May 26, 2019

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE & THE WAR OF THE WORLDS: Peas in a Pod from Mr. Pal

WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE
Starring Richard Derr, Larry Keating, Barbara Rush, John Hoyt, Peter Hansen, Alden Chase, Hayden Rorke. Directed by Rudolph Mate. (1951/83 min).
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS
Starring Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Bob Cornthwiate, Lewis Martin and the voice of the great Paul Frees. Directed by Byron Haskin. (1953/85 min).

Essay by D.M. ANDERSON

There was once a time when movies had much longer theatrical runs than they do today. Anyone wanting to see all three hours of Avengers: Endgame without testing the limits of their bladder need-only wait a few Facebook-free months before streaming it right into their living room. Had the film been released in 1977, Endgame would have lingered in theaters as long as the original Star Wars (which was well over a year). On the plus side, since there was no internet back then, a spoiler-happy troll would have to be physically present to ruin it for you (at which time you could beat his ever-loving ass).

Of course, those were the days before HBO, home video, Netflix and internet pirates. If you didn’t catch a movie in theaters, it could be years before it finally showed up on network television. Even then, the film would be heavily edited, not just to remove objectionable content, but so it could be squeezed into a two-hour time slot with plenty o’ room for Calgon commercials. And unlike the 55-inch digital flat-screen TV hanging from your wall right now, that massive Magnavox which sat like a 100-pound brick in Mom & Dad’s living room never did a movie justice.

When television could kill a man.
So anyone who first-saw 2001: A Space Odyssey when it premiered on NBC in 1977 – nine years after its initial theatrical run – had still never really experienced it. That’s like first-hearing “Tutti Frutti” as crooned by Pat Boone. On TV, 2001 was no longer a space odyssey. It was Space: 1999 with homicidal monkeys and Mr. Whipple squeezing the Charmin.

Besides selling broadcast rights to TV networks, it was also common practice for studios to re-release movies in theaters, often numerous times with fresh new ad campaigns. Disney did it with damn-near all of their films, most-notably 1940’s Fantasia, a box office flop which got a new lease on life from the hippy crowd. On a smaller scale, Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive did middling business in 1974, but became a kitschy cult classic in 1977 thanks to a brilliant new TV spot that was more terrifying than the movie itself.

As a movie buff growing up in this era – and within biking distance from Milwaukie, Oregon’s Southgate Quad – I discovered the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Young Frankenstein, Patton and The Andromeda Strain. They had since become modern classics, but since I was too young to experience them the first time around, they were new to me. And on one occasion, a couple  of 'em weren’t new to me…

When Star Wars became a cultural phenomenon in 1977, science-fiction was suddenly cool again. More importantly, it was profitable again and studios clamored to get a piece of the action. In an odd move, Paramount Pictures resurrected two relics from the early 1950s – The War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide – marketing them as a double feature with an all-new ad campaign. As profitable as re-releases could be, it was rare for a studio to go back two decades and serve-up movies that had been standard afternoon programming on independent TV stations for years. But it was a pretty ingenious move when you think about it. Even if it only played for a week or two, all it cost Paramount was a TV spot and newly-designed one-sheet that touted, “The science-fiction fantasies that started it all in the most spectacular double feature of all time!”   I’d seen both movies on TV but never thought about them in those terms, but as two of the earliest special effects-driven sci-fi films ever made, I suppose they were. It was enough for me to part with my precious lawn-mowing money.

So there I was at the Southgate one summer afternoon, by myself, watching two movies that were made when my parents were kids. No friends were interested in coming along, of course, for which I was ultimately thankful. Even at that age, I was developing an appreciation for older films not shared by my peers. They’d have likely ended up giggling at the antiquity of it all. Granted, the two films looked quaint in the wake of Star Wars, but both won visual effects Oscars in their day, and decades later, were still more convincing than most of the Star Wars rip-offs being cranked out at the time, such as Starcrash, Battle Beyond the Stars, Laserblast or Message from Space. And you know what? Seeing The War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide on the big screen made them feel a lot more epic than they did on my tiny bedroom TV. It was almost like watching them for the first time.

"Bet that phone's a bitch to stick in your pocket."
Loosely based on a 1932 novel, When Worlds Collide (1951) is a science-fiction disaster film in which a rogue star, Bellus, is hurling toward Earth. Global annihilation is inevitable, a pretty heavy concept for a film at the time. After freelance courier pilot Dave Randall (Richard Derr) delivers the bad news to a group of scientists led by Dr. Cole Hendron (Larry Keating), they realize the only way to avoid extinction is constructing a ship capable of carrying 40 people to Zyra, an Earth-like planet orbiting Bellus. Then it’s a race against time to build the ship, stock it with essentials, select the lucky few and get the fuck outta Dodge.

Produced by George Pal, a former animator who’d become renowned for effects-driven science-fiction, When Worlds Collide is a tight, economically-made film that looks more epic than it really is, thanks to a creative combination of miniatures, stock footage and imaginative matte paintings depicting the aftermath of destruction (though the final shot Zyra’s sunrise looks like it was lifted from a cartoon). For the most part, the story stays on-point, save for a goofy romantic subplot involving Randall, Hendron’s daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) and her fiancee, Dr. Tony Drake (Peter Hansen). If you were Drake, would you lift a single finger to assure the survival of the douchebag who just stole your woman? But not only is Drake suddenly a milquetoast match-maker, he’ll get to watch these two lovebirds snuggle on Zyra every fucking day. With an equal number of men and women chosen for the journey, it ain’t like he can simply hook-up with someone else, unless you count the stray dog he swapped-out two chickens for (but let's not go there).

Playing Simon is more difficult when the game is attached to your face.
1953’s The War of the Worlds, also produced by Pal, arguably remains the most iconic and influential alien invasion film of all time. Featuring a bigger budget and better overall performances than When Worlds Collide, it also stays conceptually truer to its source material (H.G. Wells’ classic novel). Its scenes of mass destruction are infinitely more impressive on the big screen (or at-least I thought so in 1977). The ominous alien machines are suitably menacing, and once they arrive to wreak havoc, the story remains tension-filled throughout, at least until the ending, when the Martians simply die because they aren’t immune to common pathogens. But in Pal’s defense, that’s how Wells’ novel ended, too. Still, as climaxes go, it's a little underwhelming.

I especially enjoyed the L.A. attack sequence as a kid, but after recently revisiting the film, I’d have to say my favorite scene is when Father Matthew Collins (Lewis Martin) gets blasted. Part of that could be due to my current overall contempt for organized religion. Much of that contempt is fueled by evangelical morons, so there’s something satisfying about Collins’ fatally bone-headed decision to reach out to the Martians with only a Bible in his hand, hilariously stating, “If they’re more advanced than us, they should be nearer the creator for that reason,” logic almost as dumb as believing rape babies are God's will. Because of Pal’s penchant for injecting holiness in his sci-fi films - this one, in particular - Collins is depicted as stoic and selfless (how real evangelicals probably view themselves). In Wells’ original novel, however, the priest was a raving lunatic (how I happen to view most evangelicals). So just because Collins' isn't screaming about the apocalypse doesn't mean he's any brighter than today's crackpot clergymen.

But I digress. Watching these two classics on the big screen – without the cynicism that sucks the fun out of adult life – was a unique experience at the time. I realized that sometimes you have to go big to really appreciate a movie, even if you already know it by heart. Additionally, that summer afternoon at the Southgate forever-changed how I viewed these particular films. Though they’re completely unrelated, I almost never revisit When Worlds Collide without following it up with The War of the Worlds immediately afterwards. Personal nostalgia aside, their aesthetic similarities make them two peas in a pod. Even today, they're the perfect double feature.

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