Baby Boomers should be blissfully rattling their cribs with glee, thanks to the Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment DVD release of the 1958 sci-fi hoot THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK. This movie was a must-see whenever it played local TV back in the 1960s. It had a great title, a loopy Atomic Age Mary Shelley plotline (based on a story by Willis Goldbeck, who appropriately scripted Freaks) and one of the niftiest robots since Fritz Lang jacked up Bad Maria. For those lucky enough to have accompanied big brother and/or sister to their neighborhood bijou during the original ’58 play dates…even better. These rarified elementary school folk were literally minor celebrities in every sense of the word – barraged with inquiries such as “What did it look like on the giant screen?” “Were people screaming?” “Were you scared?”
In actuality, THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK was an unusual movie for Paramount to make; George Pal extravaganzas aside, the studio of Lubitsch, von Sternberg, Wilder and Sturges rarely delved into this genre (although in 1927, they had distributed Metropolis in the U.S. and thirteen years later unspooled King Kong‘s Ernest Schoedsack’s Technicolor pip Dr. Cyclops). But this was the 1950s – science fiction was not only immensely popular – but, more importantly, hugely profitable. The mints that such upstarts as Allied Artists and AIP were accumulating did not go unwatched. In 1951, RKO and Fox went whole hog into this universe with their big budget epics The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still…both were blockbusters. The other studios – major, minor and major/minor – followed suit. Warners unleashed Them! in 1954; MGM released their first science fiction pic, Forbidden Planet, in 1956. Paramount was still jumpy, but finally, in 1957, took a chance on a low budget effort with one of cinema’s most memorable monikers, I Married a Monster from Outer Space. It not only shocked the studio suits by racking up hefty grosses – but, much to their amazement, likewise received some fairly decent press. Rather than taking it a step further, they backtracked and greenlit this ever lower budgeted programmer (later that year, the studio would also pickup international distribution rights to The Blob). The COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK’s whacked storyline is enough to bring tears to any would-be megalomaniac’s eyes: The Spenssers, a family of brilliant scientists, led by papa Otto Kruger, comprise the crème de la crème of the world’s brain trust community. Kruger’s pride and joy is Jeremy (Ross Martin) – altruistic, progressively-liberal, happily married to a smoking hot domestically-contented 1950s housefrau (snappy B actress Mala Powers) and the proud dad of their adolescent progeny, Billy (The Fly/13 Ghosts spook kid extraordinaire Charles Herbert). Jeremy surpasses genius – exuberantly determined to cure the planet of all its ills and create a road to utopia that is even beyond the dreams of Hope and Crosby. Almost at once we can see a bulls-eye embossed on his ultra-convoluted medulla. Older bachelor sib Henry (top billed John Baragrey) is a pale shadow – he only has an I.Q. of about 320. His inspired theories are “Yeah, yeah, later, son…” pooh-poohed by daddy Kruger. He is, in effect, Fredo Spensser.
What happens next is so cringe-crazy that it makes even the most docile viewers pray to replace Otto Kruger with namesake Freddy. Young Billy Spensser essentially becomes the flick’s brat-a-lyst, or, at least in my mind, the picture’s true villain.
At an airport press conference where Jeremy is heralded for winning yet another peace prize, the little sprout runs amuck whining about his new twenty-five cent balsa wood wind-up plane (the Spenssers may harbor super intellect, but they’re apparently cheap bastards). As his toy flies into traffic, the pint-sized jerk dives in after it. Pater Jeremy leaps in the way of the truck – saving his son – but splattering his remains all over the Idlewild passenger entrance. What becomes of the toy plane is not known.
As Jeremy was on the verge of curing cancer or some other such nonsense, the Spenssers – and indeed the inhabitants of the world – are deeply chagrined. The elder Dr. Spensser responds the way all mourning parents do: recruit his deranged other son to transplant the deceased’s still-pulsating brain into a gargantuan robot. Kruger, who had previously portrayed a hors d’oeuvre for SUV-sized spiders in 1943’s Tarzan’s Desert Mystery as well as the lust interest for bisexual vampire Gloria Holden in 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter, really should know better. And speaking of lust, Baragrey wastes no time in making sleazy moves on the perennially nightgown-attired Powers that be; his scuzzball technique makes DSK look like Ronald Colman (Baragrey was reportedly one of JFK’s favorite TV actors. Do with that what you will!). It turns out Henry is not only a total scumbag but, to coin the scientific term, cuckoo-for-coco puffs.
As for Jeremy Robot – he’s a masterpiece of movie-making construction, one of the top ten Red Carpet-worthy heavy metal dudes of all-time. Twelve feet tall with a pre-anime-designed head, glowing eyeball-less sockets and draped in a futuristic cloak, JR resembles a Phantom Creeps tin can Armani makeover. He has the strength of an army, appended by vaporizing death rays, and he can swim the entire length of the Hudson River without rusting or hurling. The only thing he has a problem with is stealth…and talking. You’d think with all that pizazz, they could clean up the crackling static that telegraphs his arrival every time he moves or opens his steel trap. It sounds as if he’s activated by a never-ending supply source of Jiffy Pop. Perhaps this was a deliberate ploy on the parts of Paramount executives – a subliminal trip switch to get those viewers to the concession stands. If so, it works…in fact, I want some popcorn now!
Of course being an almighty unstoppable force has its drawbacks – particularly if you’re a Spensser. Parallel to hismishspucha tradition, Jeremy Robot becomes the victim of that old wheeze, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He attains a God complex – and soon, after causing an impressive array of damage, re-evaluates his former progressive leanings. In the movie’s most frightening moment, he terrorizes his cowering father by espousing his new dogma:
“Why create food for the lame and the useless and the sick? Why should we work to preserve slum people of the world? Isn’t it simpler and wiser to get rid of them instead? Unfortunately, there are so-called humanitarian scientists and I am one of them who tried to keep human trash alive. It will be necessary to get rid of those humanitarians first. You understand – we must eliminate the idealists!…”
That’s right, folks – Jeremy Robot has become a Tea Partier.
In the tense climactic moments, J-Ro attacks the United Nations, decimating both Democratic leaders and Third World rulers with jubilant egalitarian aplomb. It’s a Pat Buchanan fantasy come to life
Running just 70 minutes, THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK is a textbook example on how to beautifully craft a compact no-budget movie with an abundance of panache. It’s no accident that the force behind this never-let-up-for-a-second thrill ride was charted by Eugene Lourie. Lourie (1903-1991) had an unusual career to be sure. Originally Jean Renoir’s production designer, Lourie’s fascination for the bizarre early-on veered him towards the realm of the fantastic. Finally realizing his ambition to direct, the artist brought The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to the screen in 1952. After this Ray Harryhausen SFX triumph, Lourie became known as the go-to dinosaur-in-the-streets guy – subsequently guiding both The Giant Behemoth (1959) and Gorgo (1961) through the destruction of London. No one was more proud of Lourie’s achievements than his former employer/collaborator. Upon the completion of Fathoms, Renoir immediately insisted on seeing his friend’s movie. When Lourie arranged a private screening, the French director sloughed it off: “No, no, Eugene, I want to see it in its natural environment – in a theatre filled with children!” As the pair exited a tyke-packed cinema, an ecstatic Renoir weeped on Lourie’s shoulder: “Oh, my friend, you have exceeded even my expectations! Quelle magnifique beast!” I recall with fond delight how years later some NYU know-it-all told me that Lourie was even more versatile – having worked extensively with Fred Astaire…not comprehending that the artiste he was referring to was master choreographer Eugene Loring. I have to admit though – it would have been diverting to see how Loring would have blocked a Rhedosaurus’ radioactive gambol through Coney Island.
Screenwriter Thelma Schnee (1918-1997) was a phantasmagorical veteran – with numerous episodes of Lights Out! and Science Fiction Theatre to her credit. Producer William Alland (1916-1997) was certainly no slouch to the genre either. Starting as a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, Alland, the actor, is best-known as the inquisitive reporter asking Citizen Kane‘s cast the meaning of the word “Rosebud.” Off-camera, he ensconced himself at Universal-International during the 1950s – and almost single-handed became synonymous with the sci-fi genre producing such key entries as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (plus all its sequels), It Came From Outer Space, This Island Earth, Tarantula and The Deadly Mantis.
Olive Films must be congratulated for taking THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK‘s DVD debut seriously. Rather than relying on the easy way out – an existent dormant Paramount vault master (and likely a 16mm one to boot), they have secured a pristine 35mm anamorphic transfer. The picture, with its ominous B&W photography by John F. Warren looks aces; the mono audio, Jiffy Pop aside, resonates crystal clear – an especially fine sounding board for Van Cleave’s atypical atonal piano score.
FYI, THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK was the bottom half of one of those legendary Paramount double-bills, originally paired with the Michael Curtiz-directed Elvis classic King Creole. Talk about getting your fifty cents worth!
THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK: Black and white. Mono. Letterboxed [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]. Dual layer.
Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment. OF306. SRP: $24.95.