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3 from 1950s Hollyweird: Dr. T, Mankind and Plan 9

  The nineteen-fifties in America are often characterised by their conservatism, marked by the preoccupation with the nuclear family, and indeed the nuclear defence, against the threat of the Communists who wanted to bring down the nation's values and way of life. Hollywood was regarded as the cheerleader for all these impulses as it delivered a steady stream of bright entertainments designed to promote the status quo, but that was not the whole story by any means. Not only was there the last gasp of original film noir, there were moves afoot to acknowledge the darker side of humanity that had been so embedded in the minds of the populace after World War II, and some movies were just weird. Take 1953's The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the Dr Suess project from famous liberal producer Stanley Kramer, which had such a difficult birth that it's little wonder it emerged a nightmarish mess of a thing more likely to disturb the child audience than reassure.

You could discern anti-Communist movement throughout the film, as while it initially comes across as anti-intellectual when little Bart (Tommy Rettig) rejects the orders of his piano teacher Dr Terwilliker (Hans Conreid) and falls asleep at the keys, he imagines a terrifying world where the Doc is a power-crazed overlord determined to get his masterpiece played by five hundred boys on the world's longest piano. One of the most striking elements to this was those sets, huge, cavernous affairs that completely dwarf Rettig as, for instance, he climbs a towering ladder to nowhere, then jumps off the top using his sweater as a parachute, the anxiety of the character and the country in every scene. Bart has no father, and plainly, subconsciously fears Dr. T wants to be his stepparent as he has his mother (Mary Healy) under his hypnotic spell, but plumber Mr Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes) offers a way out, an unpretentious working man who has no time for piano concertos.

Bart spends most of the film escaping from the title character and his goons as things start at a surreal pitch and never come down (is it any wonder Rettig became a staunch advocate for recreational drug use in his adult years?). But its suspicion of the hoity-toity, rarefied air of the music connoisseur and by extension the eggheads in society who just thought too much was really based in the propaganda of the fascists, whose methods were seen as being adopted by the Communists, not to liberate the minds of the world but to enslave them. Quite why this was an appropriate subject for a kiddies' musical from a beloved children's author is a mystery, yet you could see it all over the science fiction of the day too (though not the Soviet science fiction, obviously). This intent to scare the audience into siding with the film concocted imagery like the rollerskating uncles joined at the beard, or the executioner/elevator operator, but it was all strange.

In 1957, as in the rest of the decade, religion loomed large - those Commies would reject the word of God, of course, and it took a dramatic Titan like Irwin Allen to put them in their place. You know, Irwin Allen? The producer of Lost in Space and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in the sixties, and The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno in the seventies? Do you want to be lectured to by the producer of The Swarm? Why, naturally! Just because you are the spawner of schlock doesn't mean you don't have a moral compass, and Allen was just like anyone this era, he was deeply concerned about the H bomb and the direction humanity was headed in. Therefore he secured the rights to a children's book by one Henrik Van Loon (really) and now his nature documentaries had established him in Hollywood, he was keen to move on to the human animal instead. Thus there came into being his notorious all-star epic The Story of Mankind to tell us off.

The cast was truly something for the mid-fifties, with as many stars (and relatives of stars) as they could amass before the cameras, all to play various famous figures from history as mankind was placed on trial by the, er, space court (!?) who will judge whether we deserve to expire at the hands of the maniacs who have developed the "Super H Bomb". The Devil, here Mr Scratch (Vincent Price, the one item of perfect casting), claims it was all his idea, and he is keen to see us all blown to smithereens, so he is the prosecution, while the vaguely defined "Spirit of Man" is Ronald Colman, in his final role (a lot of final roles here - coincidence?) whose essential decency and optimism for our better nature means he is the defence. That this ended on a cop out was not actually to its detriment, as, well, the rest of it was to its own detriment, but there was no way to sum up our achievements and evils except to hand over the responsibility to ourselves to judge our own worth.

But those stars! The three Marx Brothers, not together but separately (all the better to eke out the value for money), with Groucho as a Native American-swindling puritan and Harpo as Sir Isaac Newton getting not one but two apples landing on his head! Hedy Lamarr as Joan of Arc, despite being thirty years too old to play a teenager! Peter Lorre as Nero, who barks laughter and appears abashed to be associated with the whole enterprise! Virginia Mayo as Cleopatra, who gets a total hatchet job in misogynist fashion as a murderer and, um, pickpocket! Dennis Hopper as Napoleon, under the impression he is required to give a proper performance and not a cartoon! Agnes Moorhead as Queen Elizabeth II haranguing William Shakespeare (Reginald Gardiner)! John Carradine as a random Pharoah embedded in stock footage from Land of the Pharoahs! And so it goes on, like a Night of a Thousand Stars, almost all of them looking excruciatingly embarrassed!

But the King of the fifties weirdo movies out of Hollywood has to be one from the same year, the legendary, some say notorious, Plan 9 from Outer Space. Although it was not a huge hit in its day - none of these were - it began to build a cult throughout the sixties and seventies that culminated in it being proclaimed the Worst Movie Ever Made in the Medveds' bestselling book The Golden Turkey Awards. From then on there was no stopping it, and while its director Edward D. Wood Jr died, with typical poor timing, just as his production became the success he always dreamt of, it did not prevent its fans endlessly rewatching it as a perfect example of pop culture kitsch, its utter lack of self-awareness of just how ridiculous it was positively endearing. Those fans pored over the details of its manufacture until they became akin to religious totems, repeated over and over to the point of turning into a strange kind of gospel: The Gospel According to Ed Wood and his motley crew.

You know the type of thing: star Bela Lugosi had died a couple of years before, but had left some amateur footage he and Wood had shot as a test for a potential project, so rather than discard it, Wood incorporated the clips into his tale of "grave robbers from outer space", replacing Lugosi when more footage of his character was needed with his wife's chiropractor holding a cape over his face. It was that ingenuity that would not fool a child that fed into the legend, and funnily enough watching Plan 9 from Outer Space was a lot like watching overgrown children playing at being a science fiction movie that had seen at a Saturday matinee, with all the sincerity and commitment something this absurd could bear, possibly more. Wood's total belief in his work translated into a message for the world that Irwin Allen and Dr Seuss could relate to, the biggest topic of the age, would nuclear weapons be the making of humanity or its ultimate, explosive, devastating downfall?

After flying saucers buzz locals in Hollywood (where else?), they also have the effect of raising three people from the dead, Lugosi, gigantic, non-acting wrestler Tor Johnson (playing the Inspector) and TV horror hostess Vampira, who speaks nary a word, but has a fine line in grimacing. Inside the saucers are aliens from a planet who wish to destroy the Earthlings, not out of vindictiveness but out of fear we shall grow too powerful with our weaponry and cause nothing less than the end of the Universe itself. One of the most unsung scenes sees two military top brass listening to a recording of an alien broadcast which essentially spends a couple of minutes insulting them in particular and our people in general, revealing Wood's comical cynicism about his fellow person, though given the bad guys are the aliens, there's a curious dichotomy between who we should be supporting: the pacifist space collective or the warmongers on Earth? And that's an identifier of fifties weirdness, its deeply held beliefs often masked by the bizarre or even unintentionally humorous presentation.

[Click here to watch Plan 9 from Outer Space on MUBI - it was their April Fool's Day movie.]
Author: Graeme Clark.


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