Day the World Ended), Richard Cunha (Frankenstein’s Daughter), and Herman Cohen (I was a Teenage Werewolf) reigned like whirling monarchs virtually mugging an audience for ticket money, Gordon was a forced to be reckoned with.

Attack of the Puppet People

There is a perfect moment of Gordon Zen in Attack of the Puppet People (1958) which perfectly captures the maestro’s giddy zest for self-promotion: Bob Westley (John Agar), salesman from St. Louis, has decided to pop the question to Sally Reynolds (June Kennedy). He takes her to see a film at Rosecrans Drive in Theater. We see the marquee displaying the tag line of another Gordon movie that was out the same year as Puppet - “Amazing Colossal Man – 60 foot Giant Gone Mad!” We watch over the couple’s shoulder a critical scene from Colossal – that is, we are watching a Bert I. Gordon movie, in which we watch a couple watching a Bert I. Gordon movie. Just to cement the moment, Sally asks Bob, “Did you pick this show for any particular reason?” Bob, unable to tear his eyes away from the screen and all its wonders, answers, “I get tired of the same things all the time, don’t you?”

The scene continues with the actors in Puppet having to fight for attention against the interspersed moments from Colossal, even having to speak their lines between the rantings of Lt. Col. Manning - the amazing colossal man. Eventually Bob does ask Sally to marry him, but even that is done in between moments of tension from Colossal as the actors in Puppet can’t take their eyes of the screen for anything but brief moments. And, of course, any scrap of human drama or sentiment has been blissfully crushed in Gordon’s shameless bid for ticket sales – the moment so crass and so self-referential as to produce a kind of vertigo; like watching a mirrored reflection of a mirrored reflection, telescoping into infinity.

The Cyclops

They called Bert I. Gordon many things: Mr. B.I.G. (for both the monogram of initials and his affection for rear projection whereby men and insects could be economically made huge); Schlockmeister, Penny-Pincher, Money-Grubber, Director, Producer – but they never called him over budget, that’s for goddamn sure; and they never called him an artist, either. Not that he would have cared a rat’s ass at any rate about being called an artist (being called over budget would have driven him into a killing rage, though). Artist? Please. Fella, do you know what an “artist” pulls down a year? Shit. That’s what they make per annum. Shit. Zip. Bupkis. They starve, most of them. You want art, go to a museum. I got a wife and a little girl to feed.

Bottom Line? As long as you bought a ticket, you could call Bert Gordon whatever the hell you liked because you’d already bought into his game, anyway. Gordon was all about ticket sales, and he specialized in broad strokes, big story concepts you could sketch out on a dinner napkin, and moving pictures projected on white walls as big as a two story house.
Artist? I got your artist!

So, a serious, critical retrospective of Gordon’s work playing at the art houses in New York is not something I would hold your breath for, and the sleek Criterion Collection treatment of War of the Colossal Beast may be a long time coming (God, for that I would pay $29.00). As of this writing, Gordon’s work has been the basic diet for the vile Mystery Science Fiction Theater 3000. Gordon does have, however, a loyal fan base that love his movies without an over-cute, smarmy commentary track, regardless of their lack of critical recognition and obvious lack of scholarly attention. Why is that? Well, I’m one of those fans, and I can’t think of a quick answer. Let’s see if we can make sense of it - flesh this thing out a bit.

I have found Gordon highly watchable at his worst and best, for very different reasons. First, let’s look at Mr. Gordon’s output when time and money ruled the roost.

In his worst films, often the raw pursuit of ticket sales caused a Gordon film to shame itself in an effort to please: witness the immortal moment in Earth Vs. the Spider (1958) when a dead, giant spider (killed by gallons and gallons of DDT sloshed around by sheriff deputies like kids at a pool party) is stored at the local high school gym; and subsequently revived by the decibel level of an impromptu jam session by the local garage band (Swing it, cats!). Or, similarly, in Attack of the Puppet People (1958) Laurie (Marlene Willis), shrunken victim of the insane doll maker, apropos of very little, decides to sing “You’re My Living Doll” to her shrunken boyfriend, Stan (Ken Miller, the actor portraying Stan, is reduced to standing beside Marlene Wills, mugging and grinning like a pet puppy. Miller, while remembering Gordon fondly, has called this the most humiliating film experience of his career. “I wanted to crawl under the giant telephone,” recalled Miller in a 1998 interview with Tom Weaver).

In treasured moments like these, dramatic tension, not to mention anything resembling plot integrity, is completely sacrificed for a single scene the kids at the drive-in would presumably go for. Gordon didn’t understand teenagers well and badly underestimated their appreciation of a film. His own daughter, Susan, was around 7 or so when Gordon’s most beloved and famous films were produced. This is interesting because the teenagers in a Gordon film rarely behave like teenagers; that is – as young people struggling with raging sexual desires, social displacement, and anger (so well portrayed in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause – 1955). No, in a Gordon film, the “teenagers” either behave like odd, delirious children (as in the scenes mentioned above), or odd, stuffy adults; like the teenage couple in Spider, Mike and Carol. Carol (June Kenney) begins the film concerned for her father, who “didn’t return home last night” seeming more maternal than daughterly. As for Mike (Eugene Persson); when facing death and thinking about his father, remarks calmly “ah, he’s a pretty good Joe. He’ll be alright, I guess." (steady there, son. Try to get a grip on yourself). Gordon wasn’t the only film-maker of the era hoping to cash in on the newly-burgeoning teenage drive-in market and managing only to misread an entire demographic. In The Blob, (Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr.) which came out the same year as Earth Vs.The Spider (but had a much larger budget), such an obvious effort was made to kowtow to the teenagers in the audience the film turns young people into dull, dignified adults and somehow much better equipped emotionally to handle crises that the town’s law enforcement officials, several of whom are Korean war veterans.

Attack of the Puppet PeopleOne of the things that shaped a Gordon production was the rip-snorting speed of the shooting schedule. According to wife, Flora (who assisted on many pictures), all of the films that make up the Gordon fifties oeuvre were done in ten days or so, fifteen tops. In addition, the budget for most of Gordon’s output for this period was approximately $50,000 per. While these time and money constraints were not un-typical for several film-makers of the period (Roger Corman, in his autobiography, How I made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, boasts of shooting Little Shop of Horrors in two days), it did force a director/producer to establish priorities. In films like The Last Woman on Earth (1960) and The Day the World Ended (1955), Corman relied on a network of social tension and character conflict to propel his movies. For Corman, effects were of marginal importance and often look it. With Gordon, the concentration was on action, swift pace, and his beloved “special technical effects.” Often (but not always as we will see in part II of this post) many of the elements of quality film-making were sacrificed in the rush; like character back story, plot development, or a good (or even coherent) script. This often had the unusual effect of a created world void of human resonance; a cold, bloody but bloodless universe lacking the emotional depth of a warm reality.

Earth Vs. The Spider

Take, for example, the vision of the city landscape in Earth Vs. The Spider after the attack, with damage hysterically out of proportion to anything any arachnid, regardless of size, would seem capable of. The city appears as though blighted by nuclear devastation; with burned out cars and blowing trash, buildings broken and gutted, and an orphaned, bloody baby crying among the debris of the abandoned streets. This baby simply appears screeching for a presumably dead mother, a horrible touch in a piece of stock footage from God knows what movie or (heaven forbid) real disaster. There is no effort in Spider to explain his abandonment or suggest any eventual safety. This wailing, blood-covered baby is left on its own, merely a detail of the holocaust. To actually make the baby safe or suggest some unique identity for the infant would have taken additional lines of dialogue or perhaps an extra shot or two. In other words, money and time, both in very short supply on a Gordon set. In scenes of rampage like this one, characters in a Gordon production never seem connected particularly to the actual carnage. Scenes of stock footage are interspersed between characters talking in a room, their clothes unwrinkled, as they discuss the tragedy in voices suggesting mild agitation. The effect is like watching an awful car wreck where no one seems particularly moved by the torn cars and bodies but yourself.

Or take the rather heartless treatment and startling lack of sympathy afforded the principal attractions in both The Cyclops (1957) and War of the Colossal Beast (1958). Both films borrow heavily from one of Gordon’s best movies, the aforementioned The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) in which a man, exposed to enormous levels of radiation, grows to enormous size. Cyclops, which served as a kind of warm up to the huge, bald man in a diaper theme, has Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott) forming an expedition to search the mountains of Mexico where her fiancé (Bruce Barton) has vanished in a plane crash. The mountainous area, however, is host to a massive uranium deposit, however, that has irradiated Susan’s fiancé into a 50 foot, deformed creature with a partially-exposed face and one, single eye; and a ruined brain (he/it can barely remember her or his passed life, reduced to only growls and screams). Once discovering that her fiancé is a huge, mutated “monster,” Susan doesn’t explore the possibility of aiding her betrothed for more than a moment, and seems able to handle any grief very effeciently. Even though the admittedly no longer handsome giant never seems to do anything particularly threatening other that romp around and make loud cries of pain and anger, Susan becomes quickly resolved in destroying him and/or fleeing back to the expeditions’ plane for a safe exit.

His need for extermination is self evident by the horrid spectacle he has become. Before the unfortunate Mr. Barton will be gratefully released from his torment by death, our expedition (which was organized to save him) will stab his single eye out, splattering blood and eye gore all over his massive face, sending him in heart-wrenching screeches of pain (heart wrenching for us viewers, that is. The characters on film are delighted with the monster’s torture). The film ends with the male lead, Russ Bradford (James Craig), turning Susan’s face from the spectacle of her dying fiancé, who has collapsed dead from exhaustion and blood lose, as their plane speeds back to a world of normal, handsome people (particularly gripping in these last scenes is the horrid spectacle of the monstrous, deformed, blind Barton, reaching at the plane as it speeds away over him, leaving him to die sightless and alone. The film is constructed in such a way that it is meant to look like the beast is clawing at the escaping plane, hoping for destruction, but considering the blind, near death condition of the creature, it looks for all the world like Barton is gesturing and crying out for help in his dying spasms). As is typical with a Gordon film of this vintage, spectacle and action trump character development and script. In the end, Susan is simply fleeing a monster with the rest of the mercenaries of the expedition; far too easily consoled by the new man in her life. Any other resolution would have required a different focus and a different set of priorities. Gordon clearly believed that brutal action sold more popcorn and soda than a complex love story, however, so Barton dies alone and blind, his massive body left to rot over the radiating bed of uranium in the mountains of Mexico.

In War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Gordon was propelled by the success of Amazing Colossal Man the previous year to bring poor Lt. Col. Manning back to life after his horrible execution and fall into the rocky gorge at Hoover Dam. The fall has crushed Manning’s face, though, turning it into a horrible jigsaw of mashed bone, exposed teeth and skull, and gaping eye socket. It also has left him with some sort of wretched brain damage as well, and the unfortunate beast spends most of the movie strapped down in the hangar of a military base, wailing pitifully, while his sister and officials try to figure out what the hell to do with him. In the original Colossal Man, the fiancé was played with great passion and force by Cathy Downs. For the second film, Manning’s sister is the voice of concern, played by Sally Frazer, who is given several thankless lines of token sympathetic dialogue but doesn’t even begin to breath any real life into the part. She simply wants to go on record, it seems, to suggest officially that something should be done to help her husband. She seems as relieved as anyone when Manning meets his final end.

In these films, which are not Gordon’s best by any means, we still find something that makes them watchable, and that is pace. If Gordon did anything consistently right, it was film editing and story pace. A Gordon picture, regardless of dotty science, erratic moments, or shameful self-promotion, never ever dragged. In this he was the cinematic equivalent of another 1950’s pop culture artist, Mickey Spillane. Spillane was not a great writer, and many would argue he wasn’t even a good writer – but no one ever left a Mike Hammer adventure feeling cheated, and damn few could resist the urge to turn the pages (myself included). Spillane, like Gordon, enjoyed action and the raw spectacle of violence. And a final and very important trait the two Atomic Age personalities had in common – they both made their living at what they did. They loved it, sure, but it was primarily their meal ticket, and neither man liked living cheap or hungry.

The absolute worst of Gordon is surely King Dinosaur (1955), which is the best example of the kind of twisted, soulless spectacle a film can become when all is surrendered to the need to make a fast, cheap film that sells tickets and popcorn. It is not possible to discuss Gordon and his faults and glories without discussing his one complete and utter misfire.

I despise the “so bad it’s good” school of film appreciation (or depreciation), but in the case of Dinosaur it is hard to argue for a different approach. It is not possible to watch this film without repressing a groan or even – yes, it must be said – a laugh. If any film in the history of cinema was comprised of more stock footage, I would like to know about it. At least the first 4 or 5 minutes of the film is pure stock, and much of the dinosaur and wooly mammoth footage throughout comes from One Million BC (has there ever been a film more tapped for footage that BC?).

King Dinosaur

In the case of Dinosaur, a plot summary tells every nuance of the tale: Astronomers have discovered another planet in our solar system – Planet Nova. A team of four scientists (Team Nova!) are assembled to investigate. They discover a prehistoric planet on which there is an island inhabited by dinosaurs (extremely unlucky iguanas and monitor lizards with horns and fins attached). Our scientists decide to blow up the island with a nuclear device just to be on the safe side; walking casually back to their space ship as a mushroom cloud towers over the island. Both the unfortunate reptiles as well as the unfortunate female stars take a terrible beating in this film as overenthusiastic actor Douglas Henderson, playing Zoologist Richard Gordon, is terrifyingly physical in his performance; knocking his female co-stars around like helpless sparring partners – all under the guise of “moving them out of harm’s way.” In one particularly startling scene, Henderson pushes actress Patti Gallagher back (so that he can get a clean shot with his rifle) with such force she gives her head a crack against a piece of overhanging rock wall (you can see the actress say “ouch” and clutch instinctively at her head as her hair flies around). Along with his pushing and shoving, Henderson barks orders at the ladies with an odd irritation in his voice throughout the picture - a grating, acidic tone certainly not required for the part; all of which leads a viewer to the sad conclusion that either Henderson was not pleased with his casting or was simply a misogynistic prick behind the cameras as well as in front of them.

In this post we have examined how Gordon’s love of speed, action, and self promotion could result in some very brisk, surreal viewing. At his very worst, nearly everything was sacrificed for cheap, quick spectacle. There was a skilled film-maker there, however, lurking under (or perhaps watching over) the ticket hawker; an artist that knew his craft.

Oops. Did I call Mr. B.I.G an “artist?” Well, yes. I did. In my next post, The Cheap, Fast World of Mr. B.I.G. Pt. II, we will discuss his finest film: The Beginning of the End (1957), and I will explain further. – Radiation Cinema!

23 comments:

  1. I am so freaked out by the puppet movie!! But I have a real thing for dinosaurs. I may need to have a Bert Gordon film fest..

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  2. Ms. PinkMonkey: You can't go wrong with a Mr. B.I.G. Film Festival! Stay tuned for my next post, coming in a week or so, where I talk about his best work. BTW - still waiting on my deliver of Triffids - can't wait to give that the once over and review. Did you enjoy the Book -- Mykal

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  3. Hey there. First of all, thanks for the comment you left at my blog. It was nice hearing from you. I love your blog. It's so awesome. I definitely plan to check it out more when I have the time. I've never seen any of Gordon's work that I know of. Cool post though. Take care. Have a cool & swingin' weekend. Cheers!

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  4. Every time I hear the name Bert I. Gordon it makes me think of a write up in an old Fangoria back issue from the early 80s on a movie that looked pretty scary but ended up as a straight to video release. It was called The Coming (aka Burned at the Stake). There was a photo of a person with warts or boils all over their face that makes me gag just thinking about it.

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  5. Keith: I like your blog as well. Very cool (of course, the nature of your blog demands a certain level of cool, right? In terms of cool, there will never be anything cooler than the 1950s Rat Pack!) Feel free to follow my blog so as not to miss a single radiated moment! -- Mykal

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  6. StarMummy: The Coming was also released as Burned at the Stake, a film about Selem, MA and the witch trails. That's a hard one to find on DVD or video, I've discovered, but it has a mixed to fair rep among horror fans (of which I know you are one!). Gordon, by the way, is still alive. His last film was made in 1990s Satan's Princess. - Mykal

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  7. great article, but didn't Sally Frazer play Glen Manning's sister in WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST and not his wife? just saw this one recently. looking forward to your views on BEGINNING OF THE END. Peter Graves!

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  8. Prof: Crap! You're right. Crap! Hell! Crap! I'm going to have to go back and change that after I let it hang there for a day or so for all the world to see and jeer at! I watched the movie not that long ago, either. My mind must be going to mush. CRAP!

    Good catch, though, and thanks for bringing it to my attention (and thanks as well for coming on board as a beloved reader. I really enjoy your blog as well!)

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  9. Your opening line is priceless and really sets the stage for a great article!

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  10. Great stuff, as always. I'm afraid I haven't seen anything of Gordon's other than his seventies movies. Whatever you think of these, I guess it says something pretty good about him that he was still plugging away at the likes of Empire of the Ants and Food of the Gods in the post-Exorcist years...
    Does it say something terrible about me that I laughed when 'Dr Patricia Bennett' got yanked backwards over the ridge? And how much protection would a tiny little ridge afford against a massive atomic explosion? Especially as they can't resist peeping over the top to watch it?

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  11. I just discovered your blog and this is fantastic, I love these old movies. B.I.G's are some of my favorites. I see you are doing the classic The Beginning of the End next, excellent.
    I will be following.
    SQ

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  12. Matthew: Thanks a lot. The amazing thing about his 1970s work is that it is exactly the same as the 1950s stuff (at least Empire of the Antswas. I haven't seen Food of the Gods yet but should receive it in the next few days). Take away the color and 70s styles, and you have the same kind of pacing, scripting, etc. Speaking of Empire, Joan Collins was very vocal in saying without any hesitation that Empire of the Ants was the most miserable acting experience she had ever had on any film. Now it is easy to think of Joan Collins being a prima donna, but after watching Empire, she has my sympathies. She spends at least 75% of the film drenched in either rain or swamp water, her clothes filthy and soaked. Gordon has the lot of them trudging in brackish water, over some very tough terrain, for a good piece of the film. The regal treatment befitting an English beauty she did not receive.

    And yes, it makes you a bad person to laugh at poor Wanda Curtis getting yanked ass over tea kettle, but then you have a lot of company, including myself I'm ashamed to say. Man, those gallant ladies took a hell of a beating in that film.

    SquirrelQueen: Thanks for the kind words and thanks for becoming a Beloved Reader (I hate that term "follower" - I always feel like I should be wearing a madman expression when I say, like Fu Manchu!). I'll try not to disappoint! -- Mykal

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  13. Hey, just found this blog! It's excellently written - I'll be stopping by often.

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  14. Dear Tyrant: Thank you. I popped over to your blog and found it well worth following and very cool. Very tyrannical! (I must admit I wish you had a “follower” option in your sidebar. What Tyrant doesn’t seek followers? I would gladly become one!) -- Mykal

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  15. Thanks for the kind words, Mykal. The Tyrant does indeed seek to extend her domininion to your 'Earth' - maybe a follower option might be a start...
    TGT

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  16. Dear Great Tyrant: I have already submitted to the best of my meager abilities. I have been watching your blog with devotion. I count the days when I can place my glowing, yellow icon amongst your followers. -- Mykal

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  17. Do you think Bert I. Gordon was his real name? It seems like a pretty lucky coincidence for a guy who likes making BIG movies!

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  18. Hey, KW: Yep, Bert Ira Gordon. He was just born to make big bug films! -- Mykal

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  19. Love Bert I. Gordon! Such an inventive filmmaker.

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  20. Mr. Jeffery: Yes, I agree. Also, he just flat loved making movies! That goes a far way in my book. -- Mykal

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  21. Great blog. I came here while researching misogyny in 50's movies. Your description of King Dinosaur is spot on. I'm surprised that there are not more comments about the treatment of the women in King Dinosaur on some of the other boards like IMDB. The "hero" in this pathetic flick isn't all that endearing.

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  22. Dan: Thanks for comments. The hero of King Dinosaur (not to mince words) was just a mean, bitter, little prick! Man, I hated that guy. -- Mykal

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