More Than a Three Hour Tour – Russell Johnson’s Early Sci-Fi Films – By Philip Smolen

As a young boy in the 1960s, one of the things I loved best was watching the fall premieres of all the new TV shows that I thought were real cool. And 1964 looked like a banner year to be a TV-worshipping kid. By the end of September, I had already watched the premieres of such iconic shows as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”, “The Addams Family”, and “Johnny Quest.” Now there was just one more show that I wanted to watch, so one weeknight in late September, my sisters, my mother and I sat down to watch the 1st episode of a new comedy called “Gilligan’s Island.” But when the show started, and I first saw actor Russell Johnson as the Professor, I turned to my mother and remarked “Hey Mom, look! It’s Hank from “Attack of the Crab Monsters”!

Johnson (1924-2014) was a very accomplished actor whose most famous role was that of the befuddled scientist on “Gilligan’s Island.” Johnson’s professor was always thinking of ways to make life easier for the castaways, but his wacky inventions never quite worked the way he thought they would. I also found it funny that never once did the handsome PhD ever fall for the charms of either the sultry Ginger (Tina Louise) or the wholesome Mary Ann (Dawn Wells). Even to my 9-year-old brain, those two were far more scenic and interesting than any of the flora and fauna on the island!

For me though, Johnson will always be remembered for the supporting roles he had in classic sci-fi films from the 1950s. Though never the lead, Russell’s honest and likable performances helped shaped some of these films and made them stand out. So this month, let’s take a look at four famous (infamous?) sci-fi films that benefitted from good performances from the late great Russell Johnson.

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1. IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (Universal, 1953) – Director: Jack Arnold

Astronomer John Putnam (Richard Carlson) and his girl friend Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) are star gazing one night at his desert home when they see a fiery meteor crash land nearby. John and Ellen rush out to the site and John climbs down and sees an incredible site; an alien spacecraft hidden in the rock, which then gets buried in a tremendous rockslide. John tries to tell everyone, but no one will believe him. Over the next few days local townspeople start disappearing, including linemen Joe Sawyer (Frank Daylon) and George (Russell Johnson). When they later show up in town, they don’t act like themselves. Later, at the entrance to an old mine shaft, the voice of George reveals to John exactly what’s going on. He is part of the crew of an extraterrestrial ship which inadvertently crashed on the Earth. The aliens are benign and only want to repair their ship and leave. They have taken human form in order to get the equipment that they need and will relinquish their human hostages once they are ready. Putnam must now prevent Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake) and his posse from confronting the visitors or else the first meeting between an alien race and the human race will end in utter destruction.

Back in the 1970s, I went to a 3D revival showing of “It Came from Outer Space” at a local New Jersey theater and was amazed just how well Jack Arnold’s film stood the test of time. It was wonderful watching such a classic on the big screen and I was astonished how much better Arnold’s atmospheric desert shots looked than on TV. It was also wonderful listening to the magical, poetic dialogue of the great Ray Bradbury. This was Bradbury’s first real attempt at a screenplay (though he is only credited with the screen story) and it’s remarkable. The words that come out of the humans and aliens are full of hope, fear and trepidation. Russell Johnson plays a pivotal role as George. He’s the first human to be overtaken by the aliens and he gives a neat performance as the alien George. The alien’s not sure how a human should talk, walk and behave, and this unfamiliarity is reflected in Johnson’s performance. It’s also great that Johnson is the one to tell Richard Carlson the purpose of the alien’s visit. Arnold got very good performances from most of his cast including Richard Carlson (this was his first sci-fi film of the 1950s), Barbara Rush and Frank Daylon. While certain aspects of the film don’t hold up (the bug-eyed xenomorph looks really goofy), “It Came from Outer Space” still richly deserves its place as a 1950s classic. It remains an eerie and thrilling film and should be studied by all serious sci-fi movie lovers.

MEMORABLE MOVIE DIALOGUE: “Let us stay apart, the people of your world and ours, for if we come together, there will only be destruction.”

2. THIS ISLAND EARTH (Universal, 1955) – Director: Joseph M. Newman

Scientist Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) is flying back to his company’s headquarters, when the jet he’s flying suddenly loses power. Unable to eject, Cal can’t believe his eyes when his plane starts to glow green and lands itself without any assistance from him. Back at his laboratory, Cal and his assistant Joe Wilson (Robert Nichols) are testing condensers when the latest one shorts out. The replacement condenser is a fraction of the original’s size, and curious, Cal then orders more. He gets a strange catalogue from a company called Unit 16 and he and Joe begin to build an Interociter. When it’s completed, an unusual looking man named Exeter (Jeff Morrow) appears onscreen and asks Dr. Meacham to join him and his fellow scientists. Meacham agrees and is flown to a secluded Georgia farm where he meets an old flame named Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue) and another scientist Dr. Steve Carlson (Russell Johnson). Soon after starting there, Meacham is convinced that something is wrong and it isn’t long before his suspicions are proven correct. Meacham, Adams and Carlson try to escape from Exeter. Carlson is vaporized by a death beam, but Cal and Ruth are taken aboard a huge space ship and flown to Exeter’s home planet of Metaluna. But Metaluna’s in the final throws of a horrendous interstellar war and both humans will need Exeter’s help if they are to ever see Earth again.

Even though “This island Earth” was parodied in “MST3K: The Movie” (1996), it still is a wonderful and imaginative look at interstellar travel. This was Universal’s first (and only) color sci-fi movie from the 1950s and it’s clear from the sizable budget (reportedly around $800,000) that Universal was hoping to cash in on the sci-fi craze of the decade. One of the best aspects of the film is the way Exeter taps into Cal’s scientific curiosity. He presents him with a challenge (building the Interociter) and Cal takes the bait. By the time Cal sees the high-browed alien on the screen, he’s caught hook, line and sinker. Another plus is the way everything is slowly revealed to Cal and Ruth. At first it seems that Exeter is merely putting together a first class scientific team. It’s only later that the more sinister aspects of his plan are revealed. Russell Johnson doesn’t have a lot to do here, but he does act heroically and his sacrifice allows Cal and Ruth the chance to get away.

I was fortunate to catch a revival of “This Island Earth” in New York City at the Film Forum in the 1980s and it was well worth the effort. On the big screen, the colorful special effects really come to life and filled me once again with childlike wonder. Even Exeter’s lines about the magic of space travel took on new meaning on the big screen. Though available on DVD, Universal hasn’t released “This Island Earth” in the Blu-ray format yet. That’s a great shame, because this classic sci-fi film needs to capture the imagination of a whole new generation of film lovers.

MEMORABLE MOVIE DIALOGUE: “Our universe is vast, full of wonders. I’ll explore, perhaps find another Metaluna. A place inhabited by beings not unlike myself. You see I’m more adventurous than you imagine me.”

3. ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (Allied Artists, 1957) – Director: Roger Corman

On a remote Pacific island a group of researchers led by Dale Drewer (Richard Garland), Martha Hunter (Pamela Duncan) and Karl Weingard (Leslie Bradley) have come to find out what happened to the first group of scientists that came here several months before. The island was recently soaked with radiation that drifted over from a nearby atomic test. Almost immediately, several gruesome deaths occur and before long, the group finds out that radiation has mutated several land crabs to gigantic proportions and has made them intelligent as well. Whenever anyone is devoured by a crab, the creature also absorbs the intellect and personality of its victim allowing it to communicate with its prey. Before long, only Dale, Martha and technician Hank Chapman (Russell Johnson) are left. In a final battle, Hank sacrifices himself and electrocutes the crab, allowing Hank and Martha to survive the hellish encounter.

Despite the silly monster crab prop, “Attack of the Crab Monsters” is simply a wonderful B monster movie that doesn’t get stale. Its chief asset is an intelligent script by Roger Corman regular Charles B. Griffith that succeeds in making the crabs more horrifying than most other 1950s giant monsters. By making them as smart as humans, Griffith ups the crab’s terror factor. It’s bad enough to be eaten by a giant crab, but to realize that your mind will live on inside the body of a giant crustacean after you’re gone is truly frightening. This premise is what allows the viewer to enjoy the film despite the goofy looking monster. Roger Corman also does a fine job directing this film and it seems like he really enjoyed making it. There are also some over-the-top performances here that add to the fun. Leslie Bradley and Mel Wells each use ridiculous foreign accents that come and go throughout the film, but this does give their performances a little bit of extra juice. Pamela Duncan is also good as the young oceanographer, but for me Russell Johnson is the real hero here. His easy going smile and steady presence gives Hank an instant likeability that the audience can readily identify with. To me he’s much better than Richard Garland, whose Dale is both stuffy and pretentious. After more than 55 years (!), ”Attack of the Crab Monsters” remains a fun, sharp and clever giant monster romp from the 1950s. It takes an overused plot idea and brightly reinvents it.

MEMORABLE MOVIE DIALOGUE:

Dr. Deveroux (calling into the night): “Julius, Slovos – show yourselves!”
Crab Monster (reaching out with its claw): “We’re right here Professor!”

4. THE SPACE CHILDREN (Paramount, 1958) – Director: Jack Arnold

At a top secret military base along the California coast, research is continuing on the new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) “The Thunderer.” An assorted group of children, whose fathers work on the project, gather each day to play. One day this group is walking along the beach when they see a bright shaft of light come out of the sky. They follow the beam which leads them to a nearby cave. They go inside and find a glowing pulsating brain. At first frightened, they soon come to realize that the alien brain means them no harm. They decide to protect it and listen to the thought waves that emanate from the alien. It seems that the ever expanding brain has a keen interest in the new ICBM…

“The Space Children” was the last sci-fi film directed by the great Jack Arnold. It was his first film for Paramount, so he really wanted to try and say something important. Arnold juxtaposes the power of the children’s innocence and love with the destructive power of The Thunderer. It’s a delicate balance, and the director manages to pull it off. “The Space Children” is a sweet film about love winning out over hate. The children carry out the alien’s will and help sabotage the missile, while the alien protects the children and gives them special powers. Arnold uses the California coastal scenes to emphasize the loneliness of the base in much the same way as he used the desert in his earlier films for Universal. This really adds to the movie’s eeriness. Another plus is the alien brain which was brought to life by Paramount technician Ivyl Burks. It’s weird and wonderful all at the same time. Russell Johnson is cast as the alcoholic step father of one of the kids. He’s killed off by the brain pretty early in the film, but he’s very menacing in all of his scenes. All of the young actors give earnest performances as well which help sell the fantastic aspects of the film. While not his best sci-fi film, “The Space Children” remains Jack Arnold’s sincere farewell to the field of sci-fi cinema.

MEMORABLE MOVIE DIALOGUE: “Why are you siding with it against us? We’re your parents. We love you!”

Johnson made only two more movies after “The Space Children” and acted mostly in TV after 1958. But even then he found time to act in several sci-fi TV shows including “The Twilight Zone”, “The Outer Limits” and “The Invaders”. And even though millions of baby boomers will forever know him as “The Professor”, to me he will always be part of my sci-fi loving childhood. God speed, Russell Johnson!

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Selected References

http://www.briansdriveintheater.com/russelljohnson.html. Accessed January 30, 2014.

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0426157. Accessed January 30, 2014.

Senn, Bryan and Johnson, John. Fantastic Cinema Subject Guide. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 1992.

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.