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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

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 speaks 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 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 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 spill it  during Nyby’s lifetime. Most would eventually agree that Hawks was the mastermind, but why confront Christian Nyby with such truth when he was enjoying so much the attention the credit gave him during his retirement? Most of 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the fall of 1972 I attended an all-day tribute to Howard Hawks at the San Francisco Film Festival. The program included a morning showing of his 1928 silent A Girl in Every Port with Victor McLaglen, Robert Armstrong, and Louise Brooks. Then after lunch the tribute would continue, but the festival honchos were strangely reticent about exactly what would be on the program.

During the break I overheard a conversation in the lobby that sounded authoritative to my ears. It seems the afternoon was supposed to begin with a screening of Scarface, but batty old Howard Hughes had yanked permission at the last minute. My unwitting informant said that the festival's program director Albert Johnson and Hawks himself had been on the phone all morning trying to reach Hughes in the West Indies and get him to relent.

Long story short, he did, and that afternoon Scarface saw the light of a projector lamp in public for the first time in nearly 40 years. Then there were two hours of excerpts from Hawks's movies, then two hours of Q&A with Hawks himself.

As it happened, the very first "Q" was mine, and I asked him, "Who actually directed The Thing, you or Christian Nyby?" I remember clearly to this day his exact words:

"I acted on that picture as producer and a sort of casting director. Chris had been the cutter on several of my pictures, and I thought he deserved a chance to direct. And I think he should get the credit for it."

I admit I was cowed into leaving it at that and not pressing him; only in retrospect did I realize how evasive his answer was.

A few months later the Canadian film magazine Take One published a transcript of that Q&A, in which they inserted the phrase "He certainly did direct it" into Hawks's reply, something I knew he never said.

I wrote to set the record straight, adding that Ken Tobey was on record as saying that Hawks was the director in fact if not in name, and that he was on the set every day, constantly advising Nyby in a master/disciple fashion. I ended by saying: "Hawks's modesty on the subject is commendable, but it is clear, I think, from a comparison of the two men's careers that The Thing profited more from Hawks's presence than it did from Nyby's."

12:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks, Jim --- that is a great anecdote and I envy you having encountered Hawks in person. Another long-time Greenbriar friend, Conrad Lane, e-mailed the following observation which I'll pass along ---

When I was about 20, four of us went to "The Thing" at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood to see this much-discussed film (we were at UCLA at the time). A blanket of fear enveloped that theater - an experience most unusual for those of us already jaded by the Universal and Val Lewton thrillers. My friend's girl friend got so frightened that she began to cry - a response I had never witnessed before to a horror film.

A few years ago I showed "The Thing" to one of my film classes at Ball State and they were very put off by it. They said that it was "too busy" and they couldn't follow it. This tells you something about their intellect and training.

Thanks, Conrad!

12:02 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Here's a nice memory of "The Thing" in first-run from Ted Newsom ---

Regarding THE THING: I'm a congenital devotee of this film, since my parents went to see it the year before I was born. My dad recalled the screening vividly, since something happened that spooked him even more than the film (and my mom liked it, too).

As they and a couple hundred other people were watching, a HUGE man rose from his seat and walked up the aisle. The guy was pretty well-known since there aren't THAT many seven-foot tall guys around in Portland, Oregon, (or anywhere, for that matter). And of course he rose at an appropriately ominous moment in the film (pick one.) I've always thought that was a gag that must've been suggested ballyhoo from the pressbook. If it was an original idea with the local management, more power to them. Too bad we don't have stuff like that any more.

Thanks, Ted. It's always great hearing how these pictures played when they were new. By the way, Ted Newsom's article I mentioned in the posting is by far the best account I've read on the production of, and revival for, "The Thing". His anecdotes concerning that 1982 cast and crew reunion he organized are just priceless. The back issue of "Cinefantastique" (Volume 13 -- #2-3) containing Ted's article is definitely worth grabbing....

6:02 AM  

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