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Saturday, November 19, 2011

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 USA got suddenly spooked by evident USSR mastery of outer reaches. Would Reds use their satellite to spy on us, or worse, as staging area for attacks? The sci-fi cycle exhibs thought played-out was overnight ripe for an encore, tied this time to what many called all too real threat from Russia-infiltrated space. H'wood in Sputnik Spurt; Register Satellite Titles In New Space Pic Cycle, said Variety's 10/9 headline --- a rush to hit the market with sci-fi now seemed likely to knock thought-dominant horror movies off their perch, at least for a show season's worth.

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. Para had earlier dropped the producer, according to trades, for the reason the company couldn't make money with the type of material in which he specialized (Conquest Of Space realized but a million in domestic rentals on a negative cost of $1.6 million). Figuring now to cash in at cut-rates, Paramount brought aboard William Alland, late of nickel-squeezing Universal "weirdies," to produce The Space Children, a title that at least knew its audience.

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
 Feeding off headlines was tough what with a genre thought waned and H'wood's conviction that sci-fi interest was spent. Renewed appetites Sputnik-inspired made it necessary to warm stale bread, as had Paramount with Conquest Of Space. Warners first released Brit-made Satellite In The Sky in July 1956 to a half million or so in domestic rentals ... now it roared back to circuits eager for anything relative to satellites (an unprecedented demand from exhibitors throughout the country, said Motion Picture Exhibitor). United Artists scored 150 repeat bookings of the May 1956 UFO in a single week, while George Pal told Army Archerd of driving past a marquee that read Destination "Sputnik" Moon, Pal's 1950 pic gathering fresh acorns thanks to the fad. Ever-opportunist Roger Corman announced and went forward with his War Of The Satellites within days of Sputnik, and Disney was inundated with requests for their Man In Space featurette, shown first on TV in March 1955, but never more timely than now.

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 Nippon partners "at a geisha house" and dealt to release The Mysterians stateside. The pic was shot before Russia put its first "sputnik" into the sky, Levine told Variety, but the picture has sputniks in it. Looks like I'll need to consult Sci-Fi Savant's entry on The Mysterians to find out if Joe was putting us on! (bet he was)

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.


Anonymous Grand Old Movies said...

As usual, a terrific post with great pictures. If a trend starts trending, can Hollywood be far behind? I like the ad announcing the double feature of 'Street of Sinners' and 'Enemy From Space,' which does start the mind rolling on what kind of causal connection there might be between these 2 titles.

12:39 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I have specific recollections of FORBIDDEN PLANET, WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS when they played at one of my family's drive-ins during the mid-50s. I also recall the night my parents woke me up after my bedtime so we could go outside on our back porch stoop and see the SPUTNIK pass over.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Fascinating...I never knew the impact of Sputnik hit the entertainment industry as hard as it did.

5:11 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

All the Disney "Man in Space" shows (except the moon episode) made it into theaters with new main titles to replace the TV show opening. I remember seeing them in school well into the 1960s.

Saw "From the Earth to the Moon" fairly recently. Sort of a sad mess, with Joseph Cotton, George Sanders and a few impressive effect shots buried under a poor script, a sense of cheapness and a strange grimness -- like they all knew this wasn't going to work, and didn't have the spirit to kid about it. Even American International's comedy "epic" version was more entertaining.

11:57 PM  
Anonymous G. D. Wilson said...

Lest we forget the elusive George Coulouris, Steve Brodie 1958 film SPY IN THE SKY! of which Sinister Cinema unearthed a 16mm copy earlier this year. Although a longtime staple on central Ohio's CHILLER THEATRE Friday night double feature show during the early 60's, it was just a spy drama with no space monsters within it.
One Monday morning back in 1964 a fellow 4th grader named Charles informed us he had not only stayed up late to see SPY IN THE SKY! but that it featured horrible space creatures. Employing the strength of the Witt brothers from Kentucky (Elmer and Delmer) we grabbed the unruly fibber and took him to a steep highwall alongside the school playground. Down and down the falsifier rolled sideways for what seemed like an hour, as he assailed our ears with unholy curses. You just didn't mess with we who faithfully consumed Forry's FM mag every week.

11:54 AM  
Anonymous Steve Martin said...

Ah-I remember seeing The Invisible Boy at the Dream Theater in Mason Ohio as a mere lad-scared me to death-Those were the days!

5:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer has some comments, and a very specific query, about the Sputnik craze ...

I was also swept up in the Sputnik craze, though without quite knowing what it was all about. Like little Mike Cline, my parents roused me from sleep and walked me out to the front yard in my pajamas and robe to watch the satellite cross over. We didn't see it, though--little wonder, given how small Sputnik was, scarcely more than the idea of a space satellite--but my Dad tuned a short wave radio to the frequency its telemetry was broadcast on, and this was kind of neat.

And I got to see "Kronos" at a Saturday matinee, which could be regarded as an entry in the alien invader sub-category. I liked it a lot, but there were some scenes in it that were pretty weird by my tender standards of the time.

Here's a question, though: with so many older science films being dusted off to cash in on the craze, did United Artists re-release "Gog"? True, it didn't have a satellite, but with a story about mysterious disruptions at a secret base of super science, which turn out to be caused by a Soviet jet aircraft "orbiting" the base, it wasn't too far off the mark.

How about it?


9:17 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Just as an afterthought. ... many TV slots mixed sci fi and fantasy/horror Willy Nilly. Did any fans prefer one to the exclusion of the other? Even FAMOUS MONSTERS mixed the two...I still recall the 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH feature....

5:10 AM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

And on the subject of GOG. the early 60s I lived for awhile at George AFB where the exteriors were filmed. Even 5 years later there was still talk of "that movie filmed here" but given the transitory nature of the place,no one could quite remember what it was called!! Saw it years later during a SCI-FI week on local TV in Detroit and aside from the robot fight it was somewhat underwhelming for a 9 year old.

5:21 AM  

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