Brought to you by the creators of King Kong, this 1940 outing is one of the first “shrunken people” films, set in the Peruvian Jungle and filmed in atmospheric Technicolor. Despite its superb premise and wonderful effects, the script is unfortunately somewhat pedestrian. Still a wonderful adventure movie! 7/10
Dr. Cyclops. 1940, USA. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by Tom Kilpatrick, Malcolm Stuart Boyley. Starring: Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian, Frank Yaconelli. Produced by Dale van Every, Merian C. Cooper. IMDb: 6.4/10 Rotten Tomatoes: 100% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A.
If anyone remembers Dr. Cyclops today, it is mostly as a curiosity – but it does deserve a slightly better reputation, although it is by no means a masterpiece. It is notable for a number of reasons, of which the biggest is the amazing special effects, although not flawlessly executed, and aged today. Following the premise of a mad scientist shrinking his nosy colleagues, this was not the first film to toy with the idea of miniature people, but certainly the most striking that had come along in 1940, and it effortlessly held that title all the way up to the in many ways superior 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Director Ernest B. Schoedsack made three of the best science fiction/fantasy films in the thirties and forties, a feat only rivalled by Frankenstein director James Whale. Whale started off the sci-fi horror genre with Frankenstein of the sound era, which without doubt was one of the reasons that Schoedsack’s and Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 blockbuster King Kong (review) got greenlit with such a big budget.
There’s an interesting tangle of references between three filmmakers leading up to the movie, namely Ernest B. Schoedsack, James Whale, Michael Curtiz and Tod Browning. The idea of miniature people was toyed with by special effects innovators in the early days of cinema, but one of the first to introduce them as a plot element in a feature film James Whale in Bride of Frankenstein (review), who introduced homunculi created by the mad Dr. Pretorius. The concept was expanded on in the 1936 film The Devil-Doll (review), which features another mad scientist – this time shrinking people and making mini-zombies out of them. That film was directed by Tod Browning, the director of Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). The third director to take to the idea was Schoedsack, who had played around with the giant ape in 1933. Dr. Cyclops is the first movie to make miniaturised people the protagonists of a film, taking the concept front and centre.
In 1933 there were two films that awed the audience with their astounding special effects, that included split-screen, rear projection, travelling mattes and ”black screen”: King Kong and The Invisible Man (review) — again directed by Schoedsack and Whale. The first science fiction film shot in colour was the 1932 movie Doctor X (review) – directed by Michael Curtiz, better known for films like Casablanca (1942) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). It was filmed in 2-strip Technicolor, allowing for red and green hues. The first science fiction film shot in full colour with 3-strip Technicolor was Dr. Cyclops.
The film starts with one of the best horror opening sequences ever; bathed in a sickly green light is Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) in a pair of giant blackened goggles, hunched over some strange glowing machine. When his colleague Dr. Mendoza (Paul Fix) implores him to stop his crazy experiments, Thorkel grabs him and shoves his head into a radium beam, killing him with special effects showing his glowing skull through his face.
After this, the film moves into almost constant sunlight, and unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to the expectations awakened by that first scene. Part of the problem is the script. What follows is a very awkward 15 minutes of exposition and character presentation, where an unlikely crew is called together by Dr. Thorkel, who resides in the Peruvian jungle. We have the small, proud and stingly Dr. Bullfinch (Charles Halton), the young Dr. Mary Robinson (Janice Logan, described by contemporary reviews as ”comely”) and the lazy playboy genius Dr. Bill Stockton (Thomas Coley). Along tags mule owner Steve Baker (Victor Kilian), whose character I don’t remember doing anything of interest after the first twenty minutes, although he is present throughout the film. Arriving after a long journey to the stockade of Dr. Thorkel, we are introduced to our last link, Thorkel’s assistant Pedro (Frank Yaconelli), playing the standard silly Latino.
Turns out their job is simply to peep through a microscope for a few minutes and confirm a detail for Dr. Thorkel, whose eye-sight is failing behind his coke-bottle glasses. After this is accomplished, our heroes are promptly told they have done their job and are ordered to go back home by the good doctor. Taking offence at having been dragged to the far side of the world simply to look through a microscope for a minute, the group demand to be included in Thorkel’s work, whereby they are tricked and shrunk by Dr. Cyclops’ strange machine. And now try and remember the story of Odysseus and the Cyclop, add some Frankenstein and Schoedsack’s manhunt film The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and you have your premise for the story.
Our heroes are trapped by Dr. Cyclops to become test subjects, and most of the action involves them fleeing from his experiments and later his wrath, when he realises they are slowly but surely growing back to their own sizes and will take their revenge unless he kills them.
The best thing about this film is the wonderful way in which the miniaturism is filmed. The most magical shots come from the many superb super-sized sets – we move about in several rooms filled with props, we get a canoe enlarged to the size of a frigate, a patch of cactus that becomes a green fortress to hide in, giant doors, chairs and tables become mountains to climb, wooden boxes turn into caves to take cover in, a little grass fire is a deadly forest blaze. House cats are replaced by giant monster tigers, and alligators by dinosaurs. It is done with such attention to detail and brilliant editing that these scenes just blow you away.
The visual effects are uneven by today’s standards, and partly even for 1940. Do bear in mind that this kind of trickery was still quite unusual in films, although not necessarily a novelty. Some scenes are absolutely brilliant, like one with a miniature horse quite early. The horse and Thorkel seem to completely blend in to each other’s shots, and it immediately sells the idea to the audience. One must also tip one’s hat to the scenes where rear projection, a giant robotic arm and a live actor is combined. The scenes must have been absolutely painstaking to make. But is also in these shots that the crudeness of the process is sadly revealed. First of all there seems to be a problem with depth of field, as the rear projection image of a giant Dr. Cyclops by his desk is almost always a bit out of focus. The colours of the rear projection don’t really match up with the live action either. And this is where Dr. Cyclops becomes more challenging than The Devil-Doll, that was made in black and white. Where in the old days it was enough to approximately match the lighting, things get a lot trickier when colour is involved, especially since it isn’t natural colour, but rather Technicolor shot with three different strips of film, through in-camera filters, all producing different colour tracks, that then have to be matched to the colour produced by a projector showing a piece of film filmed earlier. And it is worth remembering that almost all sci-fi films of the forties were still filmed in black and white, and many would continue to be so into the fifties.
The colour itself is a bit curious as it somehow manages to be both lush and a bit pale at the same time, however that is possible – but it does give the film a very fantastical look, a bit like a comic book. And the same goes for the story. It is ultimately not a horror film at all, but a rather silly adventure story akin to all those lost world tales that were churned out in the thirties and forties. As mentioned before, one of the characters is completely forgettable, and not even the dashing hero Bill Stockton manages to bring out any specific recollections a few days after viewing the movie. Once the shrinking is commenced, all dramatic developments between the protagonists go out the window, and since they are mostly filmed as a group from a distance, it is hard to invest real emotions in them. Thus few audience members react with more than a shrug when Pedro heroically sacrifices himself.
But on the other hand, Dr. Cyclops is a brilliant character, but that has less to do with the writing, than with the superb acting by Albert Dekker in what may possibly be his best role ever. As Richard Scheib of Moria puts it: ”Dr Thorkel is an interestingly shaded mad scientist, much better characterised than most of his contemporaries”. Apart from that the acting is unfortunately uniformly bad. Charles Halton as Bullfinch manages to coerce a few chuckles with his pompous performance – unfortunately he is killed off about halfway in. Italian-born Frank Yaconelli in his perhaps best remembered role does a very stereotypical clumsy, fat ”Mexican” as a comic relief character. When all other protagonists fathom togas out of handkerchiefs, he wears a big, red diaper and speaks in staccato baby talk phrases in broken English. Ain’t it funny? But he does manage to come off as the most sympathetic of all characters.
The movie got mixed reviews upon its release. Even though the term “so bad it’s good” probably hadn’t yet been invented at the time, Benjamin Crisler at The New York Times sums up the sentiment nicely in one of his last reviews for the paper: “Incidentally, as a cinematic spectacle, Dr. Cyclops is the best bad picture of the year, an epic of silliness, and, more than that, a triumph of the process screen and the department of trick effects all combined very tastefully—and what matter if the taste is almost uniformly bad?—with Technicolor.”
Variety, on the other hand, was less forgiving of the script’s flaws, writing that Dr. Cyclops’ ” story and direction both fail to catch and hold interest. Achieved through continual use of process and trick photography, idea gets lost in a jumble and pancakes off for a dull effort.”
However, the pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories liked the film so much that its editor Mort Weisinger commissioned one of the magazine’s staff to convert it into a short story for the June 1940 issue of the publication, published just three weeks after the film’s premiere. The staff writer who got the commission was noted science fiction author Henry Kuttner, who did a write-up around twelve pages long, accompanied by still images from the film’s press kit. The fact that the short story was published the same year as the movie has prompted some (including the ever so often erroneous Wikipedia) to claim that the movie was based on Kuttner’s story, but as demonstrated, it was the other way round. In fact, the screenplay was independently written by Tom Kilpatrick, who had previously contributed to the famed pre-Code film The Black Cat (1934) starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, with some help from veteran script doctor Malcolm Stuart Boylan.
The confusion concerning Kuttner’s story doesn’t end there, though. The same year as it was published in Thrilling Wonder Stories — under Kuttner’s own name — there appeared a longer re-write published as a novella, this time under the pseudonym Will Garth. Will Garth was a pen name used by a number of writers at Thrilling Wonder Stories — including Henry Kuttner. However, the novella was not written by Kuttner. While it has never been officially confirmed, the prevailing consensus is that the author in question was Alexander Samalman, who later became the editor of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Further adding to the confusion is the fact that Kuttner’s original novelette was re-published in 1967 in a story collection with other authors. While title of the collection is Dr. Cyclops, the cover illustration, confusingly, is an illustration of people in space suits, based on a story by Edmond Hamilton. And in 1974 Will Garth’s/Alexander Samalman’s adapted novella was again re-published, often erroneously marketed as written by Henry Kuttner.
The movie has garnered a pretty good reputation over the years, with most reviewers acknowledging its shortcomings in the script and acting departments, but nonetheless praising its imagination and entertaining silliness. But as usual I have to look no further than Richard Cross at 20/20 Movie Reviews, who gives it a lowly 1/4 stars, but on the other hand he thinks Yaconelli in diapers is funny. TV Guide gives it 2/4, writing that the movie fails to take advantage of the film’s premise. Hans J. Wollstein at AllMovie slides just past the dividing line into the positive camp, giving Dr. Cyclops 3/5 stars, writing that it is “one of those early science fiction-thrillers that it is very hard to dislike”; “It is still fun to watch a group of stock company players deal with the sudden dangers of giant-sized household items and one can still marvel at the obvious ingenuity that went into making the film”.
Argentinian Cinefania gives the movie 3,5/5 stars, and J.P. Roscoe at Basement Rejects does one better, awarding the movie with 8/10 stars, however I must protest to his calling the script “rather clever”, which he actually does on two occasions. Richard Scheib at Moria likewise gives the film 4/5 stars, writing that Dr. Cyclops stands “head and shoulders over all other” mad scientist films made in the forties.
Now, I like the film, as my 7/10 star rating should prove, but there is something to be said for the acting, or lack thereof, in this movie, as Chandler Swain Reviews writes: “Seldom has a major studio film been saddled with a total breakdown of acting skills, so complete and irredeemable it consigns the production of the film into the realm of otherworldly fantasy. The usually reliable [Paul] Fix is so horrendous — speaking his English lines as if he’s learned them phonetically — that Mendoza’s murder might be accurately described as a mercy killing, putting the audience out of its misery. Dekker, never the most subtle of actors, barks his lines as if he were afraid they would otherwise attach to his tongue, though in comparison to the repellent histrionics of Charles Halton, his is a model of gentility. The remainder of the cast would clearly be overly challenged by any dramaturgical demands more taxing than standing frozen as extras in the background of a Three Stooges short.”
Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant notes that the effects of Dr. Cyclops are only passable nowadays, but that for 1940, shooting in three-strip Technicolor, they were nothing short of groundbreaking: “one has to remember that in the old Technicolor process making even a simple dissolve required at a minimum 6 strips of film and often more”. Erickson continues: “A first viewer of Dr. Cyclops is bound to be impressed, but repeat looks unfortunately invite us to notice all the flaws and trickery, like the string tied to the alligator’s mouth to make his head bob around. Thomas Coley is an insipid hero and Janice Logan has to stand around in stage waits with everyone else. Halton and Victor Kilian are good character backup types, but Frank Yaconelli wears what look like red diapers for most of his scenes. Someone must have thought that he’d make a good ‘funny Mexican’ comic character. He proves that theory by not surviving to the climax.” Fernando F. Croce at Cinepassion is downright lyrical, writing that “every other shot is a pulp poem. The amalgamation of Incan rubble, soundstage foliage and bottomless wells is weirdly striking and satisfyingly silly, the lush Technicolor hues are like freshly printed comic books. A cat’s meow turns monstrous, a cactus garden becomes an emerald city.”
It is true that the script is seriously lacking in energy and personal drama, and drags at times. It is also true that the acting is almost uniformly bad, Dekker not counted. More could have been done with the cinematography, but all-in-all one really can’t accuse Schoedsack and cinematographer Henry Sharp of not trying to do their best with what must have been an extremely heavy and cumbersome three-strip camera. The jokes in the film are bad, but there is quite a bit of funny situation comedy, and the movie retains a light air throughout the whole business, sometimes perhaps too light. The ethnic comedy of Pedro might come off as slightly offensive today, on the other hand I tip my hat to the fact that the female protagonist actually becomes an equal member of the group, and contributes to their survival, rather than being a damsel in distress. Ah, and an old sci-fi bit-part favourite, Frank Reicher, is along for the ride in a very small role.
Albert Dekker unfortunately didn’t make any other science fiction films. He was a respected character actor throughout the thirties and forties, and got his start on Broadway rather than in films. Today he is perhaps best known for his roles in the Burt Lancaster and Ava Gardner film The Killers (1946), the James Dean vehicle East of Eden (1955), and for his last role as detective Harrigan in the classic The Wild Bunch (1969). Dekker had quite an eventful life, including the tragic death of his son, who accidentally shot himself while working on a silencer for his rifle (kids, don’t do guns). Dekker was also a Democratic politician who held a chair at the California State Assembly. He was an outspoken critic of McCarthyism, which had him blacklisted in Hollywood between 1952 and and 1955, during which time he worked on Broadway. His death was the object of a slight scandal, when in 1968 he was found kneeling, bound, gagged and asphyxiated in his bathtub with two dermatological needles inserted into his arm and lewd lipstick-writing all over his body (kids, don’t do drugs). It was ruled that he had apparently accidentally strangled himself during some bizarre autoerotic ritual.
Paul Fix was a staple character actor who mostly appeared in westerns, but he did play Dr. Piper in the 1966 episode Where No Man Has Gone Before of Star Trek, and appeared in an episode of the original Battlestar Galactica series in 1978, as well as in an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1964. He also had a bit-part in the 1940 Karloff film Black Friday (review). Charles Halton was a respected stage actor who specialised in either weaselly or officious characters. Frank Yaconelli is best known as the Cisco Kid’s sidekick Baby in a number of films in the forties. Dr. Cyclops was Thomas Coley’s first and only film role (and for some reason he was thrust directly in the game as the leading man), although he did some bit-part work in a few TV-series in the fifties. Janice Logan only made six films and Dr. Cyclops is by far her best known. One does wonder how Paramount didn’t find any more battle-proven actors to play the leading couple in the movie — perhaps a leading man with some actual acting experience.
The brilliant set design is no surprise when you learn that is was made by none other than three-time Oscar winner (and another 20[!] nominations) Hans Dreier. German-born Dreier was a veteran to the genre, having designed the sets for the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (review), as well as Island of Lost Souls (1932, review), both made by Paramount, like Dr. Cyclops. His glory days came late in his career. He earned Oscars for Frenchman’s Creek (1944), Samson and Delilah (1949) and Sunset Blvd. (1950). His most famous film is A Place in the Sun (1951), which won 6 Oscars, including best directing and writing, and a Golden Globe for best film, and was nominated for the Grand Prize at Cannes.
The make-up for the film (not especially striking, though) was done by legendary gorilla actor, make-up artist, suit maker and set designer Charles Gemora. In addition to designing his own gorilla suits, he also did a few alien suit designs. He played a gorilla in dozens of movies, including Island of Lost Souls. He also played a Martian in The War of the Worlds (1953, review), and an alien in I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1959).
Overseeing the Technicolor process was Winston Hoch, credited as ”associate director of photography”. In later years he became a sci-fi staple, making films like The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961), Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and Aliens from Another Planet (1982). He also did work on the series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964), Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Time Tunnel (1966-1967). He worked alongside Technicolor colour director Natalie Kalmus, wife of Technicolor inventor Herbert Kalmus. Natalie worked on over 360 films between 1933 and 1950, including many of Hollywood’s greatest box-office hits.
The special effects team was an equally impressive bunch. It was led by Farciot Edouart, who was for many years one of the top men in his field, who won two Oscars and received a number of technical awards for his advancement of special effects. As longtime head of Paramount’s special effects department, he is especially remembered for his advanced in rear-projection and glass shots. Dr. Cyclops is often cited as one of the films revolutionising the method of rear projection. He also worked on some of the most influential sci-fi films of the fifties. Edouart’s other sci-fi films include When Worlds Collide (1951, review), The War of the Worlds, Conquest of Space (1955, review), The Colossus of New York (1958), Visit to a Small Planet (1960), Robinson Crusoe on Mars. In addition to this, he worked on films like Vertigo (1958), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
Included in the long-standing special effects team was two-time Oscar winner Gordon Jennings and matte artist Jan Domela. The film was co-produced by Schoedsack’s longtime collaborator Merian C. Cooper.
Final verdict? Yes, the script is bad and the acting worse, and as director Jesus Trevino points out in Trailers from Hell, the writing doesn’t have the subtleties of Schoedsack’s and Cooper’s King Kong. But even as it stands, the script is competently enough put together, and like all of the duo’s adventure movies, it moves along at a nice pace and has a sense of passion and a boyish charm, which easily disarms a critical viewer. And the visuals alone are enough to elevate this movie as one of the best science fiction films made during the entire forties.
While literary history is full of stories concerning people of different size, from giants to Liliputians, the idea of actually shrinking people is a surprisingly modern one, with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) being the first widely read novel featuring this trope. The first story I can think of in which science is somehow involved in shrinking a human being is a completely obscure short story from 1803 by Finnish philosopher Gabriel Israel Hartman called A Dream, in which a scientist suddenly finds himself shrinking as he looks through a microscope – it is also probably the first ever story involving a microcosm. Other early fore-runners of the genre were Alfred Taylor Scofield’s Travels in the Interior (1886), Edwin Pallander’s The Adventures of a Micro-Man (1902) and Mark Twain’s Three Thousand Years among the Microbes (1905), which all happen to be stories of people being shrunk to the size of bacteria, who go on more or less educational adventures in the human body. Browning may have been familiar with later pulps stories on the theme, including Ray Cumming’s The Girl in the Golden Atom (1919), Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan and the Ant-Men (1924), in which Tarzan is shrunk by means of electricity, or S.P. Meek’s Submicroscopic (1931).
People changing size was a regular trope in the early days of film, when trick film reels by directors like Georges Méliès, Edwin Porter and Segundo de Chomon were popular, however the fad wore off around 1910 when films became more story-oriented. While miniaturisation may have featured in adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and other fairy-tale and fantasy films, The Devil-Doll (1936) is without doubt the first feature film to depict the shrinking of people through scientific means. Dr. Cyclops was next in line.
The most famous film of them all is, naturally, The Incredible Shrinking Man, released in 1957, which came to serve as a blueprint and benchmark for all miniaturisation films to come. Bert I. Gordon’s low-budget fare Attack of the Puppet People (1958) was an attempt by AIP to surf the popularity of the former film. As special effects evolved and science fiction gained popularity, more films followed, for instance the cult classic Fantastic Voyage (1966), which picks up the turn-of-the-century trope of shrinking people to microscopic size and sending them into the body of a human, in this case in a miniature submarine. In the eighties the trope was used mainly for humorous effect in The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981), Innerspace (1987) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). In later years, the superhero Ant-Man made his cinematic debut in the film by the same name in 2015 and has since featured in a number of Marvel movies. Ant-Man is probably the only shrunken film character that has the scientifically impossible ability of maintaining his original strength while shrinking to the size of an insect. The latest (as of August 2019) addition to the family of shrunken friends is the 2017 film Downsizing, which actually works with the original premise of the scientists in The Devil-Doll: downsizing people in order to counteract problems arising from overpopulation and consumerism.
Dr. Cyclops. 1940, USA. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack. Written by Tom Kilpatrick, Malcolm Stuart Boyley. Starring: Albert Dekker, Thomas Coley, Janice Logan, Charles Halton, Victor Kilian, Frank Yaconelli, Paul Fix, Frank Reicher. Music: Gerard Carbonara, Albert Hay Malotte, Ernst Toch. Cinematography: Henry Sharp. Editing: Ellsworth Hoagland. Art direction: Hans Dreier, Earl Hedrick, Robert Odell. Makeup: Charles Gemora. Assistant director: Hollingsworth Morse. Sound: Harry Lindgren, Richard Olson. Visual effects: Farciot Edouart, W. Wallace Keeley, Gordon Jennings, Paul K. Laerpe, Jan Domela. Technicolor assistants: Natalie Kalmus, Winston C. Hoch. Produced by Dale van Every, Merian C. Cooper for Paramount.
EDIT 17.01.2021: A previous version of the review states that The Devil-Doll was directed by Michael Curtiz. It was, of course, directed by Tod Browning. Thanks to Ryan for pointing it out.