Tag Archives: James Arness

The Thing from Another World (1951, Christian Nyby)

The Thing from Another World is a singular motion picture. It’s a combination of Howard Hawks’s fast-paced, overlapping dialogue and 1950s science fiction. It might even be the first of the 1950s sci-fi genre, the one setting the standard. There is a lot of supposition about the director’s chair–it is hard to believe television director Christian Nyby turns in such an exquisitely directed feature (his first), especially when Hawks is the film’s producer and so much of it has Hawks’s fingerprints. James Arness (the eponymous thing) has said it was Nyby, with Hawks on set a lot. Regardless, the film has some fantastic scenes, unlike anything in science fiction movies for years to come (until the filmmakers who watched The Thing got around to making their own movies).

But the technical achievement–down to the excellent use of Dimitri Tiomkin’s score for mood-generating effect–gets ousted, eventually, by the problematic script. The Thing is a metaphor for the battle against Communists in our ranks. If one’s looking for it, he or she can certainly read it in that manner. But just looking at the picture itself is far more interesting, because it reveals the defects related to propagandizing an unwilling production.

In the film, the scientists urge to discover–outweighing self-preservation–is evil. It’s also unbelievable. It doesn’t help Robert Cornthwaite’s make-up makes him look like a suspicious, mildly British intellectual, who must be bad news. The script sabotages any chance for Cornthwaite to turn in anything but a hackneyed performance. His character has less depth than a guest star on “The Love Boat” and makes a lot less sense.

There’s also the problem with Douglas Spencer, who plays the Hawks reporter. The Thing doesn’t exactly have room for a reporter, so they make room for him. He tells jokes (but not the film’s funniest ones, which involve air force captain Kenneth Tobey’s misadventures romancing Cornthwaite’s assistant, Margaret Sheridan) and spouts off about freedom of the press and gets to make the big “Watch the Skies” speech at the end. The reporter character is the film’s silliest part–it doesn’t fit and always seems contrived–and it really doesn’t help how bad a performance Spencer gives.

But on to the good performances. Tobey’s great as the captain and his romance with Sheridan provides all the tension relief the film needs. Tobey projects that 1950s sci-fi leading man calm perfectly, with the writing coming through to make he and his crew into (Hollywood) believable combat veterans. But it’s Dewey Martin who takes over the last third of the film as an enlisted man who comes up with every good idea. It’s a strange move–everyone just waits for him to tell them what they should do next–given the character isn’t even named in the end credits, just “Crew Chief.”

The film’s problems are those of its era, which–try as they might–can’t defeat its superiority. The Thing from Another World runs less than ninety minutes and, from around minute five, has the viewer totally engrossed (with nothing more than a plane flying over white Arctic expanses).

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Christian Nyby; screenplay by Charles Lederer, based on a story by John W. Campbell Jr.; director of photography, Russell Harlan; edited by Roland Gross; music by Dimitri Tiomkin; produced by Howard Hawks; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Margaret Sheridan (Nikki), Kenneth Tobey (Captain Patrick Hendry), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Carrington), Douglas Spencer (Scotty), James R. Young (Lt. Eddie Dykes), Dewey Martin (Bob, Crew Chief), Robert Nichols (Lt. Ken McPherson), William Self (Corporal Barnes), Eduard Franz (Dr. Stern), Sally Creighton (Mrs. Chapman) and James Arness (The Thing).


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Many Rivers to Cross (1955, Roy Rowland)

If there’s some lost Frontier genre–not a Western, because there aren’t horses or cowboy hats–but a Frontier genre, with trappers and woods and… I don’t know, some other stuff, Many Rivers to Cross is probably not the ideal example of its potential. I realize now, mentioning it, Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans is probably the ideal. Regardless, Many Rivers to Cross is unfortunately not the ideal of much anything. Any film co-starring Alan Hale Jr. and Russell Johnson long before “Gilligan’s Island” ought to offer some comedic value along absurd lines, but this one doesn’t. Many Rivers to Cross is a comedy, however. It’s just not a funny one. Everything in the film–with the exception of a dying baby–is for a laugh. Given the story, with Eleanor Parker’s frontier-woman (the film is dedicated the frontier-women no less) chasing Robert Taylor’s bachelor trapper, it’s a lot like a Road Runner cartoon–except one with really offensive portrayals of American Indians.

The Indian thing bugged me a little bit because it was played so much for laughs. Hollywood had known since, what, 1939, playing Indians as villains was lame and Many Rivers is from 1955. It was so lame, the first mohawked Indian I saw, I thought it was all a joke, like Taylor had this Indian running cons with him or something. I was rather disappointed it turned out to be otherwise; not just because it would have been less offensive, but because it might have been interesting.

The movie’s short–ninety-five or so–and it’s split evenly in two parts. One part has Victor McLaglen as Parker’s father, the other part has Taylor mostly alone (though James Arness shows up for a bit). Both McLaglen and Arness are good. Both Parker and Taylor are good. The film’s just not any good. Without the Indian element, I’d call it inoffensive fare (and I doubt it was intended to be anything more). A programmer, actually–yep, it’s a programmer.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Rowland; screenplay by Harry Brown and Guy Trosper, from a story by Steve Frazee; director of photography, John F. Seitz; edited by Ben Lewis; music by Cyril J. Mockridge; produced by Jack Cummings; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Robert Taylor (Bushrod Gentry), Eleanor Parker (Mary Stuart Cherne), Victor McLaglen (Cadmus Cherne), Jeff Richards (Fremont Cherne), Russ Tamblyn (Shields Cherne), James Arness (Esau Hamilton), Alan Hale Jr. (Luke Radford), John Hudson (Hugh Cherne), Sig Ruman (Spectacle Man) and Russell Johnson (Banks Cherne).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.