Howard Hawks' Amazing Movie
Some writers have said that the prospect of making a science-fiction thriller embarrassed Howard Hawks. Studio memos suggest he wanted to distance himself from haunted house type horror pictures. The idea of serving up another Frankenstein was anathema to him. This was 1950. Were horror themes then in such ill repute? If so, why? A look back at the forties may provide an answer. Monsters had become the province of kiddie viewers. Universal had debased their gallery of terrors to a point where the only thing left to do was surrender them all to Abbott and Costello for a send-up. The comedy team was (profitably) meeting Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man in theatres across the country when Hawks began considering his sci-fi venture. Naturally, he wouldn’t want the project confused with such tomfoolery as this. Rather than use previous screen horrors as his model, Hawks wisely chose to vary his own formula, but slightly, for what would become The Thing (From Another World). The director’s combination of audience pleasing elements had worked before --- professional men in jeopardy, a sassy woman, lots of humor, and short bursts of action. Hawks didn’t need to go to old horror movies to come up with all this --- it was already road-tested in To Have and Have Not, Only Angels Have Wings, Air Force, and any number of others. Had he made this picture ten years later, Hawks would no doubt have been polluted by the dozens, if not hundreds, of catch-penny creep shows that followed The Thing. As it is, he was lucky enough to enter a brand-new field where none of the rules were yet in place, so he essentially got to write the how-to manual that others would follow for decades to come. Less imaginative filmmakers are still copying The Thing --- it’s the grand prototype for all screen sci-fi.
This really scary show (ask anybody who was there in 1951) might not have been so unnerving had stills of Jim Arness in make-up gotten out during the first run. Someone finally liberated them from an old RKO filing cabinet sometime in the late seventies, and they revealed a far less imposing creature than the one we glimpse fleetingly (and dimly) in the feature. Hawks knew these monsters work a lot better when you can’t get a good bead on them (for a cautionary lesson in the hazards of overexposing your title menace, check out It! Terror From Beyond Space). Watching The Thing again last night (and no, I never fall asleep during this movie) made me wonder --- why didn’t those guys just leave that block of ice outside? They could have watched it through the window --- instead of dragging the heavy thing into a nice warm room and breaking the glass to let in all that cold. Another concern of mine is Dr. Carrington. I think he has serious intimacy issues. He spoke longingly of organisms not encumbered by emotional or sexual considerations. Dr. Carrington wants to be a super-carrot, or at the very least be conquered by one, or better still, an army of them. Margaret Sheridan’s Nikki might well have snuck down to his cot one night (this being the North Pole where there aren’t many clubs or even Barnes and Noble book stores to meet guys) were it not for Captain Hendry’s providential arrival and Dr. Carrington’s complete indifference to her ample charms. I think he’s less an implied communist archetype than a forty-year old (or more) virgin who now prefers the society of alien mutations to that of his own admittedly limited supply of earthbound women.
I do like the part where Nikki ties up Pat and teases him with familiar Hawksian patter. Even in the midst of an extraterrestrial invasion, there’s still time for relaxed romantic repartee from Hawks’ old Bogart/Bacall playbook. This footage, and a few other minutes here and there, used to be the hotly pursued quarry of 16mm collectors determined to have a complete print of The Thing. A 1957 re-issue had shortened the film by eight or so minutes (the better to accommodate RKO double bill bookings) and the only full-length versions in circulation were non-theatrical rental copies that had been made up in the fifties. All the TV prints were the 1957 cut-down. A complete Thing was indeed a proud possession for collectors fortunate enough to score one. There’s always four or five things going on at once in The Thing. It’s actually a challenging movie to watch. I still haven’t absorbed all that rapid-fire dialogue, and I’ve been watching steadily since 1964. There’s plenty of humor as well, when you aren’t jumping out of your seat(how is it we never get used to that moment when Ken Tobey opens the greenhouse door?). The eternal debate as to who really directed The Thing (was it Howard Hawks or the credited Christian Nyby?) was settled once and for all by cast members reluctant to spell it out during Nyby’s lifetime. Most all would eventually agree that Hawks was the mastermind, but why confront Christian Nyby with the truth when he was enjoying so much the attention that credit gave him during his retirement? Most of the published info on The Thing, including much of what appears in this posting, originated in a wonderful article published in Cinefantastique back in 1982 and written by Ted Newsom (Volume 13 --- combined Issues 2 and 3). He interviewed many surviving cast and crew members at the time, and other writers have been cribbing from his work ever since.
Walter Winchell said, Compared to "The Thing", Dracula was a petunia. This set the tone for RKO’s campaign. Petunias were, in fact, installed around theatre lobbies, based on the Winchell blurb and patron’s awareness of it (he was still widely read at the time). Footprints with six toes were stenciled on the ground in front of boxoffice windows. Large blocks of ice secured with rope adorned theatre fronts, at least for as long as they took to melt (and that may have been a short wait, considering this was a late Spring and summer play-off). The teaser with the child in her high chair was in questionable taste, but surely got attention, while the "scientist" testimonial would be the first of many such dubious props for the supposed authenticity of sci-fi subjects. I particularly like that Find Your Own Seats --- Ushers Scared To Work announcement on the marquee. Margaret Sheridan is sharing a table here with some exhibitors at the annual convention of Motion Picture Owners and Operators of Georgia in May of 1951, promoting the recent release of The Thing. She’d been a Howard Hawks discovery back in 1946 when she did this portrait pose for the part in Red River that ultimately went to Joanne Dru. Sheridan got married and pregnant before shooting on the western could begin, and Hawks took a raincheck on her services, though he’d later maintain she’d lost her spark by the time he finally got around to casting her in The Thing. Domestic rentals for The Thing were outstanding --- $2.0 million. Adding $750,000 in foreign rentals made for a final profit of $35,000, a number that might have been higher but for the fact that negative costs had run to $1.2 million, quite an outlay for what was generally considered a straight exploitation picture.