As war ravaged the world between 1940 and 1945, mad scientist in cheap, dank Hollywood studios plotted world domination by altering the human genome, turning men into beasts and beasts into men. Exploring the animal within, B science fiction movies gave voice to the insecurities of the era, while major studios at the same time extolled the moral firmness of the American soldier, putting his life on the line for truth, justice and the American way. All in all the forties was not a great decade for SF, with people living their very on futuristic dystopia. Nonetheless, there are cult gems to explore even in this dark period.
The forties started under grim circumstances. WWII was raging in 1940 and would continue to do so until 1945, and shaped much of society, even when it wasn’t directly involved. Millions upon millions fell victims of the fighting, the Holocaust, political persecution or the poverty and homelessness in the war’s wake. People saw their countries and homes invaded, their houses cleared for air strips and their property seized for the war effort. And while the war raced on in Europe, Africa and Asia, the US looked on in horror, until finally the country decided to join the fray in 1943, and reluctantly join forces with Communist Russia, despite the animosity between the blocs.
At the same time, huge advances were made in science and technology. Some of it was directly connected to the war, such as the German V-2 rocket and of course the atom bomb. The radar, the jet engine, the first computers, helicopters, the aerosol spray, DDT, penicillin, the blood bank, the jeep, freeze-dried food and duct tape (or duck tape, as it was called then) were all developed for the war effort in various countries. But other breakthroughs were equally important. While TV wasn’t invented in the forties, it was slowly finding its way to consumers, and the forties also saw the development of colour television. The big bang theory was developed during this decade, which also saw the birth of the first dialysis machine and the aqualung. The forties also gave us velcro, the slinky, Lego, the Polaroid camera and the jukebox.
The times were reflected in the culture, not least in film. The European movie industry was hit hard by the war, but this didn’t mean films were not made. During the war, many films, both in Europe, the United States and the budding Japanese movie industry, were comedies and musicals meant to take the audience’s mind off the troubles of everyday life. Comedic actors like Hans Albers and Heinz Rühmann were huge in Germany, Stanley Holloway entertained in Britain, and Bob Hope, Ginger Rogers, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Abbott and Costello were some of the biggest names in Hollywood. With the influx of directors from countries like Germany, Austria and Hungary to Hollywood, the dark times also produced a dark aesthetic, and inspired by German expressionism and the horror films of the thirties, the film noir was born. Michael Curtiz, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Orson Welles and Howard Hawks were some of the biggest directors of the era – not only of noirs but of a wide variety of genres. And of course, there was the propaganda movie, which might or might not also be a war movie. The Third Reich’s taming of the film industry for the cause of Nazism is well known, with court director Leni Riefenstahl as the foremost propaganda filmmaker, and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels pulling all the strings. Hollywood, of course, not far behind. In fact, the US government, eager to join the fray in Europe, faced stiff opposition from the public, and encouraged Hollywood studios to change the audience’s mind. And despite the word’s negative connotations, not all propaganda movies were bad. Britain’s Fires Were Started (1943), Denmark’s Day of Wrath (1943) and of course Hollywood’s Casablanca (1942) were some of the greatest films to emerge out of the forties. What made them such excellent propaganda vehicles was that they didn’t write the propaganda on the nose, but used metaphors and pulled on heartstrings to achieve their results.
After the war, Hollywood in particular bloomed. The US population, who had been saving up money during the war when products were scarce, as industry focused on the war effort, now went on a consumerism spree never before seen in history, buying cars, clothes, games, toys and household appliances. Movie stars returned from the war, boosting studios and ticket sales. Many of the great classics of Golden Age Hollywood were produced in the latter part of the forties; George Cukor’s Gaslight (1946), Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946), Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946), John Huston’s Key Largo (1948), and so on.
But other countries were now stepping up to challenge America’s dominance in the cinematic world. A new generation of British filmmakers borrowed the lighting from German expressionism, the montage from Eisenstein and the cinematography from John Ford, and made dark, psychological dramas such as Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus (1947), David Lean’s Odd Man Out (1947) and Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). The late forties also saw the rise of the Ealing comedy, which presented to the world three of Britain’s greatest comedic actors: Stanley Holloway, Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.
Italy rose from the ashes of fascism with the neorealists, producing such classics as Roberto Rosselini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves. And in Japan, a new wave of cinema was emerging. Yasujiro Ozu’s poetic critique of the American occupation, Late Spring (1949), is regarded a true classic, but there was one man leading the charge, becoming one of the most influential directors of the second half of the 20th century; Akira Kurosawa. Feverishly sucking influences from Hollywood, Kurosawa showed the audience Western stories deconstructed and warped through Japanese culture and the neorealist eye of Kurosawa. While his most legendary films were yet to come, Kurosawa already dazzled in the forties with films like Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949).
Now, despite all the cinematic masterpieces churned out in the forties, the decade is not particularly well remembered for its science fiction movies. In fact, out of all cinematic decades, the 1940’s was probably the weakest one for science fiction — and horror films in general. After groundbreaking, dark SF movies from Germany and the USSR in the twenties and the horror masterpieces of Universal and Paramount in the thirties, the war pulled the rug from under the genres in the forties, largely due to the war. People were living in their very own horror SF reality, and didn’t need films to show them invasions, super-weapons and mad scientists. Not that these tropes disappeared from the movies, they were just relegated to B-movie fare and Poverty Row. Universal milked every last dollar out of their successful horror franchise with ever diminishing sequels to Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man and The Mummy. The studio did manage one noteworthy addition to their roster in 1941, The Wolf Man, written by Curt Siodmak, directed by George Waggner and starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney was to Universal a low-budget version of what Boris Karloff had been in the thirties. The one truly notable addition to Hollywood’s horror canon, beside The Wolf Man was Val Lewton’s and Jacques Tourneur’s dark, erotic low-budget gem Cat People (1942). None of these, however, were SF movies.
In feature films, science fiction was to some extent utilised for propaganda. Such was the case with the fourth installation of the Invisible Man franchise, Invisible Agent (1944, review), and the odd Claude Rains vehicle Strange Holiday (review), a General Motors education film from 1940, stretched out for general release a little too late in 1945, after the war had ended. But another venue where propaganda was all the more rife was the film serial. That so many of the comic book superheroes got to make their cinematic debuts during WWII was surely no coincidence. The forties short format provided the first live-action outings of Batman, Superman, Captain America, The Green Hornet and Captain Marvel (see more in our post on the Superhero Serials).
Science fiction also took its first tentative steps toward the mainstream, for example with comedies like It Happens Every Spring (1949, review) in the US and The Perfect Woman (1949, review) in the UK. Also in the UK, the spy-fi genre, while popular before the forties, started to look a bit like James Bond with a trilogy following special agent Dick Barton, culminating in Dick Barton Strikes Back (review) in 1949. And speaking of mainstream, in the late forties, the television was slowly becoming a household item in the US in particular, where the country didn’t need to focus on rebuilding, but could reap the fruits of wartime frugality. It didn’t take long to realise that the telly was a great nanny, and the success of the kid-friendly SF shows on radio, in comics and in the serials gave rise to a succession of space-themed TV shows for children. The trailblazer was legendary Captain Video and His Video Rangers (review), a super-low budget production, aired live, which engaged such writers as Isaac Asimov, Robert Sheckley, Cyril M. Kornbluth and James Blish, and which ran between 1949 and 1955. For a more adult taste, there was the anthology series Lights Out (review), created by radio legends Wyllis Cooper and Arch Oboler in 1934, and which took the leap to the television screens in 1949. More slanted toward horror and mystery, the show aired a number of science fiction episodes. Running between 1949 and 1952, Lights Out was a forerunner to more famous shows like Tales of Tomorrow, The Twilight Zone and Out There.
Many of the more interesting SF movies of the forties came from outside the US. Argentina was discovering the horror SF genre, inspired by the Hollywood films of the thirties, and the first of its scattered early entries was Una luz en la ventana (1942, review), an old dark house comedy horror movie featuring a mad doctor. Mexico produced two SF movies in the forties; the abysmal Buster Keaton trainwreck Boom in the Moon (1946, review) and the much better romantic SF comedy The Genius (1948, review), starring superstar Cantinflas. Although Soviet Russia produced no SF movies in the forties, two such films still emerged from the Eastern bloc, Sziriusz (1942, review) and Krakatit (1948, review). The two could not be more dissimilar. The first was a time travel comedy in the vein of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court — or perhaps even more inspired by Harold Steele MacKaye’s The Panchronicon. A thinly veiled satire on the Communist rule over Hungary, the film sees a trio of modern time travelers go back to 18th century Habsburgian rule. Krakatit, on the other hand, is based on Czech SF pioneer Karel Capek’s 1922 novel of the same name, and is a feverish, surreal and symbolic rumination on man’s folly and the atomic bomb. The aftermath of WWII was also the topic of Germany’s only SF movie of the forties, Der Herr vom Andern Stern (1949, review), in which Hitler’s favourite comedian Heinz Rühmann delivers his mea culpa as an alien landing in Berlin, horrified at the greed and evil of mankind.
The forties saw many firsts. Not only did Mexico deliver its first SF movies — but so did Finland and Japan. Finland was out first, with a screwball comedy that bears an odd resemblance to the big-budget Hollywood comedy Monkey Business (review), made four years later. Hormoonit valloillaan (1948, review) follows a groups of cranky middle-aged businessmen and -women who find new lust for life through a de-aging serum that turns them into mental children. And while Gojira is often presented as Japan’s first SF movie, it was actually preceded by Daiei studio’s Tômei ningen arawaru (review), Japan’s take on H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man. Containing little of Wells’ story, it is rather a whodunnit mystery sporting the visual trappings of James Whale’s original 1933 film The Invisible Man (review).
However, the bulk of all SF movies in the forties followed the Hollywood formula of the mad scientist horror film of the thirties, only now relegated to low-budget quagmire. With Boris Karloff changing sides from monster to mad doctor, Lon Chaney Jr., Glenn Strange and even Bela Lugosi stepped up to fill his shoes. Lugosi competed with actors like Lionel Atwill, George Zucco and John Carradine for the “privilege” of playing the nutty professor in the cheapest of the entries, with Lugosi making nine infamous films for Poverty Row Studio Monogram. Universal, as stated, milked what they could from their monster franchise, ending it in 1945 with the muddled House of Dracula (review), in which the Dracula and the Wolfman come seeking cures for their monsterism from the son of Dr. Frankenstein, who unfortunately goes power-crazy after jump-starting the Frankenstein monster and then catches a bad case of vampirism from the Count. Karloff went on to Broadway success with over 1,400 performances in the play Arsenic and Old Lace, as a butler who has been surgically altered to look like Boris Karloff. His Broadway success was the reason he unfortunately couldn’t appear in Frank Capra’s 1944 movie adaptation starring Cary Grant, where Raymond Massey took over his role, turning the joke rather redundant. Karloff made a return to form of sorts in late 1944, when he appeared one last time in the official Frankenstein saga, as a mad scientist discovering Frankenstein’s old lab in House of Frankenstein (1944, review). Otherwise, he more or less confined his mad scientist outings to four quite decent, atmospheric mid-to-low-budget thrillers for Columbia. The best of these was the last, The Devil Commands (1941, review), a creepy, atmospheric Lovecraftian tale of cosmic horror directed by Edward Dmytryk, which also stands as one of the very best science fiction films made during the entire decade. Its only real rival is Paramount’s 1940 colour film Dr. Cyclops (review), made by the creators of King Kong (1933, review). Dr. Cyclops was the last gasp of the A-class science fiction film before the genre fell into disrepute in the forties. Its story of a team of scientists getting shrunk to Lilliput size in the Peruvian jungle isn’t much to write home about, but it is noteworthy for its superb special effects and its distinct colour palette, as well as a superb outing by Albert Dekker as the “giant” mad scientist of the title.
Too few SF films were made outside of Hollywood to draw any real conclusions about their themes, but generally science fiction was still the fodder of comedy. In the US and the UK, the forties marked the beginning of a Golden Age of literary SF, with writers like Henry Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Robert Sheckley, John Campbell, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, John Wyndham and many, many more getting their start. However, despite the overwhelming quantity of intelligent, well-written, sometimes revolutionary and even profound SF being produced in the forties, none of it made its way to the big screen during the decade. In fact, very little of it was adapted for the big screen before Arthur C. Clarke collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in Hollywood, anyway. Oddly enough, there was no problem getting onto the little screen, where all of the above mentioned had their stories adapted or wrote original material for SF anthology shows.
Likewise, seeking to extract any deeper social or political messages from the B-movie fodder offered up by Hollywood during the decade — besides the superficially obvious — would likely be to overinterpret these films. Most were conjured up more or less on the fly by producers seeking to fill the bottom half of a movie bill by catering to a juvenile audience. However, by looking at them as bulk, there are a few interesting notions to draw about issues concerning the minds of the US audience at the time.
The continued popularity of the mad scientist character mirrors the fears of rapidly advancing science and the moral dilemmas brought with new discoveries, many of these challenging the notions of life and death and what it means to be human. If the thirties was the decade when artificial hearts could bring the “dead” back to life — giving Man the tools to challenge God — then the forties was the decade when scientists began hacking away at the very notion of humanity. This was an era with huge leaps in genetic research and the discovery of the DNA, again raising Charles Darwin’s ghost and his sadly misunderstood discovery of “humans descending from apes”. Of course, the many interpretations on screen of humans turning into gorillas and werewolves, and vice versa, were largely just producers riding on the coat-tails of Universal’s success with The Wolf Man. But it isn’t too far fetched to imagine these films also mirrored a genuine public feeling of insecurity about their humanity somehow being stripped away by science. If what defined us as humans was simply a few alterations of a protein sequence, then what did this say about the immortal soul, about civilisation and individuality? But perhaps the juxtaposition between Man and Beast primarily had a more immediate moral explanation. Many of the creators of the Hollywood B-movies were Europeans who had fled either WWI, WWII or communist or fascist regimes in their home countries. Many had seen the atrocities of war and the bestiality and capacity to do evil in the most normal of people — people they had lived side by side with for years; trusted pillars of community, neighbours, even friends. Likewise, the American public watched in horror at the rise of Nazi Germany and the war across the Atlantic. It must surely have prompted then, as it does today, the question of just how thin our veneer of civilisation really is, and how little it would take for the primordial beast hidden within all of us to break loose.
A distinct change also took place in the mad scientist himself. When in the thirties most horror movie culprits were good men led astray by ambition and that slippery slope from staring at a test tube to trying to play God, the forties saw the rise of the innately evil mad scientist, hiding behind his white coat, just waiting for the opportunity to create an army of invincible atomic supermen “vhich vill conquer the vorld!” And when previously the mad scientists had been either vaguely European or distinctly Slavic, they now almost inevitably had names starting with “von”.
Interestingly enough, the mad scientist horror SF genre disappeared from cinemas in the US immediately after the end of the war, not to be seen again until the rise of McCarthyism in the early fifties. Indeed — not a single science fiction movie was made in Hollywood during either 1946 or 1947, and only one, respectively, in 1948 and 1949. Just as interestingly, the late forties was when Europe got back to making SF movies, with Czechoslovakia and Germany both dealing with the aftermath of war through SF, Great Britain releasing both comedies and spy-fi films, and Finland, as well as Japan making their SF debuts. The US didn’t get around to dealing with the trauma of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki until the fifties — partly because of government pressure. The US government was not only pressing for a stronger arsenal of nukes, but also for taking into use civilian nuclear power plants, which it had some trouble convincing the public was safe — not surprisingly.
The Soviet Union, of course, is nowhere to be seen in this chapter of SF movies, with the last Russian SF film being made in 1935. Speculative fiction had no place in Soviet realism, and as it turned out, was a little too susceptible to metaphoric barbs against the official truth of Kreml. The communist ban on SF, however, was also revisited in the fifties with the beginning of the space race.
All in all, if there is one decade to give a pass in the history of SF films, it is the forties. No new and bold ideas were presented in feature films during the forties, and there are few classics to remember from this period. Fans of Universal monsters will perhaps point to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review). The film is undoubtedly a classic of some sort, but from an artistic point of view it is hugely overrated, with Bela Lugosi’s terrible and misguided portrayal of the monster negating any qualities the film might have. But it would be a mistake not to take a look at some of the low-budget gems of the decade, such as Edward Dmytryk’s nifty cut-and-paste job Captive Wild Woman (1943, review), George Waggner’s taut Lon Chaney vehicle Man Made Monster (1941, review), or the afore-mentioned The Devil Commands (with Dmytryk at the helm again) and Dr. Cyclops. And most of the “foreign” material is interesting in its own right, with Krakatit and Tômei ningen arawaru the standouts. And the forties did give us the first movie versions of many of our beloved superheroes, albeit in cheap serial form. But these juvenile time-fillers were hugely popular in their day, and helped cement the long-standing love for characters like Superman, Batman and Captain America, in time spawning the multi-million industry that the superhero movie has become. Plus, the spirit of Flash Gordon was carried in on the first SF TV shows. And Lights Out paved the way for shows like Twilight Zone, slowly convincing studio bosses that intelligent SF might be feasible on the big screen as well. Many factors contributed to the SF boom of the fifties, some were political, some cultural. But that is for another article.