Day the World Ended

Rating: 3 out of 10.

A small group of survivors hole up in a bungalow after a nuclear war, hoping to outlast the fallout and the mutants raging beyond the picket fence. Roger Corman directs the 1955 cheapo efficiently, but it spends too long treading water. 3/10

Day the World Ended. 1955, USA. Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Lou Rusoff. Starring: Richard Denning, Lori Nelson, Paul Birch, Mike ”Touch” Connors, Adele Jergens, Paul Blaisdell. Produced by Roger Corman.

Like so many cheap SF movies from the fifties, Day the World Ended begins with stock footage of a nuclear test, and an opening title, which informs us that this movie starts with … THE END. Chet Huntley, later famed CNN news anchor, provides a (thankfully short) voice-over, telling us that Total Destruction Day has occurred, wiping out humanity in a nuclear war, but that God, in his infinite wisdom, has spared a few select beings. Two of the survivors are hoodlum Tony (Mike ”Touch” Connors) and his girlfriend Ruby (Adele Jergens), a former stripper, now a bit long in the teeth. They have apparently outrun the atomic bomb that hit San Francisco in a convertible, and look like they have arrived straight from the nearest nightclub. For some reason they decide to stop in a quarry in the middle of absolute nowhere, and amidst clouds of nuclear smoke(?) we see them climbing over the ridge and into the valley where the film takes place.

Conveniently situated at the bottom of the valley/quarry is a small single-story building, where former marine soldier and poor man’s John Wayne, Jim Maddison (Paul Birch) resides with his beautiful daughter Louise (Lori Nelson). As Jim has taken part in nuclear tests conducted just after WWII, he has predicted WWIII and the annihilation it would bring, and has spent the latter ten years preparing for it. He’s built his house in a valley surrounded by mountains filled with lead ore, since the lead ore prevents nuclear fallout from reaching his plot of land. He’s also built a store room with water and provisions for three people to survive two months, the period he calculates will be necessary for the nuclear fallout to disperse, and got himself a short-wave radio to listen for other survivors of the apocalypse. The third anticipated guest in his house would be someone called Tommy. It is never outright stated if Tommy is Louise’s brother or boyfriend, but all indications are that the two were lovers. However, Tommy has failed to show up, and is presumed dead.

The team assembled: Paul Birch, Lori Nelson, Mike “Touch” Connors, Adele Jergens, Richard Denning and Raymond Hatton.

Tony and Ruby show up at the front door, but since Jim hasn’t got enough provisions for them, he refuses to let them enter. But Tony the thug pulls out his revolver and fires it. Presumably he’s aiming for the lock, but he clearly fires a blank several inches away from it – since the studio probably rented the house and didn’t bother to outfit it with a Hollywood lock. So, while we clearly see that the lock is in no way damaged, it suddenly opens without problem, and Tony and Ruby storm in, Tony swinging his gun around. Jim won’t have it, but is persuaded by Louise to take them in.

Next to the party is Rick (Richard Denning), the handsome hero of the movie – a geologist doing research in the mountains as the bomb struck. He is carrying a half-dead man with a nasty starfish-shaped radiation scar covering the entire right side of his face. It remains unclear if this is someone that Rick knew previously or if he simply picked him up along the way. But anyway, his name is Radek and he is played by Paul Dubov. Jim seems to have no problem with Rick joining their little survivalist camp, and Louise acts as if she knows Rick, creating a moment of confusion over whether Rick is the boyfriend (or brother?) that was mentioned before. But his name was Tommy, right? This means that Rick wasn’t part of Jim’s plans for survival, and certainly not Radek. The confusion isn’t lessened by the fact that Rick mentions his brother being killed by the radiation (wait – was that Tommy? Or is he talking about Radek? Or is this some third person?). To round out the main cast we finally get Old Pete (Raymond Hatton), an old gold prospector, stepping straight out of a western movie, and his faithful burro Diablo. Jim seems to figure that they are already double as many people as he can feed with his rations, so what does a seventh mouth matter at this point? But Diablo must stay outside.

Mike Connors and Adele Jergens.

We then quickly establish the roles of the seven. Jim is the stern, wise, Moses of this nuclear age Noah’s Ark, who likes to give orders and dislikes any sort of challenge of his command, or any other nonsense, for that matter. Tony is an evil asshole who doesn’t like to take orders, and immediately challenges Jim’s position as top dog with his revolver, only to get knocked to the ground by Rick, who is a man of action, but an all-round good guy. Rick and Louise are immediately an item, but Tony clearly also has the hots for Jim’s young, innocent daughter, and swiftly loses all interest his old girlfriend Ruby. Ruby is the washed-up, loud-mouthed glamour girl of yesterday, spending most of the movie nostalgically dancing to melancholic jazz music or trying to get Tony to take an interest in her again. Old Pete serves as comic relief without actually offering up much in the way of comedy, because this film is way to grim and bleak even for comic reliefs. Radek soon recovers, contrary to all logic, and starts taking an interest in long nightly walks through the radiated landscapes, where he dines on raw meat from radiated animals. That’s basically the information we get from the ten first minutes of the movie.

During the next 45 minutes we get the information that Radek is – surprise, surprise – a mutant, affected by the radiation he has absorbed. We also get a brief appearance of a straggler from the other side of the mountains (Jonathan Haze), who has suffered similar mutation as Radek, and informs the party that there are others out there, ”not many – but strong!” before he promptly dies. Soon the party of seven also realise that some mutated creature is stalking the valley, and what worse: it kills Radek and starts trying having some sort of telepathic communication with Louise. But basically, most of these 45 minutes of the movie consists of padding. The same personal drama plays out a couple of times. Tony tries to hit on Louise, Rick hits Tony, Jim pulls a gun, Tony tries to get the gun, hits on Louise, Rick hits Tony, Ruby tries to hit on Tony, Tony hits Ruby, etc. In between Jim quotes the Bible and drops hints that ”the world never got a complete report of the nuclear tests” he was involved with. He doesn’t drop this hint once or twice, but three times, before elaborating. For no discernible reason, Louise at one point becomes bedridden. She isn’t ill, but presumable depressed. This bed-ridden depression doesn’t do anything to disturb her perfectly coiffed hair, though.

Lori Nelson and Richard Denning.

Finally, things come to a conclusion during the last 15 minutes of this 80-minute-long film. Tony manages to get Jim’s gun, and sets his eyes on becoming the Adam to Louise’s Eve in the new and reborn world. Pete’s burro gets eaten, which sends Pete on a suicide trip out into the nuclear mist, only to be followed by Jim who tries to stop him, receiving a lethal radiation dose in the process, and now he becomes bed-ridden. Naturally, Louise gets kidnapped by the monster mutant, who also finally makes an appearance. So finally it’s a showdown between Jim and Tony, and between the mutant and Rick, and only one of them make it out alive. But since the mutant is invulnerable to gunshots, it is God who intervenes.

Day the World Ended was officially Roger Corman’s third film as a director and his seventh as producer. Corman, engineer by trade, made his solo producing debut in 1953 with the science fiction horror film Monster from the Ocean Floor (review). Produced on a borrowed paddle-submarine and pocket lint, it was an amateurish, stodgy, but utterly charming and quite entertaining film, helped tremendously by the location shooting at a Los Angeles beach, giving it an open and airy feel. As producer he had also made the robust, high-octane car chase movie The Fast and the Furious (1954), and did his directorial debut in the same year with the not at all bad western Five Guns West. On the money that was left of a 100 000 dollars from the troubled shoot of Five Guns West (again, pocket lint), he produced and co-directed the laughably bad science fiction travesty The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955, review).

Lori Nelson with Forrest J. Ackerman and Paul Blaisdell in the monster suit. Conceivably for a Playboy article.

By 1955 Corman was a part of the small movie studio called American Releasing Company (ARC), which would soon change its name to American International Pictures (AIP), and take the teenage drive-in market by storm, releasing cheap exploitation films, many of which have gone down in history for their ridiculously bad production standards, but still manage to thrill and entertain millions to this very day. ARC was founded by cigar-smoking lawyer Samuel Arkoff and film distributor and marketer James Nicholson, with some help from a young British producer called Alex Gordon. At this time, the entirety of ARC consisted of Arkoff, Nicholson, Gordon and Nicholson’s wife. Their offices were situated in a small waiting room at Arkoff’s law firm. Corman wasn’t officially a part of the company, but for the first years of its operation, he was the only director they employed for their own productions.

In Tom Weaver’s book Eye on Science Fiction Alex Gordon confirms that it was Nicholson who first came up with the movie title Day the World Ended. The task of writing a story around the title fell to Lou Rusoff, a Canadian social worker who had written for radio and TV. He also happened to be Sam Arkoff’s brother-in-law. He went on to write a number of ARC’s and AIP’s films, and later produced and became vice-president of the company. As ARC was at the time nominally a distribution company and not a production company, Day the World Ended was nominally produced by Golden State Productions, which had been set up as a front by Corman and Gordon for Corman’s previous film Apache Woman (1955).

Paul Blaisdell attacking Paul Dubov.

ARC had released their previous films as bottom-billed halves of double features, but the shrewdly calculating Arkoff quickly realised that this wasn’t financially viable, as the bottom half of the pairing received a lesser percentage of the revenues than the top-billed film. And since it was difficult for the studio to find any films which could serve as bottom halves to their extremely cheap movies, they decided that they simply had to start producing (or at least financing) both the top-billed and the bottom-billed films themselves. Day the World Ended was their first top-billed film, and thus Arkoff and Nicholson were ready to give Corman something which could actually pass for a budget. What the actual budget was is, as usual with Corman films, unclear. Corman has stated that it was 70,000 dollars, but Corman has made a habit of downplaying his budgets. The official number given by IMDb and Wikipedia is 94,000 dollars, and Gordon claims 104,000 dollars. Whatever the actual sum, it still wasn’t much of a budget, but enough for Corman to film the movie in wide-screen and get a couple of name-actors for the leads (in fact the biggest cost was Sam Arkoff’s salary – a whopping 25 000 dollars).

While Corman would have liked to officially direct The Beast with a Million Eyes himself, he wasn’t able to, since the minuscule budget meant he couldn’t do it as a union picture, which meant that he, a union member, couldn’t officially be involved – more than as ”executive producer”. This time he could pay union-sanctioned salaries, but the budget would still have been pocket money for a major studio. All exteriors were shot in Griffith Park and the Bronson Canyon outside Los Angeles, and several sequences were shot around the trout pond by the Sportsman’s Lodge. The Lodge’s restaurant kept the pond stocked with fish for meals, so by the time the restaurant opened, the film team had to be gone. However, according to Randy Palmer’s book Paul Blaisdell, Monster Maker Sportsman’s Lodge didn’t have a lunch menu, so the studio could work there through the morning and a good part of the afternoon. But that still wasn’t much, as a number of elaborate scenes had to be shot, including most of the final climax with the mutant, a romantic scene with Denning and Nelson, as well as a scene where Ruby and Louise go swimming. Alex Gordon, who was named executive producer for Golden State Productions, tells Tom Weaver that Adele Jergens was ”a trouper” in that situation, as she was having her period and didn’t want to go in the water. She asked Gordon if the scene could be shot some other day. Gordon, who by all accounts was the nicest person ever to inhabit Hollywood, had to tell her it was now or never, ”and she said , ‘Ohhhh, it’s fine, don’t worry about it. I’ll manage’. I was terribly embarrassed to do that to someone like her.”

Paul Birch and Richard Denning.

Only three days were spent on location – one in Griffith Park for forest scenes and house exteriors, one in the Bronson quarry and one at Sportsman’s Lodge. The interiors were shot in seven days in a a little studio called Sunset Stage, and about 80 percent of it was the living-room of Jim’s lodge, with a few short scenes in the sparsely decorated bedrooms, with not much more set dressing than a bed and a framed picture. To match the lodge that the studio had rented for the exterior shootings, the living-room had to have panorama windows. But that caused something of a problem, since they couldn’t afford to create any landscape outside the windows. Corman solved this by covering the windows with huge drapes, that were never opened – almost as if they were part of the protection against the radiation. Mike Connors tells Weaver in Eye for Science Fiction that in the final scenes, where’s he’s looking out the window to shoot Denning, he had to be extremely careful just to have a slight peek through the curtains, so that the camera wouldn’t see the empty studio behind them.

Richard Denning was the sort of actor who could bring a touch of class to any production he was in, always gave it his very best, and never seems to have complained. But even Denning feels a bit lost in Day the World Ended, partly, I suspect, because of the role he was playing, which must be one of the dullest heroes ever put on screen. On the one hand, he is supposed to be the guy that sort of is the moral backbone of the piece, a humanitarian with a positive outlook on things, but on the other hand, he, like all the rest of the characters, walks around the whole film completely miserable from beginning to end. That’s when he isn’t doing clumsily inserted monologues about God’s greatness and making biblical parallels. Yes, Lou Rusoff, we get references to the Garden of Eden and Noah’s Ark without having them pasted in our faces.

Paul Birch and Lori Nelson.

Lori Nelson does seem as if she is in need of some directorial advice, just as she was in Revenge of the Creature. A former beauty pageant groomed as a Universal glamour girl at the studio’s school for young actors, Nelson had starred as the female lead of a couple of westerns before Revenge of the Creature with moderate success, and her turn in that film wasn’t what brought it down, that was the script. But in a claustrophobic chamber drama like this, where the camera lingers on faces, which should speak more than the lines they are uttering, Nelson seems to be flailing in panic beneath those beautiful eyes.

Roger Corman loved Paul Birch, who had up to this point appeared in all films that Corman directed, and would again in Not of this Earth (1957) and Queen of Outer Space (1958). A respected, but apparently not very successful, stage actor, Birch often turned up in small supporting roles in various movies, but I suspect he cherished the chance that Corman gave him to play heroic leads. Roger Corman clearly saw Birch as his very own dime-store John Wayne, and he certainly does his best to conjure up that image in westerns like Apache Woman and this movie. Never able to get rid of his broad stage mannerisms, Birch nonetheless tries to put on the same sort of scraggly, world-weary air as good old Stone-Face Wayne did in his prime. A little shorter, a little squatter, and with a little less charisma than Wayne, Birch nonetheless lacks Wayne’s ability to speak volumes in a raised eyebrow. Birch is the calm centre of the film, but he does too much, resulting in obvious over-acting

Connors is expressive as Tony Lamont, the villainous hoodlum of Day the World Ended, but overplays his characters evilness to the point of caricature. This is more a fault of the script than the acting, though, but Connors’ hamming doesn’t help. Connors and Denning became great friends on set, and the friendship lasted their whole life. It was Connors who persuaded Denning to retire in Hawaii, and they even had some business together for a few years.

Edele Jergens and Mike Connors.

The best performance of the piece is probably given by Adele Jergens as the love-sick, washed up former stripper, now borderline alcoholic, although Corman thankfully doesn’t overplay that part, as was done with the character in Target Earth, from which Jergens’ character was lifted. Jergens had been a starlet in the forties, specialising in comedic roles, now relegated to bit-parts, and she would drop out of acting shortly after this film. Jergens is something of a human face among the cardboard cutouts in the character sheet of Day the World Ended, and it’s actually quite tragic to see her dispatched of in the latter part of the movie. Alex Gordon has nothing but praise for Jergens: ”[She] was one of those very sweet people. We seem to have had very good luck for the most part with our leading ladies /…/ She was just word perfect and the first on set and helpful with the others and … just everything you could imagine!

The part of Old Pete is performed by Raymond Hatton, a minor legend of old Hollywood. Hatton was there at the very birth of Hollywood, starting his film career in 1909, and enjoyed a successful, if not necessarily stellar, silent career. With the introduction of sound film he became a popular comedic western actor, forming a comedy team with the burly Wallace Beery, and is perhaps best known as a star of the Three Mesqueteers franchise, the Rough Riders series and as Johnny Mack Brown’s sidekick in the thirties and forties. Alex Gordon, who was mainly responsible for the casting of Day the World Ended, loved old movies and old movie stars, and tried to give as many old and partly forgotten actors the chance to act in films. Hatton wasn’t quite forgotten at this time, but mainly appeared as guest on TV series. Hatton wanted to be in films, and told Gordon he would love to appear in his movies, but for no less than 1 000 dollars a week. Roger Corman already had another actor, one of his regulars, Dick Miller, lined up for the role of Old Pete, who had agreed to do the part for 250 dollars.

Raymond Hatton.

Hatton became good friends with Alex Gordon – he was one of Gordon’s biggest idols, and the first person he contacted when he moved to Los Angeles in the early fifties. Gordon tells Weaver that he was able to convince Hatton to do Day the World Ended for 250 dollars a week, with the promise that Gordon would be able to get him parts in future AIP movies; ” So anyway, he did that one, Day the World Ended, and then on Girls in Prison I got him the thousand, and on Flesh and the Spur I got him 1 500 bucks, and so on. But there was nothing I could do on that first picture, Day the World Ended; if I’d insisted that Raymond Hatton be paid a thousand dollars a week, Roger Corman would have just said no. Roger was king there, and rightly so, he put the company on the map, so I wasn’t going to fight Roger.”

Roger Corman enjoyed making cameos in his movies. In the very first film he produced, Monster from the Ocean Floor, he turned up briefly as a shipmate called Tommy. He never appears live on screen in Day the World Ended, but he is present. Throughout the movie, Louise keeps staring longingly at a framed photograph of herself and her missing husband – in fact it’s Roger Corman in the picture. And as a little meta joke: the husband’s name is also Tommy.

All in all, the actors aren’t the problem with this film – few of Corman’s films of the fifties had such a well-rounded cast. What Corman does with his cast is a whole other question. He was still very green as far as directing went, and this was by far the most challenging movie he had directed. His previous directorial efforts Five Guns West and Apache Woman were straightforward westerns where very little was left to imagination. But some of the problems that plague Day the World Ended were already apparent in The Beast with a Million Eyes, even though he only directed part of that movie. Day the World Ended is better than that Beast, partly because Corman doesn’t bite off more than he can chew. But still, the lack of personal direction is blatant, as is the rushed nature of the filming.

Paul Dubov.

If one wants to nitpick the script, the most obvious flaw is naturally the science. As Stacia Kissick Jones writes at the wonderful She Blogged By Night; RADIATION DOESN’T WORK THAT WAY! Mountains don’t protect you from nuclear fallout, no matter how much lead ore they contain. Radioactive particles will go anywhere the wind blows, and as any mountain climber will tell you: it’s rather windy up on the mountain tops. And no, nuclear fallout doesn’t billow about in impenetrable fog clouds. And no, individuals do not mutate, no matter how much radiation they absorb. It’s the offspring that mutates. And no, rain doesn’t do anything to purify an area affected by nuclear fallout, it just brings the fallout to the ground, in essence making the fallout even more concentrated.

Logically there are a couple of glaring holes. How did all the people just happen on the secluded house in the middle of nowhere? What on Earth has Jim been doing these past TEN YEARS when he’s been ”preparing” for the apocalypse? Despite all his bluster, the only thing he seems to have done is stock up on canned food, a Geiger counter and a short-wave radio. I can do that on a one-day run to Radio Shack and a grocery store. If he didn’t want intruders, why not build a bunker rather than a bungalow with panorama windows? A fence? Or maybe just stock up on some more food. Considering he had ten years time, getting food to feed seven people for two months isn’t really that difficult. He had an everlasting supply of clean water nearby, so, that wasn’t a problem. And so on and so forth.

I’m not going to complain over the silly mutant costume, because it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. The film is lost long before it enters the picture, and silly monsters are sort of the salt of Roger Corman’s science fiction films. That said: the mutant costume is really bad. But it’s made with love, some amount of genius and no money.

Lori Nelson and Paul Blaisdell.

The music is surprisingly good, if somewhat overtly bombastic for the film in question, sometimes lending the proceedings an unintentionally comic air. Composer Ronald Stein worked for most of his active career as ARC/AIP:s staff composer, and along with Les Baxter scored almost all of the studio’s films. Although they scored eight pictures together, the two never met. Alex Gordon gives Stein high praise, saying they would usually pay him a meagre 5,000 dollars, and he would often go off to Europe or Mexico, hire a cheap orchestra, and come back with a full orchestral score. Stein himself said that he treated all films with the same respect and seriousness, no matter how bad they were; ”My question to myself, always, in any work I’ve done, was that my contribution had to be equal to or greater than anyone else’s individual contribution”. During his career he scored a full 21 science fiction movies, which probably makes him one of the most prolific sci-fi composers of Hollywood.

The movie was remade, almost line-for-line, as In the Year 2889 (1967), and the straight-to-video film The Day the World Ended simply reused the title but not the plot. A number of better films using the basic formula would be made in the fifties and sixties. Day the World Ended was released on a double bill along with The Beast from 10,000 Leagues by Dan and Jack Milner. I have found no contemporary reviews of the movie, but am told they were “lackluster”. This didn’t prevent the film from scoring well at the box office, apparently raking in over one million dollars, thereby making its budget back over tenfold.

Cast and producers assembled. Standing to the right are Alex Gordon and James Williamson.

Day the World Ended sports a decent 5.4/10 rating on IMDb but doesn’t have enough entries for a critic consensus on Rotten Tomatoes. AllMovie gives it 2.5/5 stars, with Hal Erickson writing: “Carefully staying within its limited budget, The Day the World Ended is a well-crafted, thought-provoking apocalyptic fable”. TV Guide calls it “Silly but fun”. Film historian and critic Bill Warren calls the movie “childish but entertaining”. Chris Barsanti in The Sci-Fi Movie Guide writes: “The monster […] isn’t particularly convincing, and the heroes’ 1950’s macho posturing will inspire more laughter than admiration from today’s audiences. Still, the film holds up pretty well today”. On the other hand, Clive Davies in Spinegrider calls it “awful”.

Stacia Kissick Jones at She Blogged by Night writes; “Corman’s overall production of the film is surprisingly competent. There are none of the hallmarks of really rotten film making in TDtWE, no accidental boom shots, no glaring plot holes. The actors know their lines and their performances are uniformly competent. Yet the movie cannot help but be two-dimensional in both message and overall concept, which is why it fails to engage the audience on any level.” Jones notes that “the polished yet cheap production values Corman was to be known for are certainly here, but his slightly subversive takes on common themes had not yet taken hold by The Day the World Ended.” Glenn Erickson at DVD Savant says that the script “reads like Key Largo with nuclear fallout, crossed with a heavy dose of quasi-Biblical fantasy. The science of Day the World Ended is bogus and its dramatics are crude, but its storyline is unbreakable.” Richard Scheib at Moria gives a 2.5/5 star review: “It is a cheap and shoddy film. It is however conducted with an undeniable vigour and a conviction in itself.”

Paul Birch and Richard Denning.

I am personally not as quick to forgive Day the World Ended as some of the above cited colleagues. Broken down in its individual parts, much in this film works reasonably well. The acting is reasonable, the fight scenes well staged, the script is coherent, if flawed, the sets decent, if cheap, the location shots functioning, the camera setups good and even clever at times, the widescreen photography occasionally beautiful, the ideas basically both sound and interesting and the dialogue works OK where it works, although often it doesn’t. The problem for me is that the functioning parts don’t function together to make a working machinery. In particular the middle of the film just grinds to a halt. The parts keep on humming, but the wheels aren’t turning. The characters and the story go nowhere, neither emotionally nor narratively. There are no ups or downs in this film. When we meet the characters, they are all totally miserable. Then they keep on being miserable throughout the whole movie, and even the ending is pretty miserable. There are no nuances to all this misery, everybody’s just steadily miserable all the time, with some occasional outbursts of rage and jealousy. The film would have needed some sense of lightness and happiness somewhere in the middle, some sort of subplot that would have filled out the script, given the survivors a goal to strive for, a purpose other than just waiting out the fallout and seeing who cracks first. A supply run, building something, a rescue mission. Something!

The first fifteen or so minutes of the movie basically gives us all the information we need to move to the last fifteen minutes. Sure, there’s bits and pieces of new information emerging within all the padding, but nothing essential. We don’t learn anything about the circumstances, about the mutant monster, about the characters or their motivations, about the nature of the nuclear apocalypse or anything else during the 45 minutes of padding at the heart of the movie, that would be needed for understanding the conclusion of the film, or even give it any more depth or nuance.

Roger Corman to the left in The Monster from the Ocean Floor (1953).

Roger Corman seldom earned much praise from the actors that worked with him – both Richard Denning and Mike Connors say Corman didn’t offer any direction and was just worried about getting everything on tape in the allotted time. But Corman knew his setups, he knew his shots, his props and his angles. And he also knew that if he didn’t rush the actors, he wouldn’t get the film done.

At the time Alex Gordon had come off a disaster of a movie called The Lawless Rider, which went far over budget and schedule. So when he came onto the set of Day the World Ended, he was ”absolutely thrilled”; ”everything was quiet … everything was efficient … nobody was shouting … everybody seemed to know what they were doing … [Corman] had the right people there … and he was directing very quietly, giving his instructions and so on. Later I was told by Lloyd Bridges and a couple of others, especially Richard Denning, that Corman wasn’t directing actors. Some of the actors were asking him certain questions about their interpretations and Corman was very hazy on that.”

This has given Corman a reputation as a director who didn’t care what the actors were doing, but I wonder if that was really the case — or if it was rather a combination of insecurity and simple lack of understanding of the artistic process. Alex Gordon says that Lori Nelson was unhappy with Corman during the shooting of Day the World Ended. Other actors who are usually quoted when Corman’s non-direction comes up are Richard Denning, Lloyd Bridges and Mike Connors. But it’s worth remembering that Nelson, Bridges and Denning were all bona fide movie stars when they made films with Corman. Bridges and Denning had been leading men since the mid-forties, and Denning had just come off three years in the titular role of the successful TV series Mr. and Mrs. NorthNelson had had leads in the Ma and Pa Kettle franchise and starred in Revenge of the Creature (1955, review).

Roger Corman (with the hat) directing Paul Blaisdell and Lori Nelson.

Roger Corman, on the other hand, was an engineer who had gotten into films through a wholly mathematical exercise. When working as a glorified errand boy at a major studio, his engineer brain looked the money that was put into the production at one end and at the film that came out in the other end – and then at what happened to that money in all the stages in between. His conclusion was that roughly four fifths of the money was wasted. Studios had massive overhead costs that contributed nothing to the films. Bad planning meant days and weeks of shooting time went down the drain, either to set up shots, dress settings, doing endless amounts of unnecessary rehearsals and re-takes, indulging star actors who didn’t feel like doing scenes, or simply because there were too many cooks stirring the pots and one didn’t know what the other was doing. He saw art departments pouring money into lavish sets and intricate details that were completely unnecessary to make a decent film, lighting departments spending days on matching natural light, when the crew could have simply stepped outside and turned on the cameras, etcetera, etcetera.

Corman loved films, and he wanted his films to be as good as they could be on the budget that he had. But he didn’t have an acting background. He didn’t have training in either theatre, film or any other art. He didn’t enter the movie business in order to fulfil his artistic vision, he did it because he liked movies and he realised that he could make a career out of them, not because he was a brilliant director, but because he could make the same films that people made for 300,000 dollars for 70,000 dollars. And when he was first called upon to direct, with Five Guns West, he did it because he couldn’t afford a director. And he was terrified. In later interviews he has said that he was so terrified that he had to go to the toilet and throw up between takes. This was in 1955. Denning, Nelson, Bridges and Connors all worked with Corman between 1955 and 1957. Connors met him on his first film, Bridges on his second, Denning and Nelson on his third-and-a-halfth.

So here we have a young man, with an education in engineering and English literature, not yet in his thirties, desperately trying to figure out how to direct movies, who’s never acted, never directed, never even taken a crash course in any performing art. And here come people who’ve been acting in movies since the thirties, played against the best of the best in the business, helmed their own TV series and been part of hugely successful big studio franchises – and they’re asking HIM how to act in their scenes. If I would have been Roger Corman in that situation, I would have shat my pants. And I have even acted. So this is my very personal theory, but if you ask me why Denning, Bridges and Nelson didn’t get any answers on how they were supposed to act, it was because Corman was scared stiff of commenting on the acting of seasoned movie stars. In fact, Alex Gordon does say to Weaver that Corman did, in fact, give instructions to his own posse of miscreants, the amateurs and bit-part players that he picked up along the way, like Jonathan Haze and Paul Dubov. Paul Blaisdell recalls that Corman had no problems telling him how the mutant was supposed to be acting, to the point where the two actually had an argument over how Blaisdell was supposed to act out a certain scene.

Lori Nelson and Richard Denning.

Richard Denning has shown some understanding for cheapo directors like Roger Corman and Edward Cahn in later years, stating that they simply didn’t have time to direct, they were already busy enough with ”keeping things glued together”. And as a man with business training, he did respect Corman as a producer, and said he didn’t mind at all being in quickie films. He was used to working fast from a long career of B movies, and especially TV. In 1957 he appeared in one of his few A films, An Affair to Remember, opposite Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Denning tells Tom Weaver that he remembers feeling bewildered about the way 20th Century Fox let money go to waste. He explains how some days all three stars would sit around a ready-dressed set, with all cameras in place, without shooting a single frame. They would lounge around the set, do a bit of rehearsal, and when Cary Grant had had enough, he would simply call it a day, and everyone went home: ”My thought was: ‘How can they do this? This is costing money!’ In the time I spent on An Affair to Remember, I could have shot six feature films – and I’m only in the last half of the thing!”

In 1955 Richard Denning was battling it out with John Agar over who was science fiction’s top leading man. Denning made a splash in 1954 with the huge success of Creature from the Black Lagoon (review), even if he played the villain that time, and followed it up with Target Earth and Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, review). He would go on to appear in The Black Scorpion (1957) and Twice Told Tales (1963). Denning had a long and successful career in TV, and may be best remembered by a younger audience for his recurring role as the mayor in the original TV series Hawaii Five-O. For more on Denning, look up my reviews for his previous movies in the links above. Denning was the real star on Day the World Ended. He was paid 7 500 dollars, plus a promise of seven percent of the profit – which he never received, thanks to Sam Arkoff’s ”inventive” accounting.

Alex Gordon and Richard Denning both praise each other highly in separate interviews with Tom Weaver. Both men seem to have been among the best liked, charming, gentlemanly people in Hollywood at the time. Gordon says that Denning always knew his lines, was always well prepared, never late, and ”an absolute pleasure to work with”. Denning was also husband to Evelyn Ankers, former movie star and scream queen of a number of horror films in the thirties and forties. Gordon adored Ankers, and tried to get her into every movie he made. But she was retired, and nothing could drag her out of retirement. He had offered her the role of Ruby in Day the World Ended.

Mike Connors and Richard Denning.

Mike Connors was at this point in his career billed as Touch Connors, his old football nickname. The Armenian-American Connors’ real name was Krekor Ohanian, a name producers naturally didn’t think fitted too well for a Hollywood star in the fifties. Ohanian was scouted by director William Wellman on the football field in the early fifties, and vied for the role of Tarzan after Johnny Weissmuller got too old for it. He lost it to Lex Barker, but an agency, and got signed with Metro-Goldwyn Mayer for a 90-day contract, just to scare Farley Granger who was being belligerent at the time – Ohanian never did an MGM film. But he got an agency, who changed his name. They thought about ”O’Hanlon”, but that was too close to another actor called George O’Hanlon, so for some reason it became Connors. ”Touch” had been his nickname in football, and Touch Connors was close enough to a name like Rock Hudson to be marketable. Connors tells Tom Weaver: ”I hated it from day one”.

Through sheer force of audacity and naivety, Connors was able to sneak into the studio at Republic, where they were filming Sudden Fear (1952), with stars like Joan Crawford and Jack Palance. He had previously been snubbed by the producer when auditioning for one of the main roles, but later heard the role hadn’t been filled, although shooting had begun. He walked right up to the director in the middle of shooting and asked him to audition him on the spot. And it worked. However, his good luck didn’t hold up, and he found himself in Z movies like the ones made by ARC. He did four films with Roger Corman; Five Guns West, Day the World Ended, Swamp Women, and Oklahoma Woman, all in 1955 and 1956, all for 400 dollars a movie. Tired for working 400 bucks a film, when someone like Richard Denning got 7 500, Connors asked Corman for a raise for his next movie. Corman replied: ”Now I’ll give you 1 200 dollars … for three films”. When Connors remarked that this was still 400 dollars a film, Corman agreed, but pointed out that it was a three-picture contract. Connors laughed and declined, and didn’t work for AIP again (all in all he did seven AIP films). Instead he moved into TV, where he became the star of the TV series Mannix (1967-1975), a series that was at one point the most watched series in the US. He did one other sci-fi fillm, Voodoo Woman (1957), for Columbia and Edward Cahn. He was allowed to change his artist name to Mike Connors when he was cast as the star in the popular, but short-lived TV series Tightrope on 1959. In Tom Weaver’s interview, he says that his one regret is that he was talked into changing his name, as he would have liked to act under his actual name.

Connors had no love for Corman or AIP, but couldn’t afford to be picky at that time of his career. He had an especially bad time on Corman’s Swamp Women, where he had to swim around swamps filled with snakes and alligators, getting wet and miserable every day on the shoot. But as he put it, ”It was good practice”. And he adds that the female leads on that movie had it far worse – they were dragging a rowboat through the swamps, while he was their captive, who stayed high and dry on the boat for most of the movie. On Swamp WomenCorman had all his actors relocate to the swamps outside New Orleans. To save money he ”re-opened” an old hotel in the swamps that had been closed down, and put in a few old beds for the actors to sleep in (while he himself stayed at a nice hotel in town, since he had to go into town every day anyway to see the dailies”. Connors tells Weaver: ”One night we were getting ready for bed and I hear this scream and this hysterical laughter. I get up and I go in, and – it was either Beverly Garland or Marie Windsor’s bed had completely collapsed, and she was on the floor!” He adds: ”But again, y’know, you did things in those days because you wanted the experience and the credits and the few bucks it brought you.”

Paul Blaisdell and Lori Nelson. Standing to the left is Paul’s wife Jackie, who assisted Paul with his work.

AIP:s monster maker extraordinaire was Paul Blaisdell, who got called into the fray during the very last days of post-production of The Beast with a Million Eyes. Corman, who shrewdly thought he got off the hook by making a film with an invisible monster, got into trouble because the film’s name promised a ”Beast”, as did the poster, which Jim Nicholson had made – portraying a giant million-eyed monster. When the exhibitors had attended the screening of the film, which was supposed to feature a million-eyed Beast, but simply showed a tea kettle that had landed in a desert, they quite obviously asked: ”Where’s the monster?” So Nicholson told Corman to get a monster, pay for it out of his own pocket and get it onto film. And he had a week to do it.

Corman was prepared to spend 200 dollars – a sum no professional prop maker or makeup artist would even get out of bed for, so he called up his friend, superfan Forry Ackerman, who suggested his magazine illustrator Paul Blaisdell, who had dabbled in sculpting and model-making as a kid. And Blaisdell, along with wife Jackie, came through. 200 dollars didn’t get much, but it did get a hand puppet. A rather cool-looking hand puppet at that. It looked like a hand puppet on screen, but that didn’t matter. Corman had a monster, the exhibitors had a monster, the movie was going to win back its meagre 27,000 dollar budget, and everyone were happy.

Corman went back to Blaisdell for Day the World Ended, this time with an actual budget. The suit wasn’t included as such in the budget, but Randy Palmer figures that the 1472.78 dollars allotted to ”special equipment” was probably the cost of what would lovingly become known as ”Marty the Mutant” on set. Not much, but certainly more than 200 dollars. According to Palmer’s book, the idea behind the mutant was that it was basically a mutated human, so it had to be humanoid in shape. As radiation bombarded the human body, it would build up a metal-like scaly skin to protect it from further radiation. The radiation would change the bone structure and physiology, and the mutations would make it more equipped to survive in the kill-or-be-killed-post-war environment. A third eye would make it see better through the nuclear mist, and claws, sharp teeth, super-strength and antennae-like outgrowths on its head would give it telepathic abilities. Some mutations would go wrong or be interrupted, hence strange outcroppings on its knees and elbows, as well as two useless miniature arms sprouting from its shoulders.

Paul and wife Jackie Blaisdell with their creations.

Now, Blaisdell was no costume designer, prop maker or makeup artist. He had no workshop and no supplier, he didn’t have access to the fancy materials or processes that studios used to make suits like the one for Creature from the Black Lagoon or the old Universal monsters. But he had a passion for the work, imagination, an ability to think outside the box and make use of whatever materials he could buy, recycle, or manufacture. And he had his wife Jackie. And glue. Lots of glue.

The basis for Marty the Mutant was a pair of ordinary long johns, which fitted snugly over the actor who would play Marty the Mutant – Paul Blaisdell himself. He started by cutting the scales one by one out of blocks of black foam rubber, and glued them, piece by piece, onto the long johns with contact cement. The feet and hands he bought from a trick-or-treat shop, and added wooden claws which he carved and painted white. The mutant was supposed to be huge, but Blaisdell himself was a rather diminutive guy, so he glued on huge chunks of foam rubber to the shoulders and chest in order to give it added height. The neck of the creature reached Blaisdell’s chin, and he added a huge head. The mouth was at the same height as Blaisdell’s eyes, and he wore sunglasses to hide his eyes inside the suit. The head started with a previously made bust of Blaisdell’s head, which he covered with latex to make a positive mould, which served as the starting point. He then covered that in foam rubber to give it more mass and an elongated character, and covered it with more latex, in order to then fill in the more intricate details, like nose and ears, made with latex (latex only sticks to latex). And voila: Marty the Mutant.

Corman had serious misgivings about Blaisdell playing the mutant, not least because he had to carry Lori Nelson for a substantial amount of time – and as said: Blaisdell was neither big nor strong. Nelson wasn’t either, but she was a grown woman. To make matters worse: because Blaisdell had built the shoulders and head so high, he had to lift her all the way up to his chin to make it look as the mutant was carrying her at chest-height. He and Nelson had worked out a routine in which she was going to take a swing at him, missing, and landing her arm above his shoulder, and he would use the momentum to swing her up in his arms. But when filming, Nelson forgot the routine. And since Corman had a notorious dislike for re-takes, Blaisdell then had to awkwardly try to wrangle her up into his embrace, and was positively surprised when he was able to do so without toppling over. According to Palmer, things went from bad to worse, when Blaisdell started making jokes from within his suit, and sent Nelson into fits of giggling, making her bouncing in his already precarious grip, resulting in the inevitable pratfall. But Corman didn’t want to do any re-takes, and instead cobbled together what he had in editing. When you watch the movie, it’s obvious that Blaisdell has considerable trouble walking with Nelson in his arms, and you can see him staggering and wobbling on numerous occasions.

Lori Nelson and Paul Blaisdell.

Without giving too much of the plot away, one can also mention that at one point Blaisdell was lying on his back in the suit, as a stagehand filled it with theatre fog, and sprinklers soaked him with water. When the fog trapped inside the head, he tried to get up, but the massive foam rubber suit had absorbed so much water that he could move in it. He found it harder and harder to breathe, and as he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t call for help. He wriggled in order to catch the crew’s attention, but Corman simply though he was acting, and encouraged him to keep doing what he was doing. Finally Jackie realised that this was not her husband acting, he was really in trouble. The crew swiftly came to his rescue, and as they removed the head, smoke bellowed out. According to Palmer, his hair was still smoking twenty minutes later.

The suit is laughably top-heavy, as Blaisdell’s long johns fit snugly to his legs, and the costume is bulked up on the top. Like the previous hand puppet, christened Little Hercules, Marty the Mutant has a devilish appearance with its elongated head, pointy ears, nose and cheek and the protruding horn-like antennae. Except for some crude jaw movements, the face is completely inanimate, and the whole thing looks more like an elaborate Halloween costume than a film suit. However, considering the budget and the circumstances Blaisdell worked with, it is not terrible. Makeup artist on the movie was Steven Clensos, but it was actually Blaisdell who came up with the rather good makeup for the radiation-scarred Paul Dubov and Jonathan Haze. As a matter of fact, all it was was glue and dime-store glitter.

Janne Wass

Day the World Ended (1955, USA). Directed by Roger Corman. Written by Lou Rusoff. Starring: Richard Denning, Lori Nelson, Paul Birch, Mike ”Touch” Connors, Adele Jergens, Raymond Hatton, Paul Dubov, Jonathan Haze, Paul Blaisdell. Music: Ronald Stein. Cinematography: Jockey Arthur Feindel. Editing: Ronald Sinclair. Set decoration: Harry Reif. Makeup: Steven Clensos. Sound: Jean L. Speak. Special effects (monster maker): Paul Blaisdell. Produced by Roger Corman for Golden State Productions.

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