Saturday, August 25, 1973: 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) / Murder in the Blue Room (1944)

Synopsis: Off the coast of Sicily, fishermen Verrico (George Khoury) and Mondello (Don Orlando) are admonishing young Pepe (Bart Braverman) to be more serious about pulling in the nets from the water. Pepe is a kid with his head in the clouds, dreaming about Texas and being a cowboy.

They are astonished to see a massive rocketship appear out of the clear blue sky. It seems to be in distress, swooping in low over the water before crashing. It goes in nose-first, then slowly begins to sink.

All the fishing boats in the area quickly row away from the wreck, but Verrico realizes there might be survivors on board, so he turns the boat around and rows toward it. Finding a hole just above the waterline, he and Mondello climb inside and find two men injured, but alive: Col. Calder (William Hopper) and Dr. Sharman (Arthur Space). Before they can save any other of the ship’s occupants, it sinks below the surface.

The two survivors are brought to shore. With the village doctor out on a call, medical student Marissa Leonardo (Joan Taylor) is quickly recruited to take care of the sick men. Sharman is suffering from a mysterious illness — he has a high fever and strange fungus-like growth on his skin. Calder, however, has not caught the disease.

Meanwhile, Pepe finds an odd canister washed up on the shore. Inside is a translucent mass — what appears to be a soft-shelled egg. He takes it to Marissa’s father, zoologist Dr. Leonardo, to whom he often sells odd flora and fauna. Leonardo gives Pepe a small sum, but is astonished when he sees it isn’t any sort of life form he’s familiar with.

Calder wakes up and is immediately concerned about the whereabouts of the canister. Against Marissa’s advice, he goes to meet General Macintosh (Thomas B. Henry) and Dr. Uhl (John Zaremba) who have just arrived from America.

Calder and the Americans tell the astonished local officials that the rocket ship was the first expedition to the planet Venus. They had successfully landed and recovered samples of Venusian life. By far the most valuable sample was the egg packed inside the canister.

When Marissa returns home that night she discovers that the egg has hatched and a small bipedal creature has emerged. Leonardo puts it in a cage that he tows behind his truck.

By next morning, the creature has grown — it’s now over three feet tall. Leonardo decides to take it to Rome and see if any scientists at the zoological institute can identify it. But he and Marissa don’t get very far on their journey before the creature breaks loose from the cage and disappears into the woods.

By this time Calder and the Americans have learned from Pepe what happened to the canister, but by the time they reach Dr. Leonardo it’s too late. They trace the creature — now the size of a man — to a farmhouse, where it gets into an altercation with a dog and attacks the farmer. Knowing the creature can be lured by sulfur (which it eats) and disabled with electricity, Calder arranges for a steel net to be dropped on the creature by helicopter. Once that is accomplished, an electric current is run through the net, rendering the creature helpless.

The creature is taken to the zoological institute in Rome, and while it is in a dormant condition, it has continued to grow and is now about 20 feet tall. But a freak accident interrupts the current holding the creature in stasis, and it breaks free of its enclosure. Before long it is on the loose in the middle of Rome….

Comments: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms had made quite a splash (so to speak) when it premiered in 1953; it inspired the Toho production Gojira and before long all kinds of movies were depicting various extinct creatures getting un-frozen and running around in the 20th century.

Beast was Ray Harryhausen’s first solo film, and unquestionably his movie; the entire plot was built around his stop-motion effects. It Came From Beneath the Sea and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers were similarly designed as vehicles for the SFX work. 20 Million Miles to Earth ostensibly starred William Hopper and Joan Taylor, but we aren’t fooled: the real star is the bipedal “Ymir” from Venus. Aside from the high-profile creature, the most distinctive aspect of the movie is its setting: it takes place in Sicily, a locale reportedly chosen because Harryhausen figured he could sneak in a vacation while working on the film.

Bill Warren, in Keep Watching the Skies!, recalls that he and his school friends back in 1957 debated how the Ymir effect was done, convinced that it had to have been a man in a suit but unable to figure out how an actor’s body could have conformed to the crook-legged gait of the monster. That’s as great a testament to Harryhausen’s effects work as any exhaustive retelling of his technique. This was simply the best work Harryhausen had done up to that point in his career.

The movie is often maligned as being poorly-written and acted, with little to recommend it beyond the special effects. But while the plot is pretty basic, it isn’t bad; the opening sequence, in which a rocket ship crashes into the sea near a group of fishing boats, is a strong and audacious beginning. Pepe’s discovery of the strange egg in the canister adds a bit of mystery (though it seems improbable that it would so quickly wash ashore) and we can easily believe that Dr. Leonardo would be the first person he’d take it to.

Somewhat progressive for a film of this era was the fact that Marissa is studying to be a doctor — most films would simply have made her a nurse — but this is undermined by William Hopper’s sneering dismissal of her as “almost a doctor”.

Also notable is the decision to portray the Italian government officials as intelligent and responsible, concerned with the safety of their people. General McIntosh emphasizes to Calder at a couple of points during the film that the Americans can’t act unilaterally — they require the cooperation of the Italian government. This sensitivity toward how foreigners are treated might be due to the fact that that film was shot in Italy and the filmmakers no doubt wanted to keep their hosts happy , but it’s still nice to see Americans of the era respecting the wishes of their less powerful allies.

The film is paced pretty well around the Harryhausen set pieces: the crash of the ship, the monster’s first appearance after hatching from the egg, its breaking free of the cage, its fight with the dog and the farmer, its battle with the bull elephant in Rome, and its final climactic scene in the Coliseum.

Even though it’s a pretty enjoyable movie overall, the plot holes in this one start early and pile up fast. Once it hatches from the egg the Ymir grows to gigantic size within a couple of days, even though it eats almost nothing. What it does eat turns out to be sulfur, which doesn’t sound very nutritious. We’re told that the creature doesn’t have a respiratory system like those found on Earth, yet when the creature is sleeping we see its chest rising and falling. The Italian government, while understandably distracted by a space monster, doesn’t seem very concerned about the virulent deadly plague Dr. Sharman has just brought back from Venus; and in fact the plague is quickly forgotten, and it isn’t clear why it was kept in the movie at all.

Like the earlier Ray Harryhausen / Charles Schneer films for Columbia, the cast is uneven. Frank Puglia is quite good as Dr. Leonardo, but the same can’t be said for most of the other characters. Joan Taylor does well enough as medical student Marissa, but her character, after a promising introduction, is simply relegated to the love-interest part.

I always enjoy seeing Thomas B. Henry, who played General Macintosh, as well as John Zeremba, who played an unlucky scientist in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. They are both veteran character actors who were often brought in to provide a little color to thinly-written parts.

George Khoury’s Verrico rescues two men from the spacecraft in the first reel, which usually signals he’s to be the regular-joe hero who will eventually defeat the monster and win the affections of the leading lady, but this doesn’t happen. Instead, he quickly disappears without so much as a thank-you from the American authorities. To add insult to injury, Khoury’s name doesn’t even appear in the credits.

Instead, it’s the square-jawed William Hopper who fulfills the hero function in this picture. Unfortunately, Hopper is barely up to the task. He brings no real presence to the screen at all, and while he isn’t terrible, there’s just no warmth or expressiveness in his performance. As in The Deadly Mantis, Hopper never seems to think about or react to anything that happens; he just barks his lines out the same way in every scene. Hopper was the son of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (which I suppose must have helped his career) and while he isn’t entirely without talent he’s definitely not up to carrying an entire movie on his own. He found his niche on the TV series Perry Mason (1957 – 1966) where he played Paul Drake, Mason’s go-to private detective.

Murder in the Blue Room

Synopsis: Linda and Frank Baldrich are throwing a party at their mansion out in the country. 20 years earlier Linda’s first husband, Sam Kirkland, died in the mysterious “Blue Room” of the house. The death was ruled a suicide, and the room has been locked and abandoned ever since.

The house has a reputation for being haunted, but that doesn’t detract from the celebration. The party is in full swing: attendees include Linda’s daughter Nan (Anne Gwynne), who has recently returned from time spent singing on the vaudeville circuit; Larry Dearden (Bill Williams), a family friend who’s long nursed a crush on Nan; Steve Randall (Donald Cook), a mystery writer invited to the party by Nan; and Dr. Harry Carroll, longtime family friend and physician.

For entertainment, Nell has booked the Three Jazzybelles (Grace McDonald, Betty Kean and June Preisser), a wisecracking singing trio, and we learn they are friends of Nan’s from her time as a vaudevillian.

Larry half-jokingly tells Nan that he plans to propose to her tonight and she laughs it off, then introduces him to Steve Randall. Larry is jealous but it intercepted by Dr. Carroll, who pulls him aside and tells him he has important news that will explain why he can never marry Nan.

The Jazzybelles are a hit, and when Frank comments on how talented they are, Nan suggests that he book them in the chain of theaters he owns. Realizing that Nan invited the girls to the party for just this purpose, Frank gives the trio his card and promises them a booking. Delighted, the girls return to the city.

That night, Larry insists on sleeping in the Blue Room. The next morning, someone from the Blue Room buzzes the kitchen, but when Edwards the butler goes to the room, he finds the door locked and no one answering the door.

Frank, Dr. Carroll and Steve force the door and find there’s no one in the room, but that the windows are wide open. Larry, it would seem, has fallen out the windows to his death.

The police are called, and the JazzyBelles are brought back to the house as suspects. There are many strange goings-on in the house: a piano plays by itself, and the three singers see a ghost walking around the grounds. They decide to stay up all night by drinking coffee, but someone puts sleeping pills in the coffee pot and they end up falling asleep. Steve insists on sleeping in the Blue Room himself, but the next morning he is gone, replaced by the body of Larry, who has been shot to death. But by whom?

Comments: This is the third remake of the 1932 German film Geheiminis des Blauen Zimmers, one of which (1933’s Secret of the Blue Room) we’ve seen a couple of times on Horror Incorporated. Unlike the other versions of the Blue Room chestnut this is an extremely light confection, clocking in at exactly one hour, and even that brief running time is padded with a few musical numbers.

At the center is a trio of wisecracking vaudevillians, the Three Jazzybelles. Their boogie-woogie stylings are charming enough if you’re in the right frame of mind, but their banter is strictly of the corn-pone variety:

Peggy

Don’t tell me you’re afraid of a little trip to the cellar!

Betty

I don’t have to tell you — my knees are beating it out in Morse code!

Apparently written as a vehicle for the Ritz Brothers, it works pretty well as a showcase for the Jazzybelles, who seem to have been assembled just for this picture; they don’t appear to have done anything before or since. Forced to become amateur sleuths in order to clear their names (implausibly, the cops suspect them in Larry’s disappearance) they creep around the old dark house and crack wise, and when things threaten to get too dark they do a quick musical number and everything’s okay again. A real ghost shows up now and again, perhaps to mitigate the disappointment at the explained-away ending, and as you might expect it’s strictly there for comic relief, asking the girls for a light and directions to the local cemetery.

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2 comments

  1. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH never aired on Chiller Theater, the fate of all of Ray Harryhausen’s Columbia features (only seen it once in 40 years). MURDER IN THE BLUE ROOM should be commended for employing a different killer than THE MISSING GUEST, so not a straight up remake of SECRET OF THE BLUE ROOM with music added. Clearly better than GUEST but not as good as SECRET, Milton Parsons as the chauffer variously compared to both Dracula and Frankenstein.

    Like

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