Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

Rating: 7 out of 10.

Columbia’s 1956 classic is the epitome of the 50’s UFO movie. The script is clichéd and the production cheap, but Ray Harryhausen’s animation and the taut direction make this a fun, highly intertaining saucer ride. 7/10

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. 1956, USA. Directed by Fred Sears. Written by Bernard Gordon & George Worthing Yates from a story by Curt Siodmak. Starring: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Morris Ankrum, Donald Curtis, John Zaremba, Paul Frees. Animation by Ray Harryhausen. Produced by Charles Schneer & Sam Katzman. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 5.8/10. Metacritic: N/A.

UFO sightings are reported from all over the world and somebody has been shooting down all the experimental satellites sent up into the sky by newlywed scientists Dr. Russell and Carol Marvin (Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor) and their team in this 1956 Columbia film. On their way to work the scientist couple is almost run off the road by a flying saucer making a strange buzzing noise, which Russell accidentally picks up on magnetophone tape recorder. Later a saucer lands outside the facilities where the two are working, under the supervision of Carol’s father, General Hanley (Morris Ankrum). A small group of humanoid aliens emerge, and the army extends Earth’s warm greeting by immediately shooting one of them dead. The other two turn out to have ray cannons for hands, and answer the welcome by blowing up the facility and abducting the general. A strange-looking crystalline device in the ceiling of the futuristic interior of the spacce ship turns out to be a universal translator, and a disembodied alien voice (Paul Frees) asks the general why the humans opened fire, even though the aliens had sent Dr. Marvin a message asking to meet them at the facility at a specific time and date. Hanley explains that Dr. Marvin only heard a buzzing sound, and couldn’t make anything out of it.

Meanwhile, Russell and Carol are trapped in a bunker below the ruins of the facility, with power failing. When the batteries of the tape recorder start failing, Russell plays the alien recording, and when the tape runs too slow, he can make out the words; the aliens were actually trying to arrange a meeting.

Hugh Marlowe and Joan Taylor.

After being saved, however, Russell is put under house arrest at a hotel, with a Major Huglin (Donald Curtis) as babysitter, awaiting the military chain of command to approve of him arranging a new meeting. The next night Russell secretly sends a message to the aliens through a ham radio, and is told to show up at a beach six hours later. With Huglin, Carol and a motorcycle cop at his heels, he races to the beach, where the four are taken in as guests of a saucer. Here, they are re-united with General Hanley, or at least a zombie version of him — the aliens have sucked his brain dry of information about all the US’ military secrets and hardware. The aliens explain that they come from a dead planet and intend to colonise Earth. They could take it by force — their saucers and invulnerable to human weapons and they have deadly rays which can easily blow up a hangar ship — which the aliens demonstrate dramatically. However, they would rather not rule over a planet destroyed by war, and want Russell to set up a conference with the world leaders in Washington, where a declaration of surrender must me made. Carol’s father will also be returned to her. “Well, you don’t leave us much choice, do you”, replies Russell. Russell is given 56 days to arrange the meeting, then the aliens will attack Washington with full strength.

Testing the sonar cannon.

Russell, Carol and Major Huglin are released, but instead of planning surrender, Russell gets right on designing a new weapon, a kind of sonar cannon, which messes with the saucers, causing them to malfunction and crash — at least that’s the theory. It’s a team effort: when Russell’s prototype fails, a modification is put forth by a Professor Kanter (John Zaremba), who in turn modifies a suggestion from a colleague in India. On the 56th day, a convoy of US army trucks outfitted with the new cannons race toward Washington, just as the flying saucers begin their attack. This is the sequence the film is remembered for, as Ray Harryhausen’s animations show aliens destroying (or crashing into) the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol, as well as other Washington landmarks and buildings, with Russell, Carol and the army in hot pursuit with their sonar cannons.

A saucer crashing into the Washington Monument.

If there is a film that perfectly encapsulates the 50’s B science fiction movie, then it is Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. It’s an almost perfect amalgam of the plot elements of all its best predecessors: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), Invaders from Mars (1953, review), The War of the Worlds (1953, review), It Came from Outer Space (1953, review) and Them! (1954, review). The script lifts the best bits and pieces from each of these movies, but without making it seem like plagiarism, and rather manages to incorporate them all into something that feels oddly familiar while still a distinct work of its own. The film’s endurance lies in its final act, where, finally, after six years of waiting, the audience got to see the US military fight an alien invasion — and win! This might come as a surpsise to some readers, but actual, full-scale alien invasions were extremely rare in 50’s SF movies. Naturally, this was a matter of resources. Most SF films were made on small budgets, and didn’t have the time or the money to depict large-scale invasions, so the action was kept small. Often the alien threat consisted of a single visitor or one flying saucer — which was seen briefly in a long-shot before hidden inside a mountain or in a forest — and almost as a rule, the “invasion” never outgrew the small Californian (or Brirish) town where the alien first landed. In fact, the only other full-scale alien invasion seen on screen between 1950 and 1956 was The War of the Worlds, and there, the US military did not so much fight as run away, and in the end, the aliens were defeated by nature, rather than by anything the protagonists did. The only movie in which we see the heroes fight a large-scale invasion of anything is the giant ants in Them! So here now, in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, is actually the first time in SF movie history we get to see the military kick some large-scale alien butt.

Frank Wilcox, Donald Curtis, Joan Taylor and Hugh Marlowe.

In 1955 a young producer named George Schneer and his special effects partner Ray Harryhausen convinced Columbia’s Sam Katzman to let them produce a monster movie about a giant octopus attacking San Francisco, from a story by SF author George Worthing Yates, which became It Came from Beneath the Sea (review). Their secret weapon was stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen, who agreed to a work cheap in exchange for full artistic freedom. The $150,000 production raked in $1,7 million, and made back its budget elevenfold. That Katzman turned to the same team for a follow-up the next year was no surprise.

The bulk of the team that made It Came from Beneath the Sea are back on deck in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers: producer Schneer, writer Yates, composer Mischa Bakalenikoff, animator Ray Harryhausen, art director Paul Palmentola, set decorator Sidney Clifford and sound technician J.S. Westmoreland. But there are some replacements and addition. First of all, seasoned director Fred Sears took over from the slightly shaky Bernard Gordon, and likewise experienced cinematographer Fred Jackman, Jr. ensured good quality photography, also outside of Harryhausen’s work. Harryhausen, although he took no credit for it, dreamed up the initial idea for the film. According to film historian Bill Warren, Harryhausen did his research, and talked to people who claimed to have been abducted, and used for inspiration Major Donald Keyhoe’s nonfiction book Flying Saucers from Outer Space, something of a classic among ufologists. Schneer and Harryhausen then contracted SF author and screenwriter extraordinaire, Curt Siodmak, to write a script. However, Harryhausen found Siodmak‘s script impractical, and turned it over to Yates. Still, he wasn’t quite happy, and finally gave Bernard Gordon the task to write the last polish-up.

Greetings from Earth!

The script is not Oscar material, naturally. But it is tight and contains no fat, no padding. It opens almost in medias res, and keeps chugging along from one set piece to the next, all of which are relevant to the plot. At 83 minutes, it’s brisk, compact and sharp. The characters remain placeholders, but the screenwriters cleverly put them in small domestic scenes that help us make an emotional bond, or at least see their bonds to each other, even if it adds little in the way of depth. For example, one scene that lays out exposition is placed at a barbeque dinner where we get to see General Hanley with his hair down, sharing a meal with Russell and Carol. Veteran bit-part player Morris Ankrum makes enough of his rare featured role that we actually feel a slight pang when we later discover he has been zombified by the aliens. Yates and Gordon do a good job in making even smaller roles, such as Professor Kanter, sympathetic and human, so that Kanter’s death by alien ray gun feels like it actually means something, feels like something. It’s not so much that we get to know them, but the way their lines are written, and the short banter and small talk between the expositin and the action beats. The effect is further enhanced by casting such actors as Ankrum and John Zaremba, who have been in the game long enough to relish such small treats as actually resemble dramatic acting, as well as the way in which Taylor and Marlowe act opposite them. Marlowe, in particular, is the kind of actor that makes his co-actors look good.

Morris Ankrum.

The aliens are actually among the more intriguing ones as far as invasion movies go. Like Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, they are initially morally ambiguous. First, it seems as if the US military has made a mammoth mistake in firing upon them when the first land — unprovoked. When we learn that they only wanted to meet with Dr. Marvin, we feel it’s the humans that are the real villains. They say they come in peace from a disintegrated planet and want to live with humans without violence. However, it is soon made clear that they don’t intend so much to be the guests of Earth’s peoples, as to enslave them. Their call to peace is merely an effort to do so without bloodshed. Of course, all this pseudo-intellectual back-and-forth is only build-up to the final showdown where all writing finesse goes out the window.

There’s a lot of plot holes in the script, and a number of peculiarities. For example, General Hanley is well aware that all of the satellites that his daughter and Russell have been sending up for weeks have been shot down, but he has never said a word to either of them. When Carol and Russell are nearly driven off the road by a UFO on their way to conduct super-secret satellite tests, they decide that they don’t need to tell anyone about it. Like, stuff happens: a dead bird on the road, a rain shower, a UFO trying to make us crash our car … The techno mumbo jumbo is sometimes hilarious. After killing an alien, scientists bring its suit of armour to the lab in order to suss it out – and discover i is made from “solidified electricity”. The scene continues with Russell trying the helmet out, discovering that the aliens see the world differently from humans. This is never brought up again, nor does the scene contribute anything to the plot. Rather, it is lifted straight from The War of the World, where it, interestingly enough, doesn’t serve any purpose, either.

The Capitol building blowing up.

The UFO’s in this film are among the most iconic in movie history. Modelled very much like the one in The Day the Earth Stood Still, with visuals taken from pulp magazines and “eyewitness accounts”, it has the standard sleek dome and a slightly chubby look. What makes these stand out are the rotating edges, which give the saucers a kind of dynamism, makes them visually interesting and suggest some kind of propulsion system. As was often the case, the models were built by Ray Harryhausen’s father, and they were made in three different sizes. Another thing that make these UFO’s stand out is the way it doesn’t quite land, but hovers above ground, sending down a sort of “elevator” from the middle of the undercarriage of the saucer, which touches ground and functions as a door as well as landing gear. Visual effects create an effect of “undulating air”, like you may see if you look toward the horizon on a very hot day. This represents some kind of ray or magnetic shield surrounding the UFO, protecting the aliens from harm whilst under the UFO.

As many critics have pointed out, like all of Harryhausen’s creations, the flying saucers in the film feel like they have a “personality”. This is achieved simply with the way Harryhausen moves them across the screen, zipping, gliding, purposefully and with intent – until they are attacked by the human ray guns, and you can see them physically struggling against the invisible beam. And when you see the monuments and buildings crumbling – keep in mind that every single little tumbling fragment has its own wire attached to it, and that Harryhausen painstakingly animated each speck of dust falling off a wall. However, according till Bill Warren’s book Keep Watching the Skies!, Harryhausen claims that despite the long hours animating, it was cheaper to do it this way, than to build large miniatures and blow them up for real, like George Pal did in The War of the Worlds. And sure, Harryhausen and director Sears also took some shortcuts. There’s a lot of stock footage in the film, into which Harryhausen has sometimes very deftly integrated his alien menace. Other times the effects are not entirely convincing, such as when the main actors are jogging in place in front of a rear projection of a forest fire.

We come in peace?

While Harryhausen tends to get all the praise for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the contribution of director Fred Sears is often overlooked. Sears’ direction is not only very efficient, it is also quite stylish at times. Sears and cinematographer Fred Jackman, Jr. create a couple of very strong sequences, not least inside the UFO, which is beautifully designed by Paul Palmentola and lit by Jackman to create a really spooky atmosphere. The camera angle shooting Morris Ankrum in an extremely tight angle from below against the eerie, spinning brain sucker coming down from the roof of the saucer is one of the most lasting images of 50’s SF cinema, and just as iconic as Harryhausen’s crashing UFO’s. Sears also creates a claustrophobic atmosmphere when Russell and Carol are buried in their bunker. There’s a lot of small, clever moments in this film that suggests Fred Sears was a better director than his B-movie legacy would suggest.

Morris Ankrum in one of Fred Sears’ stylish shots.

Hugh Marlowe does his best Richard Carlson impersonation in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and does so, in my opinion, with some skill. He is ably backed up by Morris Ankrum, extremely prolific bit-part and supporting actor who appeared in no less than 14 SF movies. Ankrum clearly delights in a a meatier-than-usual role, and has a number of really juicy scenes. Best in the film is Joan Taylor, an actress who would have been worthy of more than the westerns she got stuck in. She and Marlowe have good rapport, and for stints in the movie the script allows her to punch above the weight of the usual damsel-in-distress or worried wife, characters that these films usually provide the leading lady with. John Zaremba and Donald Curtis also pull their weight by giving sympathetic performances in large supporting roles. Equally important is voice actor Paul Frees as the alien voice heard frequently in the movie — the otherworldly “wobbling” of his voice came through rapidly changing the pitch of his recording in post-production.

The sound of the film is likewise worthy of mention. The film is filled with eerie and otherworldly sounds, courtesy of sound engineer J.S. Westmoreland. Much of it was made up on the fly. For example, the sound of the UFO:s flying was recorded at the sewage plant in which the scenes of the underground rocket lab was filmed. Westmoreland recorded the sound of the sewage rushing through the pipes, and tweaked it for the desired effect. In fact, this is one of the few science fiction movies of the 50’s that actually won an award: it was awarded the Golden Reel Award for best sound editing by Motion Picture Sound Editors in 1957.

Inside the UFO.

It’s easy to see the shadow of McCarthyism in the invasion entertainment that saturated the US in the 50’s – movies and books warned against the threat of communism, both from inside and outside, but also against McCarthyism itself. However, beside the inescapable connection movie audiences made between flying saucers and Russians, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers doesn’t seem to have any real political message, overt or covert. This is simply entertainment for entertainment’s sake, a thrill ride made for the kids in order for Columbia to rake in a profit. Perhaps that’s part of the reason it is still such a fun watch.

The heyday of the flying saucer movie lasted from around 1951 to 1956. In 1955, Universal’s big-budget (well, big-ish) gamble This Island Earth (review) made its money back, but wasn’t the blockbuster that the studio had hoped, and after this, major studios more or less lost interest not only in flying saucers, but generally in science fiction as a whole. While a couple of genuine classics were still produced, the science fiction output of Hollywood in the latter half of the 50’s was dominated by low-budget production companies and independents. This was especially true for the flying saucer movie. Earth vs. the Flying Saucer was the last hurrah for a subgenre that in the scope of only four years (1951-1954) had produced a handful of science fiction’s most enduring classics.

Joan Taylor on TV.

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers proved another hit for Schneer, Harryhausen and Columbia. It took in $1.25 million at the box office and encouraged Schneer to get out from under Sam Katzman and start his own production company. In Variety, critic Kap praised Harryhausen’s effects, and wrote that Sears’ direction “mixes the make-belive at a good pace achieving a neat measure of suspense and thrills”. Photoplay wrote: “This neat, straightaway science fiction thriller achieves som conviction. because it shows science — on Earth, that is — just one jump away from where we are now”. The Loas Angeles Times was not impressed with the effects, but noted that the film “has a sort of pseudoscientific charm”. Not all were won over. Theresa Loeb Cone of the Oakland Tribune bemoaned the film’s violent tendencies and called it “a hodge-podge of pseudescientific jargon and terribly obvious special effects”. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called the movie “”utter nonsense that is childishly and humorlessly put forth”.

Today Earth vs. the Flying Saucers has a 6.3/10 audience rating on IMDb, based on over 8000 votes, and a 5.8/10 critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with a 73% Fresh rating. AllMovie gives it 4/5 stars, with Mark Deming writing: “the leading actors play the material with just the right balance of seriousness and gung-ho energy, and Fred F. Sears’s direction maintains a snappy pace throughout. [… it] isn’t much more than a B-budget science fiction story, but it’s done with enough spunk, good humor, and solid craft to remind you how much fun a B-picture can be.” Rob Hubanick at Slant Magazine gives the film a 3/4 star rating, and Empire’s Kim Newman in her 3/5 star review writes: “the aliens are genuinely eerie, the battles are exciting and it has enjoyable blustering from a cast of familiar B stalwarts”. TV Guide calls it “a great sci-fi alien invasion film with outstanding special effects”. Endlessly influential, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers is often the first film that comes to mind when people talk about flying saucer movies, and Harryhausen’s UFO’s have become perhaps the most iconic rendering of alien space ships in movie history. Roland Emmerich’s legendary blockbuster Independence Day (1996) is basically a big-budget modernisation of the film and it was one of the movies heavily spoofed in Tim Burton’s satire Mars Attacks!, released the same year.

One of the Marian menaces.

Fred Sears was born in 1913 and started his career as a stage actor, producer and director, until he was hired by Sam Katzman as a dialogue coach for Columbia in 1946, a company he stayed loyal to until his death in 1958. He also appeared numerous times in front of the camera in small roles, before graduating to direction in 1949, often getting handed westerns, crime films and other B-movies. His films were routinely undistinguished up until 1956, when Katzman handed him the double bill of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and The Werewolf (review), which will be the subject of my next review. A more staple diet of his was the teenage movie, such as Teen-Age Crime Wave (1955), which made him a natural choice for director when Katzman was able to get a contract with rock musician Bill Haley, whose megahit “Rock Around the Clock” had taken off after being featured in the intro of MGM’s film Blackboard Jungle in 1955. Rock Around the Clock (1956), produced by Columbia, directed by Sears and featuring not only Bill Haley and His Comets, but also The Platters, Alan Freed, Tony Martinez and Freddie Bell, is often considered the first rock n’ roll musical film, and became a major sensation, taking home over $4 million dollars at the box office. However, Sears wasn’t able to capitalise on the film’s success, stuck as he was at Columbia, designated to its low-budget outfit, where he kept grinding out gangster movies, teen movies, westerns and the occasional SF film. Katzman hoped to repeat the success of Earth vs the Flying Saucers by having Sears direct another SF double bill in 1957: The Giant Claw and The Night the World Exploded. The Giant Claw is rightly lambasted as a hilarious failure, thanks to its titular menace: a bewildering-looking giant bird that Sears has to try and convince the audience is threatening the world. In fact, the rest of the movie is pretty much on par with Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, but when it came to special effects, Katzman got cheap, and decided to outsource the monster to a small Mexican company — and the result was not what Sears had hoped for.

Harryhausen’s iconic saucers.

Born in 1901, screenwriter George Worthing Yates seems to have been writing short stories and treatments as early as the twenties, when his one of his westerns were adapted into film. From 1938 to 1954 he contributed to about a dozen screenplays, mostly B westerns, but also crime dramas and adventure films. In the thirties and forties he released a handful of mystery novels, sometimes working under pseudonym with another author. He found his stride with the first draft of the giant ant film Them! (1954, review), and after that worked almost exclusively in science fiction. He did a draft for George Pal’s and Byron Haskin’s semi-flop Conquest of Space (1955, review), but not much more than a few basic ideas of his were used for the finished film. He then contributed to such films as It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955, review) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), The Flame Barrier (1958), War of the Colossal Beast (1958), Space Master X-7 (1958), Frankenstein 1970 (1958) and Earth vs. the Spider (1958), making him perhaps the most prolific sci-fi screenwriter of the late fifties.

Some effective stock footage and miniature model combination.

Of course, co-writer Curt Siodmak probably doesn’t need much presentation for readers of this blog. Brother of noir director Robert Siodmak, Curt (or Kurt, as he originally spelled his name) began writing SF for film and books in Germany in the 30’s, and relocated to the US at the end of the decade, where he got his breakthrough with the script for Universal’s The Wolfman in 1941. All in all, Siodmak contributed to 18 SF feature films, two TV movies and directed one TV series. That is directly — many of his ideas have been used and reused several times. Not only did Siodmak more or less invent the modern werewolf trope, the basic ideas from his best-selling novel Donovan’s Brain (1942) has also been “borrowed” numerous times. Siodmak was known as a writer who was always bursting with ideas, and also managed to put them to paper in a reasonably coherent way. A good exploitation writer, he often brought some serious notions to his scripts as well, and was famous for including quite a bit of techno-babble in his scripts, most of which had at least some grounding in reality. To be honest, his ideas were often better than his scripts, why you mostly seen him as co-writer rather than sole scenarist.

Ray Harryhausen at work.

Ray Harryhausen is best known for his fantastic work in the fantasy epics based on Greek mythology, such as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), but he got his start in science fiction, when he was tasked to do the animation for the smash hit The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review) It was was followed by It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). Much of his later work was produced by Charles Schneer, who also indulged Harryhausen his wish to co-create one of his pet projects, an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ First Men in the Moon (1964). The dinosaur movie The Valley of Gwangi isn’t his best film, and is one of those that some would call sci-fi, but which I call fantasy. His best known film outside the mythological movies is probably One Million Years B.C.. To be fair, the film is probably better known for Raquel Welch’s minimal bikini than for Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, but some claim that the movie contains some of his best animation.

Hugh Marlowe.

Hugh Marlowe played the meddling boyfriend in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), as well as Ginger Rogers’ ex in the SF screwball comedy Monkey Business (1952, review), alongside Gary Grant and Marilyn Monroe. Marlowe then went on to play the hero in two science fiction movies in 1956: World Without End (review) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. He had a supporting role in Castle of Evil (1966). Marlowe was a radio and stage actor who usually played second leads or supporting characters in movies. He was able to get steady employment up until the end of the sixties, when he got a starring role in the TV series Another World (non-sci-fi, despite the name), a position he held until his death in 1982.

Joan Taylor and friends.

Joan Taylor, real name Rose Emma, born in 1929, came from a showbiz family: her father was a props man and her mother a vaudeville singer and dancer. Just after she was born, however, her father became the manager of a movie theatre, which is how she fell in love with the movies. After studying dancing in Chicago, she moved to Los Angeles, where she started working at the Pasadena Playhouse. At the age of 20, she made her film debut in the Randolph Scott/Victor Jory western Fighting Man of the Plains (1949). The next year she married writer and producer Leonard Freeman, who went on to three Emmy nominations and was the creator of the hit show Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980). Paramount quickly put Taylor under contract as part of their so-called “Golden Circle” of new stars, and she was one of many starlets whose legs were allegedly insured for a ridiculous amount of money, a common publicity stunt back in the day that has a somewhat sexist ring these days. However, while she regularly played leads, Taylor never rose beyond the B-movie quagmire, and is best known for her two leads in science fiction: Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and its follow-up 20 Million Miles to Earth, another Schneer/Harryhausen production made for Columbia. In 1958 she transitioned to TV, where she was a popular guest star, and in 1960 was able to secure a recurring role on the family western show The Rifleman. However, after her two-year contract ran out, she abrubtly ended her acting career in 1963 to take care of her son. In 1968 the Freemans relocated to Hawaii for Leonard’s TV show, and after he died in 1973, Joan continued managing the business. She later tried her hand at screenwriting, and got a hit with her story for the Salma Hayek/Matthew Perry romcom Fools Rush In (1997). She passed away in 2012.

Joan Taylor and Donald Curtis.

Donald Curtis had a small role in Invisible Agent (1940, review), and played ”second lead” in It Came from Beneath the Sea.  Curtis is best known for being a new age nut, lecturing and writing books on ”religious science”, ”oriental healing”, etc. He left his acting career to become a minister in the late sixties. John Zaremba appeared in a multitude of sci-fi films and series over the course of his career, such as The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), The Night the World Exploded (1957), Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958), Moon Pilot (1962). He was one of the stars of the TV series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) as Dr. Raymond Swain, and had a recurring role in Batman (1966-1969) as Mr. Freeze’s butler Kolevator.

Hugh Marlowe and Morris Ankrum.

Morris Ankrum is a legend among western and particularly science fiction B-movie fans. But he was also a highly respected stage actor, director and drama teacher. Born in 1897 in Illinois, his father died when he was 11, and a couple of years later he and his mother moved to Los Angeles, where he was an outstanding student and majored in law and economy. It was during his studies at the University of California that he discovered drama, and co-founded the theatre group Little Theater at the University of California. Soon after, he relocated to New York, where he performed in several Broadway plays and co-wrote a popular comedy. In 1930 he returned to Los Angeles and became a drama teacher at the Pasadena Playhouse. According to the site B-Westerns, his students included Gloria Stuart, Robert Preston and Raymond Burr. He was also a staff director and actor there for many years.

Morris Ankrum, to the left in “Flight to Mars”.

Ankrum was close to 40 when he made his film debut in the mid-30’s. as he signed a contract with the producer of Paramount’s Hopalong Cassidy films, Harry Sherman, a move which would define his movie career. In the 30’s and 40’s Ankrum appeared in 13 Hopalong Cassidy movies, always as a heavy, often in juicy roles. He left the westerns behind in the mid-40’s and moved to MGM, where he became a sought-after bit-part and supporting actor, and appeared in a number of A-movies. The third phase of his movie career started in 1950, when he appeared as a scientist in the film that kicked off the 50’s SF wave, Rocketship X-M. Between 1950 and 1963 Ankrum appeared in 14 science fiction movies, as well as four episodes of the TV show Science Fiction Theater. Most often he was seen as a general, major or other military dignitary, but also appeared a number of times as scientist or other authority figure. He is especially fondly remembered as the scheming Martian councilman Ikron in Flight to Mars (1951, review), as the stern Colonel Fielding in Invaders from Mars (1953, review) and for his role in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Ankrum passed away in 1964.

UFO interior.

The voice of the aliens. Paul Frees, was a legendary voice actor who worked with MGM, Walter Lantz, Rankin/Bass and Walt Disney during the Golden Age of animation, and is perhaps best known for providing the voice of Boris Badenov for the Rocky and Bullwinkle show between 1959 and 1964. He worked extensively in radio, and did much voice work for film and TV outside of animation. His wide range and imitation skills were often utilised by directors who needed to re-loop the lines of other actors on post-production, sometimes because the original actors had strong foreign accents, or because they were not available for dubbing. For example, Frees dubbed Humphrey Bogart, who was suffering from throat cancer, in his last film The Harder they Fall (1956). Frees’ natural voice had a likeness to Orson Welles’, and he often did Welles imitations or homages. Frees did much work in science fiction, sometimes on and sometimes off screen. He is remebered, for example, for playing the radio reporter who narrates George Pal’s The War of the Worlds (1953, review), and did a lot of other work with Pal as well. In film, he narrated movies like The Monolith Monsters (1957), Atlantis, The Lost Continent (1961), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) and The Milpitas Monster, which was such a cheapo that the narrator was first-billed. He supplied the voice for the titular menace in The Cyclops (1957), voiced the talking rings in The Time Machine (1960), the Big Buddha in Dimension 5 (1966) and the titular computer in Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970). On TV he did narration work for such shows as Wonder Woman (1975-1979) and The Immortal (1960-1971). He also has som SF TV pedigree from voicing K.I.T.T.’s bad-tempered prototype K.A.R.R. in the season 3 episode K.I.T.T. vs. K.A.R.R. in Knight Rider in 1984.

Janne Wass

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. 1956, USA. Directed by Fred F. Sears. Written by Bernard Gordon & George Worthing Yates from a story by Curt Siodmak (“supported by” the book Flying Saucer from Outer Space by Donald Keyhoe). Starring: Hugh Marlowe, Joan Taylor, Morris Ankrum, Donald Curtis, John Zaremba, Thomas Browne Henry, Grandon Rhodes, Larry J. Blake, Paul Frees. Music: Mischa Bakaleninikoff. Cinematography: Fred Jackman, Jr. Editing: Danny Landres. Art direction: Paul Palmentola. Sound: J.S. Westmoreland. Special effects: Russ Kelley. Animation & visual effects: Ray Harryhausen. Produced by Charles Schneer & Sam Katzman for Sam Katzman productions & Columbia.

3 replies

  1. Paul Frees also had a rare on-screen role in The Thing (from another world) where he plays one of the scientists and survives to the end!

    Like Paul, most of the greatest and most versatile voice actors were of small stature (I have to wonder if there’s a bit of physics involved there), although what is most remarkable about him is that voice actors and announcers were generally considered very separate categories for actors, and generally those with the “big voice,” like William Conrad, are instantly recognizable if they try to do a second voice role. However, Paul narrator voice is a powerful as any of the announcers out there, and yet he was one of the most flexible voice actors on Radio.

    And, yes, it is hard to think of Tohiro Mifune without imagining Paul’s voice coming out of him in Tora, Tora, Tora (and I’m sure, other roles as well!)

    Great post as always!

    Liked by 1 person

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