Speaking of Midwestcons, the next one is 'only' about six months away as we write
this. It's not too early to begin making plans for it! Attendees at this past
year's Midwestcon were surprised and delighted that Dave and Ruth Kyle were present,
for the first time in too many years. Dave's article for us in this issue is a
nostalgic look at science fiction movies...
Sixty years have brought slick sophistication, superior technology, and oversaturation, but good sf films are still hard to find -- for me, that is. The special effects technicians have taken over spectacularly. Granted the novelty has gone, but the stories so often seem banal or routine, lacking the sense of wonder.
Don't get me wrong. I still dote on sf and fantasy movies. It's just that I miss the old tingle, the quiver of excitement, the keyed-up anticipation I once had when the screen credits started to roll. Well, not quite, I admit, for each and every recent decade has offered me joy -- Forbidden Planet, 2001, Star Wars, and more.
How can I explain to anyone, even to myself, why the original Flash Gordon serial of the silver screen, childish if not downright stupid, still delights me? Sure, there's a smug feeling of superiority engendered by the outlandish hackneyed storyline, and crude costuming and special effects. How awful is the rocketship of Mongo, which swings around the miniature set suspended by a thread, trailing a shower of sparks and flame while the smoke swirls unconvincingly upward in the hardly moving air. Wow! The power is in the imagination. The illusion was made not on the screen but in my mind. I participated in those old movies. I collaborated.
Old movies with their fanciful plotting and cheap or flamboyant production values never bothered me. Nor do they now. It's the trend to pretentiousness and the fixation on ugly reality that kills the romance and repels me.
The first science fiction picture which I vividly remember is Mysterious Island. That was in the winter of 1929-1930. I didn't know it was science fiction. It was offered as an imaginative story from the mind of the famous writer of fantastic novels, Jules Verne. When Count Dakkar (whom we know as Captain Nemo) flung open his collection closet to reveal the partially reconstructed body of the frogman, I was enthralled. For years, for decades, I remembered that Lionel Barrymore was the star, that June Collier was the heroine (she wasn't -- Pauline Starke was), that it was in color(!) and that it had sound and talked(!).
Early in the 1930s, when I finally found out about scientifiction and my interest in the field became almost an obsession, I was starved for science fiction films. So were my fellow fans of that time. Tarzan, which came on the talking scene in 1932, helped fill that emptiness. That same year of 1932, a genuine sf film appeared, a British production called F.P.1 Doesn't Answer. The 'F.P.1' was an abbreviation of 'Floating Platform Number One', a landing field in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Conrad Veidt was the star, well-known for his villainous roles in the fantasy film The Thief of Baghdad and the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. F.P.1 was excellent -- I was told. But I didn't see it -- it didn't come to my town. Even worse luck, I had missed the wonderful science fiction musical(!) which followed shortly after Mysterious Island. That remarkable 1930 picture, Just Imagine, didn't come to my town, either.
1932 was an incredible year. Frankenstein reached most theaters as the year began, plus terrific technicolor horror shows. Doctor X (with it's ghastly synthetic flesh: "...synthetic flesh...heh, heh, heh...") starred that perennial villain Lionel Atwill with the one-armed detective Preston Foster and the beauteous Fay Wray. That same year, Lionel and Fay were united in another horror thriller, The Mystery of the Wax Museum. The following year, Fay really made her everlasting movie mark as the harassed screaming heroine in King Kong.
I took the 1932 Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O'Sullivan version of Tarzan to my heart, for it helped me quench my thirst for sf movies. The few small-town fans who were my personal friends also did, and the sf attachment for Tarzan grew with the coming years for all the sf fans I got to know. What a thrill it was many decades later to actually meet Johnny Weissmuller at a worldcon, when he came as the guest speaker at the Burroughs Bibliophiles noontime banquet, and then to have a one-to-one talk with him sitting in the lounging area of the VIP floor of the con hotel.
A very similar occasion happened at another con with Buster Crabbe -- another Tarzan who was more famous for being Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Buster, who was then around seventy (he died in 1983), was proud of his physique and rolled up his Hawaiian shirt to show his trim stomach and slap its muscular hardness. At other such BB banquets I met other Tarzans: Bruce Bennett (Herman Brix) and Jock Mahoney.
Maureen O'Sullivan, the lovely young ingenue actress, didn't make her first film appearance by playing Jane, Tarzan's mate. Her first picture was in that Just Imagine of 1930, in which she played 'L-N'. After thirty or forty years of yearning, I finally saw that classic, with old friend John Flory, at an all-night movie program at a worldcon -- at 5:30 a.m. How could I have missed it on first release? Did it come to my Monticello, New York theater and pass unnoticed? Maybe it was because in 1930 I had limited funds and time -- then I was only eleven years old, going to school, restricted in my evening activities, and operating under the close parental supervision of that period. I have since, in my much older age, seen Just Imagine many times and can even sing (only to myself, of course) its sentimental and silly songs.
In 1935, I suffered great agitation and terrible frustration when I saw an advertisement in the New York Daily News for The Lost City, a science fiction film about which I knew nothing. There was an irresistible review of the picture, describing it as juvenile, yet giving it an unbelievable three stars. It turned into an enormous adventure, because I traveled a long way just to see it. However, it turned out to be only a feature version of a serial.
# # # #
In 1948, I moved to New York City and enrolled in some publishing and editing courses at Columbia University, to help me in my new enterprise -- publishing sf hardcovers under the name of Gnome Press. There I met Marty Fass, a lawyer who was shifting his career from law into the literary field. We subsequently organized a company named Argonaut Books, which never did set sail. Around 1950, Marty knew a would-be movie producer and told him of my expertise in the science fiction field. The man and I had a coffee conference, during which he explained that he wanted to make some kind of monster movie, perhaps about space aliens who threaten earth. At the time, there were many films being churned out about aliens, monsters, and atomic mutations. I told him I'd instead like to make a sensible sf film. His focus, however, was on the box office -- he wanted terror, horror, mystery, fear, and the budget had to be "...low." Use had to be made of certain valuable material he had. This 'valuable material' he revealed as newsreel footage he owned -- thousands of feet of film around a Canadian mine disaster.
Thoughts of 'cavern disasters' or 'subterranean journeys' or 'lost civilizations' or 'encounters with semi-human creatures' came to my mind -- plus the dominant thought that I wanted no part in his project. I told him if he paid me a retainer I would preview his material and write some plot lines, but I never heard from him again. In retrospect, I feel I made a bad mistake -- I should have stretched my imagination, pumped up my enthusiasm, previewed his film footage, and gone along with the project on speculation. I could have had a lot of experience and probably much fun. After all, bad pictures are entertainment, too. I might even be admired today for the trashy effort. Years later, I did eventually collaborate with screen writer Richard Aubrey on a movie script, about a post-atomic war subterranean community, but it was never marketed.
In the summer of 1951, I planned a first for a world science fiction convention -- the premiere showing of a major science fiction movie, at Nolacon, the ninth worldcon. I had known of a film being readied for release, George Pal's When Worlds Collide, a version of the Philip Wylie-Edwin Balmer novel, and contacted the Paramount office in Manhattan and convinced them to have a preview at the con.
In New Orleans, working with the regional publicist, I arranged for a 35mm movie projector for the convention hall in the St. Charles Hotel, even though con attendance was less than 200. Though such a showing at no expense should have been the 'coup' that Sam Moskowitz later acknowledged, it wasn't the success I expected. In fact, criticisms were mixed with the congratulations.
How had I failed? Well, my triumph had been trumped on the Saturday night of the convention by Mel Korshak, my friendly, fannish publisher-competitor (Shasta Publishers). True to his remarkable entrepreneurial abilities, he had promoted a preview showing of another sf film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, at the Saenger Theater in downtown New Orleans. That event was really big-time Hollywood -- an exclusive showing, press coverage, preview cards, a 'special award' by the con management to 20th Century Fox, and a photo session the following day with Michael Rennie's silvery Klaatu suit (worn by somebody whose name I can't recall). In comparison, my event had been good, but inferior -- the showing was hardly perfect, with interruptions of the projection on the portable screen for changing the 35mm reels.
Old-timers, reminiscing about that Nolacon as the very last of the 'intimate' (read: 'small-time') worldcons, recall that midnight theater preview -- while some don't even remember my Big Event. Yet, When Worlds Collide was a George Pal movie of a classic book depicting a realistic rocketship, not an alien UFO. It was in Technicolor with Chesley Bonestell art, not in black-and-white. And it later won an Oscar for technical effects. What could I tell my Paramount PR man when the 'convention' unanimously praised the rival picture while criticizing his own? Fortunately, I don't remember being embarrassed. I probably was. He probably wasn't. At least earlier I had an excellent studio-paid-for dinner at Antoine's to discuss the project. But then, that's show biz...
# # # #
Perhaps the greatest science fiction film ever made (with a sincere tip of my hat to Stanley Kubrick and Arthur Clarke) is H.G. Wells' Things to Come. I first saw the film, which was released in 1936, sometime in the summer of 1937 in a small movie house in the little town of Woodridge in Sullivan County, New York. I bought one ticket, but I watched it later on the following two or three nights for brief periods of time without paying again. My special privilege came from being a country newspaper editor who knew the manager. That film has made an enormous impression on my life. At my first chance, I bought the recording of its exceptional musical score (by the English composer Arthur Bliss) and listened to it frequently.
That summer and fall, I would go down to New York City for a weekend, with the score playing in my head. My destination was the legendary Ivory Tower apartment in Brooklyn to visit the Futurians. Dick Wilson, my best friend, lived there. My other best friend, Dirk Wylie, was practically a resident, along with regulars, Doc Lowndes, Don Wollheim, Fred Pohl, and others. As I tramped along Bedford Avenue from the IRT subway, I would "bump-bump-buh-bummmp" the dramatic 'March' segment and vigorously pump my arms rhythmically with the music. It was emotionally stirring for me -- I was marching into my own personal, inspiring milieu.
That strange sense of another world, of science fiction becoming reality, overwhelmed me again later, in December of 1942 when I was a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. I was stationed at an air base in Northern Ireland in the middle of a world-wide war. It was midnight and I was working behind the drawn blackout curtains of my tiny Nissen hut office. My radio was tuned to the highbrow channel. "This is the BBC," the English announcer said, and then Bliss' march from Things to Come flowed out of the speaker. Suddenly, I was Cabal and Passworthy, back in time listening to the wireless on the evening that hostilities began. I was living Wells' nightmare! I will never forget the creepy thrill of that eerie moment -- and now, tonight, as I write this, chills run up my spine.
Later the following year, now stationed at an aerodrome in East Anglia in England, I went to London on pass. I bought a copy of What's On, and scanned the extensive cinema listings. Out in the Golder's Green neighborhood I found Things to Come listed -- how could I resist? So I took the Underground out there and saw it. Seeing that film in blacked-out, wartime London was another overwhelming experience, but a most amazing coincidence for me was yet to come. The following evening, I was having dinner with a Canadian officer in the Savoy Grill. Across the room I saw a man in a RAF uniform. I immediately recognized him as Edward Chapman, the actor who played Passworthy opposite Raymond Massey's Cabal in the Wells movie. I excused myself, and hurried between the tables toward him. "I beg your pardon," I said to Chapman, "but..." and I told him that I had only the previous night seen, once again, that great movie in which he starred. He was gracious. He was impressed. He told me that for him, too, the movie was special.
"Thank you for telling me this," he said. "This has been a difficult day for me. You have made it so much better for me. Thank you very much for such kind words." How lucky I was that weekend! Chapman was in another excellent H.G. Wells film produced by Alexander Korda just about the same time, The Man Who Could Work Miracles. I wish I had told Chapman about how much I loved that film, too. (I was thrilled later to find a thin volume of the published scenario.)
# # # #
In 1966, Ruth and I were in England with our son Arthur C. and our daughter Kerry. He was not yet five years old and she not yet two. We visited the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey at MGM's Boreham Wood studios as a guest of Arthur C. Clarke. Arthur took A.C. by the hand and led him around the lot, introducing him as "the other Arthur C.". This was fun for A.C., but not recognizable at the time as something so very, very special. We saw the oasis scenery, the site of the monolith, which hadn't yet been dismantled. Stanley Kubrick was shooting a scene in the air lock with the globular maintenance craft. Arthur introduced me to Kubrick; I know I met him but I also know he never met me. His mind was completely into the movie. I also met Roger Karas, doing the publicity, who was extremely friendly and showed us so many things, such as the wealth of art renditions and visualizations which foretold of the masterpiece being created.
Most impressive was the huge construction of scaffolding which contained a sort of ferris wheel. This unsightly structure of wood and steel hid an incredible movie set within the suspended, hollow doughnut. A.C. still remembers clearly being boosted on my shoulder for us to poke our heads up into the interior of the circular control room of the spaceship. I wrote an article for Ted Carnell's New Worlds magazine about the project, and saw the final result at the preview screening in New York in 1968. After that screening, Ruth and I, going out through the lobby, met Lester del Rey. I was enthusiastically bubbling over for the picture, but Lester, forever the analytic critic, told me he thought it was awfully disappointing. That evening I spoke on the telephone to Arthur Clarke, who had just seen the preview in Hollywood. I congratulated him, but wondered, "Tell me, Arthur, what does it all mean?" "Read the book I've written;" he told me, "the ending is explicit. You'll find the answers." I did, but I still wonder.
Later in 1968, we were in Los Angeles and went on the set of Star Trek. This was thoroughly enjoyable (they were making "The Day of the Dove"), but the differences between television and movie sets were quite remarkable. 2001 had exquisitely realistic, carefully engineered props; the Star Trek set was mostly illusion: the furniture was worn but serviceable, but the walls were mostly cardboard, very scary to me because I was afraid to bump anything should I knock it down or fall through a flat.
In the 1970s, when I was living in England, I knew a fellow Rotarian in the Walton-on-Thames Rotary Club, J.D. Thomson. One evening, sitting opposite him at the dinner table, we talked about the old English movie studios. A small one had been in the center of Walton village, another at Shepperton, not far across the Thames from my house. "I was an extra, in the thirties," he told me. "I was in Things to Come," he said, and I jiggled my demitasse and expressed my fascination. He described how he was one of the peace soldiers who jumped out of the back of the huge flying ship to take over the land of the local warlord. I remembered well those black-suited paratroopers of "Wings Over the World", stepping off into space one by one, and told him how much I envied his experience. He recalled how H.G. Wells himself would come into the sound stage and, with the movie crew gathered around him, he would chat. I envied my friend even more.
One day at the Weybridge-and-Byfleet Rotary, my luncheon club, a fellow member told me about his small engineering and tool company, which was working on an unusual order for a film company at Shepperton. He was making futuristic hand guns for a science fiction movie, and he knew I would be interested. I was, but not all that much because production of cheap sf movies seemed never-ending around London, especially for television. I never bothered to check out the action, but I certainly should have. The movie was Star Wars.
Our house in England had been named "Two Rivers," following the English custom of address identification. The river Thames was twenty feet from our front deck and the river Bourne (a small stream) ran through the back garden on its way to join the Wey and then into the Thames. A foot bridge led to our garage and the private road. It was indisputably the exact location which H.G. Wells chose in War of the Worlds, where the Martian fighting machines crossed the rivers. His description of the action I chose as an excerpt for inclusion in my book, The Illustrated Book of Science Fiction Ideas and Dreams (Hamlyn, 1976, London). Philip José Farmer, on a visit to Two Rivers, wanted me to put a bronze plaque in our garden to commemorate the event, but I never did.
England is a small country and London is its heart, so occasionally I would see or rub shoulders with a recognizable person from the stage or screen. Celebrities of sorts lived all around us. The Beatles for a while had a fancy home in posh St. George's Hill, a quarter mile away. Once at an Eastercon, the big British event (big, meaning several hundred persons), Christopher Lee attended. He was riding a crest of cinematic popularity at the time and his presence created a stir. Ina Shorrock of the Liverpool SF Group was standing near him and confided in me on how much she admired him. I asked if she wanted to meet him; she did, so I led her to him, a very tall impressive figure, and said, "Mr. Lee, may I introduce Ina Shorrock to you -- she much admires your work."
He acknowledged her with a friendly smile and she was thrilled. "I didn't know you knew him," she said to me later.
"I don't," I said. "He doesn't know me. But you wanted to meet him, so I introduced you." Conventions are, after all, very friendly occasions.
I never met Bela Lugosi, but I do have something to boast about. I saw him perform on stage as Count Dracula, on Broadway in 1927 when I was eight years old. The event was accidental because my mother had planned to take me to a different show on Broadway. She frequently took me to New York from Monticello for several days of shopping, sightseeing, and the theater; I was a very lucky kid. This one time, at the last moment just before the matinee curtain was to go up, she hurried out of one lobby (Sold Out!) to another theater next door for a desperate last-minute purchase, unaware that that play, for that times, was a horror show.
I did not, repeat not, draw her attention to what hung on the wall over the ticket window -- a skull, with empty eyesockets glowing with red light and bat wings spread out from its temples. I was entranced. A quick transaction and we were into the darkened theater, the show having started. I noticed at least one woman in a white uniform stationed at the rear, but I said nothing. (The management had 'nurses' in attendance at the performances for shock victims as part of the publicity.) The mood of the play grew more and more somber, and my poor mother suddenly realized the extent of her thoughtless error. We had a whispered argument about taking me out of the theater and, for some wonderful reason, I won. I can still remember some of the theatrical effects: the baying hounds, the red skull which slowly materializes over the back of the couch bathed in the glow of the fireplace -- the only light in the otherwise pitch-black room. Then, suddenly, the stage lights turned on and people rushed through the door as a bat bobbed across the ceiling. The Count's magnificent cape, purple-lined, swirled as he, encircled by the hand-held crosses, was touched by the dawn and vanished before my eyes (through a trapdoor, of course).
I reassured my mother that the performance had been enjoyable (it was) and assuaged her feelings of guilt. Another time, though, she was not so lenient. She pulled me out of a 'musical show' -- Body and Soul, I recall -- when the blackout sketch took place in a bedroom with a scantily-clad lady in the bed, a man under it, and her husband storming in to make a scene. (Clifton Webb was the star, to whom I have since been compared.) And I also remember how my mother chewed out the ticket seller for selling her two tickets when he knew, positively, that the show wasn't fit for a child. I'm glad my mother was more forgiving of vampires than of bedroom farce.
# # # #
Shepperton Studios was nearly obliterated by a housing project while we were still in England. It was partially saved by being turned into a 'four-wall' operation, meaning that it became a bare-bones facility, essentially just a place for a movie company to rent for a short term. All the props and accumulated bits-and-pieces, large and small, were put up at auction. Ruth and I wandered through the back lot, examined the merchandise the week of the sale, and went there on the day of the auction. We bid on many items, including a model airship from Verne's Master of the World (which starred Vincent Price) requested by Forry Ackerman. Limited by our funds, we obtained only a big batch of artwork with a couple of sf pieces. (A series of watercolors from Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot were in the pile we examined, but when we picked up the illustrations, someone had stolen the very ones we most wanted. We could only shrug off the loss.)
Living in England made it possible for me to become personally acquainted with the famous Ray Harryhausen and his family. On the stairway landing of his home in the Kensington section of London he has a fabulous glass-sided cabinet, where many of the models actually used in his movies are displayed. When he was making The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, I went to his rented workshop on Gold Hawk Road to discuss a project concerning the Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Society which my friend John Flory and I had organized. I was interrupting his work, but he graciously stopped to talk. He had the model of his centaur on a pedestal, lights and camera set in positions around it. "Go ahead, continue your work while we talk," I told him, trying to be helpful. His reaction was swift and unexpected. He threw a cloth over his model and steered me away from the circle of light. He then explained, almost apologetically, his instinctive reaction -- no one was allowed to see him work. I understood. What he did, the way he did it, was a mastery of a craft which he himself had developed. Unwittingly, I had caught him offguard and embarrassed us both.
I never dreamed that Ruth and I would become personally acquainted with Sinbad's stunning heroine, Caroline Munro, at a later Omnicon in Florida. Nor did I dream that she would briefly show up later at the 1987 worldcon in Brighton and mention her hope to see me. We missed each other, but her query rippled throughout that weekend -- I was terribly flattered with a kind of notoriety, and avoided mentioning that our casual relationship was really very tenuous. (Omnicon also made me some other special acquaintances: the very likeable Kirk Alyn [the original serial Superman] and some Doctors Who: Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, and Colin Baker, who asked me for my autograph because he was a Lensman fan and read my books! I also wrote a 'radio script' for one Omnicon which had Majel Barrett as one of the stars.)
Another Brighton worldcon had been held in 1979 (Ruth's contribution: the slogan "Britain is Fine in `79"). Ruth didn't get there; I did. After the con, I visited the Weybridge area, in Surrey, paying a visit to friends and the old neighborhood. Bernard Cribbins, a movie actor, was still living a few houses down. He was in the 1965 H. Rider Haggard movie She with Ursula Andress, and a 1966 Daleks movie with Peter Cushing. When Bernie Cribbins wasn't acting, he used to fish the Thames off our front garden.
By chance, I discovered that Dino de Laurentiis' Flash Gordon was being filmed in the old British Aircraft Corporation hangar close by, where the supersonic Concorde had been constructed. I couldn't resist. I talked my way onto the lot, conferred with publicity men, was shown the sets, and said I would follow up the production with publicity when it was released the following year. Dr. Zarkov's smashed laboratory was very interesting (a re-write of the original comic strip scene), but Ming's palace set was truly magnificent. I had great expectations, but when the film finally appeared, I was so disappointed that I never wrote a word of publicity from all my notes and handouts. And I never dreamed that one of the actors in the movie, Robin Langford (who had also been in a British sf TV series, The Tripods), would eventually become a son-in-law.
# # # #
I do miss John Flory of Spacefilms, Inc., who died not too many years ago. He was older than me and very much a fan, but known by very few in First Fandom. He was a retired Eastman Kodak executive who had a large house in a wooded area outside Rochester, New York, built over an enormous cellar which was a miniature film studio. He was working on a feature film from a story by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., but it never materialized. In between the `73, `74, and `75 worldcons, we organized the Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Society and planned annual awards to those who had made outstanding contributions to the sf field in the movies -- an idea similar to the First Fandom Hall of Fame Awards. The trophy itself was a faceted plastic crystal with tiny lights arranged within it, which we named the Starfire Award. The first recipient was to have been Fritz Lang, the creator of the masterpiece Metropolis, who died in 1976. Everything about Metropolis never ceases to intrigue me. I constantly look for different versions with different soundtracks, and find them.
In that bicentennial summer of 1976, I had come back from England with a shipment of my first fancy book, A Pictorial History of Science Fiction, and the elderly Lang died before John and I could arrange to honor him. The next recipient of the Starfire Award some years later was to have been George Pal, but while we were still fumbling around with limited financing, he died too. Then, shortly afterward, John Flory also died -- and so did the Starfire Award. The only Starfire trophy in existence was loaned to someone who promised to manufacture more, even better ones. That person's name is forgotten, and the award has disappeared. John Flory deserved better. To me, his passing marked the end of an era -- he loved the movies as much as I still do.
All illustrations by Joe Mayhew