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, 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.
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.
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.
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).
Paul J. Bradley
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1 thought on “Classic Hollywood Science Fiction Films from the 50s: Part One”
Great review of the classic sci-if films of the 50s. My favourite two are THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. You mentioned “Farewell to The Master” and you’ll know that the original story had quite a twist in the end.
I always feel that Day The Earth Stood Still has a message which still resonates.
THE THING is so well written for the ensemble cast and lovely to see Kenneth Tobey in the lead. I couldn’t bring myself to see the remake!