28 February 2008

[sf] A Field Guide To The Characters In The 1953 Version Of War Of The Worlds

1396. As I'm wont to mention, one of my favorite films of all time is the 1953 George Pál version of War of the Worlds. It was ID4 for the Korean War set (or maybe ID4 was WotW for the Gulf War set; the decision is left as an exercise for the reader).
Aside from those awesome war whompers, the characters were ... and to me, still are ... fascinating to me just as characters. Pál managed to get performances that were stereotypes of 1950's America but, in some ineffable way, nuanced. If they were cartoonish middle-American types, they were cartoonish middle-American types that cast a shadow. You wondered what their backstories were. Also, you wondered who the hell played them.

The credits to this movie were the epitome of the mid-20th Century Hollywood ensemble picture; the actors were arranged in a cascade of names on one single card in the titles, with no connections to which characters they played. And, as it turned out, not all the performances were credited. I just wanted to know who played what and what their character names were for the longest time (aside from the major characters, few if any supporting characters addressed each other by name).

Recently, I found that some gracious individual had posted the final draft – that version presumably operant on the day shooting began – of Barré Lyndon's original screenplay. Using that (which you can view for yourselves here) and IMDB's cast listing, I believe I at last have a pretty good mapping of which character was which, and who played what. Many of these actors had to that point and beyond that point reputations as dependable character actors, reinforcing their everymannish image.

Some of them even worked through the 1960s and 1970s, so chances are, any given reader of this list may well have seen them on American TV. You may see some familiar faces. Also, I take my usual irreverent approach, though it must be added that most of these actors have long since died, so no disrespect is intended.

They divide into two main groups; the residents of Linda Rosa, where the opus opens, and the scientific and military group, defined perforce.

The Citizens of Linda Rosa, California

The setting for the opening act of the 1953 WotW is the fictional California rural town of Linda Rosa, a place near enough to LA that you could day-trip but far enough away that they still had square-dances at the community hall. If we read the narrative correctly, it's near the Puente Hills, which is around 25-35 miles east of Los Angeles, in eastern LA County, near then-rural Orange County. It was at the time far enough out that when General Mann gave an update on the Martians position, he stated that the crisis would come when "they moved on the metropolitan area". In the group that witnessed the falling object outside the theater at the beginning, Pastor Collins remarks that it must be "halfway to Pomona". After finally getting back to Pacific Tech, Dr Forrester remarks that they "walked halfway from Corona".

The center of this circle was the character Sylvia Van Buren, played by a glamourous-but-still-available-at-a-bargain-rate Ann Robinson:

"He knows all about meteors ..."

Sylvia's uncle (and, judging by the relationship they seemed to share and some of her backstory related to Dr. Forrester in the farmhouse when they were on the run, her guardian when she was a younger girl), Pastor Dr. Matthew Collins, a beloved local cleric, was played by Lewis Martin:

White collar = red shirt

Rev. Collins's best line: "If they are more advanced than us, then they should be nearer the Creator for that reason." Appreciating his point of view, the Martians subsequently assist Pastor Collins to get even nearer to the Creator than even they are. Hopefully the Reverend was down with cremation.

One of the first characters we see is a Forest Service fire lookout. Named in the script and the IMDB Cast list as Pine Summit Fire Lookout, he was played by actor Peter Adams:

I thought it was no smoking during fire season? No, I didn't get that memo ...

His azimuth-sighting, not-terribly-bright-looking, card-cheating, somewhat gluttonous but expert-square-dance-calling partner is named in the script and the credits as Fiddler Hawkins. He was played by actor Frank Krieg. Best line: "You fellahs have to figure it out. You're scientists!"

He's playing gin, his friend's playing cribbage. Either way, no full deck.

The rest of the featured Linda Rosans were just as colorful and kind of quaint. They were everything we like to remember about 1950's small-town America; cheerful, a little clueless, opportunistic, but good-hearted folks you wouldn't mind rubbing shoulders with in the diner. They included:

Buck Monahan, played by Ralph Dumke. One of the locals with an entreprenurial streak, he shows up at the meteor the morning after with a shovel, ready to prospect for gold ... or whatever:

Goober Pyle - Accent + A Little Extra Dumb = Linda Rosa's most skilled mechanic

Another good-hearted local who knows a fast buck where one can be made is Alonzo Hogue, played by Paul Birch. The script says he's a local real estate agent; when it's suggested that the locals could put up a few picnic tables for the tourists that are sure to come by and see the meteor, he utters his best line of the film: "No! Then they'd bring thier own lunches!" The man knows curb appeal, anyway:

If I had a pager I'd be so on it right now.

The local All-American Boy archetype is Wash Perry, played here by Bill Phipps, who shows a keen eye for the potential benefits of such an attraction: "It's better than a lion's den or a snake pit ... we won't have to feed it!"

Just wait 'til I tell Reggie and Jughead about this!

The local cheerful non-threatening Mexican, credited in the IMDB cast list as Salvatore but in the script as Salvador, was played by a man of European descent and Canadian birth: Jack Kruschen. Give the man credit; he has range:

I don't know, señor. First I was Anglo, then I was one of those mice in the Speedy Gonzales cartoon, now I'm here.

Salvatore's best line comes when him, Wash Perry, and Alonzo Hogue are about to greet the Martians "Don't fool around with something when you don't know what it is." Pure, sweet wisdom, promptly ignored, with unfortunate consequences for the three, as history shows; better advice would perhaps be "If you can't stand the heat, don't stand in the path of the Heat Ray." Also, "Thing that look like huge, metallic, hissing cobra best stayed away from".

Speaking of that, one of my favorite moments come just before the doomed three fly the white flag at the Martians. Still unsure of what they're doing, Salvatore, very worried, asks Wash Perry "What are we going to say to them?"

After almost-visibly riffling through a few thoughts, what does Wash say? "Welcome to Earth", maybe? Or "We mean you no harm?"

No. He says "Welcome to California". Those danged Calfornians thought they were the center of the universe even then! Anyhow!

The local sheriff was named in the script as Sheriff Bogany, and was played by Walter Sande:

We have got to get us one of these! Are you sure tasers won't be invented for another thirty years?

Whose best line came when observing Dr. Forrester's Geiger counter: "Hey, fellah! What you got in here! It's ticking like a bomb!", suggesting that maybe if they had any explosives to deal with, they called in outside help. You can't be too careful.

Rounding out the charming locals is a character simply identified in IMDB cast list and script as Zippy. He was played by Alvy Moore. While he didn't have any particularly memorable lines or much screen-time, Green Acres fans will recognize him as the ADD-ridden county extension agent, Hank Kimball:

I knew I should have taken that county extension job in Pixley!

The name Zippy seems to fit him somehow. He looks like a Zippy, don't he?

Before we move on to the next half, we have an announcment to make; did anyone lose a contact lens in the theater lobby? We seem to have found it:

Look into my eye. I left the other one at home.

You know, fellah, you don't look so good with those distended veins. Need a doctor? No? Well, alright then.

The Scientists and Military Men

The second main group are The Heroes™. The neat thing about the period between World War II and the Korean War was that if you were a scientist or a military man you were the closest thing America had to royalty.

Scientists were improving our lives daily, they gave us the bomb that saved us from the Japanese and the Germans, and they were going to give us rocket ships to take us into space fueled by atomic reactors that would never run dry. The military gave us honest-to-God, made-in-America heroes who did the right thing without being told what it was. These were good times, and we had tall heroes then.

This group's epicenter was Dr. Clayton Forrester, played, of course, by hunky young up-and-comer Gene Barry:

If we could harness the energy in just one of my stares, we could send that meteor back where it came from.

In this cap, he's wearing his special Clark Kent™ Glasses. These have the power of clouding Sylvia Van Buren to his true identity, despite her being a stone-cold admirer of his, even noting that he was on the cover of Time ("You've got to rate to get that!").

Gene Barry fun fact: He was born with the name Eugene Klass, but changed his last name to Barry in honor of a personal here, John Barrymore, and is said to have quipped when asked about that that he thought "Hollywood has room for at least one Barry more."

A warm military acquaintance of Dr. Forrester's and a major supporting character is Marine Major General Mann, played by Les Tremayne, who gives us a another hint of how important Dr. Forrester is on greeting him: "Clayton Forrester! I haven't seen you since Oak Ridge!"

On the one hand, we're all gonna die. On the other hand, you should see my frequent-flyer miles!

General Mann's most memorable line is the famous "Once they begin to move, no more news comes out of that area," punctuated by a long thoughtful pull on his coffee cup.

Stressful times.

In command of the Marines who are surrounding the Linda Rosa machines (and the closest thing to man-pretty in this film, and therefore wins the award) is Col. Ralph Heffner, played by Vernon Rich:

Marine OCS, Class of '35. Major: skin care.

Dr. Forrester's colleagues from the Pacific Institute of Technology (a polytechnic university somewhere in LA probably meant to stand in for CalTech) seem to also fit into some stereotypes which seem to play off World War II. This fellow, Dr. Pryor, played by Bob Cornthwaite, I think of as "the typical American Scientist":

If only Miss Van Buren had a plunging neckline .... ah, well, back to Science!

While he didn't have any particularly memorable lines, his amusement at the gluttonous behavior of Fiddler Hawkins is fun to watch.

The rest of the memorable scientist characters strike me as European refugees from WWII. As a friend once said to me, the story of the arms and space race of the mid-20th century was the story of the competition between our German rocket scientists and thier German rocket scientists.

Dr Duprey, here on the right, played by Ann Codee, is manifestly from France, whilst Dr Bilderbeck, played here by Sandro Giglio, is obviously a German immigrant. As seen in this screen-capture, the two characters are evidently close friends who go a way back (during the attack on LA, Forrester finds them both taking shelter in a church; Bilderbeck credits Duprey with saving his life when the mob got one of the Pacific Tech trucks:

For the last time, darling, you're not Rick, and I'm not Ilsa. Anyone seen a Rite-Aid around here?

My favorite Dupray line comes when examining the Martian blood sample: "I have never seen blood crystals as anemic as these. They may be mental giants ... but, physically ... they're quite primitive!" The other European import was Dr Gratzman, played by Ivan Lebedeff:

I know what you did last summer. Your wave function's collapsed, you see.

His best line: "If you want samples you can get all you want after they drop the bomb!"

That rounds out the characters that I can't get out of my head. In closing, let me remind everyone that this kind of defense is useless against that kind of power. Oh, and before we close, let's remember one very imporant uncredited character; an early role for Zsa Zsa Gabor:

A time to worry.

It went uncredited for obvious reasons.

And let us also leave you with the following:



No comments: