Thursday, November 12, 2015

Saturday, August 26, 1972: Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1957) /The Lady and the Monster (1944)

Synopsis: The city of Tokyo lies in ruins, having suffered a staggering attack of some kind. American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) wakes up in a wrecked office building, badly injured and surrounded by victims who didn't survive. Taken to an overflowing hospital he sees Emiko (Momoko Kochi) who stops long enough to assure him that her father, Dr. Yamane, has survived the attack.

Martin recalls the events of recent weeks, when he visited Tokyo en route to Cairo. Wishing to meet a friend, the eminent scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), Martin and all the plane's passengers are first detained and then interviewed individually, asked if they saw anything unusual en route. Smelling a story, Martin digs further. He discovers that a number of ships at sea have been destroyed in the same area. Rescue boats sent out to hunt for survivors have been similarly destroyed. The few survivors found floating on debris describe a blinding flash of light; the men suffer strange burns and die quickly from an unidentified sickness.

In a hastily called meeting of scientists and officials, Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shumura), whom Martin knows to be Emiko's father and Dr. Serizawa's future father-in-law, tells the offcials that they should interview the inhabitants of Odo Island, which is not far from the area where the ships were destroyed.

Martin joins the expedition. While on the island, there is a sudden windstorm, and the natives believe it is the work of a sea monster called Godzilla. The next day, Dr. Yamane identifies gigantic tracks that he believes are those of an enormous monster. The tracks themselves bear traces of radiation, and it is clear that whatever the creature is, it was awakened from dormancy by hydrogen-bomb tests in the area.

The islanders are driven into panic when the monster appears again, this time in broad daylight. Before long it makes its way into Tokyo harbor and begins to wreak havoc. Emiko tells Martin that Dr. Serizawa has developed a terrible weapon that might stop Godzilla, but so fearsome are the weapon's effects that Serizawa dares not reveal its existence, since in unscrupulous hands it might spell the end of the human race....

Comments: In June of 1953 Warner Brothers released The Beast From 20,0000 Fathoms, which told the story of a dinosaur awakened from its arctic slumber by an atomic test. By the final reel the titular beast is running loose in the streets of New York. The film was modestly budgeted and the reaction from film critics amounted to little more than a collective shrug. But Beast was a surprise hit, and Japanese producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was interested in making a similar movie for Japanese audiences. Tanaka's resulting film Gojira (1954) was a runaway smash in Japan, and American producers saw the potential of making the 400-foot leading man a star here as well. However, no Japanese film had ever been distributed in the U.S. beyond the art-house circuit. And there was a somberness and an anti-nuclear undercurrent that made it decidedly problematic for American release. Nevertheless, there was no question that Gojira was good -- very good -- with any number of terrific set pieces that would electrify American moviegoers. With a few judicious edits the movie's anti-nuclear message could be played down. However -- and this must have seemed like a tall order at the time -- to make certain American audiences could relate, an American protagonist had to be added to the already-completed film.

To this end actor Raymond Burr was brought in to shoot a week's worth of footage as wire service reporter Steve Martin. Burr's scenes were cleverly woven into the original film: Steve Martin, we learn, has been just off-camera throughout the entirety of director Ishiro Honda's film.  In every crucial scene -- at the maritime station tracking the progress of the rescue ships, at the scientific conference in Tokyo, on Odo Island, on the ship carrying the oxygen destroyer in the finale of the film -- Martin is there, standing in the back, observing the action, his somber voiceover narrating the plot points as they progress. During Godzilla's rampage through Tokyo, Martin stands in a press office, relating the events into a tape recorder for his wire service as the monster approaches.  At the end of the scene the building is demolished and Martin is badly injured -- adding an element of personal danger missing from the Japanese version.

Of course, having your lead actor simply stand in the back of the room and narrate plot points will result in a very passive character, so it is arranged for Martin to interact with the Japanese characters at several crucial moments. First, after Martin is brought to the hospital at the beginning of the film, he has a brief conversation with Emiko (achieved with newly-dubbed dialogue and an Emiko double for the over-the-shoulder shots), establishing his relationship not only with her, but with Yamane as well. Then, it is later established that Martin is friends with Dr. Serizawa, who tells Martin over the phone that he can't meet because Emiko has something important she wants to discuss (this leads to the scene where Emiko wants to tell Serizawa that she's breaking off the engagement, but Serizawa instead gives her the first demonstration of the oxygen destroyer). And finally, Martin appeals to Emiko to use her influence on Dr. Serizawa to unleash the oxygen destroyer against Godzilla -- this, he argues, is the only way for other cities to be spared the fate that Tokyo has suffered. This last interaction gives Martin some tenuous claim on shaping the outcome of the film.

A tenuous claim isn't bad, considering how late to the party Martin is. Nonetheless, the dramatic elements that make the film work -- the love triangle between Ogata, Emiko and Serizawa, and Serizawa's reluctance to hand the human species another weapon with which to threaten its own existence -- is more or less intact.

The Raymond Burr scenes are shot in a hurried, pedestrian way and are quite jarring when intercut with Honda's carefully balanced screen compositions. All the same, while the Burr scenes might well come across as the crudest sort of hackwork, they actually work fairly well, considering how they have been shoehorned into an already-completed film. And in a bit of serendipity, the Steve Martin scenes also help to compress and streamline the human subplot, which drags somewhat in the middle third of Honda's film.

Akihiko Hirata and Takashi Shimura would go on to star in a number of kaiju films over the years, and they both bring a gravitas as well as a sadness to their roles that is entirely appropriate for the subject matter. Raymond Burr is an interesting choice as Steve Martin; he was regarded as somewhat too large and brooding to be a leading man, and while he worked steadily in his early career he was probably best known at this point as Jimmy Stewart's murderous neighbor Lars Thorwald in Rear Window (1954).  His starring turn on Perry Mason (1957) soon made him a star, but even then critics were slow to warm up to him. Richard Gehman, writing for TV Guide, noted:

Burr is built like a massive inverted pyramid.  He is 6 feet 2 1/2 inches tall, weighs 210 pounds and has shoulders so broad it would take Garry Moore quite a while to circumnavigate him.  His chest measures 48 1/2 inches unexpanded and he wears a size 17 collar.  If a talented great ape were to climb Mount Rushmore and hack out a statue of himself, the result would resemble the build of Raymond Burr.

Not very flattering, but at least they spelled his name right.

The Lady and the Monster

Synopsis: Dr. Patrick Cory (Richard Arlen) is a scientist working for Professor Franz Mueller (Erich Von Stroheim) at Mueller's residence / laboratory, a fortress-like place called The Castle.  The two are doing experiments on keeping brain tissue alive separate from the body.  So far they have only worked with animal test subjects, and while the results have been encouraging things are progressing a little slowly for Dr. Mueller.  Like many scientists in these sort of movies, he's obsessed with vindicating his line of research, and he isn't above some ethical monkeyshines to get things moving. More than anything, he wants to test his procedure on a human brain, though the chances of his getting an opportunity to do so seem remote.

Cory and Mueller's assistant Janice Farrell (Vera Ralston)  have fallen in love, but unbeknownst to them, Mueller has a yen for Janice himself.  Janice and Cory talk of leaving the Castle and running off together, but Mueller excels at manipulating others, and he manages to keep them both on hand and under his control.

One evening a private plane crashes nearby and Mueller transports a critically injured man back to the Castle.  He calls Cory back from his date in town with Janice and bullies both of them into assisting him.

The patient dies, and Mueller sees his chance.  He removes the man's brain and puts it in a solution of brine; soon, he and Cory are able to verify that the brain is still alive independent of its body.

Mueller and Cory learn that the man who died in the crash was a powerful industrialist named W. H. Donovan. When the coroner comes to the house Mueller tells him that Donovan had suffered a severe head injury and that he and Cory had operated in hopes of saving his life.  However, the absence of a brain in the man's head is difficult to conceal and even more difficult to explain, and Mueller employs a little sleight-of-hand to get the death certificate signed and the body taken away.

As the brain marinates Mueller predicts that this is the dawn of a new age; human minds might be able to be indefinitely preserved after death.  The knowledge and wisdom of the ages might be able to be stored and accessed at will.  Meanwhile, Cory begins to have strange dreams; he can hear a voice repeating the name "W. H. Donovan" over and over again.  Mueller speculates that the brain, freed from the body and floating in an electrolytic solution, has become more powerful and has made a psychic connection to Cory.

Janice becomes increasingly alarmed by Cory's behavior.  With greater and greater frequency, Cory falls into a fugue-like state, acting like another person entirely.  Soon she and Dr. Mueller realize that Cory's body is being possessed by Donovan's brain, that he is being forced to act according to Donovan's will.  Cory begins traveling into town, withdrawing large sums of cash from various banks under dummy accounts and spending large amounts of money in efforts to get a convicted murderer sprung from prison.  But what is Donovan's connection with the man?  And -- what will Donovan's brain do in order to keep Cory's body under its control?

Comments: While The Lady and the Monster was the first film adaptation of Donovan's Brain,  the CBS radio anthology program Suspense was the first to translate Curt Siodmak's novel to another medium.  Orson Welles played Patrick Cory in this two-part audio drama, which retained Siodmak's narrative gimmick of a diary penned by the ill-fated scientist.  A  number of plot elements were jettisoned for this 60-minute work, including the shady financial transactions that Cory, possessed by the mind of Donovan, enters into during Cory's frequent fugue states.  The ending is also streamlined, and it differs significantly from that of the novel.  Nevertheless, the Suspense adaptation is quite taut and -- well, suspenseful.

As the program begins Welles plays Patrick Corey as something of a carefree dilettante, like Lamont Cranston in Welles' radio series The Shadow.  It's clearly a reflection of the way Welles saw Corey: a man who lives in a world of his own ideas, with little interest in what goes on outside. Corey becomes more agitated and serious as he begins to realize the true import of what he has done.  The counterpoint to Corey is Donovan -- Welles supplies him with a low, gutteral growl.  The Donovan catchphrase -- "Sure, sure, sure" -- is gravelly and menacing, and Donovan -- who invades Cory's dreams with images of bloody and ruthless conquests -- is more than enough of an antagonist to carry the drama forward to its conclusion.

As I mentioned in my previous write-up of this title, The Lady and the Monster strays farther from the source material than any of the other adaptations, for reasons that aren't entirely clear.  Eric Von Stroheim's Dr. Mueller becomes the ambitious surgeon, and Cory takes a back seat as his assistant, though we still identify with him as the protagonist.  The wife that Cory had in the novel is changed to his girlfriend, and a rather weak love triangle is added (Mueller, we gather, is in love with Janice, though she evidently has no interest in him). 

I've speculated that the Mueller character was inserted to a) make Cory seem more innocent and therefore more sympathetic to the audience; and b) provide an antagonist that's more recognizable to the audience than a mean guy's brain in a jar.  Having seen this one a second time I'm still convinced that this is the right explanation.  My guess is that screenwriters Dane Lussier and Frederick Kohner had very little confidence in the story they were given, and felt they had to insert some more conventional screen elements in order to "fix" it.  To say these guys were ill-suited to the task is an understatement. Kohner had never touched a genre screenplay in his life (he seemed to specialize in lightweight comedies) and went on to write the novel Gidget, as well as a number of scripts based on it, both for movies and TV.  Lussier's specialty was low-budget programmers like Dick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946) and The Falcon's Alibi (1946).  Lussier was, to put it bluntly, a hack, unable to deviate from the clumsy templates he used to grind out poverty-row scripts. Director George Sherman was also out of his element.  He usually directed cheap westerns designed to run at the bottom of a double bill.

So its really in spite of these guys, not because of them, that the film works at all. The addition of Mueller's character makes Cory more sympathetic, but it also badly weakens him -- he is blameless for Mueller's crimes only because he got bullied into helping Mueller to carry them out. But the movie nevertheless picks up steam when Donovan begins to work on the hapless Cory's mind, forcing him to go into town, slowly assuming Cory's walk and manner. 

The cast is competent enough, though no one has the sort of arresting presence that Orson Welles brought to the radio drama (it would have been very interesting, by the way, to see Welles direct a screen adaptation of this story).  Richard Arlen is thoroughly forgettable as Cory, and while I usually like Eric Von Stroheim as an actor, his glowering and muttering seems less effective than usual here. 

No write-up of this movie is complete without a mention of Vera Hruba Ralston as Janice.  The figure skater's reputation as an actress was so poor that leading men of the time were known to back out of projects rather than star opposite her. The lead roles kept coming to her, though, because her husband was the head of the studio.  As a result, she became a laughingstock in the industry, which is really too bad.  She wasn't the worst actress to garner top billing on a movie poster (Aquanetta? Pia Zadora? Persis Khambatta? Come on!)  In any case, I can't blame her for taking the starring roles that were offered to her.  She was pretty, and surrounded by people who told her she had something special. And while she wasn't great, she really wasn't that bad.  Had I not heard repeatedly how bad she was, I probably wouldn't have noticed her performance at all.  Her reputation sort of magnified her shortcomings as an actress, and everyone gleefully piled on.  But she is more forgettable than anything else.  In that department she's pretty well suited to the leading man in this one.


kochillt said...

Having seen the original Japanese GOJIRA along with the American version, the former is clearly better, but I find myself in total agreement with your observations about how well the new footage was 'shoehorned' into the old. I never cared for THE LADY AND THE MONSTER, and actually prefer the third adaptation of Curt Siodmak's novel, 1962's THE BRAIN from director Freddie Francis (I have never seen Lew Ayres' version). Richard Arlen was never the most expressive of actors, even in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, therefore a good match for Vera Ralston. All of these films aired at some point during Chiller Theater's 20 year run in Pittsburgh.

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