The Cult of The Magnetic Monster and the Office of Scientific Investigation

*contains spoilers

When we look at the trilogy of the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI) movies from the early to mid 1950s, we must give credit to the producer Ivan Tors (1916-83 heart attack).

Ivan Tors in 1960

Tors was a European émigré, he came from Hungary in 1939, and his name is probably more familiar to those who watched and maybe still watch shows such as Sea Hunt, Flipper, Daktari and Gentle Ben, which were popular in the 1960s.

But the OSI movies are significant science fiction features as they were a little more fact-based than the aliens invade or giant monsters attack type movies which typified the era.

The trilogy is made up of The Magnetic Monster (1953), Riders to the Stars (1954) and Gog (1954).

The Magnetic Monster (1953) poster

Tors, according to a documentary on his life, was a man of keen intellect and formed the company called A-Men for The Magnetic Monster.

“Sounds like the final word of a prayer,” says the film’s star Richard Carlson (1912-77 cerebral haemorrhage) at the start of the film. “It is not.”

He is talking about his character as an A-Man as “A” stands for atom and atom stands for power. The A-Men of the newly formed Office of Scientific Investigation concern themselves with important matters of the atom which man has unleashed but is yet to control.

Intellectual hero Richard Carlson in a radiation suit in The Magnetic Monster

There is conjecture that a possible tv series was planned about OSI but it didn’t pan out. However, the trilogy of movies did. Carlson as the nominal star of two of the films probably ended any possibility of a series as he had his own hit show the anti-Communist series I Led 3 Lives which ran from 1953 to 1956. That and the fact that Carlson was busy during this period with feature films, as from 1952 to 1954, he starred in just short of a dozen movies.

One of Carlson’s many films in the early 1950s was The Maze (1953) trailer

Carlson radiates intelligence which is probably why he was chosen to play Dr Jeff Stewart in The Magnetic Monster. The same year, although it was probably filmed afterwards, Carlson would also play a professor of sorts in the cult classic It Came from Outer Space (1953). The Magnetic Monster has two copyright dates on it and one is from 1952.

The film ingeniously uses footage at its climax from an epic German film from the 1930s. As for the story itself, it concerns the creation of a dangerous element by a “lone wolf” scientist, something he has whipped up in his home laboratory which is barely visible to the eye without a microscope and which feeds on energy and doubles its size every 12 hours or so. If it doesn’t get fed energy, this element implodes, causing massive damage… and if it isn’t destroyed, it will keep growing until it threatens to send the Earth out of its orbit and off into space to its doom! It is up to Carlson and his OSI sidekick played by King Donovan (1918-87 cancer) to save the world!!

Carlson and officials study the monster in The Magnetic Monster

Herbert L. Strock (1918-2005 heart failure) is credited as editor of the movie but he claimed to have directed most of the film. The director as well as the screenwriter on the credits though is Curt Siodmak (1902-2000) who wrote some exciting screenplays over the years including I Walked with a Zombie (1943), The Invisible Man Returns (1940), Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) and Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956) among others.

A young Curt Siodmak

Siodmak was a man who could produce fantastic stories for the screen and was the writer of the novel Donovan’s Brain which was published in 1942 and made into a film in 1953.

The beginning of the idea for The Magnetic Monster came when Tors’s associate Andrew Marton (1904-92 pneumonia) brought him footage from the German film Das gelde (Gold 1934). It was then that Tors took ten minutes of the Gold footage to Siodmak who helped him frame the footage and create a script.

Donavan’s Brain (1953) trailer

Anyway, a company was formed and The Magnetic Monster was made at a cost of $105,000.

Just a note on Gold and from what I gather from recent reviews of the original film is that the giant generator in the film was used to apparently try and turn lead into gold. Such was the plot and the subterfuge also contained within. Apparently, like many early sound films, Gold is interminably talky but has the saving grace of the footage which was used in The Magnetic Monster. It is of note too because it features actress Brigitte Helm (1908-96) from the classic German silent film Metropolis (1927).

Poster for the German film Gold (1934)

It is reported from interviews with Tom Weaver that Strock took over direction from Siodmak when Strock as editor began to make suggestions to Tors. It was then that Tors and Siodmak began fighting and Siodmak was taken off the picture. Strock claimed he was surprised when Tors offered him the job to direct but it seemed a natural choice for him to do it as the editor as well to blend the Gold footage and the new footage starring Carlson seamlessly in the finale.

Carlson in the new climax footage…

“You know exactly how everything must go together,” Strock reported Tors said.

The Magnetic Monster was to be Siodmak’s first film as director as he thought he wanted to show his brother Robert Siodmak (1900-73 heart attack) who was the director of The Spiral Staircase (1946), The Killers (1946) and The Crimson Pirate (1952), that he could direct.

“Because my brother was a good director… I wanted to show him I could do it too,” said Curt.

…to be blended with the Gold footage here

And when his brother heard Curt had taken on The Magnetic Monster, he reportedly rushed around to his brother’s house to beg him not to take on the project – lest he embarrass himself. Such is the legend!

After three days of rushes on The Magnetic Monster and Siodmak was replaced by Strock. But Strock’s recollections that he directed the film have been disputed. Actor and dialogue coach Michael Fox (1921-96 pneumonia) said: “Curt Siodmak directed the picture… But it was Herb Strock who put everything together.” Fox said that eighty percent of the film’s success goes to Strock.

Herb Strock worked into his 70s

“It ended up being a mutual effort,” said Fox, who commented that Siodmak was also good with the actors.

Siodmak himself once also countered Strock’s claims he directed the film with the question: “Why didn’t he do another film as good?”

The success of The Magnetic Monster comes down not just to its editing but its performances from a long list of character actors such as Kathleen Freeman (1919-2001 lung cancer), Strother Martin (1919-80 heart attack), Byron Foulger (1899-1970 heart disease), Jean Byron (1925-2006 complications following hip surgery) and Leonard Mudie (1883-1965).

Leonard Mudie as the radiation-poisoned ‘lone wolf’ scientist in The Magnetic Monster

If you see the film, or if you have seen it, you will notice other elements too… The electronic sound effects of The Monster itself or the serranium as it is called when it implodes was recorded by Paul Beaver (1925-75 cerebral aneurysm). Beaver was a bisexual jazz organist and a pioneer of electronic music. Beaver and musician Bernard Krause (1938-) were responsible for the album Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music (1968) which is seen as a touchstone in electronic music history as it explores the possibilities of a Moog synthesiser.

Beaver on the left with Krause and one of their synthesisers

Another element of The Magnetic Monster is that it shows early supercomputers. In the film, the scientists try to determine what the monster is made of and so they consult a supercomputer called The M.A.N.I.A.C. or mathematical, analyser, numerical, integrator, and computer.

The M.A.N.I.A.C. in The Magnetic Monster

This computer was inspired by a computer that began operating in Los Alamos Science Laboratory in 1952. In the movie, it is played by the SWAC (Southwest Automatic Computer) which was the first ever built in California. SWAC operated from 1950 and was once the fastest computer in the world.

But it is the climax of The Magnetic Monster with its gigantic Deltatron which helps make the film a cult classic although the lead-up is ingenious if cheaply imaginative. The monster is scary although we can’t see it unless it’s under a microscope – the film simply defies its budget.

The Magnetic Monster (1953) trailer

When it was released, Newsweek said it was “a modest but exciting example of science fiction” while Film Bulletin said: “It tells a preposterous story, slickly and quite persuasively. Of its kind, lively and ingenious.”

I have never forgotten the first time I saw the film. I set my alarm at my grandparents’ house for 2am and got up one winter morning with my freezing feet in front of the heater to finally see this film which, as a Richard Carlson fan, I had wanted to see for years… and it still has the same magic now that I have seen it dozens of times on DVD. I constantly forgive Carlson’s dated clothing which was used to match the 1930s footage with the 1950s footage! It was one of my first cult films.

Quad poster or lobby card for Riders to the Stars (1954)

Carlson would direct the second OSI movie Riders to the Stars although it is again Herb Strock who is uncredited. Riders is set at an astronaut training centre run by OSI where a handful of the best men in the country have been selected by computer to be chosen as the first astronauts. You’ve got to remember this is even before Sputnik 1 the first artificial Earth satellite was even launched by the Russians in 1957. Made a few years before that, Riders to the Stars is speculative yet, again, fact based.

The plan in Riders to the Stars

The mission of the final three men chosen to be astronauts will be to capture an asteroid from outer space so it can be studied and tell scientists how future spacecraft can be protected from disintegrating in space due to cosmic rays or some such thing.

The science may have not turned out that way and certainly The Magnetic Monster seemed believable despite it being a total fiction and possibly remains so – that’s why it’s so great.

King Donovan makes an appearance again and the film also stars Herbert Marshall (1890-1966 heart failure) who would return for the final OSI movie Gog the same year.

Herbert Marshall with Vincent Price in The Fly (1958)

Director Joe Dante (1946-) remembers the film fondly and said the big moment in the movie was when the astronaut’s spaceship explodes and the astronaut whose space suit has ruptured passes by and it is just a skull in a spacesuit.

“That was the defining image for me because we usually didn’t get that good stuff,” said Dante, who was a kid at the time.

The shot that Dante was talking about from Riders to the Stars

Riders to the Stars came hot on the heels of The Magnetic Monster which was released in mid-February 1953. Riders started filming at the Hal Roach Studios on 8 June 1953. It was reportedly the first science fiction film made in widescreen but sadly those elements are now lost and it has never been shown in its original format since its first release. It is also in colour whereas The Magnetic Monster was in black and white.

Director Carlson and Strock had to contend with a ratio of 1.85:1 which was the Panoramic process ratio but not as widescreen as Cinemascope which was 2.35:1. They had an experienced cinematographer in Stanely Cortez (1908-97 heart attack) who apparently fell out with Strock and was replaced by Joseph F. Biroc (1903-95) who would later win an Oscar for The Towering Inferno (1974). Biroc also worked on Donovan’s Brain and Bert I. Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man (1957).

Kitty White was far more hip singing with Elvis in King Creole. Here’s the clip.

Riders to the Stars opens with the very dated title song which is sung by Kitty White (1923-2009 stroke): “Riders to the Stars, that is what we are, every time when we kiss in the night… Jupiter and Mars aren’t very far…” White sung the more hip Crawfish with Elvis Presley (1935-77 heart attack) in the movie King Creole (1958).

Lundigan and Hyer pose for Riders to the Stars. Credit: Photo by United Artists/Kobal/Shutterstock (5851421a)

The movie follows in the footsteps of fact-based space travel movie Destination Moon (1950) and Richard Carlson is phased out as the hero of the screenplay, that role instead goes to William Lundigan (1914-75 heart failure) and filling out the female roles are Martha Hyer (1924-2014 natural causes) and Dawn Addams (1930-85 cancer).

There are the usual epic touches for this independent production although they don’t rely on footage from another movie. Instead there is stock footage of rockets as well as mice in zero gravity.

Opening sequence from Riders to the Stars (1954)

This is obviously not footage of the first mouse to go into space which happened in 1950 as there was a malfunction after it reached 137km into the stratosphere and the rocket disintegrated due to parachute failure.

Riders to the Stars isn’t as good as The Magnetic Monster as it suffers from a little too much drama before its exciting climax in space with Carlson postponing his engagement with his girlfriend because they want to pick an astronaut who is unmarried. The film also seems to have the first ever psychotic episode in space too when Carlson loses it. It just isn’t well directed and although I’m a big Carlson fan, I’m the first to admit that all his directing assignments, along with this one, disappointed.

Lundigan in the centrifuge is one of the more exciting scenes from Riders to the Stars

There is, however, good use of a centrifuge, or a large rotating device, where Lundigan is tested to his very limit. Riders is easily the worst of the trilogy but not a bad film.

The third and final film in the OSI trilogy is Gog. Tors was pushing the envelope with this movie as it is in colour and apparently the third sci-fi movie in widescreen. It is also in 3-D.

Strock is the official director this time, again on limited sets at Hal Roach Studios. This time the budget is an estimated $250,000. I cannot find what Riders to the Stars cost.

The Hal Roach Studios where a couple of the OSI movies were shot

Like the previous OSI movies, it was distributed by United Artists as it is an independently made feature by Tors company and not by a major studio. Although filmed in 3-D, it was made towards the end of the short-lived craze for that effect and was photographed by Lothrop B. Worth (1903-2000). Filmed in Natural Vision 3-D which was a colour process, it used the same cameras that were used for Bwana Devil (1952) and House of Wax (1953). Worth did camerawork on House of Wax and would work with Strock again on I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957).

Director Strock (left) with the cast of Gog (1954)

Lost in 3-D for many decades, it has recently been restored in 2016 and has played several festivals in that format.

The title of the film Gog comes from the Old Testament as does Magog. They are the names of two robots in the movie, which is set in an underground complex in New Mexico, a place apparently impenetrable to nuclear blast. However, it is not safe from an invisible enemy which is causing deadly malfunctions in the science labs and killing off key staff.

Richard Egan and Constance Dowling in Gog

Instead of Richard Carlson, we have the brawny and more virile Richard Egan (1921-87 prostate cancer) as Dr David Sheppard from the Office of Scientific Investigation who is sent into the complex to investigate the mysterious goings on.

It is apparently sabotage and caused by the complex’s central computer being manipulated by an outside force. It could be seen to parallel todays doubts about the 5G network and Chinese involvement in their construction and possible spying and manipulation in the future as a result.

A Gog one sheet poster

Another aspect of 5G is the rumour it can use high frequencies that can kill according to the conspiracy theorists. In the opening of The Magnetic Monster, Richard Carlson says: “Frequencies have been found that can penetrate the human brain and destroy life.” Conspiracists would support this fact-based theory. Anyway, there is a Western civilisation infrastructure conspiracy at work in Gog as the computer in Gog was built in Switzerland and a powerful radio transmitter added without the knowledge of its creator. Although it isn’t actually quoted in Gog, we guess it’s the Russians.

Egan takes on one of the robots in a lobby card from Gog (1954)

As with the previous two films, there is an exciting climax which features one of the robots possibly entering the complex’s nuclear reactor in the hope of causing an atomic chain reaction.

While Richard Carlson is missing from the cast, Herbert Marshall returns which goes to show the core group of actors and crew that Tors relied upon for these movies. Tors, in fact, married one of the stars of Gog, Constance Dowling (1920-69 heart attack) after the film wrapped and she retired immediately to raise a family.

Tors took one of the robots home. Here with wife Constance Dowling poolside.

Gog is beautiful to look at in the flat colour prints, as long as you haven’t got a copy where the colour has bled. But this last roll of the OSI dice didn’t predict the sudden end of the 3-D craze and may have suffered financially as a result. The direction is workman-like and a slight improvement over Riders to the Stars.

Gog (1954) trailer

Like Riders to the Stars, Gog is not regarded as a classic, or a cult film, by many people at all but it is reasonably good science fact as opposed to science fiction. I’m sure that just like many of Tor’s later tv shows, many children lapped up the OSI films which seemed to grow a little more sophisticated as they progressed. Gog just didn’t succeed tremendously and it was time for Tors to take another tack in the form of Battle Taxi (1955) which concerned the Air Rescue Service.

Herb Strock’s appalling The Crawling Hand (1963)

Strock would be used again on Battle Taxi as director before he did the I Was a Teenage Frankenstein movie and How to Make a Monster (1958) for producer Herman Cohen (1925-2002 throat cancer). Strock then descended to the level of The Crawling Hand (1963), which maybe a cult film for all the wrong reasons, a film which he also wrote and edited. Strock worked with Tors on his tv shows in the 1960s but his feature directing more or less ended with The Crawling Hand… he continued to direct and edit movies into his 70s.

Perhaps Curt Siodmak was right when he said Strock never created another really good movie after The Magnetic Monster – which he may not have directed anyway.

Ivan Tors would work internationally in such countries in Africa for his show Daktari and related features such as Rhino! (1964) and worked in the Bahamas on the Richard Carlson scripted castaway movie Island of the Lost (1967), which isn’t as exciting as it sounds. One of the ‘creatures’ in that movie is a dog with prosthetic teeth!

A portrait of Ivan Tors later in his life

Tors died of a heart attack while scouting locations in Brazil for a new tv show in 1983.

From the science ‘fact’ of his OSI trilogy to his long spell in the 1960s which saw him care about the preservation as well as the celebration of wildlife with his tv shows, Ivan Tors left his mark on the film and television industry. A-Men!

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