Savant and Sputnik Have Landed!
Among fads I missed for being born too late were coonskin caps, the Elvis emergence, and one that burned briefest, but maybe brightest. That would be the Sputnik-inspired craze for all things sci-fi, its grip on a showgoer public lasting no longer than the Russian satellite's time in space from launch date 10/4/57 to burnout upon reentering Earth's atmosphere in January '58. Those three months saw a run on exchanges for interstellar product to rival a previous century's gold rushing. It was every theatre and drive-in to the ramparts for all day-or-night fanta-booking, and hang the age of pics shown, so long as they had "Outer Space," "Mars," or best of all, "Satellite" in the title.
I'd had this subject on Greenbriar's To-Do list for a while, initiative to go forward inspired by arrival of Glenn Erickson's just-published compilation of DVD reviews, Sci-Fi Savant, a bargain of this or any year at $19.95 and suited well to holiday gifting twixt fans of vintage-to-present genre pics (I've ordered a couple more for just that purpose). Glenn's knowledge comes of a lifetime gathering it. I like it when he recalls first-impression-making of all these faves, perspective gleaned from years spent blasting-off to sci-fi as it evolved. He puts fresh spin on classics you'd think were wrung out by others way less seasoned. There'll be plentiful DVD's I'll revisit after pleasurable time reading Sci-Fi Savant.
Glenn's collection would have flown off shelves that autumn of '57, for a sci-fi surge was on soon as Sputnik lifted off Soviet pads and used-to-being-#1
|Even Republic Serial Rocketmen Got Another Shot at Screens Now That Sputnik Was Aloft|
Paramount was first to the trough with reissued Conquest Of Space, George Pal's two-and-a-half year old speculation of other world travel to come.
Of Universal back numbers, It Came From Outer Space looked handiest to bask in Sputnik's glow. Showmen everywhere wanted this oldie back, its title pitched perfect to unease brought on by news events. Minneapolis saw It Came shoehorned into 4100-seat Radio City's bill with a second week of The Helen Morgan Story, that parlay good for a major B.O. spike. Ads for Universal's pic state in the smallest possible type that its a reissue, said Variety, but this was no drag to demand for more such product, be it old or new, as further proven by hurried placement of Flight To Mars and World Without End, these saturated through Minnesota territories beginning 10/13 while Sputnik was uppermost in consciousness of headline followers.
We're often smug when looking back on pop culture relics from the fifties, especially science-fiction. Easier to forget is audiences then viewing these as prophesy of upheavals to come. Russian satellites were regarded a threat, and that lent shows we now call archaic, if not outright silly, an urgency not to be experienced again short of traveling back in time. Another plus of Sci-Fi Savant is Glenn Erickson's dig below surfaces to reveal what these pictures were really about, and suffice to say, they had a lot more going on than mere mutants and special-FX. Anxiety pulsating off theatre ads shown here is something Savant understands well --- he's thought through social/political freight sci-fi carried and explains it in all clear terms --- has any writer managed this so entertainingly before? (Savant's ever-present humor makes ideal reading for light or deep dish occasion)
|Disney/Dell's Man In Space Comic Reprint Timed To Sputnik-Mania|
Home viewing and record spinners as well got Sputnik-stimulated. MGM re-pressed Music From Outer Space for another LP go-round --- selections included Vibrations From Venus and Uranus Unmasked. Television was all over Sputnik. Thirty-nine episodes of mangy Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, having dated woefully in a mere three years, were back to plague weekday schedules, as was up-from-tombs Flash Gordon, satellites well before his time, but who sweated degrees of separation among tele-sitters gone outer-atmosphere daffy? Space Patrol had another go with 235 segments, while Ziv was in the chips for reruns of Science Fiction Theatre to 57 stations paying as if the things were new. NBC bought Ruff and Ready for kid slotting based on assurance the cartoon dog and cat would spend at least part of a first season in outer space.
As demand built, so did confidence. Would the Sputnik craze last long enough to get a new picture finished and in theatres? Sole beneficiary of perfect timing for these crucial months was MGM with The Invisible Boy, a quickie vehicle for a robot they'd built to buttress Forbidden Planet. Sputnik's lift-off was arm-in-arm with Metro's Fall release, happy coincidence to put The Invisible Boy nicely in profit. Lone wolf producer Benedict Bogeaus pledged to get From The Earth To The Moon "before the cameras within six weeks," and was said to be negotiating with Errol Flynn to star (didn't happen, mores' the pity). Godzilla importer Joseph E. Levine meanwhile supped with
Glenn Erickson has the best coverage of all I've read on Enemy From Space, aka Quatermass II, my vote as well as his for one of sci-fi's enduring greats. Here's one that should have rode Sputnik's tail wake to fad-kindled grosses, arriving as Enemy did in September 1957, but like so much genre product United Artists (mis)handled, this B/W vanguard of Hammer Films excitement to come fell a-sputter with $148,602 in domestic rentals, way short of what such timely merchandise merited. With a title seemingly ideal (hard to improve on Enemy From Space with Sputnik poised to launch), the question becomes ... how did UA muff this one? I looked for, but found no trade ads, a surest sign of distrib indifference. There was a pressbook for Enemy From Space so thin you could roll a cigarette with it. Exiled generally to bottom placement on double-bills, EFS had little opportunity to peak out from behind eight balls, while Metro's far less deserving Invisible Boy ran the tables. What should have been Sputnik's stoutest screen link was instead a most-missed of opportunities.