King Kong: the first full length stop-motion animation movie. It’s a 1933 black and white RKO Radio Pictures production, about which I can still find stuff to say, I hope. Think of a lost, dark New York in the Depression, then insert a raging claymation gorilla. “Everybody knows you’re square,” is a line that comes early in the film; at the time, it was a compliment. There is a weird psychological undercurrent to this film; the power dynamic between the director (Robert Armstrong) and his lost girl turned movie star (Fay Wray) is tangible and creepy. King Kong himself is comic to us now, so much a sculpted, over exaggerated model, but he must have been terrifying when the movie first came out. If you’d never seen a movie before, if you lived somewhere rural in 1933 and saw your first movie in a traveling tent, what would you think of a giant monster apeman? It would be horrifying, even other-wordly. In addition to a giant ape, the nameless African island the American movie crew storms into, guns literally blazing, is also home to stop-motion dinosaurs, stalking around elaborately painted sets and models. Besides giving women a bad shake, this film is shameful in its depictions of native Africans and its one Chinese man, another “Cholly” cook on a ship. King Kong is something of a stereotyped African himself; these faults are hard to overlook. I try to focus on the aesthetic and technological achievements of the artists involved, which were momentous. I haven’t even got to the most famous scene, a giant monkey swatting model helicopters, but I’ve gone on long enough.
Another claymation monster arrived from Venus, in 20 Million Miles from Earth, an exceptionally goofy movie starring some B actors I, and everyone else, have forgotten. This movie blatantly stereotypes Italians, especially the overacting paisanos who stumble across the downed U.S rocket ship. The monster is taken off the ship in a test tube, Italian officials kowtow to American military brass, hijinks ensue. The reptilian monster from Venus fights other claymation animals and people, including a doughy elephant in the Roman zoological gardens; I’d recommend this movie if you want to pay more attention to the dated special effects than the dialogue.
I probably first saw Gojira when I was ten or eleven, followed by Mothra, Rodan, and all the Gojira sequels. I love the Japanese monster epic, and how it unfolded in post WWII movies. I’m writing about Godzilla; Americans couldn’t pronounce “Gojira,” so the product of the bomb we dropped on Japan became “Godzilla,” which is actually very different, in sound and suggested meaning. Whenever I think of Gojira, a mighty action figure grows up in my mind, with those atomic cross-eyes. Also a guy in a suit and more toy helicopters crashing around; this is what Gojira brings to my mind, memories formed when I was young and less cynical, and could almost accept a lizard-god from the sea as real.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon has been one of my perennial top ten cult favorites for a long time. The creature was played by the captain of a local high school varsity swim team; being the fish-man was his summer job, he swam for many hours in a heavy rubber monster suit, on a closed set in Hollywood. The female lead in this 1954 sci-fi standard was made disturbingly childlike; she wears a gingham bathing suit and little bows in her hair, and her primary role in the movie is to be the bait, though she’s too simple minded to realize this. I can’t help watching it over and over though; I love the creature’s rubber suit, and I love knowing that underneath it is some random high school kid.
I’ll close with another Japanese monster story, in the same school as Gojira (and created by the same studio, which I should have mentioned by now, Toho Co., Ltd). Discarded cells are triggered to life by atomic waste in the Sea of Japan; two more men in furry suits are spawned. They first battle each other (one was raised in a lab and is good; the other was wild, and thus, evil) and then retreat together away from the world of men, in 1966’s thrilling War of the Gargantuas. I found a VHS copy of this movie at the Salvation Army ten years ago and have never seen another copy since; I think it may have been a dud, at home and abroad. What’s most interesting to me is that it features Russ Tamblyn as the American scientist, speaking English unapologetically at the Japanese actors all around him.
I wonder how much he and they understood of each other? (Russ Tamblyn played Riff in West Side Story, and, much later, Dr. Jacoby in one of my favorite TV series of all time, Twin Peaks; he acted in many more things, but I like to think of Twin Peaks and War of the Gargantuas as the dual highlights of his career). What else can be said about a movie that’s so hard to find? Perhaps a wonderfully dated piece of its dialogue will suffice? Well, the Japanese scientist explains to Russ Tamblyn that teenagers hiking in the mountains have seen the Gargantua’s footprints, and asks Russ if he believes their story. Dr. Tamblyn replies, “Oh, no, they were probably just high on LSD,” nodding sagely.