Movies Fit for Kings – By Philip Smolen

There have always been movie-making siblings in the film business (including Roger and Gene Corman, Joel and Ethan Cohen and Andy and Larry Wachowski). One of the most eclectic film-making siblings was the production team of the King Brothers, which consisted of Frank (1913 – 1989), Herman (1916 – 1992) and Maurice (1914 – 1977). Born in New York with the last name Kozinski, the brothers changed their name to King after they moved to California as young men. Always mechanically inclined, they built their fortune by first making slot machines, and later, film projectors for cinemas. This gave them exposure to the world of movies, and the brothers knew that film production was what they wanted to pursue. So they used their acquired fortune and jumped into making movies with each brother finding a particular niche. Frank started as a production manager and worked his way up to producer. Maurice began and finished his career as a producer, while Herman started as a second unit director, assistant director and later became a technical advisor.

The King Brothers Productions Company was active from 1941 to the late 1960s and made over 20 films during this time. During the 1940s and 1950s, they produced several film noir classics such as “Dillinger” (1945) and “Gun Crazy” (1950). One of their most famous films was “The Brave One” (1956) which told the story of an idealistic young boy and his efforts to save his prized pet bull from the Mexican bullring. It won the Academy Award for best screenplay that year, but it turned out to be somewhat of an embarrassment for the Academy when it was revealed that the film was written by the great Dalton Trumbo (who was then being blacklisted by the studios due to his testimony before the House Hearings on Un-American Activities).

But for me and thousands of other baby boomers, the King Brothers will forever be remembered for their sci-fi and fantasy productions during the 1950s and 1960s. As a young boy. I can still remember my genuine excitement when going to a cinema to see these as first run features. So here’s a look at three of the King Brothers fantastic films. Just like their producers, they were colorful, loud and a lot of fun.

1. RODAN (Toho Studios, Japan – 1956) Director; Ishiro Honda (US Release: King Brothers-DCA, 1957)

In the mountainous coal mining region of Japan an engineer named Shigeru (Kenji Sawara) is investigating a collapse of one of his company’s mine shafts due to earthquake activity. It turns out that the activity has disturbed more than just the Earth. Giant caterpillar-like insects are released from the caverns and proceed to attack the miners. When Shigeru uses a railroad car to kill one of the beasts, he is trapped in a cave-in. He awakens in a large cavern and sees a gigantic egg, which hatches and disgorges a pair of giant Pteradons called Rodan. The Rodans eat all of the remaining caterpillars and are released from their tomb by another earthquake. Soon the entire world is terrorized by the giant flying monsters. The air force and the army prove ineffective against the creatures and it’s only when pair are tracked to their lair that the military is able to come up with a plan to destroy them.

After the world wide success of 1954’s “Godzilla”, Japanese giant monster movies (GMMs) were hot film commodities. So it was no surprise that the King Brothers swooped in and secured the foreign rights to this Toho monster fest. “Rodan” is simply one of the best Japanese GMMs because of its slow and deliberate build up. The early scenes in the mineshaft are really dark and creepy and are reminiscent of the nest scene in 1954’s “Them”. I also love the scene where the Rodans hatch and proceed to gobble up the giant bugs. But the movie’s raison d’être are the wonderful scenes of destruction. Effects giant Eji Tsuburaya’s detailed miniatures and effects are some of the best of his entire career. In this movie, it really does seem as if the world has gone mad and is being ravaged by a giant pair of prehistoric monsters. Tsuburaya’s effects continue to build in intensity until the climactic scene where the Rodans are destroyed. It’s an absolute orgy of pyrotechnics and exploding miniatures. For the American version, the King Brothers hired seasoned sci-fi writer David Duncan (“The Black Scorpion” [1957], “The Time Machine” [1960]) to translate the film into English and he provides a very melancholy narration at the end. I remember crying the first time I saw the Rodans die as Sawara (dubbed into English by a wonderfully emotional Keye Luke) describes their deaths in noble human terms. I think that’s the only time a Japanese GMM ever brought tears to my eyes.

Quotable Movie Line: “Quiet! You yap like a hen!”

2. GORGO (MGM, 1961) Director: Eugene Lourié

Off the coast of Ireland, a salvage vessel captained by Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) is badly battered when a volcano erupts and bashes his ship with huge Tsunami-type waves. The trawler anchors off Nara Island for repairs, and Joe and his first mate Sam Slade (William Sylvester) visit the island chief McCartin (Christopher Rhodes) and his young ward Sean (Vincent Winter). McCartin is openly hostile to the men, and that night a 60 foot bipedal dinosaur rises from the ocean and terrifies the island. Joe and Sam see an opportunity to make some quick money and use a diving bell and netting to capture the creature. They head to London (along with stowaway Sean) and Gorgo is put on display by Dorkin’s Circus headed by Mr. Dorkin (Martin Benson). However, Joe and Sam are visited by Professor Flaherty (Bruce Seton) who informs them that the creature they captured is merely an infant. The professor believes that an adult will soon come looking for its newborn. Sure enough a 200 foot Mama Gorgo comes ashore at Nara Island and destroys it. The creature then sets its sights on London. Every branch of the English military sets out to defeat the monster, but can the combined might of the military be enough to overcome the love of one monster for another?

Of all of Eugene Lourié’s dinosaur films, “Gorgo” is the most emotional and charming. It is also a fitting conclusion to his dinosaur trilogy since it borrows elements both from “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (1953) and “The Giant Behemoth” (1959). From “Beast” Lourié borrows the diving bell scene, while cribbing the London location and a lack of a traditional man-woman romance from “Behemoth.” Lourié shows a special light touch in scenes with child actor Vincent Winter. He seems acutely aware of children’s feelings towards giant monsters (I know I was thrilled to see that they lived at the end). He also presents Mama Gorgo’s rampage as a true terrifying experience. Civilians are crushed indiscriminately and property destroyed without a thought, as the great dinosaur tramples everyone and everything to get to its offspring. This movie also benefits from great man-in-a-suitasaurus effects from British effects veteran Tom Howard. Howard also uses split screens effectively in the colorful scenes of mass destruction. The film also features an emotive score from Italian composer Mario Lavagnino. Though Lourié was very unhappy with the King Brothers for re-editing it (Frank and Maurice inserted endless scenes of the military running around London) “Gorgo” was a bona fide box office smash. It even broke all box office records when it opened in Tokyo! In fact, it proved so popular that it was even turned into a comic book that ran for almost two years. Even after 50 years, “Gorgo” remains one of the King Brothers most cherished and memorable films.

Quotable Movie Line: “They’re going back now. Back to the sea.”

3. CAPTAIN SINDBAD (MGM, 1963) Director: Byron Haskin

The kingdom of Baristan is ruled by the evil El-Carim (Pedro Armendariz). He knows that his only rival is the brave Captain Sindbad (Guy Williams from “Lost in Space”) who is returning from a long voyage to marry Princess Jana (Heidi Bruhl). Despite El-Carim’s best efforts to kill him, Sindbad returns to the evil lord’s castle and challenges him to a sword fight. Sindbad stabs El-Carim in the heart, only to find that el-Carim’s heart has been removed from his body and is safely being held in a tower at the end of a mighty treacherous swamp. Sindbad and his crew escape from El-Carim’s clutches and venture into the swamp which is filled with many unholy terrors. After several monstrous encounters (including fighting a multi-headed dragon and a giant hand) Sindbad reaches the top of the tower. But El-Carim uses the magic of the kindly wizard Galgo (Abraham Sofaer) to magically fly over the swamp. Once again Sindbad must confront the evil despot and try to destroy the megalomaniac in order to save Baristan and his beloved Princess Jana.

In the summer of 1963, while vacationing in Wildwood, New Jersey, I went to see a double feature of “Captain Sindbad” and “the 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) with my sister. To say I was amazed would be an understatement. I literally went into a heavenly fantastic film coma. “Captain Sindbad” was everything a eight year old boy could ever want from a movie. It had gorgeous color, a swashbuckling hero, an evil villain, a sexy heroine and amazing monsters. The film so thrilled the juvenile audience in attendance that I remember looking around at one point and seeing everyone’s eyes glued to the screen. Director Byron “Bunny” Haskin does a great job of keeping the film moving and not letting it bog down. The film literally jumps from one amazing special effect to another. I remember being terrified when Sindbad and his men go into the misty, murky swamp and the goose bumps that were raised on my skin when the monsters were onscreen. Some of the creatures they face are quite unique for a fantasy film including that giant hand created by the great Tom Howard. “Captain Sindbad” is a pure children’s film. Viewed with an adult’s sensibilities, it is silly and tiresome. But viewed with the innocence of a child, the film takes on an almost magical quality (like any great fantasy film should). The King Brothers knew instinctively what kids of the day wanted to see in a movie and they delivered. To this day I still recall all the memories of seeing the film for the first time. When I watch it again, I’m transformed once again to a wide-eyed eight year old boy and that’s a great testament to the enduring nature of a classic fantasy film.

Quotable Movie Line: “There are three men before whom a woman need have no shame: her husband, her doctor and her magician.”

Though the King Brothers produced more critically acclaimed films throughout their career, these three fantastic themed movies are my personal favorites. They all retain a unique child-like innocence and a child’s eye perspective of the world.

Selected References

IMBD.com http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056904. Accessed on December 30, 2012.

IMDB.com. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0454716. Accessed on December 29, 2012.

IMDB.com. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0455061. Accessed on December 29, 2012.

Schoel, William. Creature Features: Nature Turned Nasty in the Movies. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2008.

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

VCI Entertainment. Gorgo DVD – Supplemental Material. 2005.

Warren, Bill. Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2010.