November 17, 2012

Klaatu's Funny Uncle

The Cosmic Man (1959) poster
Now Playing: The Cosmic Man (1959)

Pros: Intelligent script celebrates science; Bruce Bennett is interesting and credible in the lead role
Cons: Bottom-of-the-barrel effects; Minimal excitement

I know as a fan of '50s sci-fi that I am supposed to love and revere The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), but there's one small catch… I don't. There, I said it. I don't own a copy, I don't go out of my way to catch it when it's shown on TCM, and I haven't seen it in years. I remember as a kid being impressed with the saucer landing in beautiful Washington D.C., the space-suited alien slowly emerging from the craft, the nervous soldier shooting the figure, and then, best of all, Gort the robot vaporizing all the military equipment. Then it went on a long, slow downhill slide from there. It got all talky and serious and moralistic, like an overeager parent trying to steer you through puberty and sell you on the importance of eating vegetables all in one long, excruciating lecture.

Klaatu and Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Klaatu tells the people of Earth: "Be more like me or die!"
Even though I was a dumb kid, I just didn't trust or like the Michael Rennie Klaatu character. While the film tries to convince you that this guy is wise and compassionate and all-knowing, to me he comes off as slick and self-righteous. I mean really -- what kind of person invades your turf, then says that if you don't play by his rules, he'll kill you?
"It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet, but if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. Your choice is simple: join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you."
That's not tough love, that's sociopathic. In decent, red-blooded '50s sci-fi like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), we booted jerks like this off our planet without getting all mushy over what wonderful, advanced beings they might be.  In the words of Earth vs.' General Edmunds: "When an armed and threatening power lands uninvited in our capitol, we don't meet him with tea and cookies!" (On the other hand, sometimes it really was better to think first and shoot later when encountering an alien threat, as we shall see shortly.)

I think the primary reason for Day's sterling reputation over the years is that it's got a supposed highfalutin' message for mainstream movie fans who wouldn't normally touch sci-fi with a ten-foot tractor beam -- flying saucers and giant robots with death rays coming out of their faceplates are marginally acceptable as long as there's a moral to the story. And many true-blue classic sci-fi fans have somehow been browbeaten by the rest of society into giving this thing way more credit than it deserves.

By contrast, The Cosmic Man, with a plot that's more than a little reminiscent of Day, gets absolutely no credit at all. This thing is about as obscure as low-budget '50s sci-fi can get. So obscure in fact, that even I hadn't seen it until just a week ago. There's no real mystery to its uncelebrated status:  it's in-your-face cheap; the effects are minimal; the Cosmic Man (in human disguise) looks like somebody's funny great-uncle; and it's slow-paced and talky.

Even the great chronicler of classic '50s sci-fi, Bill Warren -- a guy who made it his business to see every forlorn, forgotten sci-fi film that ever existed -- had not seen The Cosmic Man when the first edition of his exhaustive Keep Watching the Skies! was published in the mid-'80s (McFarland, 1986). He managed however to write 6 tightly-spaced pages on the film, apparently from reading contemporary reviews and press releases and talking to people who had seen it. In spite of only knowing about it second-hand, he wasn't above passing judgment:
"Although something can be said for the makers of The Cosmic Man apparently having the desire to make something a little different from the usual story of invaders, their lack of skill apparently made the film dull, and the lack of originality made it too familiar."
The military tries to cut open the Cosmic Man's spacecraft
This "golf ball" from outer space is the film's
most sophisticated effect.
Fortunately, The Cosmic Man is now available on DVD and through online streaming (see below), and we don't have to just take Bill's word for it. IMHO, Warren's blind assessment gets it half right. There's no cool giant robot to liven things up. The best effect is a spaceship that looks like a giant golf ball suspended in mid-air. The second best effect is the Cosmic Man in a hood and cloak, printed in the negative, then superimposed to make him look like a being who's half in this universe and half somewhere else. It's dull in spots and cloyingly sentimental in others. And it borrows liberally from a number of films, most notably The Day the Earth Stood Still. In spite of its defects, The Cosmic Man does manage to set itself apart from the typical run of '50s B sci-fi by actually celebrating science and scientists, instead of indulging in the same old science run-amok clichés, with scientists portrayed as either naive or demented or both.

The story is simple (dictated by the ultra-low budget). Military radar picks up a UFO traveling at impossibly fast speeds. Soon, a mysterious white sphere is discovered suspended above the ground in a remote canyon. The military acts quickly to seal the area off, but not before a local lodge owner, Kathy Grant (Angela Greene) arrives at the scene and wants to know what's going on. Kathy is a Korean war widow with a precocious son Ken (Scotty Morrow), who has some unspecified affliction and is confined to a wheelchair. Of course she's a very attractive blonde (aren't they all?). Col. Matthews (Paul Langton) of military intelligence takes an immediate shine to the attractive widow, and swears her to secrecy.

The craft is uncomfortably close to a number of military installations. The general in charge (Herbert Lytton) wants to call in a noted physicist at nearby Pacific Tech University, Karl Sorenson (Bruce Bennett), to help with the investigation. Matthews is skeptical about bringing civilians in, but follows orders. Meanwhile, the locals are terrorized by a creepy, shadowy figure. Sorenson's lab is broken into, and a problematic equation for an ion propulsion project is corrected by an invisible hand. The military installations in the area also report break-ins.

A mysterious visitor (John Carradine) shows up at the lodge.
You'd think an advanced alien civilization would have heard of
contact lenses or laser eye surgery!
An odd-looking man dressed in a trench coat, hat, and thick glasses shows up at Kathy's lodge, wanting a room where he won't be disturbed. She assumes he's one of the scientists called in by the military. Neither the military or the civilian scientists are having any luck figuring out the sphere. It can't be cut with the most advanced torches, and it can't be moved with even the heaviest equipment. Sorenson has a theory that the craft converts light into energy, and he rigs up some equipment to try to tap into the sphere's energy, unleashing a tremendous sonic explosion in the process. Alarmed, the military calls in yet another scientist, Dr. Steinholtz (Hal Torey), to destroy the thing by surrounding it with a magnetic field. Sorenson preaches caution, to no avail.

The military and civilian types gather at Kathy's lodge to talk strategy. Suddenly the lights go out, and a black silhouette confronts the bewildered humans. The Cosmic Man makes a Klaatu-like speech revealing that the earth has been visited many times by interstellar neighbors, and that science, not fear, will enable earth people to join the community of the "free cosmos":
 "… I will speak to those of you who have expressed words and thoughts of understanding. You Dr. Sorenson, are engaged in a difficult field of endeavor-- you search for truth in a society that fears the truth. But you and others like you are the hope of the world. You must hold to your convictions, you must continue your work-- the fate of your civilization will become your responsibility."
Thankfully, this alien visitor is not one to threaten the planet with incineration if earthmen don't play by his rules. Still frightened by a creature with obviously superior technology, the military men give Steinholtz the go-ahead to disable the sphere with magnetic fields. Sorenson and his assistant rush to prevent them from possibly starting an interstellar war...

The peaceful nature of the Cosmic Man and the salute to science as mankind's best hope is certainly different for this type of B sci-fi. Not only that, but the leading characters are surprisingly adult and multidimensional. There are no absolute heroes or villains. The military men put up a brave front, but are clearly frightened by the unknown. Sorenson admits that there's much he doesn't know, and that he could be wrong about the Cosmic Man's intentions. The tension between the military men and the civilians is very plausible, but in the end, neither side really wins the day for humanity. This really goes against the formula grain for a cold war sci-fi programmer. Compare, for example, to Howard Hawks' highly regarded The Thing from Another World (1951), wherein a well-meaning but hopelessly naive scientist gets pulverized trying to communicate with the alien, while the wise-cracking guys in bomber jackets heroically save everyone's keisters.

Credit Arthur C. Pierce, a WWII Navy combat photographer, with a story that humanizes everyone, and steers clear of the same old "military good, civilians and scientists naive" cold war claptrap. (Pierce also contributed the screenplay to the Swedish-U.S. co-production Terror in the Midnight Sun, reviewed elsewhere on this blog.) The undisputed king of B sci-fi actors, John Carradine, has little to do but show up for a couple of brief scenes in a trench coat and coke bottle glasses, and lend his resonant voice for the Cosmic Man's climactic speech. As hammy as John was in this later stage of his marathon career, I never get tired seeing him in these roles, however small.

Bruce Bennett as Dr. Karl Sorenson
Dr. Sorenson (Bruce Bennett) listens with rapt
attention to the unearthly visitor.
Bruce Bennett is dignified and quietly competent as Sorenson. A star athlete in the 1928 Olympics, Bennett (born Herman Brix), lost out to Johnny Weissmuller for the role of MGM's Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), but he ended up playing the role anyway in an independently produced serial, The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935). He played in dozens of B movies through the '40s and '50s. According to Bill Warren, he retired temporarily from acting in the early '60s and made a lot of money in real estate (Ibid.). His best known role is Cody, the lone wolf prospector who tries to horn in on the gold action in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

Sorenson/Bennett has a line that is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago-- perhaps especially so for a 21st century society that seems increasingly predisposed to rejecting science and the higher pursuit of knowledge in favor of superstition and make-a-quick-buck hucksterism.
"It's seems to be a common problem today, everybody's afraid of scientists… they seem to feel we know some sort of deep dark secret about the mysteries of life… Really, they're not afraid of what the scientists know, they're afraid of what they themselves don't know. All we're trying to do is find the answers to a lot of questions."
Amen.


Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Oldies.com

Available online

Amazon Instant Video

"Power beyond anything human! Terror from a world beyond!"

4 comments:

  1. I'd not want to judge it from this short trailer, but it looks a tad cheesy... and the acting a bit overwrought.

    But I'd give it a chance with an open mind, but I am firmly in the TDTESS camp--as you know one of my all-time favorite movies. I'm always looking for intelligent science fiction, a rarity among 1950s science fiction movies.

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  2. So, you're firmly in the camp of an alien who wants to incinerate the entire earth if a few human beings get too rowdy? For shame! :)

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  3. Wonderful post! Headed here after you commented on my Movie Alphabet and "complained" about my choice for "The Day the Earth Stood Still as a sci-fi fave. I get what you're saying about its "highfalutin' message" but I'm a sucker for it. Love the film AND Mr. Rennie.

    I was force-fed '50's sci-fi by my older brother and became a fan by default. Soon I became a lover of the cheesiness but I've never seen "The Cosmic Man" and love the trailer. Awesome stuff. Super happy to have landed on your blog, by the way. LOVE!!

    Aurora

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    1. Just to set the record straight, I too very much like Mr. Rennie, but I disapprove of his "parenting" style as Klaatu. As every good parent knows, you can't get a child to behave with threats-- you have to help the child want to behave. ;-)

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