Sunday, April 29, 2012

Svengoolie: This Island Earth (1955)

I first saw 'This Island Earth' (1955) in the theaters. It was a very special treat as my father drove the whole family downtown to see the limited screening. The van overheated in the middle of traffic and stalled. The old man had to pop the hood, find some bottled water and poor it into the radiator while we sat back in anticipation. Could we make our one chance for this once in a life time screening? Would we be too late? It was all like something out of a Jean Shepherd novel. However my Pa got the engine turning again and with the exorbitant parking fees aside made it on time to see this limited engagement of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie. Yes, much to the condemnation of old school sci-fi fans everywhere this was my first exposure to this science fiction classic.
Tonight however the scene would be set by another genre host Svengoolie, a local TV host who's now broadcast nationwide like Elivra and has been at it for twice as long. Rich Koz started out in the late 1970's as Son of Svengoolie before finally playing the role for so long he himself became our beloved singular Svengoolie. I'd seen This Island Earth a few times as stand alone since my first exposure through MST3k but I must admit I've seen The Movie version so many times its riffs are engraved into my memory patterns. But we shall focus on how Sven presented tonight.
What's most interesting is the edits made between the theatrical cut, the MST3k cut and Svengoolie. Sven made trims to Cal's scenic flight, all the dialog between delivery and just before assembly of the Interocitor montage, seemingly some trims to the inner plane ride to Georgia (my memory is fuzzy on that one) and some trims to the escape from the house in Georgia. It's worth noting that MST3k made fun of how quickly Cal and Ruth dried off from their trimmed scenes, but even in the full length version it is a clear change from wet to dry. What's interesting is what MST3k left in like the scenic flight and some minor dialog, and that while Sven kept most of the footage from the escape there's some segue footage cut there that MST3k included. MST3k of course relishes deadspace for jokes while Sven would looking to keep people from changing channels. The MST3k version is brief but flows fairly well while the Sven footage doesn't always quite match up. Partially I think it's because MST3k took more time to edit the film theatrical then Sven did for their broadcast. Also interesting was Sven's use of letterboxing for the whole lead inserting in the toaster scene when looking through the giant viewmaster. MST3k didn't maintain that illusion as well as the Sven transfer did although the rest of Sven's footage is full screen. At one point the channel MeTV showed an old commercial for a theater which advertised free popcorn for anyone who got a soda with a red star on it.
As for the film itself it's probably not worth the time to spell out the plot for you so I'll run over the more interesting details. Faith Domergue claimed she had nothing on underneath her alien speedsuit and sports some near cameltoe as she looks simply poured into that tight outfit. I still prefer the pink wet t-shirt and bullet bra ensemble she wore during their escape from the house. There's also an underplayed black maid in a french outfit in the heart of the South. Sven pointed out that the Mork & Mindy connection with the aliens went so far as the character name Exeter being used again although this time spelled as "Exidor." He also noted that the reporter Cal talks with is Olan Soule who would later voice Batman in cartoons. I also just noticed at the fog drenched airport Cal is operating the manual windshield wipers on the Army Jeep.
Some of my favorite moments happen when they're first on the spaceship as it seems someone else was writing parts like this line of dialog, "Ruth, don’t tell me as a woman you’re not curious about our destination?" What part of being a woman makes you more curious about your destination then men, boys or even young girls for that matter? Was this some kind of dig about how woman are willing to ask for directions? Plus when Ruth asks him how they're able to create artificial gravity all he says back is that they make artificial gravity. That doesn't answer the question at all! And if the aliens are migrating to Earth why bother to destroy your only base of operations on Earth to bring some Earthlings all the way to Metaluna for just an hour or two when you know you're about to go back? No wonder they lost the war with strategic planning like that. Also Exeter comments that now his planet can be a sun for some other world but if his solar system already has a sun it'll still be pretty useless for most any orbiting planet.
Continuing the trend from earlier this evening when Curly smoked from a "water pipe" our fearless adventures step into giant bong and let'er rip. Sven directly follows up this scene appropriately enough by parodying the Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Lookin' Out My Back Door" from the stoner favorite The Big Lebowski with some psychedelic Interocitor styled camera view to match. A lot of This Island Earth's score had its own experimental flavor with generous use of the theremin; standard in sci-fi since its use in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet.
There's also some consistently bad blocking through the movie and some poorly lit moments where characters are in shadow because of the blocking. Then on the spaceship they didn't matte the movement of the camera to the second exposure and so the stars move with the camera instead of remaining their own steady motion. Though while on the alien world there's some pretty good matte paints, models but a truly bad blue screen effect that really should have been cut out. Surprisingly MST3k did in fact cut this out while Sven left it in with some comment. Also it appears they didn't bother to matte the close ups in the airplane and just left the blue screen alone as blue skies.
So while this movie does have an interesting premise, a decent budget and a well cast ensemble of actors this has not aged as well as some of its contemporaries. But modern sci-fi would be so lucky as to still be seen and discussed some sixty years later. There's something iconic and everlasting about 50's sci-fi that I think no other era (except perhaps the 80's) as been able to re-capture.

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