By Steve D. Stones
Patrons of the Ogden Peery’s Egyptian Theatre were greeted to the pleasant, yet chilling sounds of a Wurlitzer organ on the evening of Saturday September 18th, 2010. The mood provided by the organ was like traveling back in time to the silent era of films. There were no poodle skirts or Brylcreem styled hairdos in attendance, but the evening was filled with 1950s nostalgia, courtesy of a drive-in double feature – Them! (1954) and Tarantula (1955).
Local film historian, collector and archivist Van Summerill appeared on stage to introduce the two films and to give some interesting facts about these 1950s classics. Between the two features, a 10-minute 1950s intermission clip was shown – adding to the ambiance of the event.
First up was Tarantula, starring John Agar, Mara Corday and Leo G. Carroll. Carroll plays a scientist who is conducting secret lab experiments in the desert to create a nutrient to end world hunger. One of his lab assistants is injected with the nutrient, causing him to develop acromegaly, a condition causing body glands to enlarge dramatically. The lab assistant attacks Carroll and accidentally unleashes a giant tarantula, which finds its way into the desert, grows larger and attacks local cattle and citizens.
A young Clint Eastwood saves the day at the end of the film as a jet fighter pilot who drops napalm bombs on the giant tarantula before it makes its way into town.
Considering that filmmakers would not have had the benefit of digital computer technology in the 1950s, scenes showing the giant tarantula walking across the desert landscape are quite convincing and amazing for their time. I thought of all the times as a child where I brushed away a giant spider on my window seal, or stepped on one on the sidewalk.
Next up was Them! Them is considered by most film historians and critics to be one of the best 1950s science-fiction films, a point which Summerill mentioned in his introduction to the film.
Them stars veteran actor Edmund Gwenn, as an entomologist, James Arness as an FBI agent, James Whitmore as a police officer, and Joan Weldon as Gwenn’s daughter assistant. Gwenn is called in by New Mexico law enforcement to examine strange prints left in the sand where a young family was attacked and killed during a camping trip. Gwenn and Weldon discover the print to be of a giant ant. They conclude that an atomic explosion conducted in the New Mexico desert in 1945 has caused desert ants to grow large.
The nest of the ants is found and destroyed, but not before some make their way to the canals of downtown Los Angeles. Arness and Whitmore team up with the National Guard to burn and destroy the giant ants in the canal waterways.
Both Them and Tarantula follow in a long line of “giant insects run amuck” films of the 1950s. Others to follow include: The Beginning of The End (about giant grasshoppers attacking Chicago, and starring Arness’s brother Peter Graves), Earth vs. The Spider (AKA The Spider), The Black Scorpion and The Deadly Mantis. These films clearly reflect the fears that postwar audiences had at the time of the Cold War and the atomic age.
A special thanks goes out to Carolyn Bennion, Van Summerill and the Peery’s Egyptian Theatre Committee for bringing these two cult classic1950s films to the theatre. It was a fun evening for all in attendance!