What makes some movies, especially 1954s sci-fi classic Them! the type of film audiences can return to with no diminishing of pleasure? There is no shock value to the story by George Worthing Yates (The Tall Target, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers). First-run audiences would have read the reviews and seen the trailers and lobby cards. Later television viewers would read the TV Guide synopsis. Sixty years later, we know the legend.
Ted Sherdeman's (The Winning Team, TVs Hazel) excellent screenplay fits the story pieces together in perfect mystery mode, ever moving forward keeping us totally involved. Director Gordon Douglas was a former child actor who started out as a gag man at the Roach studio. The IMDb has a quote from Douglas, the director of over 97 features (Come Fill the Cup, The Detective, Walk a Crooked Mile, etc): "I have a large family to feed and it's only occasionally that I find a story that interests me." It seems that in Them! Mr. Douglas found material which piqued his interest. It is the nuts and bolts of how the story is presented that draws us in every time.
A lot of credit is due to art director Stanley Fleischer and special effects director Ralph Ayers and their teams for the creation of the truly terrifying radiation mutated ants. Creatures capable of nothing less than the destruction of mankind. Originally planned to be filmed in colour and 3D, the atmosphere of Them! works perfectly in the black and white world from cinematographer Sid Hickox (White Heat, The Big Sleep).
A young girl is found wandering in shock in the New Mexico desert. Three people have disappeared and are presumed dead. A storekeeper and soon a police officer will die under violent and bizarre circumstances. There are plenty of clues, but nothing adds up.
Top-billed James Whitmore plays Police Sergeant Ben Peterson. In his distinguished career Whitmore gave us a variety of characters from his Support Actor Oscar nomination as Sgt. Kinnie in Battleground, the shady Gus in The Asphalt Jungle, real-life President Harry Truman in Give 'Em Hell, Harry to The Shawshank Redemption and memorable TV appearances as in On Thursday We Leave for Home from Twilight Zone. Ben Peterson is a hero. He's not a hero with a cape and super powers, but a hero because of his compassion for the victims and dogged determination to see the case through to the end.
Peterson is teamed with FBI agent Bob Graham played by James Arness. The following year Arness would become a major television star in a 20+ year run as Matt Dillon in the TV version of Gunsmoke. Initially concerned about derailing his burgeoning movie career, Jim declined CBSs offer, but was convinced to take the role by his mentor and Batjac boss, John Wayne. In his autobiography Arness relates that the very serious Jimmy Whitmore and he would crack up when looking at bodies in the morgue that had been killed by the ants. In a case of the more you want to stop laughing, the more you can't, the actors were taken to task by studio executives and had to have their reaction shots filmed separately.
Dr. Medford and Agent Graham's first encounter with Them!
Joan Weldon, James Arness
In Them! viewers are rewarded with a plethora of future TV heroes. 23-year-old Leonard Nimoy, a hero to sci-fi fans the world over as Spock on Star Trek, is an Air Force Sergeant relaying vital information. Fess Parker, soon to be a phenomenon as Disney's Davey Crockett and later TVs Daniel Boone is a pilot whose encounter with the flying ants gets him tossed in the looney bin. One of TVs best dads, William Schallert of The Patty Duke Show plays an ambulance attendant. Baseball player turned actor, John Beradino, is a Los Angeles patrolman. For 30 years Beradino played Dr. Steve Hardy on TVs still running General Hospital. Richard Deacon plays a reporter in the movie. As Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show Deacon was a hero to bald brothers-in-law everywhere.
The discovery of the radiation mutated ants is thanks to the Drs. Medford from the Department of Agriculture. The elder Dr. Medford is played by Supporting Actor Oscar Winner for Miracle on 34th Street Edmund Gwenn. I have a problem with Mr. Gwenn in that every time I watch him in a film, be it The Trouble With Harry or Foreign Correspondent or Apartment for Peggy, etc. I am convinced that I have just seen his best performance. Them! is no exception to the rule. Gwenn makes me believe he's never been anything but a dedicated, myopic academic.
The younger Dr. Medford, Patricia, is played by opera singer Joan Weldon. After a disappointing sojourn in Hollywood as "the girl" in Them!, Gunsight Ridge and Riding Shotgun, she would return to the world of musical theatre. In hindsight, "the girls" of Them! are the vanguard of professional women to come. Dr. Medford is a take charge scientist who knows her business. That she gets to smile at and exchange snappy remarks with Agent Graham is all the personal story this adventure needs. Ann Doran (Meet John Doe, Roughly Speaking) plays a medical doctor in charge of the case of the traumatized girl at the beginning of the movie. Dorothy Green (The Big Heat, TVs The Young and the Restless) is a sympathetic Los Angeles police woman.
The tracking of the monsters and their murderous rampage leads to Los Angeles and two of Hollywood's most popular old coots. Dub Taylor (You Can't Take It With You, Bonnie and Clyde), father of Gunsmoke star and artist Buck Taylor, is a railway guard whose story regarding stolen sugar rings false to local authorities, but brings our team closer to their quarry. Olin Howlin (Nancy Drew - Reporter, the first victim of The Blob) is a drunk whose hallucinations are more real and deadly than he knows. Soon the entire city is under martial law as we reach the tension-filled and emotional climax in the 700 mile network of storm drains under the city. And, yes, the ending is always the same no matter how many times you've seen Them!.
TCM is screening Them! on Sunday, October 27th at 6:00 pm. Not everything that goes bump in the night came from Universal or Val Lewton. Happy Hallowe'en.