Director Bert I. Gordon (1922-) worked through from the mid-1950s until his last feature film in 2015. He was known as Mr B.I.G. because of his initials and for his propensity for his films to have special effects that showed giant animals and humans. The movie Tormented (1960) is one of my favourite Gordon films. The nickname of Mr B.I.G. was made by film tragic Forrest J. Ackerman founder of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.
I will try to look at most of Gordon’s films here, especially the earlier ones, having viewed them all again and also having read his autobiography The Amazing Colossal Worlds of Mr B.I.G.: An Autobiographical Journey.
Gordon got his first camera from his aunt as a child. It was a 16mm camera and it sealed his ambition to make it in Hollywood. He also spent the ensuing years experimenting with special effects, something that would help him understand how to make an effects laden film cheaply and launch his colourful career.
Gordon’s first ‘major’ production was called Serpent Island (1954) and it is a poor start. Directed by Tom Gries (1922-77 heart attack playing tennis), who would go on to directed Will Penny (1967) and some Charles Bronson movies… Gordon produced and was cinematographer. The colour photography in Haiti is nice but really it’s a waste of good colour film stock.
Sonny Tufts (1911-70 pneumonia) holds in his gut and makes love to Mary Munday (1926-97), who never had much of a career, as waves crash heavily and symbolically against the rocks. The title is promising but the serpent is just a large python that appears in the final minutes to little effect. There are stills of Munday getting attacked by a snake, it was excised from the version I saw. The voodoo ceremony climax ends with a chicken being pulled apart and natives passing around a bottle of spirits, something Tuft’s surely approved of due to his reputation as a drinker.
Tom Gries’ stock had dropped for the next Lippert Picture production – the first was one too – King Dinosaur (1955), with Gordon now director and co-story writer with Al Zimbalist (1916-75) and Gries credited with the screenplay. Zimbalist came up with the original story for the classic bad movie Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) which had also starred Tufts. This one has a no name cast.
King Dinosaur starts with loads of stock footage and is narrated by Marvin Miller (1913-85), who voiced Robbie the Robot on Forbidden Planet (1956). It tells of the space race to reach planet Nova, which has wandered into the Earth’s orbit. There’s a couple of female doctors who join the two men to planet Nova which has animal life and a breathable atmosphere. There’s time for a bit of romance as well as crocodile wrestling on planet Nova…
Also it has the first appearance of the B.I.G. monsters in the form of a bee or a wasp, which is quickly dispatched by one of the male scientists. There’s more snakes in the first half of this film than there was in total on Serpent Island as Gordon and company seem to have learnt their lesson in a script which is far more imaginative… and that’s not saying much… and when they eventually meet the dinosaurs they are just big lizards. Clocking in at just over an hour like its predecessor… Forget it! Because I promise you – you will!
What Gordon did learn from the movie was that iguanas need a hot environment so they would move around and the film-makers wasted thousands of feet of film without realising they wouldn’t move because it was too cold.
I don’t know when Gordon married his first wife Flora (1925-2016), she gets little credit in his book, but she was credited as Flora Lang on Serpent Island, whereas on King Dinosaur, she is Flora M. Gordon. They divorced in 1979. Their daughter actress Susan Gordon (1949-2011 thyroid cancer) was born long before the name change.
The Beginning of the End (1957) kicks off with teenagers necking in a car to rock music only for the girl to scream as the titles come up. A far more ‘with it’ picture than the previous two. Poor actor Peter Graves (1926-2010 heart attack), who barely recovered from appearing in Killers from Space (1954), has to play it straight faced again as Gordon produces and directs a film which was inspired by the plague of locusts scene in The Ten Commandments (1956). This time they are big.
Albert Glasser’s (1916-78) score is assured and perfect for a monster movie and this film is free of the usual Lippert Pictures production values which hampered Gordon’s first films. Not that it’s much of a bigger budget! Glasser scored about 200 films, many for American International Pictures. The film is also distinguished by having experienced cinematographer Jack H. Marta (1903-91) and the images are a – tee hee – leap and a jump ahead from those in King Dinosaur.
Actress Peggie Castle (1927-73 cirrhosis) as a photojournalist was never so beautiful before her addiction to alcohol led to a suicide attempt and an early death. The actress, following the death of her final husband and her mother, quickly drank herself to death within a year of her release from Camarillo hospital where she had been kept for her alcoholism.
“Is this thing really a strawberry?,” Peggie asks Graves about the big pieces of fruit he has been cultivating in his greenhouse. I believe the big tomatoes, but when it comes to big grasshoppers, it takes a leap of faith to believe in them as they destroy whole towns using footage from tornado-ravaged communities. Suspension of disbelief?! Or laugh out loud? Take your pick.
“One couldn’t live without the other,” says Graves about the plants and insects just before the first deadly grasshopper makes its appearance together with Glasser’s music and a scary monster sound. Gordon achieved his ‘big’ effects through rear projection and, of course, they are nothing in comparison to the blue screen they use today.
“These are eight feet tall. They’re vicious merciless killers…”
And so the hysteria begins as the locusts invade the city of Chicago.
According to Flora Gordon, for the effects they used a couple of hundred locusts which dwindled because they ate each other when kept together in cages. Also for the climbing of building sequences, they were done horizontally and then optically made vertical as the locusts wouldn’t ‘climb’ the cardboard pictures of the buildings naturally.
Gordon had collected the locusts from a current plague in Texas, but to take them to California, they all had to be male grasshoppers lest one female escape and cause a plague in California! Somehow they were sorted. Gordon used a hairdryer to get the grasshoppers to move across the cardboard ‘buildings’.
“I’m afraid he doesn’t realise how serious this is,” says Graves about an era of the complete annihilation of man… or “the beginning of the end”!
One of the generals in the movie is played by Morris Ankrum (1896-1964 trichinosis), a familiar face in low-budget sci-fi, usually as high-ranking army brass in Invaders from Mars (1953) and Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers (1956).
Just so you know the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, there’s a King Kong (1933) moment, which otherwise would state the film’s aspirations, with a woman dressing in her skyscraper apartment only to have locust spy and break the window. Of course, Chicago’s residents, told not to panic, do so en masse. What will the happy ending be? Will an atomic bomb be dropped on Chicago? Some critics said it was “ingeniously done” while others called it “awful”.
Following quickly upon this film’s release came the Allied Artists release The Cyclops (1957). The grasshopper movie was kindly released by Republic Studios.
Starring James Craig (1912-85 lung cancer), Gloria Talbott (1931-2000 renal failure) and Lon Chaney Jr. (1906-73 throat cancer), it begins Gordon’s short but lasting impression with gigantic bald men. Was he inspired by Tom Gries? Written, produced and directed by Gordon, the film starts out in Mexico where Talbott, who was in other cult items I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) and Daughter of Dr Jekyll (1957) is searching for her husband who disappeared years earlier in a plane crash. In fact, this picture played as a double with Jekyll.
As it turns out, he’s living in a remote Mexican valley now as a giant with one eye. The cyclops is played by actor Duncan Parkin (1931-2009) who would also appear with a bald head in Gordon’s second Colossal Man movie. Gordon began filming footage in Tijuana but was arrested for not having a permit and had to bribe himself and his camera out of jail, something that ended with all the footage he took being deliberately exposed.
The film cost $100,000 to make and made a profit in presales alone.
It was the last film of cinematographer Ira H. Morgan (1889-1959), who worked on early silents and the beginning of film production in the United States, while composer Glasser’s impending doom musical themes work well again. Much of The Cyclops was filmed in Bronson Canyon and Cavern.
First to appear is a big lizard, which is the victim of radioactivity, as were so many a 1950s movie monster. There’s also a giant rodent and hawk.
“Why are they so large?,” asks Gloria, who won’t give up on looking for her husband, leaving Bronson Canyon only to end up there again after a bit of a journey. Yes, the film really does go nowhere. Eventually, after a giant spider and some lizards, the Cyclops turns up.
“I have the feeling something’s watching me,” says Gloria with a loud music cue and a ‘through the Cyclops eye’ effect preceding it, something looking rather like the effect used in It Came from Outer Space (1953).
The Cyclops make-up is cheaply effective as he grunts and groans, obviously insane as giant fingers try to get at the small group of actors in the cavern, which is luckily blocked off by a papier-mache boulder.
“He showed some intelligence,” say’s Craig, who must be comparing the Cyclops to a lemming as it groans. It all gets a bit repetitive as the group escape Bronson Cavern only to return to Bronson Canyon yet again – the Cavern opens into the canyon in reality… followed by the Cyclops. Will our plucky group be forced to go back to Bronson Cavern again, or will they escape the Cyclops? Certainly Gordon’s variety of ‘big’ creatures has never been so diverse!
One critic called the film a “standout” while another called it “nothing much”. The Cyclops is the best yet in Gordon’s big universe and after making this film, Gordon was made a member of the Writer’s Guild and the Director’s Guild. He was on his way.
What followed was a four-picture deal with American International Pictures after James H. Nicholson (1916-1972 brain tumour) and Samuel Z. Arkoff (1918-2001 weeks after his wife’s death) signed him. The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) was born as Gordon’s first official association with the company. Glasser is composer once more and cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc (1903-96), who worked on many an A-grade film in the 1960s and 70s and ended up working on Wim Wenders’ Hammett (1982), made a rare film for AIP. All these names with a middle initial, it seems like a plot! Biroc won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for The Towering Inferno (1974).
When Gordon wrote his screenplays, he would always do so with the special effects in mind, how to create them cheaply and build the story around them. I guess it’s cheaper than writing a script and then having a shopping list of effects!
With the army accidentally exposing one of their own to a plutonium bomb, of course, the results aren’t going to be good! And critics usually agreed the same about Gordon’s films as well. The effects were obviously cheap albeit ‘epic’ for their budget. Colossal Man goes further in its ‘epic-ness’.
“Another unit of blood please,” asks the doctor, as the reporter waiting outside the room with the soldier’s fiancé thinks the news can’t be good. For poor Colonel Manning has been horrendously burned in the explosion, and yet he develops new skin although not a hair on his head.
“He’s going to be all right, isn’t he?,” asks fiancé Cathy Downs (1926-76 cancer) before she stumbles on him in isolation and he’s 18 feet tall. He’s growing bigger each day. “But you’ve got to stop it,” says Cathy.
Surrounded by doll’s furniture as he has a feverish flashback nightmare, Manning awakens to the realisation it is not doll furniture at all… but he is the Amazing Colossal Man. And he screams, as you would! Unable to read the Bible since it is too small and a turkey dinner none too satisfying, Colonel Manning starts to lose his grip.
Colossal Man was made around the time of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), which also used back projection to show the ‘giant’ effect albeit in reverse. Also there was the 1940 colour film Dr Cyclops about shrunken scientists, which – title and effects wise – may have been an inspiration also for The Cyclops.
Colossal Man is very talky with only a few thrills as we have another gigantic creature on the rampage in Las Vegas at the end, something which may have inspired Honey, I Blew Up the Kid (1992). Even a five-foot hypodermic needle can’t stop Manning and, yes, they wonder how they’re going to give it to him. There’s another King Kong high-rise moment, this time with a woman washing her legs in a bubble bath.
“What seemed like a joke or a prank a few hours ago has now become a reality,” says a newsreader, warning listeners to stay in their homes.
There’s a good impaling moment by the syringe through one poor devil and echoes of old King Kong again when he picks up fiancé Downs a la Fay Wray (1907-2004 natural causes).
“Put the girl down,” officials cry out on loudspeakers, in a line similar to the one used in Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958), just before the Colossal Man plunges to his death over Boulder Dam. Or did he?
Colossal Man was one of the top grossing films in the US during its first weeks of release. Critics called it a “standard monster on the loose flick” as well as complaining that “the script drags”.
The colossal sequel to the Colossal Man was rushed into production and is entitled War of the Colossal Beast (1958). AIP had a hit with Gordon and he would start churning the rest out in quick succession. With Flora again assisting with the special effects but with actor Glenn Langan (1917-91) replaced as Colonel Manning, the film starts off in Mexico… “Was that a giant man?,” Manning or Glenn’s sister, actress Sally Fraser (1932-2019) asks poor mad Miguel. He is a young truck driver, whose truck has disappeared, apparently taken by the Colossal Beast. That footprint would make him 60-foot tall, says a scientist.
“Glenn was sixty foot tall,” says Sally, hopeful he’s still alive… And he is, poor Glenn… his eye missing and face horribly mutilated, possibly from his fall over Boulder Dam. But one thing hasn’t changed: he is also mentally disturbed and likes to throw trucks around when looking for food. So a truck full of drugged bread is sent into Colossal Beast territory in the hope of capturing him, which they do.
“Have you considered the Hollywood Bowl?,” says a city official, who won’t allow Glenn to be stored in one of their warehouses when he is flown back to L.A. He doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to cities! They settle on a warehouse but poor Glenn is hopelessly mad as the film moves cheaply into flashback…. Before he escapes again, gets captured again and is treated for either amnesia or brain damage.
“We had fun when we were kids, didn’t we Glenn?,” says his sister in an attempt to stir any lost memories in the giant. But it’s no use. And he escapes again and despite being 60-feet tall, he still hasn’t been seen until spotted in Griffith Park on the outskirts of Hollywood.
“You’re witnessing a manhunt for the biggest man in existence,” says a television journalist to his audience. The final scene, where Glenn electrocutes himself on high voltage wires is in colour. No Gordon film had used colour since Serpent Island. Beast is far from as good as the original although the script seems a bit more tongue in cheek. Critics called it “unmemorable” to “forget it”.
The last two of Gordon’s AIP movies all came out within months of each other. The first is probably one of my favourite Gordon pictures Attack of the Puppet People (1957). Actor John Hoyt (1905-91 lung cancer) plays the doll manufacturer who keeps a glass case on display in the foyer of his factory containing miniaturized humans in tubes who are in suspended animation.
“Nobody’s allowed to touch them,” says the receptionist to some little girls who can’t help themselves but want to play with these ‘living dolls’.
“They’re my friends,” explains Hoyt about his dolls to a prospective new receptionist – and possible doll, as the last receptionist disappears!
John Agar (1921-2002 emphysema) turns up as “the best salesman in St. Louis” and soon he and the new receptionist are shrunk down to doll size using some projection technique thingy perfected by Hoyt. Certainly, back-projection is used again by Gordon and so why change a winning formula? And he too has perfected its technique as the film looks great. He has come a long way since The Cyclops and the film is a cheap triumph. Why the film is called Attack of the Puppet People I don’t know as no puppet people actually attack.
Another interesting piece of trivia is that the “spotter” for the Watergate burglars Alfred C. Baldwin III – another initial – was too busy watching Attack of the Puppet People on television that night in the early 1970s to tell the burglars via walkie talkie that there was a police presence. Something that led to President Richard Nixon being possibly impeached but then resigning! Also in a drive-in scene during this film a couple are watching The Amazing Colossal Man on the big screen.
The new receptionist in Attack of the Puppet People goes to the Bureau of Missing Persons where she tells them about her employer: “He made Bob into a doll.” Of course, Hoyt denies it all and not long after she awakes, also the size of a doll. Yes, it’s definitely Gordon’s first film to cash in on Incredible Shrinking Man mode… Hoyt lets his dolls out of their tubes on occasion so they may revive themselves and party with music and champagne and petit four.
Attack of the Puppet People works better because the giant/shrunken effects are used sparsely together and as I said the quality is also better. The script by George Worthing Yates (1901-75) who did quite a bit of sci-fi, including the story for giant ant film Them (1954) and also wrote the story and screenplay for giant octopus movie It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955). He worked on nearly half a dozen of Gordon’s Pictures and was obviously suited to ‘big’ movies.
If Hoyt weren’t such a serial shrinker he might have gotten away with his crimes… but advertising for another new receptionist puts him under the radar of the police. Gordon’s daughter Susan makes her first acting appearance as a little girl interested in Hoyt’s dolls.
“She’s a bad doll,” says Susan about her doll that got run over. Hoyt says, almost inappropriately in these politically correct times, that she should spank her dolly for being disobedient. Apparently, Susan got the acting gig when the girl who was supposed to play in the movie got a fever and was sent home while Susan happened to be on set and knew all the lines. It would lead to a mini acting career in her father’s films.
Later in the movie Hoyt says: “There’s nothing worse than being lonely.” And apparently Hoyt related to the line, he said so in his later years as well as the fact it was one of his favourite films. “Please don’t leave me, I’ll be alone,” he says finally when Agar and the receptionist use his projector thingy and make themselves the right size again and leave. He’ll be alone all right – in a cell, either padded or with bars.
Attack of the Puppet People is also one of Gordon’s favourite’s – to make and watch. Critics said its “cheapo” special effects “doom” the film, while others call it a “low class shocker” and “silly”. I think it’s a bit of a classic.
The key to Gordon is his giant creatures, or humans, is that they are not stop motion affairs. Even King Dinosaur used real lizards. Not the clay or rubber skinned stop-motion models of Willis O’Brien (1886-1962) and later Ray Harryhausen (1920-2013) which were so very successful over the years. Gordon viewed some Harryhausen produced stop motion footage of giant creatures before the release of King Dinosaur, it is reported, and he walked out without a comment. He obviously thought he could do better for less money. As W. Lee Wilder proved with his almost no-budget Killers from Space (1954).
For The Spider aka Earth vs. the Spider (1958), Gordon desperately wanted to use the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico for the home of the giant spider. However, the use of bright lighting for filming was not allowed by the National Park office, as it would’ve caused microscopic organisms to grow and destroy the caves’ ecosystem. Gordon got around it by taking photographic plates using dim lighting and long exposures. With some split screen work and copying the stills onto 35mm film and the use of a hand-sized tarantula, Gordon got the film to work.
The Spider with its cast of virtual unknowns who wouldn’t go on to great heights in Hollywood let alone in AIP, Gordon supplies the story again, while Yates does the screenplay. Famed low budget visual effects creator Paul Blaisdell (1927-83 stomach cancer) gets a credit for special designs.
To keep the Gordon formula creative team the same, Jack Marta is back again as the director of photography and Albert Glasser does the music. The third, according to their release dates, of Gordon’s ‘giant’ or big’ pictures to be released in 1958, the success of the film The Fly (1958) had the title shortened from Earth vs. The Spider to just The Spider.
Entering Bronson Cavern at the beginning of the movie, teenagers then end up with the backdrop of Carlsbad Caverns where they encounter a giant spider.
“If you want to be on the safe side, call pest control,” says a concerned professor, who thinks police rifles won’t be enough to kill the spider. Not too concerned about the surplus of human skeletons in the cave, the police do eventually find the spider’s giant web and kill it using DDT and rifles… and this is just the beginning! They recover the ‘dead’ spider from the caves for study purposes.
“It took a house mover from Riverdale to get it here,” says the professor about the spider kept in the school recreation room. It is there that a rock and roll band plays loud enough to “wake the dead” and the spider lives! With a marquee of Attack of the Puppet People showing at the local theatre, the town in thrown into panic as the spider walks the streets. One poor woman is killed when her skirt gets caught in a car door.
Universal had success with the giant spider in Tarantula (1955), something else which may have started Gordon’s obsession. So why not do it again!… and again! With the spider “heading toward Maple Street” where the professor’s family lives, it’s on for young and old… pausing for some teenagers lost in the cavern where the spider returns home.
The Spider is a reasonably good addition to Gordon’s big films. There’s tension to be had and the effects rival Tarantula… the climax isn’t bad either.
Critics ranged from calling the film “watchable” to others who said it offered “a passing chill”.
Mr B.I.G.’s career continues with his ‘masterpiece’ Village of the Giants in PART TWO.