The House in the Square (I’ll Never Forget You) (1951)

The_House_In_The_Square_(1951)‘There is a smell of brimstone about you.’

An American nuclear scientist lives alone in an 18th Century house in London, spending his evenings reading his family’s old diaries and papers. He confesses to a colleague that he feels as if he belongs back in that era, rather than in modern times. Shortly afterwards, he is struck by lightning and his wish comes true.

Sweeping, romantic costume drama led by Hollywood stars Tyrone Power and Ann Blyth. It’s unashamedly what was known as a ‘woman’s picture’ back in the day with its themes of doomed romance and eternal love. Not surprisingly, it’s a remake of a much older property, ‘Berkeley Square’ (1933), which had starred Leslie Howard and was itself based on a play by John L Balderston. However, it’s to the credit of director Roy Ward Baker that the plot never seems unduly old hat, even if the addition of Power’s job as a nuclear physicist seems like a rather clumsy ‘modernising’ device.

The main thread of the love story is pretty standard stuff, boy meets girl, no one approves and the conventions of the time and the ignorance of others keeps them apart. But there are some nice touches here. Power has idolised the past; the courtly manners, the great houses, the lavish parties, the lord and ladies, but what he isn’t prepared for is the grinding poverty of the lower classes and the indifference of the privileged. Also, his in-depth knowledge of his family’s past and wider historical events is not quite the advantage you would think. He constantly refers to things that haven’t happened yet, and quickly gains a somewhat unhealthy reputation. He ‘reinvents’ several technological advances, such as the electric light bulb, but finds himself branded as a madman and his inventions smashed.

The_House_In_The_Square_(1951)

I’m sorry, I only know the Macarena.’

In fact, this is a story that could probably benefit from an update. With the right handling, there’s enough scope to create something quite thought provoking and relevant to current times. Here, it’s our principal players that engage the audience and drive the story. Power was a Hollywood heartthrob and never gained his due as an actor. He is outshone here by the excellent Blyth, but still delivers a persuasive performance, free from the overly mannered style that still marred films of the time.

Michael Rennie makes his usual strong showing as Power’s modern day colleague in the same year that he was unforgettable as Klaatu in ‘The Day The Earth Stood Still’ (1951). There’s also a very striking cameo from the under-rated Kathleen Byron, best known these days for her showings in the Powell-Pressburger classics ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (1945) and ‘Black Narcissus’ (1947).

Power didn’t have that many films left in him, dying of a sudden heart attack at the age of 44, and Blyth‘s career somehow petered out into TV shows like ‘Wagon Train’. Similarly, director Baker did a lot of television; episodes of routine adventure shows like ‘The Saint’, ‘The Champions’ and ‘Department S’. But, check his filmography, and you find that he was also behind some of the Diana Rigg shows on ‘The Avengers’. Additionally, he was heavily involved with the Hammer Studios in the late 1960s and early 1970s and, although his films aren’t perhaps titles that immediately spring to mind, for my money they are some of the very best the studio ever offered. There was the chilling ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ (1967), pitch black comedy ‘The Anniversary’ (1968) with Bette Davis, ‘The Vampire Lovers’ (1970) with Ingrid Pitt and Peter Cushing, and the sadly neglected ‘Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde’ (1971). Unfortunately, it’s probably best to look away now rather than watch the tatty, appalling mess that was ‘Scars of Dracula’ (1970). Well, you can’t win ‘em all, I guess.

This is a decent romantic drama with a science fiction twist, that works due to the fine performances and some interesting themes and unexpected angles to the story.

Five (1951)

Five_(1951)‘Four men and one woman are the last five people on Earth…This is their story!’

Nuclear war wipes out mankind. Four strangers survive in an isolated area of the United States, but can they put aside their differences and make a new life together? Things seem to be working out, but then a newcomer arrives…

Arch Oboler had found considerable success on both radio and television in the 1940s and made the step into film shortly afterward. His scripts and themes did not find favour with the major Hollywood studios, which were beginning to disintegrate as they lost control of theatre chains under new anti-trust legislation. So Oboler became part of the first wave of independent filmmakers, and also the filmmaker to tackle the subject of life in the aftermath of nuclear war.

Early scenes of an abandoned, small town are undeniably eerie and effective, although there is a notable absence of corpses in the street. It’s clear from the off that little was known about conditions after a nuclear strike as the weather remains fine throughout, and fall out doesn’t get a mention. Anyway, desperate, pregnant Susan Douglas reaches the hilltop home of friends on the outside of town, only to find it occupied by lone wolf William Phipps. They strike up an uneasy alliance and are later joined by bank manager Earl Lee and black man Charles Lampkin.

Five_(1951)

Parking problems in the city had reached serious proportions.

Given the film’s vintage, it’s no surprise that Lampkin’s colour is mentioned, but that non-issue is swiftly abandoned when the quartet take refuge under the same roof. The equality of their relationships is presented in a pleasingly matter of fact and everyday way, which makes for an excellent, and subtle, anti-racist statement. Having said that, of course, our hero and main man is white bread Phipps. By the end of the decade Harry Belafonte did have a more central role in the similar, and under-rated, ‘The World, The Flesh and the Devil’ (1958).

The snake in the ointment is Eric (James Anderson), who is washed up on a nearby beach, having survived the bombs by being halfway up a mountain at the time that they struck. Rather stereotypically (sadly), he’s a foreigner, and doesn’t really take to all this communal living palaver. It’s no surprise when he indulges in a few racial slurs and plans to run off with Douglas after she’s had her baby. Anderson later played a similar role in the slightly more well known ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ (1962).

There’s an obvious ‘Garden of Eden’ parallel here, and, unfortunately, as the film progresses, it’s rather layered on with a trowel. But it’s the lack of action that really sinks the film. It’s very talky indeed and, although this is quite realistic, and very different to all the mutations and monsters that were shortly to follow, inevitably it’s not very exciting. We spend too much time in the house on the hill, even though its avant-garde design by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright does helps to reinforce the other worldly atmosphere. Excellent black and white photography by Sid Lubow and Louis Clyde Stouman also adds atmosphere and a stamp of quality.

An unusual, and ground~breaking, production that’s shackled by the conventions of its time and by the limited resources available to the filmmakers.

The Unknown Terror (1957)

The_Unknown_Terror_(1957)‘They dared enter the cave of death to explore the secrets of hell!’

A husband and wife go to Mexico to try and find her brother; who has gone missing whilst searching for ‘The Cave of Death.’ Arriving in the region, they find the natives secretive and unhelpful. Living in the village is an American doctor, who is carrying out mysterious experiments with fungi…

Remorselessly low grade ‘B’ flick directed by Charles Marquis Warren, better remembered as a writer/producer of successful TV westerns such as ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Gunsmoke’ and director of Elvis Presley’s unsuccessful attempt to be ‘The Man with No Name’ in ‘Charro’ (1969). It’s obvious from the tepid results on offer here that Warren was much happier in the saddle. He fails to inject any life into this whatsoever, although, to be fair, the ingredients are tired and familiar: the love triangle between the husband-wife and their friend, a mad scientist creating lethal soap suds, a passionate native girl who betrays the villain and a few half-hearted stuntmen pretending to be subterranean creatures.

In fact, the only real point of interest is the burgeoning romance between embittered anti-hero Paul Richards and the native girl, played  by May Wynn. He’s the friend along for the ride on the rescue expedition who was permanently injured saving the husband’s life in a caving accident. Placing a disabled character with mobility issues front and centre is unusual. Although the character is defined by his disability throughout, he is shown as more competent and accomplished than husband (and nominal hero) John Howard, who spent most of the 1930s and 40s fighting villains and spies as Bulldog Drummond. There is little of that suave ‘Drummond’ persona in Howard’s performance here, but he and heroine Mala Powers (‘Cyrano de Begerac’ (1950)) are saddled with such dull and generic characters that they can be forgiven for not trying too hard. May Wynn was a singer who debuted as the female lead in 7 times Oscar-nominated ‘The Caine Mutiny’ (1954) with Humphrey Bogart. The fact that she was appearing in this film just 3 year later (and in a supporting role no less!) gives you some idea of her career trajectory.

The_Unknown_Terror_(1957)

‘Soup’s on!’

Leaving aside the lacklustre script, production values are low and, although the cave sets aren’t that bad, we spend an awful lot of time crawling around in them. The static camera work also tries the patience, with nearly everything filmed in medium or long shot (particularly the monsters!) Although publicity shots from the time explain why the creatures weren’t seen up close!

The final plot revelations are hardly startling, although, in its favour, the fates of the main characters aren’t as predictable as usual. However, the snail’s pace isn’t likely to encourage much audience investment in the final outcome and makes the brief 76 minute running time seem a lot longer.

A largely forgotten scrap of 1950s Science Fiction.  With good reason.

1st April, 2000 (1952)

1 April, 2000 (1952)1950s science fiction political satire from Austria!

It’s the year 2000 and the planet is run by the World Global Union, who allow countries to manage their own affairs, but keep a particular eye on troublesome little Austria. When the country’s new president declares independence and the population tear up their ID cards, Union rockets invade and the entire nation is put on trial in planetary court.

In the wake of two World Wars, Austrian nationals felt a little hard done by. Blame for starting the conflicts seemed to settle on them and their country was still being run by Allied powers. This film was commissioned by the Austrian government, who were trying to ‘get out from under’ and, basically, it’s simple propaganda; an attempt to show Austria’s peaceful contribution to world history and importance to global culture. Many of the court scenes consist of elaborate re-enactments of historical events and the whole package wears its heart on its sleeve without apology.

Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much of an international audience for this and the only available version is in the original German. I don’t speak the language so no doubt the more subtle aspects of the comedy simply passed me by. A lot of the humour does appear quite broad, however, and the development of the story is rather predictable.

You see, all the flag-waving does impress the Union President (Hilde Krahl) and, what with the boyish good looks of the Austrian Prime Minister (Josef Meinrad), it’s pretty obvious that this particular iceberg is going to thaw. Her troops are ‘going native’ too; enjoying the local beer, women, brass bands and interminable marches and parades.

1 April, 2000 (1952)

No strings attached

Unfortunately, all these positive images do get a little wearing after a while and the story is not very engrossing. In fact, the message overwhelms the drama early on and simply never lets up. Apparently, Bond villain Curt Jurgens (‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) is in all this Austria love somewhere, but I failed to spot him. The most entertaining aspect is the gloriously goofy 1950s science fiction trappings; all rocket ships and silly tinfoil costumes, with the troops kitted out in ‘Michelin Man’ spacesuits with wobbly aerials. But the fantastical aspects are simply window dressing and not really integral to the film, which obviously has a completely different agenda.

As it turned out, Austria was not really centre stage in world affairs over the next half century, so the people’s fears (or vanity perhaps?) proved somewhat unfounded. But the film helped serve its purpose: Austria got its autonomy back a couple of years after it was released. And my mum tells me that Salzburg is very beautiful and well worth a visit…

Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere (1951)

Captain Video Master of the Stratosphere (1951)‘As a scientist, I need not remind you that there are 3 known dimensions. I have deprived you of 2 of them. You are in the 3rd: Death!’

Captain Video and his Video Rangers fight for truth and justice from his laboratory in the mountains. Alien despot Vultura threatens Earth with conquest and Video finds himself facing human traitors who are paving the way for the invasion…

‘Captain Video and his Video Rangers’ was a popular 30 minute TV series that ran from 1949 to 1955. It was broadcast live. Episodes usually included about 7 minutes of footage from old cowboy movies, described as ‘the undercover Video Rangers adventures on Earth’. In 1951, the Captain hit the big screen in his own movie serial for Columbia studios. Not surprisingly, given the short period of popularity of both media, it is the only instance of a serial being based on a TV show. Instead of Al Hodge in the lead role, the studio went with Judd Holdren for the serial and his teenage sidekick (only ever named as ‘The Ranger’) was played by Larry Stewart. Nasty villain Vultura was subtly depicted by Gene Roth.

This is an entertaining, but undeniably cheap, chapter play with familiar Columbia expertise behind it (writer George H Plympton, producer Sam Katzman, director Spencer Gordon Bennet). The plot is completely familiar too, with most episodes centring on Vultura’s agent on Earth, the evil genius Dr Tobor, and his attempts to grab whatever scientific thingamajig will further the alien dictator’s plans this week. A completely unrelated character called Tobor actually appeared on the TV show. This was a mechanical man, who was originally going to be called ‘Robot 1’ until someone mistakenly put the stencil on to the costume backwards! The only robots in the serial are actually the ‘cowboy’ ones featured 16 years earlier in the Gene Autry classic ‘The Phantom Empire’ (1935). Pleasingly, they still look like they’re made of silver cardboard and have cowboy hats firmly in place.

Captain Video Master of the Stratosphere (1951)

‘That’s the last time I let you bring that metal detector on holiday.’

There is some interplanetary action too, both on Atoma and its sister world Theros (although both bare the inevitable resemblance to good old Vasquez Rocks in California). Action on Theros is tinted entirely green and on Atoma entirely red. It is pleasing to think that low budget auteur Al Adamson may have simply cribbed this idea for his brilliantly wretched ‘Horror of the Blood Monsters’ (1970). Both Holdren and Roth (along with a lot of the props and costumes) turned up in Columbia’s last interplanetary serial ‘The Lost Planet’ (1953).

Highlights include the low budget uniforms (army surplus for Captain Video and his Rangers, complete with suits, ties and motorcycle helmets with big googles), crudely animated spacecraft drawn by an 8 year old and hilarious over-explanatory dialogue. Vultura dresses like some kind of cheap viking. Tobor’s assistant is played by the wonderful Skelton Knaggs. Vultura spies on Earth from a space platform in the clouds where one of his minions has a hand held telescope. Fire on Atoma has no effect on Captain Video because of its ‘different chemical properties’. Captain Video’s life is often saved when he falls out of aircraft because his top scientist can reduce the power of Earth’s gravitational pull so he floats gently to the ground. His jet mobile goes really fast and often crashes and explodes but he always jumps clear in time and has an inexhaustible supply of replacements. No one ever has any good ideas apart from Captain Video.

It’s reassuring to think that the future of Earth will be in the hands of such men as Captain Video and his wonderful science type stuff.

Buy ‘Captain Video: Master of the Stratosphere’ here