July 4, 2011

Deep In The Heart of East Texas

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
Directed by Ray Kellogg
Starring:
Don Sullivan as Chase Winstead
Fred Graham as Sheriff Jeff
Lisa Simone as Lisa
Bob Thompson as Mr. Wheeler

In 1957, the great, French semiotition and philosopher, Roland Barthes, published Mythologies; a collection of essays originally written for the magazine Les Lettres Nouvelles. Therein, Barthes discussed the meaning of cultural "signs" or signifiers and their meanings within a culture.

For example, in the world of atomic age sci-fi movies; a pipe has tremendous meaning. As a "sign" it is simply a device used for smoking tobacco. Yet, as a signifier, the smoking of tobacco has no importance at all. The pipe is used as a symbol of intellectual authority and competence (even if it's not being smoked or even has tobacco in it). When a character is seen smoking a pipe in the sci-fi movies from the 1950s, the audience understands instantly that whatever this pipe smoker says will carry the weight of thoughtful truth. His words will be right, or at the least understood as right. As a sign, a pipe has a much different significance than a cigar, although both are simple systems for smoking tobacco. A pipe signifies the power of the mind. A cigar, the power of the . . . well, you get the idea.

For Barthes, the broadness of a sign is crucial and directly proportionate to the sign's power. The sign must not be subtle. It must be blunt, obvious, and direct - easily and instantly understood by all. Without an instant understanding, the significance of the sign is marginalized.

Barthes found a perfect signifier in the spectacle of wrestling. Then as now, professional wrestling is a wonderfully broad show, it's transparent extremes essential to its signs. In his essay, "The World Of Wrestling," Barthes said this:

"Each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute clarity, since one must always understand everything on the spot. As soon as the adversaries are in the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles. As in the theatre, each physical type expresses to excess the part which has been assigned to the contestant."1


Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan), singing “The Mushroom Song”

I thought of Barthes and his understanding of cultural signs recently while watching Ray Kellogg's 1959, The Giant Gila Monster; specifically a scene in which the film's hero, teenager Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan), strums a song on a ukulele for his kid sister, Missy (Janice Stone). Missy has just been given a pair of braces for her legs, which she wears like a leather and steel exoskeleton (no medical reasons are given as to why Missy can't use her legs. She is merely "crippled"). As Chase first enters the room, Missy stands and tries to walk across the room, eager to demonstrate her new braces. She stumbles, drops twice, and finally gives up; falling and sobbing into Chase's arms. Chase plops her back on the sofa with her mother (Gay McClendon).2 "Would you like to hear a song?" he asks. Missy, her legs sticking out straight, nods cutely.

Picking up a ukulele which, for convenience's sake, is sitting on the sofa's coffee table, Chase sings "The Mushroom Song," AKA "Let the Children Laugh." A sampling of the lyrics follow:

"And the lord he said I created for you
A world of joy from out of the blue
And all that is left to complete the joy
Just the laugh of a girl and boy
And there was a garden, a beautiful garden
Held in the arms of a world without joy
Then there was laughter, wonderful laughter
For he created, a girl and a boy -

(chorus) And the Lord said, laugh, children, laugh
The Lord said, laugh, children, laugh
The Lord said, laugh, children, laugh."

After chase completes the song, Missy, now enlightened, furrows her brow. "Laughing is important, isn't it, Chase?" she asks with newfound gravity. Oh, it sure is," replies Chase, completing the benediction.

It is the absolute, unrestrained sentimentality of the scene, in all its parts, that made me think of Barthes. I was indeed "overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles." Chase, as a sign, is a young boy singing. Signified, however, he becomes a saint - his pure voice and words a form of heavenly communication. it is immediately understood that Chase signifies decency, love, and spiritual goodness. His Devine message one of hope, strength, and love for the meek and lame of the world. There is no margin for misinterpretation. Director Kellogg pounds a staple with a sledgehammer here; yet whether one laughs, snorts, cries, or is bored - everyone understands. Certainly, a more nuanced approach would have been more powerfully effective for some, but not for all. A sign must effect all, at once, with the unquestioned universality of a crying clown or a stroked, black mustache.

Surely, Barthes would have loved (or at least passionately dissected) The Giant Gila Monster, as he did the world of professional wrestling. I can imagine Barthes feverishly taking notes while watching Gila, enjoying the complete and unashamed clarity of the signs presented.

The Giant Gila Monster begins, as does the previously posted The Killer Shrews, with doom-drama narrator speaking over the boom boom march of timpani: "In the enormity of the West, there are still vast and virtually unexplored regions, bleak and desolate, where no human ever goes; and no life is ever seen. It is as though the land had been posted by God. It is in these lonely areas of impenetrable forest and dark shadows that the Gila Monster still lives. How large the dreaded Gila Monster grows, no man can say." Really? No man can say? Well, anyway - as the narration forecasts the coming Gila apocalypses, we are treated to some of cinematographer Wilfrid M. Cline's scrappy east Texas - all dead pines and flatness (more on Mr. Cline's work later).

The plot for Gila follows a thick, simple thread: A giant Gila Monster, (actually Kellogg used for filming a very similar New Mexican Beaded Lizard) grown huge by the flimsiest of reasons,3 goes on a killing rampage before hero, Chase, is able to kill it using a roadster full of nitroglycerine; which is kept handy for blowing new oil wells. If one approaches Gila hoping to see a monster film, which would be completely understandable, then only disappointment and bitterness can follow. Unlike his Killer Shrews, were a serious and successful effort was made to create real chills, Kellogg here offers only the barest attempt to make his monster believable.

In Gila, Kellogg employed miniature sets and real-time filming; which is my favorite special effects technique of all time when done well. The masterful work of Eiji Tsuburaya (Ultraman, Gojira, H-Man, The Mysterians, etc.) seems far more real and thrilling to me than the 3D CGI of the recent Avatar. Yet, it takes a film like Gila to brutally remind one of how dreadful this technique can be if not handled with the skill of a Tsuburaya. Good Lord, but it's a harsh reminder. Kellogg, as if in acknowledgement of the film's weakness, allows only a sparse dusting of monster special effects at any rate, and those that are attempted are stone-cold terrible. Of all the atomic age sci-fi I have watched (and I would venture few have seen more), no movie has a less convincing monster. For the most part, the lizard is filmed simply walking over sandy areas - sometimes peering through scrubby brush. It is left to the viewer's imagination to make the lizard large. The film offers no help. When scale sets are attempted, they are built of toys - toy cars, trains sets, what have you. The sad, lumbering lizard is then prodded over the tiny, toy landscape. There is no rear-projection, no large scale modeling, no nothing. Just a sluggish, poorly motivated lizard of about two feet; occasionally knocking over toys without any hint of menace. In the climactic scene, when the monster crashes into the rockin' barn dance, the poor lizard's head is clearly being pushed through a small hole in thin, faux wood. Never once is the monster shown in scale with a human. Whereas Tsuburaya's technique of high-speed filming gave his hand-made sets and rubber-suited monsters a tremendous feeling of weight; Kellogg's work makes everything look tiny and weightless. His Gila Monster is reduced by the special effects.

Suffice to say that Gila is one of the rarest of monster movies in that the film's inertia and interest is completely punctured whenever the monster appears. The monster scenes are the picture's sink holes. In a sense, Gila is a reverse image of Kellogg's work on Shrews. Whereas in Shrews, the director created some very convincing monsters with a fascinating creation story (see last post); in Gila; the monster is simply, inexplicably, a lizard made huge - about as scary as . . . a lizard set on top of a table. Consequently, in Shrews, Kellogg isn't terribly interested in his characters. None of them have back stories or interesting tics or foibles.4 In Gila, we are given just enough of the characters' history to make the action between lizard sightings interesting. It is easy to believe that with Gila, Kellogg wanted to make a drama much more than he wanted to make a monster movie; and he also seemed very earnest about catching the moment of a small town in East Texas; rife with scrub pine, great oil fields, and decent if poor folks. The scenes of such - of the hot, Texas drama that struggles for air inside the monster movie - are plenty good enough to suggest a much better picture dormant within the creature feature.

With that, lets move on right to the good stuff:

The Good Stuff, Part I: The Texas of Wilfrid M. Cline

There exists precious little biographic information about the Director of Photography on Gila, Wilfrid M. Cline (listed also as "Wilfred"); but what fragments do exist spark interest: He was born in California in 1903 and died there 73 years later in 1976. He worked throughout his early career in the 1930s as a certified specialist for the Technicolor Corporation, advising directors and cinematographers on the use of process.5 By the 1940s, he had turned his attentions to working exclusively as a cinematographer. He was nominated for the Color Cinematography Oscar in 1942, along with Karl Struss and William E. Snyder, for Aloma of the South Seas (Santell, 1941), a standard vehicle for the colorful sarongs of Dorothy Lamour.6


East Texas – via the lens of Wilfrid M. Cline

Most notable for our discussion here is his camera work on Westerns throughout the 1950s, including two solid Joel McCrae entries, The First Texan (Haskins, 1956) and The Tall Stranger (Carr, 1957). A year before he was Kellogg's cameraman for both Killer Shrews and Gila Monster, Cline was director of photography for the lavish, beautiful From Hell to Texas, directed by Henry Hathaway, staring Don Murray and Dennis Hopper. While a good western, the primary thing one remembers from this movie is the sheer beauty of the Western vistas, all shot in lush Cinemascope (and shot mostly in California's scenic Alabama Hills).7

With such an extensive resume of work done very specifically in the most vivid color film process the world has or ever will know (Technicolor); one can't help but imagine Cline was exited about working in B&W, particularly when given the hard, leafless surface of East Texas for a canvas.

Gone completely in Gila is the romanticized West of his previous 1950s work - gone are the blooming, Cinemascope sunsets of gold and red, dwarfing riders; and gone are the marbleized, towering mountain ranges clothed in purple clouds. Indeed, Cline saw something much different in the plains of East Texas.

Cline's rural Texas is dead - a dead land where only the blackened skeletons of trees are left, often twined and twisted in the agonies of rigor mortis. To the horizon, all is flat and cracked. Homes seem abandoned in this bleak vastness even when they are not; and the stores and garages appear here and there without ever making a town. The teenagers of the film drive their hot rods over this balding, desiccated bulge on the Earth's surface, leaving dust trails that rise and fall in the air. Cline captures this sun-hammered land with deadly joy, making it endless, somehow terrifying and poignant.

The Good Stuff, Part II: Small Universe, Big Drama

Granted, the monster in this monster picture isn't much. Yet the monster's killings act as a catalyst revealing a taut nest of underlying social tensions and densely twined relationships among the oil rigs and parched landscape.

When the son of local, Oil overlord, Mr. Wheeler (Bob Thompson), goes missing, he immediately summons the local sheriff (Fred Graham) to his lavish home so that he may file an extra special missing persons report (we have seen the son, Pat, and his girlfriend, Liz Humphries, killed by the Gila monster earlier, their car pushed into an isolated ravine). The dynamics of this scene are important: the sheriff has come to Wheeler's home on command, not request; and Kellogg shoots the arrival of the sheriff's car in a long shot - so that we may see the large, sprawling house. We don't need to be told. Wheeler's is the largest, grandest house in this part of Texas. It has three stories, and it's so big it has two chimneys and two television antennas. The locals, most of whom are employed on Wheeler's oil rigs, probably refer to it as the Wheeler Mansion or, more likely, just "Wheelers'".


Mr. Wheeler (Bob Thompson) and Sheriff Jeff (Fred Graham) – “Find my son or else!”

Mr. Wheeler, speaking to the sheriff in his housecoat, makes it crystal: Either the sheriff locates his missing son quickly or he can find other employment, most likely in a different state. Hell, insists Wheeler, his son's disappearance has probably got something to do with that Chase Winstead! He influences all the kids!

The film's hero is Chase Winstead, the ukulele-playing saint. He's the local teen leader and hot rod guru (the entire culture of the teens is elbow deep in car grease and hot rods); and Chase, it turns out, has a complicated history with both the oil king, Wheeler, and the local lawman.

Chase is the sole support of his family, including his "crippled" sister, after his father was killed on one of Mr. Wheeler's oil rigs. Over time, any feelings of guilt or reasonability have turned to simple resentment, and Wheeler hates Chase - hates the sight of him, hates their shared history; and hates the influence he has within the teen community.

To further complicate matters, Chase is dating the Wheeler maid; a beautiful French domestic named Lisa (Lisa Simone) whom Mr. Wheeler has sponsored and brought to America, hoping to give his nouveau riche Texas twang a bit of European polish. Significantly, there isn't any Mrs. Wheeler, and while the film suggests nothing overt, at least a sexual tension between maid an employer is difficult not to imagine. At one point in the film, Lisa comes crying to Chase that Mr. Wheeler will withdraw his bond of sponsorship if she continues to see him. "He says it is immoral," sobs Lisa in her French accent (which probably even gives the saintly Chase a hard on). "What is eemore-all?" Whatever goes on behind the drawn shutters of the grand estate, Wheeler is furious that this elegant, sophisticated trophy maid has been dragged right out into the sun-baked world of Texas teens and hot rods, spoiling the intended effect of her employment completely.

Chase has made Wheeler's mademoiselle one of "them" in more ways than one, the bastard; and is it unreasonable to suggest (or at least imagine) that the goody-two-shoes Chase has zeroed-in on the French target with intent? Certainly, the exotic French girl and Texican teen prince make a very natural pair. Indeed, the pair are clearly jukebox royalty; but still - with Ms. Paris on his arm, not only does Chase learn to French kiss; he also gets to give Mr. Wheeler, the man he associates with his father's death, a swift kick in his wrinkled nuts into the bargain. Even a saint would be hard pressed not to enjoy such simple pleasures.


Chase and Lisa (Don Sullivan and Lisa Simone)

There's a nice moment when Chase is seen driving up in his modified Deuce Coup to the back entrance of the Wheeler home. He gives out with a wolf whistle and hops out of his car, walking up to the house with a cocky bounce in his step. This is the only moment in the movie where saintly Chase seems simply a strutting teen. Yessiree. It's nut kicking time.

The Good Stuff, Part III: Teen World

Gila creates a universe - remote, flat, and dust-blown - seen through a teen-culture prism of hot rods, flat-tops, and greasy garages. Teen couples drive in their coupes to nearby Easton, Texas for the drive-in and the summer's big "platter party" (hosted by actual era Texas disc-jockey Steamroller Smith from local KILT).8 The script is rife with hip, hot-rod lingo: Cars are "bombs," driving a car on old tires is "driving barefoot," and a flat tire is a "sore foot." The barn dance, er, "platter party," hosted by "The Steamroller" is full of early R&R patter ("Well, you steamboats and dreamboats," says the Steamroller announcing the party over the radio, "this is the ol' Steamroller on WKILT. If any of you round rocks get lonesome for my voice, I'll be emceeing a platter party tonight out at the Hardcase Barn on Route 43. Drop in. I'll flatten you! "). Clearly, Gila is tailored with care to fit the kids like a pair of penny loafers.


Grease Monkeys - Chase, Gordy, and Rick (Sullivan, Don Flournoy, and Pat Reeves)

The atomic age ushered in the era of the television, which sent movie makers and theaters into a panic. The solution to dwindling ticket sales was to put the marketing bull's-eye on a different demographic. Adults were staying home more, finding television just fine; whereas young folks still wanted to get out of the house, go on a date, feel each other up, etc. Thus, monster movies were suddenly stuffed with superhuman teenagers, much more capable in crisis than any attendant adults; many of who were invariably irritable, prone to panic, and slow witted. This scenario was best exemplified in Irvin Yeaworth's 1958, The Blob; wherein Steve McQeen's teen posse responds to the pulsing, gelatinous alien with an awesome, organized precision; somehow far outstripping the efforts of the adults - many of whom are trained law enforcement officers and war veterans.

The Giant Gila Monster is firmly in this tradition, yet it is not all car grease, rumbling rods, and heroic teenagers. Certainly, Chase Winstead is the most capable person in the film - saintly with advice, honorable, courageous and calm under stress. At the end of the film, he naturally saves the day ghost-riding his modified deuce coop loaded with nitroglycerine into the monster, blowing it to jerky. Yet, what makes Gila special in the history of superhuman teen movies is the relationship between hero, Chase, and the town's sheriff.

Most of the teen monster movies of the era have one understanding adult in the cast, including The Blob.9 In Gila, the relationship between teen, Chase, and grizzled adult, Sheriff Jeff, is much more sharply defined and intimate. The Sheriff, in fact, is Chase's surrogate father, replacing the original father lost to the oil rigs. The film is dotted with many "father and son" moments, all well done and surprisingly moving. Consider the following bit of business wherein the sheriff has come to Compton's Auto Garage where Chase works, hoping to learn the whereabouts of a missing teen couple (the rich Mr. Wheeler's son and the son's girlfriend, who we know have been killed by the Gila in an earlier scene):

After some idle chatter, the sheriff checks the door to the garage's office, making sure they are alone. "Chase, just between us, Liz Humphries and Pat Wheeler didn't get home last night."

"They were supposed to meet us at the drive-in, but they didn't show up. We wondered what happened."

The sheriff stares hard at Chase. "Were they in any kind of . . . trouble?"

Chase looks confused. "What do you mean?"

After a moment, the sheriff says simply, "You know."

Understanding makes Chase's face go slack. He looks away, down at the floor, clearly embarrassed as he rubs his grease stained hands together. "Oh," he says softly. "No. I don't think so."

"Chase, level with me."

Chase lifts his face and meets the sheriff's eyes. "I'm almost positive they weren't in any trouble."

The two go on to discuss the missing couple, establishing at least the possibility of a covert elopement. The scene is simple and lean - confident, sparse, even sophisticated.

In several such Spartan scenes Director Kellogg makes it clear that the sheriff and Chase have a mentor/student relationship at the very least; and this relationship dominates the film. Chase, through an understanding with the Sheriff, receives early notice whenever a car needs a tow, and the lawman even allows Chase to cherry pick parts off the wrecks. In turn, Chase fixes the lawman's car for free (the film subtly makes in clear that the sheriff's small, local department gets little help from the State). Thus, when their lean strip of Texas highway starts getting littered with abandoned wrecks (the drivers of which have all been eaten by the giant Gila), Chase and the sheriff work as a team, piecing together the events of the crash. In these moments, Chase is clearly the technical expert, determining speed, skid marks, etc.; while the sheriff puts events into a larger context - who will be effected by the accidents; and what it will mean to the people involved and the community. The script and directing in these scenes is completely absent of decoration yet, like the leafless trees and bushes that stalk the landscape, these exchanges are effective and real. Real, also, is the sheriff's powerful paternal protection of Chase.

In an early scene, when town tyrant, Mr. Wheeler, accuses Chase of corrupting his son and the rest of the town youth, the Sheriff visibly swells with anger, takes a step in so that he is nearly bumping chests with the oil man, and delivers a sound dressing down in defense of Chase; reminding Wheeler that Chase's father died on one of his oil rigs (the sheriff delivers this reaming despite the fact that Mr. Wheeler could demand his badge without a moment's notice). In the staging of this scene, Kellogg leaves no doubt. This is not a lawman expressing a general sympathy for one of the kids; this is a father leaping to the defense of a beloved son.

The Good Stuff, Part IV: The Brutal Economy of Texas Tea

Sure. As a monster film, Gila is guaranteed to disappoint and has received nothing but lambasting from critics and fans. In Kellogg's other film, The Killer Shrews (last post), the director was able to construct some surprisingly effective, if low-rent, monsters. As previously discussed, no such luck here. The "monster" in Gila is a complete washout - a slow moving lizard who clearly just wants to hide from the lights somewhere under a rock. It lurches over tabletop sets or scrub brush without energy or any signal of evil intent. If anything, I found myself wishing the film makers would just leave the poor thing alone.

Kellogg clearly didn't have his heart in a monster film this time around. Instead, he wanted to make a film about a small town on the vast oil field of East Texas - about the hard scrapple, decent people and how the land and economy shapes them. On these terms, Kellogg came close to making a dinger.

The setting for the film, and probably the shooting local as well, is around Easton, Texas (the Steamroller's platter party takes place in Easton, yet it isn't clear if Chase and friends are driving, or are already, there). In any case, Easton is an actual small town in East Texas (pop. In the 2000 census was 524 souls) which looks much the same, if a bit more prosperous, today as in Kellogg's film.

The history of the East Texas oil field is fascinating, full of genius and scandal. Suffice to say that since it was discovered in the 30s, approximately 30,350 wells have been drilled into its 140,000 acres, yielding about 5.2 billion barrels of oil.10 Kellogg has set his movie on the desiccated crust that covers this toxic, black tomb of riches.

Oil permeates this movie. Chase, our hero, spends a good part of the film covered in the stuff, working at Compton's garage (you just know Chase is one of those grease monkeys who will work on cars his whole life, turning into one of those happy men who can never fully scrub the grease from the crevices around his fingernails). The garage where he works is lined with shelves of Mobil Oil products, from auto parts to lube.11 The richest man in town (the only rich man in town), Wheeler, owns all the local wells, one of which killed Chase's father. Chase's father was a dynamite expert, which is used to blow stubborn wells, and before his death had trained his son in its use (Chase uses his knowledge of dynamite to destroy the lackadaisical monster). Hell, even the trees, withered and black, seemed to have tapped into oil via roots searching for water.

Most locals work on the rigs and spend their lives trying to cause oil blisters to burst through the ground; and Wheeler commands the entire population of the town about as employees; i.e. the sheriff is summoned to his home to take the missing person report of his son and is flatly told to give it top priority. Mr. Compton (Cecil Hunt), owner of the town's garage, is directed to pick up some dynamite and store it, free of charge, in the garage's equipment shed. Make no mistake, without Wheeler and his oil rigs, there is no town. The inhabitants of the town live like sharecroppers, surviving year in and out by the crop of oil. Beyond the teen's insular world of rock & rollin' hot rods, the adult world and framework for the film is Texas oil.


Chase working with Mr. Compton (Don Sullivan and Cecil Hunt)

Smartly, and most refreshingly, Kellogg has populated his movie with real Texans, nearly all of which are non-actors. Mr. Compton, played by Cecil Hunt, speaks in a twang no actor could ever manage. His palate has been shaped by the land, and the lines in his face were given to him by Texas sun and grit. When he tells Chase that he has used the A-frame of the tow truck to build himself a rock garden, the moment seems nearly adlibbed.

Pure-D Texas as well are the Humphries, played by Howard Ware and Stormy Meadows. The couple are the parents of Liz Humphries, the girl gone missing with local rich kid, Pat Wheeler. In one of the best scenes in the film, the sheriff has come to their home to speak to the couple about their missing daughter. The husband and wife step out to speak to the sheriff, Mrs. Humphries wringing her hands in her apron.

The father, sleeved rolled up and wearing overalls, tells the sheriff that his Elizabeth is a good girl and he isn't worried. "How come you drove around in the truck all night, then?" asks his wife lovingly. The sheriff puts his hand on Mrs. Humphries shoulder. "You don't think she might have eloped, do you?"

"Could be," says Agatha Humphries simply 'She's awfully closed mouth about her affairs."

"Ma," says her husband briskly, "the likes of Wheeler ain't marrying our kind of folks."

After a beat, the sheriff explains that, since the family doesn't have a phone, he wanted to stop out and assure them in person he is doing all he can to find their girl.

"I'm sorry Elizabeth put you to so much trouble, sheriff" says Agatha.

"It's never any trouble looking after kids," says the sheriff.

As the couple go back into their house, Ed Humphries puts his large arm around his wife's shoulders. "We have to stop worrying like this," he says, talking more to himself than his wife. "We have to trust in the Lord. We have to pray."

Contrasting this scene with the one in which the sheriff is ordered to come to the home of Mr. Wheeler, we have a glimpse of the subtle film maker that dwelt inside Ray Kellogg. The scenes are shot the same way, each opening with the sheriff pulling his patrol car up to a house, one lavish - even somehow garish in the flat, hard landscape; the other modest, simple - yet in harmony with the hard, barren surroundings. One seems an ornate, cold structure; the other - for all its humble size - seems a home. In the earlier scene, Mr. Wheeler flatly demands the sheriff find his son or he will take his job. In the later scene, a couple struggle to comfort themselves, hoping to find solace in prayer (More of Barthes' cultural signs abound).

Yet, significantly, we have sympathy for both, largely because we know something the players don't - that both kids from both families are dead. Certainly Kellogg places his sympathies with the half-nots, casting Wheeler as the piece's villain. Yet, significantly, he does not abandon all sympathy. The sheriff, despite the problematic father, works to find the spoiled Wheeler boy as hard as he tries to find the daughter of the devote, humble Humphries. He desperately wants the kids, both kids, to be found safe and sound. When Wheeler asks the sheriff in panic and disgust, "you don't think they've eloped?" The sheriff, exasperated, says, "Mister, you'd better hope so!"

Kellogg finds sympathy for both Mr. Wheeler and the Humphries because he wanted to make a film about people, not monsters.

The Giant Gila Monster, once one surrenders the monster, has the rawboned ingredients of a fine, character-driven study of a small community in East Texas in the late 1950s - how these people, both rich and poor, respond to hardship, panic; and the bonds shaped by a hard, unforgiving landscape. It's too damn bad the Gila monster gets in the way and fucks things up.

Imagine for a moment a different film; one in which a murderer drifts into a small Texas community, killing local teenagers - causing the same damage the bogus reptile does in The Giant Gila Monster. Place a human monster as the centerpiece. We might even call him Joe Gila. Imagine this kid-killer pitted against Sheriff Jeff and his adopted son, Chase.


Chase and Sheriff Jeff (Don Sullivan and Fred Graham)

With this imagined noir as a canvas, I have an idea that Ray Kellogg might have risen to the call and given us a B masterpiece, perhaps in the same vein as Edgar Ulmer's Detour. Instead we are left with a fascinating misfire - wherein the sub-plots lay forever simmering.



  1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (Hill and Wang, 1972)
  2. Wife of Gila's producer, Gordon McClendon- for more on the interesting McClendon, see previous post. It should be added that during the singing of "The Mushroom Song" the mature Mrs. McClendon, who sits on the sofa's arm, has a difficult time maintaining a convincing level of enthusiasm throughout the scene. Perhaps due to the profound level of saccharine, she appears obviously eager for the scene to be over.
  3. There is one short scene in which an attempt is made to explain the giant Gila's size: The sheriff discusses with Chase that this sort of gigantism has been seen before. He remarks that giant bones have been found in Tanganyika, and that a ten-month old baby was once recorded weighing 130 pounds. Ipso facto - the giant Gila! It is significant to note that the Sheriff, for the first and only time in the film, takes the added precaution of smoking a pipe in this scene.
  4. It is easy to be fooled by the fine acting of James Best as Captain Sherman in Shrews, but the character is completely composed by Mr. Best. The scriptwriter provides us with nothing about the character of the captain.
  5. Wilfrid famously had a terrible time with the great James Wong Howe - Body and Soul, King's Row, The Sweet Smell of Success - during the filming of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Taurog, 1938). Howe thought all the characters should wear dull, earth tones to enhance authenticity.
  6. Charles Mathews, Oscar A to Z (Doubleday, 1995) - the Wilfrid/Howe story above is taken from the same work.
  7. The Internet Movie Database, From Hell To Texas, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051636/locations
  8. The radio station owned by Gila producer, the amazing Gordon McLendon.
  9. Lt. Dave, played by Earl Rowe, was the officer in charge and sympathetic to "the kids."
  10. Texas State Historical Association, The Handbook of Texas Online; East Texas Oil Field, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/doe01
  11. Exxon Mobil today has their corporate headquarters in Irving Texas


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8 comments:

  1. This was a popular movie on MST3K. I think I saw it 3 or 4 times and always enjoyed it. My brother and I recorded a version of a song from that movie. The words were:
    My baby she rocks and rolls
    and always knows
    and tippsie-toes
    etc...

    and I can't remember the rest.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks Mykal. I saw GGM several years ago and did not aprreciate it so much - watched as a boring monsters-not-much-monsters movie. I will watch it back and I'm sure I will enjoy the reading you suggest. And then I never heard about a wrestling study from Roland Barthes, that's really funny! I remember his semiotic study from the University along with the ones by Gerard Genette and Christian Metz... I never graduated!!!! I split my sides fot these quotes "He says it is immoral," sobs Lisa in her French accent (which probably even gives the saintly Chase a hard on)" and also "Even a saint would be hard pressed not to enjoy such simple pleasures."
    A very good post, thanks again!

    ReplyDelete
  3. KW: That song was acutally written by Steamroller Smith!

    Dotter: Thanks! To my midwestern ears, a French girl sounds immoral even saying the word.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Absolutely spot on with your analysis that the monster was halfheartedly added in and a human killer would have been infinitely more effective. I would have loved to see that.

    I always thought the best part of the film is how they used an area of the US where cars were essential to travel the landscape, which was a popular enough conceit in 1950s scifi but works very well here. So they appeal to the kids by including hot rods, but it also results in a ready-made detective who can deduce what the damage to the cars the gila has attacked is really from. It's all a little thin in reality, but still one of the highlights of this film.

    You're right about that poor lizard. I haven't felt so sorry for the creature in a feature since I watched Night of the Lepus.

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  5. Thanks, Stacia - I thought the film really had the framework for something great. You are so right - the hot rod kid works beautifully as the sheriff's sidekick, nailing the technical aspects of the crash. Also, Chase served as a kind of liaison between the hot rodders as well - slowing them down a bit, keeping them near the legal side of things. The sheriff throughout treats Chase like a son.

    I should have included a screen shot of those modified coupes the kids drove. They here cool.

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  6. hey great blog! I love long b-movie articles. I have to sit back and go through this stuff now.

    Thanks for the add at The Uranium Cafe, which was named coincidentally after the famous diner near Los Alamos NM. I drove past a sign back in about 1993 and I remember seeing The Uranium Cafe and that always stuck with me. never stopped to eat and I think the place has closed down once or twice. Have to look that up.

    Radioactive sci-fi flicks are maybe my favorite of all really.

    Bill

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  7. Thanks, Bill. I've always wanted to visit Los Alamos for obvious reasons. I was there as a kid, but want to go back and collect stuff for this blog.

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  8. Mykal,
    While I take your point about tormenting the poor beaded lizard to make this film, it doesn't seem terribly annoyed. It's certainly nothing like the terrible footage of lizards and crocodiles in "One Million B. C." (1940) and "The Lost World" (1960).

    I quite like the lack of a phony origin for the "monster" in this film, unlike (for example) "The Giant Behemoth" (1959). This monster just grew bigger due to lack of competition and plenty of food, like a goldfish in a large aquarium. (I don't keep an aquarium, so perhaps that's just an urban myth? Correct me if I'm wrong.) BTW, it seems its ancestor, Estesia, was up to 300cm (almost 10 feet) long. How big was the GGM?

    I hope Joe Lansdale sees this review and is inspired to write "The Great East Texas Novel"!
    Thanks!

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