1/04/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts
Earth Vs. The Sci-Fi Filmmakers: Twenty Interviews by Tom Weaver. pub: McFarland. 386 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: GBP 39.95 (UK), $45.00 (US). ISBN: 0-7864-2210-6)
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This is the tenth volume of Tom Weaver’s interview books and despite its title, ‘Earth Vs. The Sci-Fi Filmmakers: Twenty Interviews’, the people interviewed in this book are as much cast as production. If you have someone like Weaver interviewing you and he’s interviewed people you have worked with, you’ll find him capable of stirring up memories that even they thought they forgot. Oddly, one of the best interviews wasn’t done by Weaver but recorded by Bob Burns back in 1964 with producer Merian C. Cooper at a ‘King Kong’ presentation filling in all gaps about the seventh wonder of the world with some marvellous stills, even if one was showing a model of Mighty Joe Young than Kong. Saying, that, seeing stills of the over-sized head and hands, not to mention the different shaped Kong smaller heads would have had me handing money over at the counter if I had been scanning this book in a bookshop. To have Cooper himself being interviewed was cream on the cake. ‘King Kong’ was state of the art when it was made but you could tell from the talk that it was clearly not a one-man show and neither did he take all things seriously.
With interview books, you can always pick out things that touch you as it gives insight into other people and not to mention the other jobs they do now. Both Gary Clarke (as Clarke F. L’Amoreaux scriptwriting for TV’s original ‘Get Smart’) and Gary Conway have moved on into production side of things. Clarke’s interview with a touching story about how Lee J. Cobb sorted out him being tongue-tied around him by making him angry of all things by not saying a word was actually moving. Gary Conway’s interview focused more on his two horror films than his TV work and how he did them because they paid better than being a bouncer.
Sometimes info is given that puts names to faces like Robert Dix was the spy killed watching a parade in New Orleans in ‘Live And Let Die’, getting the part because he was there and a friend of Roger Moore. Dix was also one of the two guards, the other being James Dury in case you wondered where he was, killed by the ID in ‘Forbidden Planet’.
Even more fascinating was Weaver’s interview with Donnie Dunagan. You go in with a lot of these interviews wondering, ‘Who?’ In his case, you come out immensely well informed about the life of a child actor who appeared with Karloff in ‘Son Of Frankenstein’ to being the first voice of a young Bambi before going on to becoming a decorated Marine. In many respects, it teaches you not to ignore names you don’t recognise for the ones you do because often you learn as much from them.
Lest I forget some of the names, the late Peter Graves gives insight not only into his start in early ‘B’ movie SF films and their miniscule budgets but in how directors such as Roger Corman and John Ford commanded their films.
Something that came out of the interview with actress Carolyn Kerney was the need to call directors ‘Mr.’ to show the necessary respect because they were the ones who directed you and essentially they were the boss. Again, from her there is some interesting insight into Karloff who would, with his wife, invariably have his breakfast in his limousine before starting work.
Scriptwriter Ken Kole should be a name known to you from ‘The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad’ and his tales of how he got the work gives some insight into both producer Charles Schneer and Ray Harryhausen into creating the film on a budget.
Actor Robert L. Lippert, Jr.’s accounts of Lon Chaney Jr. shows him as much a practical joker than for his later drinking and the shannigans that goes on with location shooting back in the 50s.
Of special interest is Weaver’s interview with actor Jan Merlin who was the face literally behind the masks in the film ‘The List Of Adrian Messenger’ where he was uncredited so as to make the name actors look like they were doing the hard work. By now, you should be aware of Bud Westmore taking the credit the work of the likes of John Chambers and Nick Marcellino who were the real talent but did you know that it was Merlin who discovered that putting a coat of make-up on before the spirit gum that enabled the masks to be pulled off with less damage to his skin? This is a really insightful interview with lots of photographs and of all the choices in this book ended up being the DVD that I bought to have a closer look at the work involved and see how the masks looked in motion. The film isn’t SF but I take Merlin’s point about Douglas’ problem of tearing the mask off at the end of the film. Even more interesting is seeing the list of actors who balked at going under the masks but not afraid to take a bow in the end credits and doing sod all else in the film.
Elliott Reid is someone you might remember as the nemesis from the original ‘The Absent-Minded Professor’ but did you know he started off in radio with Orson Welles? This was another interview that I wasn’t sure where it would take me but mapping Reid’s career shows immense insight in the life of a jobbing American actor over the decades.
There is some emphasis and examination of the film, ‘The Whip Hand’ which Elliott Reid starred in and with an interview with its producer/co-writer Stanley Rubin and how Howard Hughes changed it from its original ending because he wanted it anti-communist. Although it’s not a film I’ve ever seen, this gave some insight into studio manipulation.
Something else I’ve never seen is ‘Tom Corbett, Space Cadet’ but the lengthy interview with its star, Frankie Thomas, was also quite a learning experience, especially as it was televised live and connected back to Jan Merlin who was one of its co-stars.
I should point out that I’m only hitting on some of the things that struck me the most amongst so much other material. This is really a long book to read and you will spend weeks reading it because you want to absorb each interview thoroughly before moving on to the next one. For historical interview tomes in our genre, Tom Weaver tends to be one on his own but he is also brilliant at it and deserves your attention if you want to get a flavour of how American films and TV shows were made at the time, not to mention the people involved. I’m working my way through his book list slowly so I can savour them. Don’t miss adding this book to your collection.
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