James Arness – Marshall Matt and Much, Much More – By Philip Smolen

In my freshman year of high school, I had a wonderful history teacher named Mr. “C”. He was an easygoing man who enjoyed teaching and always encouraged his students to ask questions about any topic. Every couple of months (and always on a Friday afternoon), Mr. C would enter the classroom, throw his car keys on his desk (from the doorway) and announce that today there would be no regular learning of history. Today, the class would be playing the game “Stump the Swami”, (Mr. C. being the swami, of course). This was really an excuse for Mr. C not to have to teach (he hated being in school as much as his students did). For the next 48 minutes we could ask him any question on any topic (except math). Sports, politics, entertainment, religion, it didn’t matter. He also threw a challenge out to us; anyone who could stump him with a valid question would get an extra quiz grade of “A” which would figure into the grade for the marking period. Needless to say everyone in the class did their best to stump him. But the problem was that most of the class asked sports or history-related questions. Mr. C would ace those. No matter how arcane the questions, he knew the answers. He was amazing. However, when he got to me I smiled and stumped him with the simple question: What famous Western TV star was also cast as the alien menace in the classic sci-fi film “The Thing from Another World?” Mr. C’s jaw dropped a little bit, he mumbled, and stammered. Then he looked at me and said “Fine, Phil, you got me. Who is it?” I looked at him and simply said “Why Mr. C, it’s James Arness, of course.” He gave me a crooked smile and replied “Phil, only you would know that.”

The recent death of James Arness (1923 – 2011) leaves a large void in the hearts of classic western and sci-fi fans everywhere. Growing up in the 1960s, it was great seeing the tall sturdy Arness in TV’s “Gunsmoke” week after week. As a boy I used to go down to my grandmother’s apartment on Monday nights and we would watch Marshall Matt take on the bad guys. He was always tough when he needed to be, but tender and compassionate as well. He was an early role model for me.

But it wasn’t long after I started watching “Gunsmoke” that I began to recognize him from some of my favorite monster movies as well. These were early roles for Arness, who was struggling to get noticed, but two of his early movies remain sci-fi classics to this day. So to celebrate the passing of a great American TV icon, let’s take a look at the early career of the fabulous James Arness.

Early Life

Arness was born in 1923 in Minneapolis, Minnesota and initially had dreams of being a merchant seaman. But in 1943, he received his Army draft notice and, after training, served in the North African campaign during World War II. In 1944, he also participated in the US landings at Anzio, Italy. He was wounded seriously in the leg and foot by German machine gun fire. While recovering, he received a visit from his younger brother (future actor and sci-fi genre vet Peter Graves), who suggested that he take some radio courses. He did, and started doing voice over work. A few years later he travelled to Hollywood with the hope of getting some extra work in films. He hooked up with an agent who had him cast as Loretta Young’s brother in 1947’s “The Farmer’s Daughter.” In 1948 he married Virginia Chapman who urged her new husband to seriously study his craft. Arness did, and once “The Farmer’s Daughter” was released, he was offered small parts in more films, including a role in William Wellman’s 1949 classic World War II story, “Battleground.”

Two Lost Stars

Arness’s first starring role was in 1951’s “Two Lost Worlds.” In the film Arness (here billed under his real name “Aurness”) plays American Clipper ship captain Kirk Hamilton who runs afoul of pirates in the South Pacific. He is taken to Australia where he recovers and falls in love with Elaine (Laura Elliot). When Elaine’s sister is captured by these same pirates, Captain Hamilton pursues them. A fierce naval battle follows and both ships are destroyed. Survivors wash up on a nearby island which happens to be populated by giant dinosaurs. After a few brief skirmishes, the island’s volcano conveniently erupts destroying the beasts and the bad guys, while Captain Hamilton, Elaine, and her sister make their escape.

“Two Lost Worlds” was an early minor entry in the sci-fi craze of the 1950s. Clocking in at a paltry 61 minutes, the film is an extreme low budget entry into the venerable lost world genre. While Arness and Elliot are fine as the robust hero and tough minded heroine, they are let down by a terrible script and a poverty row production. For the first half of the film, there is little action as Arness recovers from his wounds and falls in love with Elliot. When the survivors finally reach the Lost World, all the dinosaur action is supplied by clips from the old Hal Roach film, “One Million BC” (1940). Arness and the rest of the actors don’t interact with the stock footage, and instead, look at the battling lizards while trying to appear frightened. However, the stock footage makes for very flaccid dinosaur thrills. “Two Lost Worlds” was a very tiny blip in the career of James Arness. True, it was his first leading role, but the film is rightly forgotten by all but the most ardent of James Arness and lost world movie fans.

Some “Thing” Special

Fortunately for Arness, his next foray into 1950’s sci-fi would be more memorable. The 6’6” actor was cast as the titular alien menace in the Howard Hawks classic “The Thing from Another World” (1951). While needing only to appear tall and menacing, Arness brings confidence to his role as the blood-drinking carrot creature. He’s kept off-screen for most of the film, but in his scenes, Arness sears himself into the subconscious of generations of sci-fi fans. While it’s true that most of the alien’s impressiveness can be attributed to the film’s script (by Charles Lederer) and the movie-making style of its famous producer, Arness is still able to instill terror and fear with his performance.

Arness’s best scene (and his longest in the film) is the finale where the motley group of scientists and military men confront the alien terror. This is one of the few times where the audience is allowed to get a good look at the monster. Arness, complete with elevated boots, bald head, and thorny hands (courtesy of makeup man Lee Greenway) bursts through a barricaded door and strides purposefully towards the humans. The corridors are cramped, making Arness seem almost impossibly large. Arness then picks up a large piece of lumber as a weapon and moves menacingly forward. When actor Robert Cornthwaite (as Dr. Carrington) rushes forward to try and stop the alien from falling into the human’s trap and being roasted, the creature is surprised by this action. In a medium range camera shot, the audience sees Arness tower over Cornthwaite. As the scientist begs and pleads with him, Arness mimes the creature’s intent. You see him look confusingly at the puny man, trying to decipher what he’s saying and whether this jabbering is of any importance. Arness has his arm slowly pull back to strike and then when he’s made up his mind, he unleashes his fury at Cornthwaite. He viciously strikes him, knocking him to the side like a rag doll. While Arness doesn’t have a lot to do in the movie, his performance is wonderful and truly alien. It helps make “The Thing from Another World” a sci-fi classic for the ages.

Robert Graham – Them Fighter

A few years after “The Thing”, Arness was cast in another sci-fi classic, 1954’s “Them.” Here Arness plays FBI agent Robert Graham, who along with New Mexico state trooper Ben Peterson (James Whitmore), is determined to find the cause for a recent series of disappearances in the local desert. Aided by top scientists Edmund Gwen and his lovely daughter Joan Weldon, Graham and Peterson slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together until they are confronted by the film’s menace: giant mutated ants. For the rest of the movie, Graham and the team hunt down the huge menaces in order to save mankind from destruction.

While Arness is the second male lead, his performance is earnest and likable. Graham acts as the film’s everyman who mimics the audience’s reactions throughout the film. At first, he can’t believe in the existence of the giant creatures, but once confronted with their presence, he is determined to annihilate the threat. Graham is tough, brave, and responsible.

But he is also human. One of my favorite scenes is when Graham and Peterson go to the local airport to pick up Gwen and Weldon. Both men are shocked to find out that Gwen’s assistant is the shapely Weldon. Even though they are in the middle of an intensive investigation, Graham still has time to act like a typical male and banter with Peterson about the female entomologist:

Graham: “I should have had this suit pressed.”
Peterson: “She’s quite a doctor, huh?”
Graham: “Yeah. If she’s the kind that takes care of sick people, I think I’ll get a fever real quick.” (Peterson chuckles.)1

Another scene that reveals Graham’s working man credo is when the team is about to enter the ant’s lair. Peterson and Graham have been doing the bulwark’s share of the manual labor and as the men prepare for their descent, they question the elder Medford:

Peterson: “You think they’re all dead down there doctor?”
Medford: “Oh I think so. You used enough gas. All parts of the nest should have been thoroughly saturated by now.”
Peterson: “Good.”
Graham: “Boy, if I can still raise an arm when we get out of this place, I’m gonna show you just how well saturated I can get.”
Peterson: “I’m with you.”
Medford: “Well if I were a younger man…”2

These scenes feature clever dialogue (courtesy of screenwriter Ted Sherdeman) and add nuance of character to Graham. They also make Arness’s performance highly enjoyable. After almost 60 years, “Them” remains the classic big bug movie, and it’s great seeing Arness stand tall throughout the film.

TV Stardom

During the early 1950s, Arness met agent Charles Feldman who at the time represented screen legend John Wayne. Feldman introduced Arness to Wayne and the pair struck up an immediate friendship. Arness appeared in several of Wayne’s films including “Big Jim McClain” (1952), “Hondo” (1953), and “Island in the Sky” (1953). Reportedly, it is Wayne who in 1955 recommended Arness for the role of Marshall Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke.” Once cast in the series, Arness made the role his own. His likeable personality was one of the reasons “Gunsmoke” became an immediate TV sensation. Audiences were always tuned in, and CBS had a ratings winner for the next 20 years.

But Arness never forgot his early lean years, so he made sure to help out many of his fellow actors when he could. One who benefitted from Arness’s generosity was Kenneth Tobey, who worked with Arness on “The Thing from Another World.” In an interview with Tom Weaver, Tobey related his own account of Arness’s kindness:

Tobey: “But he [Arness] was a very, very nice man. I was down on my uppers at one time, and I got a small part on an episode of his TV show “Gunsmoke” and he knew I was having trouble. And, dogone it, he called an end to shooting that day at six o’clock just so I’d have to come back the next day and do (maybe) one line or something. So I got two day’s pay instead of one. That was wonderful of him, and I’ll never forget him for that.”3

Acts like that that made Arness a beloved figure. He was truly genuine. You knew that every time you saw him on TV or film, you were getting the real Jim Arness. He may have been acting out a role, but he played it honestly and truthfully. It was the only way for him. Watching him as a young boy, his authenticity and integrity shined right through the cathode ray tube. Seeing him do the right thing time after time was a great thrill. He impressed me so much as a boy that for a few years I wanted to grow up to be just like big Jim Arness.

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The Early Sci-Fi Films of James Arness

1. Two Lost Worlds – Eagle Lion Classics, 1951 (Kirk Hamilton)
2. The Thing from Another World – RKO, 1951 (The Thing)
3. Them – Warner Brothers, 1954 (Robert Graham)

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1. Warner Brothers Pictures. Them (1954) [DVD]. Los Angeles, CA.
2. Ibid.
3. Weaver, Tom. Attack of the Monster Movie Makers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1994, p 342.

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Selected References

The Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000790. Accessed June 27th, 2011.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (The 21st Century Edition). Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.

Weaver, Tom. Attack of the Monster Movie Makers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1994.

Weaver, Tom. I Was a Monster Movie Maker. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2001.