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Thursday, April 5, 2012


Yes, it’s another “It” movie!  And it’s a welcome addition to the list of 50s sci-fi favorites!  “It” comes from outer space, even before the opening titles, as a bullet-shaped fireball, with sparks flying, on a crash course for Earth.  The made-for-3D image fills the screen, head on, looking more like a golf ball than an alien ship.  But hey!  This is fan-favorite fun, from a bygone time.  (We expect nothing more or less.)  With the explosion, the title extends toward us—It Came from Outer Space.

Next, the narrator and main character John Putnam (Richard Carlson) tells us it’s late evening and early spring in Sandrock, Arkansas.   Sandrock is a simple place where the sheriff never wears his gun, and nothing out of the ordinary ever happens—nothing that is, until “It” arrives!  On this early spring night, John is with Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush)—his girlfriend—enjoying a romantic albeit Leave it to Beaver evening at home.  The couple walk outside, engaging in small talk, behind a telescope which again, with its long angle, screams 3-D.  Then, as if we didn’t expect it (wink, wink), they start to kiss.  Do they kiss?  Do their lips lock in passion that carries them away even for a moment?  Of course not!  In barges our falling fireball, on cue, sanitizing the scene for all to see.  Remember, this is 50s sci-fi!  We’ve got a G rating to maintain here!

Of course, John and Barbara go out to find it first.  John, all by himself, sees something otherworldly inside the golf ball…I mean spacecraft…within the crater.  Of course, no one believes him.  Of course, John will spend the rest of the movie running around trying to convince others of what he’s seen.  He’ll try to convince them that we’re being invaded, before he even knows himself.   Of course, that’s what we all do after we see an alien, and John’s no exception.

What is “It”?  What does “It” look like?  Well, let’s just say that “It” is indeed the best adjective to use in describing it.  It’s a one-eyed, floating, squid-like, creature with hair, blinking with white lights. “It” even enshrouds its victims with vapor and leaves a trail of glitter as it movies (and yes, I believe it’s really glitter).  “It” could best be described as looking like the Joshua Tree it’s mistaken for several times in the movie itself.  Now, after describing all of that, I’m sure you still have not a friggin’ clue as to what “It” looks like.  That’s where the photo below will come in handy.  Does “It” always look like this?  I’m not telling you that, no matter how many flaming golf balls fall from the sky!

Part of what I so love about 50s sci-fi is in the statement it makes, serving as a capsule of the times—a historical record of how things really were; a curious contrast of now and then.   Some of the contrast is in the societal norms portrayed.  Everyone in town thinks John is nuts when he claims to have seen a spaceship and an alien in the crater.  He’s the subject of jokes, insulting newspaper headlines, and radio show laughs to name a few.  By now, you’re probably saying, “How unusual is that?”  Not so unusual at all.  People would still call you nuts for that today.  However, the consequences for Ellen, as the girlfriend of John, are unusual.  Ellen is a teacher.  Her principal actually calls the sheriff’s office to inquire about Ellen and her relationship with John, just because he claimed to have seen an alien.  Sheriff Warren (Charles Drake) then warns Ellen that she is a teacher, and she has a reputation to uphold in the community.   Wow, again!  This is another of those time capsule moments, making the norms of the day seem as much a fiction as the science.  I’m sure glad some things have changed!

Women in 50s sic-fi films are always a treat to see!  This is no less the case in It Came from Outer Space—especially with Barbara Rush!  What a looker!  Barbara is a beauty of the rarest kind, natural and always coiffed to perfection.  In every scene, she’s dressed to the nines in form fitting fashion, like a model fresh from a photo shoot.  Whether running from aliens in the desert or the streets of town, Barbara’s haute couture style as Ellen is striking.  Her high-necked blouse, feminine tie, and waist hugging skirts are still sexy—as much today as they must have been then.  After Barbara is abducted by aliens, she’s dressed as elegantly as ever in a black evening gown, with a matching sash and diamond earrings.  Wow!  That’s what you call being abducted in style.  To top it all off, in the limited end credits (typical of the times), there’s actually a woman listed as being in charge of the “gowns.”  With women dressing as did in 50s sci-fi, I guess that was a credit that couldn’t be left out!

There’s really something to say about the women of 50s sci-fi in general.  Every woman in It Came from Outer Space, as in other such films, is dressed for a night on the town in whatever scenes, with whatever peril or danger.  Jane (Kathleen Hughes) is the svelt and stylish blonde, equally chic at the police station, inquiring about her missing boyfriend.   Even women playing as extras in the background looked as well-manicured as those getting closer screen time.  “Why is this?” you may ask.  I can only say that it must be a reflection of what people expected, or rather, what filmmakers expected women to look like, quite literally, all of the time.  The reasons for that may be as strange as the mystery of “It” from outer space.

Oh, but wait!  It’s not just the women.  Even Richard (John Putnam) is dressed in a suit and tie throughout most of the movie.  The only exceptions are the few times that he has his suit coat off; even then, he’s usually carrying it, slung over his shoulder, ready to put it back on at a moment’s notice.  Yes, men and women alike are dressed for ballroom dancing in It Came from Outer Space.   Just chalk this up, I suppose, to more trends of the times and mysteries from beyond.  In any case, it’s all fun just the same!  You won’t hear any complaints from this Space Jockey!

Oh, and let’s not forget the theremin—that marvelous musical instrument with the trademark sound of 50s sci-fi.  No review of such a period film could be complete without mentioning its etherial effect on the film it serenades.  Each time we get the aliens-eye view the theremin lets us know.  Each time, we know, without knowing more, that “It” is not of this Earth.  I often wonder just how classic 50s sci-fi would be today, if not for such an alien rhythm, unlike other earthly sounds.   Though I’m not sure of the total effect—whether the movies would still be classics—of one thing I am sure; things surely wouldn’t be the same.  How could the aliens be so alien?  How could the ships have come from so far away?  How could anything be quite as classic as it is today?  Thankfully, we’ll never know.   It Came from Outer Space makes as much good use of the theremin as any sci-fi classic I’ve seen.

In sci-fi favorites before, we’ve had aliens invading, aliens bringing us knowledge, and aliens with warnings about our future.  This time, we just have aliens wanting to get the hell out!  All they want to do is fix their ship and get away from Earth and humans altogether.  Yes, you read that right…”get away from Earth and humans.”  When asked why they don’t come out in the open, John says, “Because they don’t trust us.  Because what we don’t understand, we try to destroy.”  This, sadly, is also mostly true!  Never was this truer than during the time the movie was made.  During the 50s, people had moved from the wake of World War II to the paranoia of the cold war.  Science and communism had become the new forces to fear, and space was as good a place as any to act as the vent for those fears.  Aliens were metaphors for communists, their spaceships symbolized fears of technology, and their weapons were the atomic bombs that could destroy us!  It Came from Outer Space, with its pacifist aliens, sent a peaceful message, during a time when such messages were hard to find.  Yes, the cold war was raging, and It Came from Outer Space was another reminder.

As for special effects, they were as good as or better than others of the time.  The alien (although I’ve heard was done last minute) was a most original and well-done creation.  Unlike the monster from The Thing from Another World (1951), the creature was in no way anthropomorphic, and in every way alien.  The ship crash was state of the art, and the 3-D effects were also innovative, holding their place as some of the best even today.  There’s even a time when John appears with his alien double, in the same scene, using effects I didn’t know were possible at the time.  While “It” may not have had the highest budget on record, it was far from a B movie.  As you evaluate “It”, remember…this was the 50s!

It came from Outer Space was directed by Jack Arnold in 1953; he went on to do The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Tarantula (1955), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956), and Gilligan’s Island (1964).  “It” was edited by Paul Weatherwax, and produced by William Alland.  The screenplay was written by Harry Essex and based on an original story by Ray Bradbury.  Along with Richard Carlson and Barbara Rush, “It” also stars Charles Drake (as Sherriff Matt Warren), Joe Sawyer (as Frank), Russell Johnson (as George), and Kathleen Hughes (as Jane).  All do a more than solid job of crafting this classic cautionary tale, from a nostalgic time gone by.

It Came from Outer Space was the first movie to do several things, and one of the first to do others.  “It” was the first to use alien perspective—letting the viewer see the Earth through the eyes of the alien.  “It” was the first of the desert sci-fi films, using the otherworldly landscape of the desert as a setting.  “It” was also Universal’s first experiment with their own brand of stereoscopic 3-D effects; this was done mostly as an economical alternate to Natural Vision which required the use of rented cameras.  “It” was one of the top 3-D movies of its time (and possibly for all time).  “It” was also one of the first to use the theremin as part of its musical score—as mentioned earlier.   Yes, “It” set many records of its own, and was part of many others!  “It” was a classic in many ways even beyond the quality of its story.  (Specific facts in the preceding paragraph are found in The Universe According to Universal—produced, written, and directed by David J. Skal)

In the end, do the aliens conquer the world?  Do they kill us, eat us, enslave us, take our young, or steal our gold?   Are they forced to battle the war-hungry humans, teaching us a lesson in the end?  Or, does just one person, with uncommon insight, overcome the ignorance of the many, ending the story with everyone happy in spite of themselves?  Even if you think you know the answer, it’s not important.  What’s more important, as always, is the process of getting to the end—seeing, yet again, how different things were and how far we’ve come, or regressed.  I can never see enough of Barbara Rush and her kind—those haute couture coquettes—high heeled and running to escape aliens from other worlds.  Bring on those sparkler-propelled space ships, one-eyed monsters and more.  And always, above all, keep reminding us how our flawed human nature will do us all in.  We need reminding!  Though the lessons are never learned, the movies are always fun!

Starring Richard Calson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake, Joe Sawyer, Russell Johnson, and Kathleen Hughes, Directed by Jack Arnold, Cinematography by Clifford Stine, Edited by Paul Weatherwax, Music by Irving Getz, Henri Mancini, and Herman Stein, Produced by William Alland

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