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01.05.06

You Are What You See

In this installment, I'll be hitting something new everytime I post because "that's what kind of hairpin I am," as Cagney says in Strawberry Blonde (1941).

1. Life In The 20th Century, With Dinosaurs.

Unknown Island (1948) — until a couple of years ago and Bob Burns's memoirs (Monster-Kid Memories, as told to Tom Weaver, Dinoship Press, 2003) and the book Guilty Pleasures of the Horror Film — where it was a third of an article, this movie was rarely mentioned anywhere, even in the earlier Scheur and Maltin Movie Guides, which had nearly everything.

This is one of the earliest films I saw on television, around 1953 or so, just after we got a set. (I remember coming home from school one afternoon to our house on Pantego Road to find a TV repairman there hooking a TV up. It was an RCA Victor (with the lightning bolt design on it) a black and white — of course — 19" table model — which we would have for another 16 years.) The first movie I ever saw was something with a (he said PC correctly) Native American staked out on an anthill — god only knows what that was. But soon thereafter one Saturday afternoon Unknown Island showed up.

It must have been after the reissue of King Kong to theaters in 1952 — I remember the TV ads for that. Since I was dinosaur-crazy anyway, both those movies were right up my alley. The reason Unknown Island was on TV already, that early: the film studios were fighting TV and had agreed not to release even their old product to television. (That would break down in 1957 with Universal's release of the Shock Theater package of classic horror flicks to TV, and Columbia's creation of Screen Gems, responsible for, among other things, making the Stooges available to afternoon kids' show hosts across the country.) Before them, the movies you saw on TV were old British imports and pre-code ones from independent or defunct American studios — Mascot, Educational Pictures, Eagle-Lion, Lippert, and so forth ((The reason Hopalong Cassidy was such a Big Cheese Deal in the early days of television was that Bill Boyd, the star of them, had bought all rights to the films — including television rights, in the 1930s, from the author, Clarence Mulford. Boyd went in hock on everything to do it — Mulford evidently was entranced by the idea of television way back then — before there was commercial broadcasting — and held out for a high price for the rights. By the late 40s, Boyd was living in an Airstream trailer somewhere out in the Valley. When commercial broadcasting started in LA in the late 40s, Hoppy supposedly took a couple of movies down to KTLA etc. and gave them to them to show, free. That was 1948. By 1950, Boyd was a millionaire off merchandising alone, and was making new Cassidy movies for television, of which he got 100% of the swag.))

The reason Unknown Island (1948) was on TV by 1953 was that it had been made by Film Classics (the people who later released Ed Wood's Glen or Glenda?) and was filmed in Cinecolor a process which had one of the emulsions on the wrong side of the film from the others so that most prints had faded to the orange end of the spectrum (like the old 2-strip Technicolor®, it favored red-oranges and blue-greens to begin with). Not that I could tell what had happened to it on a b&w RCA TV. All I cared about was that it had DINOSAURS in it.

I've told the story behind this before: I knew how to read before I got to first grade (quite the accomplishment in the 1950s pre-Sesame Street days.) Since first grade was mostly learning how to 1) read 2) print and 3) what numbers were, and I could do two of them already, I was way ahead of the game. So I got to help the other kids learn those things, and as a reward, I got to read all the books I wanted. (Each of the 6 classrooms, grades 1-6, had its own library in a bookcase in the corner of the room.) In the first grade I went through all of ours; then got to go to the 2nd grade classroom while they were out at recess and got to read all the books I wanted to read there. By late spring I'd gone through them and 3d grade — then I went to the 4th grade class and got the How and Why Science Club, Book 4 and turned to a chapter called Jack Finds a Fossil. There were pictures of fossils and the dinosaurs themselves — stegosaurus, allosaurus etc. But the most intriguing of all (I have it pinned to the corkboard by my desk as I write this) was of a brontosaurus (apatosaur) standing behind a barn. I now know it was to show how big it was, the relative size of the dinosaur. Then all I knew was that there were dinosaurs and that they could stand behind barns just like my grandfather's in Mississippi — I wanted one. (A dinosaur — not a barn.)

Anyway, I read everything I could about them (1953=not much). One of the worst days of my young life was spent waiting in the freight department of the Montgomery Ward store in Ft. Worth for 6 hours while the copy I'd already paid for (5 week's allowance) of Roy Chapman Andrew's All About Strange Beasts of the Past — the mammalian equivalent of his All About Dinosaurs of earlier in the same year was supposedly on its way from the warehouse in Dallas — 30 whole miles away — only to find around 4 p.m. — that the warehouse was out of them; I got my money back and spent it, if I remember rightly, on a 98¢ fly reel and change... (I had multiple interests in those days. So what's changed?)

Anyway: Unknown Island: the plot. Exflyboy photographer scientific-type Ted Osborne (Philip Reed) and his rich fiancee Carol Lane (Virginia Grey) come into the typical scum-of-the-seven-seas-type dive (The Port of All Nations Café) in Singapore, looking for captain Tarnowski (Barton MacLane, in the Barton MacLane role). He has one of those freelance freighters, The Pelican like Captain Englehorn's in King Kong — he evidently specializes in Bring-'Em-Back-Alive-Frank-Buck type expeditions. They want him to take them to an island Ted was blown off course over during the War, and of which he took photos from his Helldiver or Bearcat or Corsair or whatever — the photo we see shows something large — or larger than the rest of the tabletop jungle miniature set we see in the still photo. MacLane says okay as he has googly-eyes (as googly as MacLane's pig-eyes ever got) for Carol. There's a fight as MacLane and the first mate clear out a back room so this palaver can take place. Some seven-seas-scum breaks a beer bottle over Tarnowski's head. Carol asks him if it didn't hurt when he was hit with the beer bottle — Tarnowski asks, "What beer bottle?" to show how tough he is.

Meanwhile, MacLane brings over Richard Denning, playing Fairbanks, an ex-navy guy who had chartered a sloop with some buddies after the War and had revisited some places they'd seen then. He'd been washed up on the same island after a storm, and had been a rummy since being picked up by MacLane's ship the year before (his rummy is a younger version of Walter Brennan's in To Have and Have Not). All his buddies had been eaten up on the island. When Maclane mentions they might be going back, and would he like to come along? Denning gives the best B-actor version of the Silent Scream ever — pretty effective in such a low budget movie. He says, "I'd rather blow my brains out than go back to that island." One thing leads to another, and Denning is shanghaied as the expedition sets out.

They find the island, surrounded by huge breakers and coral reefs, and see a brontosaur from the ship. "They're mostly about half a mile inland," says Denning who's become a changed man (no drinking and the first shave in weeks). MacLane asks why; Denning says, "I'll go along because I want to hear you when you start screaming."

One of the sailors is killed going after water after they've made camp, which is near the clearing where the meat-eaters hang out. They're ceratosaurs, as they look like tyrannosaurs or allosaurs, only they have a horn on the ends of their noses. Bullets don't stop them, and they're closing in on the sailor, so MacLane shoots him. There's a later scene where the whole party is attacked here — bullets make the dinosaurs mad, but they're no match for grenades. (The late Bob Burns, in his posthumously published memoirs, was there, as a kid, watching those scenes being filmed, somewhere near Palmdale — he said it was broiling hot, and the guys in the dinosaur suits — for that's what they were, the first time it had been done in the movies — couldn't see out of the suits well, and one of them close to the charges being set off to simulate grenades, fainted — he wasn't hurt, but his fall is in the movie — and looks like a ceratosaur being killed, while the others look like they're falling on cue.) At night, the camp is attacked by what the film refers to as a "giant sloth" and Denning as "the big hairy monster" — which is Ray "Crash" Corrigan in a cinnamon-colored ape suit, modified by having claws like a mole and some very unsloth-like teeth. These scenes are pretty effective, being shot day-for-night.

Through Tarnowski's stupidity the camp burns down — all the film and photos Ted has taken are destroyed, but Tarnowski won't leave until he's captured one of the dinosaurs.

Later, Carol has seen the error of being around Ted; Tarnowski does start screaming (more like the bleats of a sheep than from a 250 lb man), Dennings's not there to see it but hears Tarnowski as the sloth gets him; he and Carol are running already; they get trapped in some rocks near a cliff by the same sloth; the sloth and a ceratosaur fight pretty bloodily, the dinosaur goes over the cliff to the jagged rocks and pounding surf below, the wounded sloth wanders off; Fairbanks, Carol, Ted, and a sailor make it to a boat that's been discovered in all the hugger-mugger on the island. (The ship's boat they came on has been taken by mutinous Lascar sailors, who are wrecked on the reefs, earlier. I also forgot to tell you about the mutiny on the ship early on, which is done in a short montage featuring a clock counting off twenty minutes and Barton MacLane punching various extras in the faces with marlinspikes and gunbutts.) Shot of the island from the ship (the same painting used under the opening credits.) The End.

It was a dinosaur kid's dream. There are some dimetrodon/edaphosaurus-type smaller reptiles (not played by men in suits or dressed-up lizards and not kyped footage from One Million BC (1940) either). The film was an anomaly — the only dinosaur film between King Kong/Son of Kong (1933-34) and the aforementioned One Million BC and the later dinosaur movies of the 50s SF boom, like Lost Continent (1951), The Beast from Hollow Mountain (1956) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (1949).

The movie was directed by Jack Bernhard and written by Robert T. Shannon and Jack Harvey, from Shannon's original story. Where he got the idea it was time for a lost-island-of-dinosaurs movie I don't know. One Million BC had been set (supposedly then), when cavemen and dinosaurs (in the popular Alley Oop notion) shared the Earth. Certainly, never, and certainly never only a million years ago — when the dinosaurs had been gone 64 million years and we still looked like ugly chimpanzees ("Man, the Ape That Walks Like A Chicken" — the late Chad Oliver) not like Alley Oop or John Lone.

This was the first contemporary land-where-the-past-survives movie since Son of Kong. The film is obscure today; it was probably obscure in 1948, too, with Film Classic's track record — most of their stuff was released on a state's rights basis and was picked up by whatever distributor thought he could make a buck on it. And of course, it showed up early on TV....

It's probably out from somebody on DVD; it's been out on VHS for years. It's worth a look. And to a dinosaurophile kid in 1953, it was just what heaven must be like. Minus, maybe "Crash:" Corrigan and Barton MacLane...

 


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I C London, I C France, which may be the Web's most technologically primitive blog, is brought to you through the typing, proofreading, editorial, and coding efforts of Team Waldrop, also known as Mary Kay Kare (proudly reality-based) and L. Blunt Jackson (Seattle, Philadelphia, Tau Ceti), and via the steadfast couriers of the United States Postal Service. Much thanks to all involved!

about howard

Locus Magazine is offering a special deal on the issue with the superb Heart-of-Waldrop photo and interview. Che'ekidaou'ut.

Howard Waldrop is a legend in his own time. He writes, he fishes, he builds bookcases. He does not have a cellphone, a computer, or an email account.

For someone who is about as wired as an echidna, Howard has a pretty substantial online career. He has had a website since 1997. You can read The Ugly Chickens, The Other Real World, Winter Quarters, D = R x T, and his collaboration with Leigh Kennedy, One Horse Town, on SciFiction. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is available on the excellent Strange Horizons. He has an occasional column, Crimea River, on Electric Story. And now he has a blog. Go figure.

For additional embellishments of the Waldrop legend, see Who Is Howard Waldrop, Anyway? For extravagant lies about Howard, see Alternate Waldrops, on Strange Horizons. Howard's most recent books are Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations and Dream Factories and Radio Pictures. Buy 'em.

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