Thursday, July 28, 2011

50s Monster Mash Blogathon: Giant from the Unknown

One of the most unusual 1950s movies monsters was Vargas, the resurrected 500-year-old Spanish conquistador who awakens from a deep slumber in contemporary California and proceeds to terrorize the countryside until dispatched by a heroic young archaeologist.

Vargas is played by ex-boxer Buddy Baer, who didn’t need any special effects to improve his already impressive 6-foot, 6-inch frame. However, his features are augmented by make-up created by none other than Jack Pierce. In fact, Buddy’s title card in the opening credits is one sure to raise cheers of Universal monster fans the world over: “and Buddy Baer in make-up created by Jack Pierce.”

You can bet the suits at Universal or any of the other major studios would never, ever deem fit to honor a make-up man in such a fashion. But Giant director Richard E. Cunha was a huge fan of Universal’s monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s and wanted to pay an appropriate tribute to one of his idols. Vargas is even resurrected in a most impressive fashion in a terrific thunder and lightning storm that brings to mind Dr. Frankenstein and Fritz tending to their latest creation.








To be honest, Baer’s make-up is not particularly scary but Baer’s resurrection scene is one of the more effective moments in 1950s monster moviedom. The camera tracks across a pile of leaves and then we see a hand emerging from the pile. The camera continues to track across the pile of leaves and stops. We then see a pair of eyes staring through the leaves, as Vargas rises to his enormous height and begin his reign of terror. The lighting and thunder, and Albert Glasser’s music, create a most memorable scene.

(One of the major plot holes of the film is the film’s opening scenes have the townspeople discussing with the sheriff the animal mutilations and strange noises heard in the countryside. If Vargas is resurrected later in the film, than what is causing those strange occurrences?)




Regardless, there’s a lot of entertainment value to be had in “Giant from the Unknown”, which I’ve always enjoyed and I suspect a lot of other 1950s monster movie fans do as well. Despite those plot holes, it’s pretty impressive for a movie that took 10 days to film on a budget of only $55,000.

On location filming made the film look as good as it does. No studio backgrounds here but real locations filmed at Big Bear Lake, Big Bear Dam and the town of Fawnskin, California, located almost 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Six days of filming were allotted at these locations, with the remaining four days used for interiors back in Hollywood.

How did director Richard E. Cunha get so much accomplished for only $55,000? Doing triple duty helped, as Cunha also served as the film’s cinematographer and (uncredited) editor.

Using existing sets also helped. The old mill and log cabins seen in the film were originally constructed in 1936 for Paramount’s lavish Technicolor outdoor adventure film “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” Still in pristine condition at the time, Cunha and company wisely worked them into the script.

How else to save money on the shoot? Get free room and board. Cast and crew stayed at the Lagonita Lodge (formerly The Fawn Lodge) in Fawnskin. Cunha made a deal with the Lodge’s operators to have their sign posted on a car door featured prominently in the film. In return, the cast and crew stayed for free. Crewmembers also doubled as extras in early scenes where townspeople gather to discuss the animal killings and strange occurrences happening in their town.

1958 was a busy year for Cunha as he directed three other films that year which are fondly remembered today: “She Demons” (to be written up in this blogathon on August 1 by W.B. Kelso at http://microbrewreviews.blogspot.com/); “Missile to the Moon”; and “Frankenstein’s Daughter.” Much was accomplished on those tiny budgets, and I wonder if those god-awful “Transformers” movies will be as fondly remembered 50 years from now?

I like all those movies, especially “She Demons” but my favorite may be “Giant from the Unknown.” It’s really B movie heaven. You have a lot of action packed into its 77-minute running time; a very appealing hero and heroine (Edward Kemmer and Sally Fraser, who also teamed up that year in Bert I. Gordon’s “The Spider”); Morris Ankrum as an authority figure; and former cowboy great Bob Steele as the town’s sheriff. I also got a kick out of Gary Crutcher’s performance as Charlie Brown (!), who becomes very un Charlie Brown-like when his sister Ann (no, not Lucy) is killed by Vargas and Charlie Brown decides to go after the supernatural giant.




Buddy Baer does make a most impressive evil giant, though in real life was known for his genial nature. An ex-boxer and the brother for former heavyweight champion Max Baer, he was the uncle of Max Baer, Jr., Jethro in the “Beverly Hillbillies” television series. Other famous movie credits include playing another giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk” (1952) starring Abbott and Costello, and as Ursus, Deborah Kerr’s bodyguard in M-G-M’s impossibly lavish “Quo Vadis” (1951)

Any 1950s giant monster movie can only be better when accompanied by Albert Glasser’s music. Never one for subtlety, Glasser lets loose with his trademark loud brass punctuations and an electronic instrument that sounds like a theremin, but I’m not sure that it is. It could be an electro theremin.

In an interview for Scary Monsters Magazine, Gary Crutcher appreciated the contribution Glasser made to the film. He remembers producer Arthur Jacobs (not the producer of the “Planet of the Apes” movies) saying how fortunate he was to have Glasser score their movie. Crutcher adds, “I personally think he rivaled Bernard Herrmann. Others may disagree, but that’s my opinion on Glasser’s music. There could have been a soundtrack out for it because he put forth so much music for such a small picture. It was a powerful score and it was clear that he really worked on that one. It didn’t just happen.”

Another slight disappointment is the abrupt climax, as Crutcher remembers. “I wasn’t there when they shot the original finale fight sequence, with Buddy and Kemmer, but they did shoot it. What happened was they realized the shutter on the camera had been closed and they lost the whole thing! Very true. It was a shame because they couldn’t go back and do it again. No time. The sequence that you see in the film was done very quickly in only a few hours and I feel still turned out well.”

With nary a moment wasted and an appealing cast, unique monster and beautiful on-location filming, “Giant from the Unknown” is one of my favorite monster movies of the 1950s. I thank Nathanael for inviting me to participate in this blogathon.

Thanks to Jim Doherty in providing me with background information on the film, and for providing me with copies of the Gary Crutcher and Sally Fraser interviews from Scary Monsters Magazine. Additional information on the film came from Tom Weaver’s notes on the DVD edition.




No fan of 1950s monster movies can afford to miss any of the fine reading offered over the next week. I invite everyone to check out all the blogs. A complete list of dates and titles can be found at http://www.forgottenclassicsofyesteryear.blogspot.com/.

20 comments:

Nathanael Hood said...

Aww, shucks...

Thanks for advertising the blogathon!

Great review! I especially like how you got into the details surrounding how the film was actually made. It reminded me of the stories that I heard from the last blogathon about how Roger Corman would make his films. Fascinating stuff!

Rick29 said...

Marvelous review, Kevin, of a sci fi pic that deserves cult film status. It's hokey at times (love the plot glitch you mentioned), but always entertaining. Your passage about the hotel reminded me of Parry Lodge in Kanab, Utah, which was used for various films in the 50s and 60s. Buddy Baer led an interesting life--when he was boxing, he almost knocked out Joe Louis. Joe climbed back into the ring just before he was counted out. By the way, love the movie poster!

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, Nate and Rick. I knew Buddy fought Joe Louis, but I didn't know he almost knocked him out!

The portrayal of Buddy's brother Max Baer Sr. in Ron Howard's "Cinderella Man" really did a disservice to him, from what I read. Unlike the uncaring, almost psychopathic portrayal in the film, the real Max Baer was very kind and gentle outside the ring and was devastated that he may caused the death of a boxer in the ring.

Caftan Woman said...

Fascinating background, plus a fond and fair review. A great read.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

How did director Richard E. Cunha get so much accomplished for only $55,000? Doing triple duty helped, as Cunha also served as the film’s cinematographer and (uncredited) editor.

Now there's a filmmaker!

I haven't seen this one (and after reading your essay I will have to seek it out) but my interest is piqued because of Buddy Baer's participation. Baer was in one of my favorite Gunsmoke episodes, "Never Pester Chester"--playing a goon and doing a darn good job of it.

ClassicBecky said...

Great job, Kevin. I've never seen this one! I thought I had seen most of the big bug movies - I love' em! - but I missed this one. Your background info and research into the movie were fascinating.

Didn't Max Baer, Sr. appear with Humphrey Bogart in one of Bogie's last films. Bogie plays a writer, and Rod Steiger is gangster. The boxer is a gentle giant, innocent and unaware of how he is being used. Do you know?

KC said...

I can't believe I've never heard of this movie. Vargas sounds like an awesome movie monster. I love all the production history you included here--good stuff. It's so weird, most of the movies reviewed for the blogathon today are 76-78 minutes long. It's like it's the standard length for 50s sci-fi!

Kevin Deany said...

Becky: I had to look it up, but yes Max Baer did appear as a boxer in Bogart's last film, "The Harder They Fall."

He's also quite appealing with Myrna Loy in "The Prizefighter and the Lady" (1933). Guess which part he played?

ClassicBecky said...

Well, of course Baer played The Lady! Myrna was known for here mean upper-cut!

Thanks for reminding me of The Harder They Fall. A good movie. I could have looked it up, but I was too lazy....LOL!

Erin said...

Nice review. I like the way in which you included info on the director's strategies for working within the budget.

Rachel said...

This was a great review and I particularly liked your tribute to the behind-the-scenes talent behind the film. It's easy to forget just how much hard work was put into these genre films.

I do wonder where they got the whole "undead conquistador" idea from. It seems really random.

Excellent job!

Hal C F Astell said...

The Harder They Fall is a great movie. The Prizefighter and the Lady was decent but far from great. It would have been more of a cult hit if Myrna Loy had played the prizefighter and Baer the lady.

Like most of the other commenters, I haven't seen this one, but it's good to see an obscurity resurrected with such enthusiasm.

Thomas Duke said...

Haven't seen this one, but I love Frankenstein's Daughter and She Demons. I'll check it out.

Grand Old Movies said...

Haven't seen this one, but your great review makes me want to seek it out. It sounds like an interesting movie (particularly that intro to the monster, of the hand thrusting up from the leaves---puts shivers down my spine!). Your background info, on how the director creatively made it on the cheap, is fascinating. Seems like a really different role for Buddy Baer from his gentle giant in Quo Vadis. Thanks for such an excellent post.

W.B. Kelso said...

Great review. Richard Cunha is definitely one of the more unjustly unsung schlockmeister's of the 1950's. His filmography may be small, but they all pack a weird and wonky punch.

Doug Bonner said...

As a Cunha (and Sally Fraser) fan, I really appreciated the research into the backstory. Good post!

Dave the Movie Guy said...

Hey Kevin - Great post and very informative. I've never seen the film, but I'll be on the lookout for it now ... Thanks ...

Caftan Woman said...

I have been presented with a "Liebster blog" recognition in all kindness, and forward one to you in the same spirit.

Kevin Deany said...

I'm back from vacation and I do thank everyone who took the time to write. I have some reading to catch up on with the rest of the blogathon.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks, CW, for the Liebster Blog recognition. I will select five Liebster Blog-worthy winners and hope to post them on Thursday, Aug. 11.