Sunday, July 31, 2011

The passings parade

Each week here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear, I like to eat up just a little bit of blogosphere bandwidth to observe selected celebrity notables who’ve left this world for a better one—and I think the news of the death of character great Gervase Duan (G.D.) Spradlin this week hit me the hardest, because he was truly one of my favorites.  A prolific character thespian who entered the acting profession after previous jobs as both a lawyer and oilman, Spradlin’s incredible cinematic resume includes such classics as Will Penny, Monte Walsh, The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now, North Dallas Forty, Ed Wood and Dick (with a dead-solid-perfect impression of Ben Bradlee).  He also guest starred on such TV series as Gomer Pyle, USMC, Run for Your Life, I Spy, Mannix, The Big Valley, The Virginian, It Takes a Thief, Dragnet and Bonanza, to name just a few examples.

I saw Spradlin in all of the films I listed in the above paragraph but for some odd reason I’ll always remember him for two movies that probably don’t get discussed much among cinephiles.  He played the no-nonsense General Bentley Durrell in the 1983 movie adaptation of The Lords of Discipline, based on Pat Conroy’s novel about a Southern military academy (he doesn’t specifically mention “The Citadel” but I attribute that to his courtly gentleman ways) and with a screenplay co-written by my very good Facebook chum and TDOY supporter Lloyd at mardecortesbaja.com.  I mentioned this before (particularly at the time when character actor Robert Prosky left us) but my college paisan Jeff Lane and I went to see this movie multiple times when it came out (and when Lloyd learned of this he e-mailed me, commenting “So that’s who went and saw it.”) and it soon became one of Jeff’s all-time faves.  Spradlin was simply superb in it; his performance permanently tattooed onto my brain.

The other Spradlin movie that sticks in my memory banks is a 1984 comedy entitled Tank which I paid good money to see (and took sisters Kat and Debbie with me) because James Garner starred in it.  It’s not a good movie at all (and don’t think Kat and Debbie have ever let me live that down); Spradlin plays the redneck sheriff of a town that shuns Garner and son C. Thomas Howell because of Garner’s military background and when Howell is imprisoned on trumped-up charges by Spradlin, Jimbo goes to town to do a little rompin’ and stompin’ with a tank he personally owns.  I could be a little fuzzy on the details about the plot (it has been a while since I saw it) but at one point in the movie Garner’s former commanding officer (Sandy Ward) tells Spradlin’s sheriff that he can’t do anything to stop Garner because of posse comitatus and an upset Spradlin responds with “Did you just call me a pussy Communist?”  I have no idea why that has stuck in my head all these years, but it has.  We lost a major acting talent when Spradlin took his final bow at the curtain on July 24 at the age of 90.

At the start of the 1982-83 season of the popular TV series The Dukes of Hazzard, stars Tom Wopat and John Schneider walked off the show as the result of a dispute with Hazzard’s producers over royalties due them…and because those same producers had convinced themselves that people watched the series simply because of the freaking car (the General Lee), they replaced the two men with actors Byron Cherry and Christopher “Chip” Mayer.  The ratings for Hazzard took a nosedive, and both Wopat and Schneider were hustled back before the season was out…leaving Cherry’s Coy Duke and Mayer’s Vance Duke to wander around that mythical neighborhood in TV Land where characters who are never heard from again are relocated.  (And that might have been for the best—I imagine that car would have been a little crowded with the four of them in it, not to mention the constant fights over who called “shotgun.”)  Mayer later landed a short-lived gig on the TV series Glitter, but is probably best known for his stint on the daytime soap Santa Barbara as T.J. Daniels from 1987-88.  Mayer, married to actress Teri Copley (of We Got it Made fame), passed away July 23 at the age of 57.

We also bid a fond farewell to one of the crew members of McHale’s Navy—actor Edson Stroll, who played Virgil Edwards on the 1962-66 sitcom as well as the two feature films based on the show, McHale’s Navy and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force, died on July 18 at the age of 82.  A former bodybuilder who drifted into acting, Stroll also appeared in two memorable Twilight Zone episodes—“Eye of the Beholder” and “The Trade-Ins”—as well as doing voice-over work and guest starring on series like Dallas, Dynasty, Simon & Simon and Hotel.  Three Stooges fans will also remember that Stroll played “Prince Charming” in the Technicolor Snow White and the Three Stooges and that he also appeared in The Three Stooges in Orbit.

Two motion picture directors best known for single feature films have also passed on during this past week.  Canadian-born British director Silvio Narizzano helmed such movies as the Tallulah Bankhead camp fest Die! Die! My Darling, Blue, Loot and Why Shoot the Teacher?...but is perhaps best known for riding herd on the 1966 classic Georgy Girl starring Lynn Redgrave and James Mason.  Narizzano died on July 26 at the age of 84.  And when movie fans are asked to name their “favorite Michael Cacoyannis (Mihalis Kakogiannis) film” the answer will inevitably be 1964’s Zorba the Greek (for which he received three Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Adapted Sceenplay)…even though he also directed such features as The Day the Fish Came Out, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia and Sweet Country.  The Cyprus-born Cacoyannis died on July 25 at the age of 89.

Longtime Oscar-nominated motion picture art director, screenwriter and producer Polly Platt also shuffled off this mortal coil this week on July 27 at the age of 72.  As Mrs. Peter Bogdanovich, she assisted her writer-director husband on a number of his film projects, including Targets, The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon (she and Bogdanovich divorced in 1970, but still continued to collaborate until he lost it over Cybil Shepherd).  She would later contribute to such films as The Bad News Bears, A Star is Born, Pretty Baby and Terms of Endearment…and as a producer her resume includes Broadcast News, Say Anything…, The War of the Roses, Bottle Rocket and The Evening Star.  Her writing projects include such films as Good Luck, Miss Wyckoff and A Map of the World.

From the music world, we note the departure of singer-songwriter Dan Peek who, as a member of the rock group America, contributed to such pop hits as A Horse With No Name, Ventura Highway, Tin Man and Sister Golden Hair; he also wrote several of the group’s Top 40 hits, the highest-charting being Lonely People in 1974.  Peek quit the band in 1977 because of alcohol and substance abuse problems but was able to reinvent himself as a solo artist after renewing his Christian faith.  Peek passed away at his Farmington, MO home on July 24 at the age of 60.


In 1974, Roberta Flack was riding high on the pop charts with Feel Like Making Love—which I was completely unaware (until I read the obituary) was written by singer-songwriter Gene McDaniels, who left us yesterday (July 30) at the age of 76.  I knew McDaniels from his brief success in the 1960s as a pop music vocalist who charted with such Top Ten smashes as Tower of Strength (in 1961) and Chip Chip (in 1962).  Gene’s biggest hit was the 1961 oldies classic A Hundred Pounds of Clay—the success of which led to appearances in a few films such as It’s Trad, Dad! (aka Ring-a-Ding Rhythm) and The Young Swingers (he can also be glimpsed in the choir in 1974’s Uptown Saturday Night).


As they used to sing on Gilligan’s Island…”and the rest”:

Simon Bond (June 22, 63) – Cartoonist and illustrator whose best-selling book 101 Uses for a Dead Cat earned him both hate mail and the nickname (courtesy of Time magazine) “the Charles Addams of ailurophobia”

Denny Niles (Richard Dennison) (July 11, 77) – Film and TV actor who had a small role in Mister Roberts and made a handful of guest appearances on such TV series as M Squad, The Rebel and Route 66; also the son of legendary radio announcer Wendell

Bob Trendler (July 18, 99) – Longtime WGN-TV choral director and musical director of the Chicago station’s orchestra who is best remembered by legions of kids and fans as bandleader “Mr. Bob” on the long-running Bozo’s Circus

Sheila Burrell (July 19, 89) – British stage, screen and television actress (and cousin to Lord Olivier) who appeared on such series as The Six Wives of Henry VIII, The Feathered Serpent, Brush Strokes, The Darling Buds of May and Emmerdale Farm

Milly Del Rubio (July 21, 89) – Last surviving member of the campy Del Rubio Triplets band (with sisters Eadie and Elena) who made appearances on such TV shows as Married…with Children, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Full House, The Golden Girls and Night Court

Bill Morrissey (July 23, 59) – Folksinger and songwriter best known for his descriptive tunes about hardships in the mill towns of New Hampshire

Fran Landesman (July 23, 83) – Poet and lyricist (she wrote the lyrics for Nelson Algren’s A Walk on the Wild Side) whose songs include Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most

Tresa Hughes (July 24, 81) – Stage, screen and television actress who was nominated for a Tony Award in 1961 for The Devil’s Advocate; her film appearances include Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams, Coming Home, Fame and Don Juan DeMarco

Jane White (July 24, 88) – Stage, screen and television actress whose productions include Strange Fruit, Jane Eyre, The Power and the Glory and Once Upon a Mattress; she did a good deal of daytime soap opera work including stints on Search for Tomorrow and The Edge of Night

Frank Foster (July 26, 82) – Composer and tenor/soprano saxophonist best known for his work in Count Basie’s musical aggregation; he wrote Basie’s hit Shiny Stockings, among many others

Elmer Lower (July 26. 98) – Former president of ABC News (1963-74) who was responsible for the hiring (make of it what you will) the likes of Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel, Frank Reynolds and Sam Donaldson

David Legrant (July 28, 87) – Acting teacher (who studied under Lee Strasberg) whose pupils included the likes of Tobey Maguire, Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Constance Towers and Alyson Hannigan

Bookmark and Share

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Guest Review: Evil Under the Sun (1982)

By Philip Schweier

I’ve always been a mystery fan, ever since I watched Scooby-Doo in its original run. But many mysteries rely on some sort of gimmick, denying the audience (movie or book) the opportunity to solve the crime along with the detective. Perhaps the solution lies in a photograph the audience never gets to see. Or maybe there’s some bit of information to which only the detective is privy, choosing to reveal it only at the end denouement.

Such is the case in Evil Under the Sun (1982), the third in a series of five film adaptations featuring Agatha Christie’s Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. The first, Murder On the Orient Express (1974), starred Albert Finney leading an all-star cast. Peter Ustinov took over the role (and did a much better job, IMHO) in Death on the Nile (1978). Following Evil Under the Sun, Ustinov reprised the role in a handful of made-for-TV movies in the mid-1980s, then in the Golan-Globus big screen production, Appointment with Death (1988).

In Evil Under the Sun, Poirot is initially tasked with determining why Sir Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) would wish to insure what is determined to be a fake diamond. He explains he originally bought the stone as a gift for a dalliance with an unnamed actress, only to be dumped for another man. After much haggling back and forth, the lady in question finally relented and returned the diamond. He accuses her of having a copy made to deceive him.

To get to the bottom of the affair, Poirot joins a small group of tourists to a remote island hotel on the Adriatic. There, he encounters Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg), the bane of all the other guests, who turns out to be the lady in question. It would appear she is having a none-too-secret affair with Patrick Redfern (Nicholas Clay), much to the dismay of his shrinking violet of a wife, Christine (Jane Birkin).

She has also drawn the ire of stage producers Myra and Odell Gardener (Sylvia Miles and James Mason), and author of her biography Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall), not to mention her own husband Kenneth (Dennis Quilley), and step-daughter, Linda (Emily Hone). The hotel is run by a fellow thespian, Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith), from whom Arlena may have stolen one too many roles.

So it’s hardly a great surprise when Arlena is discovered dead on the beach (it’s a murder mystery, after all). But consider: Diana Rigg + beach scene + swimsuit = hubba-hubba. But in the interest of giving the ladies equal consideration, Peter Ustinov gets into the swim of things in his own 1930s-era beachwear.

Afterwards it becomes a case of whodunit, as Poirot’s little gray cells separate clue from red herring, and with a tremendous amount of imagination, comes up with a solution as tow HOW the murder is committed that requires no small amount of disbelief on the part of the audience. So much effort is required on the part of the killer that he/she overlooks one of the basic rules of storytelling: keep it simple.

As for WHO is the murderer, I won’t spoil it here, but I will say don’t bother trying to figure it out. Just go along for the ride, and take your best guess. The truth is you’re not as smart as Poirot, because you see, he knows things, and he ain’t sharing those facts until the very end. It’s a movie for mystery fans who enjoy a fun romp into the world of crime detection.

The film is directed by Guy Hamilton, a capable man for the job who has helmed a number of noteworthy movies, (notably James bonds films), telling screen stories in a straightforward, capable manner, but frankly, with little imagination or distinct creativity. He might be credited for the use of Cole Porter tunes for the score, which I appreciated immensely.

Bookmark and Share

Friday, July 29, 2011

Twisted Television #1: Gomer Pyle, USMC – “Gomer Goes Home”

This morning, I thought I’d kick off a new semi-regular feature here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—one that was inspired by a truly off-the-wall episode of Gomer Pyle, USMC I caught this morning (hey, I have insomnia—don’t judge me) on Me-TV.  Unless you’ve just been released from a cryogenic slumber for half a century you’re no doubt aware that Pyle was the 1964-69 CBS-TV sitcom in which a popular supporting player from The Andy Griffith Show, gas pump jockey Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), was spun off into his own starring series in which he joined the U.S. Marines and proceeded to annoy and frustrate the hell out of his superior, drill instructor Sergeant Vince Carter (Frank Sutton) during his five-year hitch.  The comedy was a huge hit for CBS, never leaving the Top Ten in the entire time it was on the air (it even finished its last season ranked at #2).

Now, in my young couch potato days Gomer Pyle was one of those shows that just always seemed to be on—that is to say, you could walk over to the set and after switching it on there’d be goofy Gomer screwing up some simple task Carter had stupidly entrusted him to do.  So while I’ve tucked a lot of the show’s episodes under my belt I’ve not seen all of them—and this one this morning was no exception.  In “Gomer Goes Home” (01/05/68), Pyle gets a week’s leave and has decided to spend it in his hometown of Mayberry, North Carolina…but naturally, he has to make certain he’s exasperated Sergeant Carter to the nth degree before heading home to the Piedmont State:

GOMER: I just can’t wait to see the look of surprise on Andy’s face when I walk in—I purposely didn’t write to him…
CARTER: Oh?  Well, have a good time…
GOMER: I just can’t wait to see all those folks back in Mayberry…Andy…and Opie…and Aunt Bee…and Cousin Goober…
CARTER: Yeah, well, goodbye, Pyle…I’m sure you’re anxious to get started…
GOMER: You remember Andy, Opie, Aunt Bee and Cousin Goober, don’tcha?  You know, Andy’s the sheriff of Mayberry…
CARTER (his temperature rising): I know…I know…be sure to give them my best…
GOMER: Andy, Opie or Aunt Bee or Cousin Goober? Or all of them?
CARTER: All of themall of them…go, Pyle!
GOMER: I’ll be writin’ you picture postcards…or if I have time, maybe even a letter…
CARTER (shoving him towards the door): Goodbye, Pyle…
GOMER (doubling back): Which do you prefer, Sergeant?  One long, easy letter or lots of picture postcards?
CARTER: Anything!  Go, Pyle!
GOMER: ‘Cause I’ll do either one…
CARTER (giving him a final shove out the door): Pyle, get out of here!!!


So after a plane trip and bus ride, Gomer ends up in the familiar climes of Mayberry…and to reinforce this, we can hear the strains of “The Mayberry March” on the soundtrack.  Our hero is excited to be back in the town that considers him a favorite son, and to be walking among friends and family…he greets and pets a familiar dog, and then opens the front door to the sheriff’s office with his trademark “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”


But the surprise is on Gomer…because Sheriff Andy is apparently out on his rounds, having left a “Back in 10 Minutes” sign on his desk.  “Well, after forty-two months, one week and two days ten minutes don’t matter much,” he declares.  He looks around the familiar surroundings, walking past the cells and over to the shelves where he finds this framed photograph:


A subtle reminder that The Andy Griffith Show used to be funny when it was in black-and-white.  And to drive this point home, Gomer has a flashback to the fourth season finale of TAGS, the episode that essentially served as the pilot to his own series (it’s footage of him singing the Marines Hymn: “From the halls of Montezumer…”)


Gomer’s flashback reverie is interrupted with the arrival of this individual (James Seay), who introduces himself as Captain Rogers from Raleigh…and who informs “Gom” that he’s filling in for Andy because the Taylor clan are away on a camping trip.  “Golllllleee…” moans a disappointed Gomer.  What’s worse is that they may not be back for a week which, as we learned at the beginning of the show, is all the time Gomer has to spend in Mayberry before he has to get back to serving his country.

As Gomer heads over to check in at the fabulous Hotel Mayberry, he runs into the only familiar face the writers of this episode could apparently scrounge up—character great Burt Mustin.  TAGS fans know that Mustin was a semi-regular on the series, playing an old codger named Jud Fletcher…but for some odd reason he goes by “Ferguson” here and he and Gomer have also been lifelong buds.  (This is not an entirely new phenomenon; we witnessed it several times in certain episodes of Mayberry R.F.D.)  Ferguson tells Gomer that the reason why Floyd’s barber shop ceases to exist (and has been replaced by the “fix-it” establishment run by “the anti-Floyd,” Emmett Clark) is because Floyd sold the place to Emmett and is now living with his daughter in Mt. Pilot (“Separated from her husband,” Ferguson gossips).  He then fills Gomer in on the fact that Mayberry is caught in the throes of industrialization—things are moving too fast in that burg, since a coin-operated laundry just opened up in town…and a car wash is not far behind.  (Progress…there’s no stopping it!)  Now, why Gomer doesn’t go inside and say “Hey” to Emmett goes unexplained…because if we’ve learned anything from R.F.D., it’s that Emmett has a lot of free time on his hands (I was sort of surprised that he wasn’t sitting on the outside bench with Ferguson.)

I also have to confess—I felt sort of sorry for Gomer at this stage because it’s like he’s in some nightmarish version of It’s a Wonderful Life; he sees familiar sights but no one he knows is around for him to meet and greet.  (Heck, even Howard Sprague seems to be out of town.)  Things get worse when he runs into an old biddy named “Mrs. Petrie” (Mary Young) as he exits from the hotel.  She’s completely unaware that he’s been in the Marine Corps!  (According to the always reliable IMDb, this woman has never even been to Mayberry…though I did recognize her from an episode of F Troop I watched not too long back.)

“I wandered again to my home in the mountains/Where in youth’s early dawn I was happy and free/I looked for my friends, but could never find them/I found they were all rank strangers to me.”  I couldn’t help but think of that old Stanley Brothers song as Gomer continues to wander through Mayberry looking for a familiar face…and when he finally makes his way to his cousin’s service station, there’s a glimmer of hope when he sees a familiar pair of uniformed legs sticking out from underneath a car…


Surprise, surprise, surprise!  That’s not Goober.  It’s a Goober-in-training named Virgil (Dennis Fimple), who’s looking after the garage because Mr. Pyle is—wait for it—on that same damn camping trip with Andy, Opie and Aunt Bee.  You have to hand it to Gomer, though—a lesser man would start screaming and running naked through the streets of Mayberry until Captain Rogers From Raleigh slapped a strait jacket on him.  (At this point, I was curious as if it were possible that Sergeant Carter was responsible for all this, having called Andy and Company to let them know Gomer was headed their way so that they could carry out an evacuation plan.)  Virgil, being the mini-Goober he is, is impressed as all-get-out when he learns Gomer’s identity.  “Gomer Pyle?  From the Marines?”  No, Gomer Pyle from the Council of Foreign Relations.  (Schmuck.)

Well, the rest of this episode doesn’t particularly break any new narrative ground…Virgil’s called away to help a Mayberry woman start her car and rather than just close the service station Gomer talks Virg into letting him keep an eye on things (after all, he used to be a mechanic hisself).  “I’ll just sit here on the bench and count out-of-state license plates, just like the good ol’ days,” he assures the young grease monkey.  He fixes the car of a couple of seedily sinister-looking bad guys (Lewis Charles, Arthur Batanides) but before he can finish the repairs they rob the gas station at gunpoint.  Gomer manages to locate their whereabouts by following the oil they’re leaking and captures them for the visiting Captain Rogers, who had earlier dismissed Gomer as a rube.

After graciously receiving kudos from Rogers for the crooks’ capture, Gomer decides to get back on the bus and head for home, seeing as how the people he came to see won’t be back anytime soon.  And then that’s when this happens…


Yes, it’s exactly who you think it is: Andy (Andy Griffith), Opie (Ron Howard), Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) and Goober (George Lindsay).  Gomer bangs on the bus window, trying to get their attention—he even tries to open it, with little success.  The bus speeds along its merry way, trapping Gomer in his own private hell.  What elevates this to WTF status is that it’s clearly the actors from the Griffith show…and if they were able to get them to agree to do this cameo, why didn’t they just write them some quick speaking parts?  (This outing was co-written by Myles Wilder, Billy’s nephew, who also penned a good many scripts for McHale’s Navy and The Dukes of Hazzard.)

All four of these performers made previous appearances on Gomer Pyle: Griffith and Howard in “Opie Joins the Marines” (03/18/66), Lindsay in “A Visit from Cousin Goober” (11/26/66) and Bavier in “A Visit from Aunt Bee” (09/08/67)—which, in fact, kicked off the season that also contains “Gomer Goes Home.”   But to the show’s credit, none of the actors receive billing as the closing titles roll—I wonder how difficult it was for CBS to resist the temptation to promote the “special guest stars” in this knowing full well that there were going to be some fans out there cheesed off with the final result.

After five seasons, Nabors decided to call it quits on Gomer Pyle, USMC despite its continuing popularity and in the fall of 1969 he got a self-titled comedy-variety hour that ran for two seasons before the network cancelled, in the memorable phrasing of Pat Buttram, “everything with a tree.”  I have all five seasons of Gomer on DVD but to be honest, I was never a huge fan of the series (I know it’s a sitcom and not a documentary but if Gomer really was in the Marines they would have shipped his country ass off to Vietnam)—I think I continue to revisit it because Frank Sutton was the best thing on the show (longtime Griffith collaborator Richard O. Linke says that part of the reason for the network’s cancellation of The Jim Nabors Hour is that they wanted Nabors to give Sutton his walking papers and Nabors refused).  Even though there’s no question that Gomer Pyle was king of the doofuses, what happens to him in “Gomer Goes Home” is nightmarishly cruel…and without a doubt, seriously twisted television.

Bookmark and Share

Thursday, July 28, 2011

50s Monster Mash Blogathon: Tarantula (1955)



This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the 50s Monster Mash Blogathon, which is currently underway at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear from July 28 through August 2.  I want to warn any arachnophobes or people who get the willies from spiders that this post may contain some graphic pictures liable to do a number on those with heart conditions or pregnant women…you’ve been forewarned.


A desolate, foreboding desert…home to prairie dogs, Gila monsters, road runners and coyotes…a person could become intoxicated just by drinking in its beauty and majesty…

"Gad!  I'll never mix carrot juice and radish juice again as long as I live..."
…that is, until an ugly man wearing jammies shows up and ends up expiring in same.  The opening credits let us know that the film we are watching is Tarantula, a 1955 science fiction/horror offering from Universal-International that was helmed by cult director Jack Arnold and produced by former Mercury Theatre player William Alland.  These two gentlemen were responsible for some of the best films of the science fiction and horror released in the 50s, notably the classics It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).  (They also collaborated on Revenge of the Creature [1955] and The Space Children [1958]…proving you can’t always hit one out of the park when it’s your turn at-bat.)

The death of the creepy-looking dude in the PJ’s is being investigated by Desert Rock, AZ sheriff Jack Andrews (Nestor Paiva)…who’s so baffled by the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the corpse that he asks country doctor Matt Hastings (John Agar) in for a consult—Andrews theorizes that the dead man is biologist Eric Jacobs, but doesn’t get a confirmation on this until Jacobs’ colleague, Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), arrives at the funeral home to identify the body.  When Hastings questions Deemer about Jacobs’ distorted face and hands, the Professor explains that his pal had acromegaly…but the explanation doesn’t sit right with Doc Hastings, because it would appear that Jacobs’ symptoms developed within a four-day time span—and in doing some research on the condition at a medical library Hastings can find no recorded case of acromegaly developing so quickly.

Hastings isn’t completely wrong—it is acromegaly, but it was brought about by experiments into developing a nutrient that will stave off the almost certain food shortages resulting from the world’s looming overpopulation.  Deemer, by attaching the nutrient to a radioactive isotope, has been able to produce a white rat as large as an Irish setter in twelve days and a guinea pig the size of a Segway in thirteen.  But the curious research is that Deemer and his friends—for reasons explained only to move the plot along—have created a Mexican red rumped tarantula as big as an irradiated guinea pig.  (Perhaps tarantula steaks are considered a delicacy in this part of the United States…I really couldn’t say.)

"Mmm-hmm!  That's good eatin'!"

“Radiation doesn’t work that way!” I can hear you yelling out in the blogosphere.  (And I have a pretty good idea who it is.)  But for the purposes of this motion picture, the filmmakers assure us that not only does it work this way but it’s capable of creating creatures like this…

"Boogedy boogedy boogedy!"
This “boogeyman” attacks Professor Deemer and in the struggle, the laboratory is set ablaze…and just before the misshapen creature draws his rations, he injects Deemer with a hypodermic filled with the same nutrient the Prof has been using on the lab animals.  Creature Boy also manages to crash the glass cell that housed the big honkin’ arachnid, allowing it to escape from the lab and wander off into the desert for points unknown.

Mom always said that if we left the door open bugs would get in.  This is the exception to the rule.
The laboratory in a shambles, Deemer plants the dead boogeyman six feet under in his spacious backyard and awaits the arrival of a new assistant in Stephanie Clayton (Mara Corday), who arrives in Desert Rock at a transportation disadvantage (the town’s only cab driver is out of town on a fare) and so the gallant Doc Hastings agrees to give her a lift out to Casa del Deemer.  Hastings may be a chivalrous medico but he’s also a bit of a chauvinist porker, because after learning why Clayton came to Desert Rock he comments: “I knew it would happen…give women the vote and whaddya get?  Lady scientists…”  (Because the concept of a female scientist is so revolutionary in this backwoods burg, Stephanie goes by “Steve” for the rest of the movie, as if she just walked out of a Howard Hawks film.)  During the ride out to the lab, Steve is also informed by the tactful Matt that her patron, the eminent Professor Jacobs, is taking a permanent dirt nap.  Knowing that acromegaly is an extremely rare glandular condition, Steve asks Matt if he’s sure about the cause of death and he replies: “No…no, I’m not sure at all.”


This is one of my favorite bits in the movie—our leading man and woman speed by in his ride and then suddenly from out of nowhere…


…if Hastings had only looked in his rear view mirror this picture would be over by now.

Arriving at the home of Deemer, our young couple find the good Professor being questioned by snoopy news hawk Joe Burch (Ross Elliott)—Deemer is giving him the skinny on the fire that destroyed most of the lab.  During a conversation between Dr. Deemer, Steve and Matt, we learn of the existence of a previous assistant named Paul Lund—and though it’s not revealed until later in the film, the audience is able to put two and two together and deduce that the monstrous being who struggled with Deemer earlier before giving Dr. D a one-way ticket to Acromegaly City was indeed the unfortunate Mr. Lund.  Deemer also takes the time to give Hastings and Clayton a guided tour of Deemer Industries, and explains the need to find a food source that will meet the needs of an expanding population…

“There are 2 billion people in the world today,” Deemer explains. “In 1975 there'll be 3 billion...in the year 2000, there'll be 3,625,000,000…”  (The world population in mid-2000 was 6.1 billion…so it’s safe to assume that Professor D will not be advancing to the Showcase Showdown.)  “Well, not many of us look that far into the future, sir,” is Hastings’ rather idiotic reply…and I guess Deemer is too much of a gentleman to ask this doofus where he got his medical degree.  Because Dr. Doofus is still not convinced that the late Professor Jacobs was suffering from acromegaly, Deemer gives consent to allow Hastings to perform an autopsy…which results in a diagnosis of acromegaly.  Sheriff Andrews pronounces the case closed…and like Deemer, also politely avoids the matter that Doc Hastings may have graduated from a diploma mill.


Meanwhile, the mad experiments continue in the House of Deemer.  After instructing Steve on how to work with the radiation isotope, Professor Deemer injects a small lab rat with the nutrient and then shows his assistant a bunny rabbit whose current lifespan appears to be about four months …but is in actuality six days old!  But Deemer is concerned that the nutrient is wildly unstable, and explains to Steve that further testing is necessary before the fait accompli of using it on humans.  “There mustn’t be a mistake this time,” he intones…and why she doesn’t respond “This time?” remains shrouded in mystery.


Steve may be competing in a male-dominated field but she still takes time out for the important things in life—or as she declares: “Science is science but a girl must have her hair done.”  (This might explain, for example, why Albert Einstein’s do always looked unkempt…he and his stylist could never coordinate their schedules.)  As she leaves, Deemer begins to absentmindedly rub his sore arm and we can clearly see that he’s developing the same “unstable” symptoms that befell his two unfortunate colleagues:

In town, Dr. Rico Suave continues his transparent attempts to make time with Steve, telling her: “You dress up our town very nicely…if you don’t look out, our Chamber of Commerce is going to list you in its publicity of local attractions.”  (Oh, Stevie—set your cap for the big lug before he gets away.)   “Do you have to go right back?” he asks her, and when she replies in the negative the audience becomes concerned for all those starving children in Europe who will suffer from Steve’s inattention to her work.  The two of them shamelessly flirt with one another for what seems like the rest of the picture, and they finally wind up enjoying a smoke break underneath some bluffs out in the desert…


…when they are nearly killed by a small avalanche that materializes out of nowhere. There is, of course, an explanation for this phenomenon but Matt and Steve leave the area before they learn why they were nearly flattened…

Does whatever a spider can.
…yes, it’s the itsy bitsy spider that climbed up the water spout.  It’s a darned good thing that mountain face was there in the desert for it to hide behind.

Arriving back at the laboratory, Matt and Steve start to discover that there is some seriously weird sh*t going on in that place, starting with the lab rat that Deemer injected with the nutrient earlier that morning…


…that has now grown to the size of a wheel of cheddar.  When Doc Hastings beats a hasty retreat, Deemer comes downstairs to chastise his assistant for allowing Hastings to see the secrets in their treehouse club…and…well…


…the dude has been seriously Rondo-ized.  (I included the earlier picture so you can compare and contrast.)


Let this be a lesson, boys and girls—botox can be a harsh mistress.

En route back to town, Hastings stops by Death Bluff to see if he can determine the cause of the avalanche…and he meets up with Sheriff Jack, who’s on his way out to investigate some even more weird sh*t occurring at the home of rancher Andy Andersen (Steve Darrell).  And by weird, I mean this:


If I had to guess, I’d suspect some local high schoolers.  The cattle have been stripped clean—“Just like peeling a banana,” Andy observes.  The only other unexplained phenomena nearby is this mysterious pool of white stuff, which Hastings discovers not too far from the bones of the customized cattle.  Since Andrews was elected sheriff solely on the basis of how many hands he shook at the county fair and not for his investigative skills, he tells Andersen to stand guard that night and keep an eye out for the return of whatever it was that made a snack out of his heifers.  The unknown creature does return, and as the audience is clued in by now, the cow-killing culprit is that big honkin’ spider.  At this point in the narrative, I just want to say that I’d include some screen caps of the arachnid rompin’ and stompin’ at Rancho Andersen but the visual quality of the film print shown on TCM makes it nigh impossible (they really wound up with a crappy print…and it’s not letterboxed, either)—you’d just end up staring at blackness and saying “I think I can make out one of the spider’s legs…but I’m not sure.”  (For the record, our eight-legged freaky pal kills Andy in the struggle.)


The spider also takes time out from its steak dinner to attack a traveling truck that has the effrontery to interrupt its digestion, and the giant beast throws it into a ditch, killing the two men inside.  Sheriff Jack and Doc Hastings arrive at the scene of the crime the next morning and find the truck’s occupants stripped clean in the same manner as Andersen’s cattle.  And a little ways from the remains…


…more mysterious white sh*t.  Hastings gets down on one knee, putting his freakin’ finger in the substance and taking a sniff…then commenting that “There doesn’t seem to be any distinctive odor”…and then like the man of science that I’m starting to hugely suspect he is not, he takes a taste…

"Do I detect a slight marzipan flavor...?"
Ferchrissake, Hastings…that could be tarantula doody for all you know.  He asks the state policemen on the site if they have a jar or Thermos so he can collect some of the spider crap, and while he waits for them to locate the receptacle he warns reporter Burch off from covering the event, advising him to write it up as merely a routine accident story.  “If you print anything as vague as what we’ve got you’ll scare half the state to death,” Hastings warns him.  Yeah, like the eventual truth about this whole thing isn’t going to make some people crap their pants.

Back in his office, Hastings’ examination of the mysterious white substance yields no easy answers…and he admits as such to Andrews and Burch, which would also explain why he tasted that arachnid waste as if it were vanilla pudding in the first place.  But in his studies, the acidic content of the fluid would seem to suggest that it’s some sort of insect venom, and when a skeptical Burch argues that there’s not an insect big enough to produce that amount Hastings announces that he’ll take the stuff out to Professor Deemer’s lab and get an expert opinion.  Placing a call to the lab, Hastings speaks with a panicky Steve, who informs him that Deemer is ill and that his hands and face have swollen to enormous proportions.  The phone call is interrupted when a hand lunges out at Steve, causing her to scream…and Hastings goes from zero to sixty in his jalopy to get out to the laboratory where he is greeted with this:

I counted five "Ninas"...
Gad!  He’s positively grotesque!  And that’s when the curtain comes down on all the lies and deception—Deemer tells Matt and Steve that his colleague Jacobs, being an impatient old fart, was convinced that the instability of the nutrient was nothing to be concerned about and one day while Deemer was in town Jacobs injected himself and Lund with the solution for sh*ts and giggles.  Deemer also spills the beans about the lab fire and that the animals were destroyed…including a cute irradiated tarantula that’s turned up missing.  (You can find it just behind that rock!)

Realizing he’s out of his league on this giant tarantula business, Hastings takes an out-of-town trip and meets up with Milburn Drysdale Dr. Townsend (Raymond Bailey), a researcher at the Arizona Agricultural Institute.  Townsend compliments Matt on his call about the venom (it’s definitely tarantula spit, all right) but adopts a bit of skepticism when Hastings tells him he found eight-foot pools of it near the victims.   Now…I’m certainly not a scientifical kind of guy but if I learned that great big gobs of spider hock were turning up in a desert in Arizona I would be phoning the proper authorities with all deliberate speed…but in this particular instance, Professor Townsend takes time out from the proceedings to show Hastings some home movies:

"And I captured this magnificent beast with my Toshiba just outside my hotel room..."

I swear I’m not making that up.  After the show, Townsend explains to Hastings that the venom from a tarantula is comparable to that of a hornet…and that it’s all part of God’s plan, life’s rich pageant and the usual b.s.  “What if circumstances magnified one of them in size and strength, took it out of its primitive world, and turned it loose in ours?” Hastings asks Townsend.

“Then expect something that's fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that ever walked on earth!”  Well, thanks a whole heck of a lot, Dr. Emergency Broadcasting System—maybe you should have thought about that before padding the narrative with your boring sixteen millimeter lecture!

Something that's fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that ever walked on earth...
Since Hastings narrowly escapes being bored to death, he must eventually come to terms with the titular beast because no amount of torrential rain is going to wash that thing out.  He can’t place a call to his hometown because Townsend’s gal Friday informs him that the phone lines are out—at this point in the film, the giant beastie has gone on a rampage, both giving AT&T the finger (by downing the phone lines) and terrorizing his girl out at the laboratory…this screen cap is a little blurry but I love how she walks blithely by the window, completely unaware that there’s a humongous arachnid peering in…

"Lady?  Oh, come on...let me in!"
The spider proceeds to kick the house in, which wakes up Professor Deemer and while Matt arrives in time to save his main squeeze, Deemer is a casualty of not being insured against home spider invasions.  The rest of the movie unspools with our young couple joining forces with Sheriff Jack and other authorities to put an end to the spider, which they manage to do by napalming the beejeezus out of it.

“I know what you're thinking: ‘Did he fire six rockets or only five?’ Well, to tell you the truth, in all this excitement I kind of lost track myself.”  An Air Force pilot’s got to know his limitations...
Before sitting down and becoming reacquainted with Tarantula for this blogathon, I tried to remember the last time I saw the movie and though I’m sure I watched it between now and the first time I caught it on WOWK-TV’s Chiller Theater it’s lost a bit of its luster over the years.  Both Arnold’s It Came From Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon are superior movies (not to mention The Incredible Shrinking Man [1957]) to this giggle-inducing B-picture that seems longer than its running time of 79 minutes.  There are, of course, pluses in Tarantula—I enjoyed seeing familiar TV faces like Carroll, Bailey and Hank “Fred Ziffel” Patterson in small roles (not to mention Clint Eastwood, who would go on to TV fame on Rawhide) and I appreciate that the film tries to explore additional avenues of science fiction (the acromegaly angle, for example) rather than put all its eggs in one big giant bug basket.  The special effects in Tarantula are pretty impressive for the time, utilizing a real spider in many of the shots—far more convincing than the giant ants in Them! (1954)…even though I would argue that Them! is a better movie due to its stronger narrative and superior acting.

You see…a little of John Agar goes a long way with me—the actor, best known for marrying Shirley Temple and appearing in scores of John Wayne films (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon) saw his onscreen stock take a nose dive by the mid 50s and he was forced to portray smirky heroes in films like Revenge of the Creature, The Mole People (1956) and the camp classic The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), a serious candidate for the WTF Movie Hall of Fame.  He has no chemistry whatsoever with co-star Mara Corday, whom I will admit I’m fond of even when she was also grinding out sci-fi cheapies like The Giant Claw and The Black Scorpion (both 1957).  (She and Clint must have become good friends in this one, because she later had small parts in some of his movies: The Gauntlet, Sudden Impact and Pink Cadillac, to name a few.)  Their relationship in Tarantula might best be summed up in this deathless dialogue exchange:

STEVE: What does it look like?
MATT: Oh, like something from another life science... quiet, yet strangely evil…as if it were hiding its secrets from man…
STEVE: You make it sound so creepy
MATT: The unknown always is…

Even Science was stunned!

Bookmark and Share