Sunday, September 29, 2013

Caftan Woman's Choice: One for October on TCM

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.


  1. I never realized this was better than the average B horror movie until I started reading critical essays, like this one, online. I remember watching it on TV and liking it, but that was when I didn't know better. And how did I miss seeing a young Nimoy in it?

  2. And, it all goes better with a glass of wine!

  3. Rich, I think you're due for a re-watch. He's a young, jokey sort of Nimoy, but the voice is unmistakable.

  4. FlickChick, you are so right. The perfect drink to compliment the perfect movie.

  5. "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."

    Very, very good point.

    I love your roll call of favorite coming-to-a-TV-near-you actors. Great post

  6. Love your statement of Edmund Gwenn's acting each time you see him in a movie. So true.

    This is one of the best of its genre, a giant insect movie for those who normally don't like this kind of fare, such as my mother.

    CW, I was going to make mention of Joan Weldon's role as storekeeper Milly Scott in "The Rifleman." I looked her up and had her confused with Joan Taylor. They do look quite a bit alike.

    I always liked Weldon's no nonsense approach to the role.

    I hope everyone gets a chance to see this one. A splendid movie on every level.

  7. Thanks, JTL. It really is a kick to see all those soon to become familiar faces, yet they never truly take us out of the story. Bravo for "Them!".

  8. Kevin, until my recent re-watch I actually spent a few solid minutes almost convincing myself that Joan Taylor was in this movie. She screamed most convincingly in "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers" and "20 Million Miles to Earth". As Miss Milly, she always managed to keep her cool.

  9. Caftan Woman, we of Team Bartilucci HQ fully understand why you chose THEM! for your October pick; how can you or any movie lover NOT love it in all its facets! We've long counted THEM! as one of our favorite science-fiction movies -- heck, we consider THEM! one of our favorite movies, period! We've always liked that its kind of the PSYCHO or FROM DUSK TILL DAWN of its day, in that it starts as a riveting police procedural and before your eyes, it becomes a wow of a monster flick with characters you care about between scares! (The C.W., you've absolutely nailed all the aspects I love about THEM!, including the amazing cast, practically seconds before they became film and TV stars, including Edmund Gwenn before MIRACLE ON 34th Street made him an Oscar-winner and durable character actor! Indeed, there's no shortage of memorable character actors, from Olin Howland to Fess Parker to so many more! Kudos for picking up on people even I didn't catch, immediately, with folks from NORTH BY NORTH BY NORTHWEST, and so much more! BRAVA on a stellar blog post, my friend!

  10. Dorian, we really, really have to get together and watch some of these favourites someday. What fun we could have!

  11. C.W, even though I live in NE PA and you live in Canada (my hubby's birthplace), one of these days we need some version of a transatlantic phone call to watch THEM! and/or other favorites of ours, kinda like what the gang at those TCM Party People do! ;-D In the meantime, it's always a delight to talk classic movies with you, thanks to the miracle of blogging!

  12. When we win the lottery, how about we copy TCM and have a CMBA cruise?



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