Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Hail Ants!

I feel a great sense of privilege in being a member of the last generation to get to see the classic Warner Bros animated shorts made from the 1930s through the 50s before they fell victim to the political correction police, whose scissors have saved subsequent generations from the evils of shotgun-accelerated beak realignment. I resisted anything featuring actual humans in favor of animation even when I was well passed the appropriate changeover age. So flipping through the channels in the late morning/early afternoon hours of a Saturday meant keeping a snipers eye out for the big WB as it always brought the promise of a terrific cartoon.

And then I got tricked.

One day I saw the famous logo in B&W across a desert background (the current DVD uses an updated logo on its own screen and then cuts to the desert) and I quite reasonably thought that it was a Road Runner cartoon. The film’s actual title flashing onscreen (in blood red letters, no less) raised suspicions, and after an unusually long credit sequence I realized, to my great disappointment, that this was indeed a “real” movie.

I still don’t really know what kept me watching on that day, but I suspect that it was the kind face of James Whitmore as one of two police officers out patrolling for a missing girl wandering in the open desert. There was just something so trustworthy about the man, so I kept on watching.

The girl is found, walking away from the wreckage of her family’s mobile home in a near catatonic state. The bodies of her parents are nowhere to be found, but the gigantic hole in the side of the trailer doesn’t bode well – and why is it that the hole seems pulled out instead of pushed in? And why does she react in horror to a strange sound from off in the distance. Now what could that be?

Later on, the officers discover a filling station that had been torn apart in the same way, along with the body of the attendant, and I still remember the palpable terror I felt when they hear the same creepy sound coming from off in the desert.

The movie, of course, was Them! Director Gordon Douglas (a journeyman director who’s amazingly varied subsequent career would find him behind the camera for the classic spy spoof, In Like Flint, an above average Elvis vehicle, Follow That Dream, and the late career Frank Sinatra triptych of Tony Rome, Lady in Cement, and The Detective) would be the first to successfully exploit the looming fear of a nuclear world by laying the blame for unleashing the giant ants at our own doorstep. More than one character addresses the radiation from nuclear tests conducted out in the desert as the only possible culprit. But never fear, this movie is no didactic snooze on the evils of The Bomb, it’s a straight ahead monster-adventure story, one of the very best ever made.

Kids remember the superior creature design (and the wonderfully frightening trilling sound that accompanies each attack) but return to the film as adults for the terrific performances. Edmund Gwenn (sixty years after the fact, and still the only Santa Claus I will accept on film) and Joan Weldon appear as a father-daughter entomology team and James Arness (his second appearance in a classic 50s shocker, this time without The Thing From Another World’s makeup) as an FBI agent. But...

The following section concerns a major spoiler and should only be read if you’ve already seen the film

..the picture belongs to Whitman. As Sergeant Ben Peterson, Whitman gives a decidedly un-actorly performance, yet full of heart and nuance (we know he’s a veteran from one tossed off line of dialog - “First time I’ve ever given orders to a General”). The screenplay has enough respect for his character to not give him the type of comic relief groaners that too often fall on the “cop” role - it also spares him the indignity of slobbering over the leading lady like a sexual predator just released from solitary confinement. Whitman is given the freedom to create an actual human being rather than a genre archetype. In the finale, two children are cornered by the ants within the L.A. sewer system, and while an entire army is sent in to rescue them, it’s Ben Peterson who finds them. Our stomach tightens as the ants close in and Ben carefully lifts the children to safety. The setup is a greased chute towards a tragic conclusion, and that’s exactly what we get. It had never occurred to me that a beloved character could be killed in front of my eyes, and I can still remember thinking “They can’t do that!” while watching in stunned disbelief. Each time I face that scene, I still find myself hurrying him along; thinking that if he could just move a little quicker…

The other major studios spent the next few years cranking up their respective B unit departments and rushing as many giant ‘whatever’ movies into release. Some, like Universal’s Tarantula and The Deadly Mantis, weren’t bad, but “borrowed” so many elements as to barely qualify as original work. While on the other end of the spectrum you had Columbia’s The Giant Claw, in which the title creature resembles a poorly constructed piƱata dangling on wires thick enough to garrote the Giant of Marathon.

To say that Warners has squandered much of the goodwill capital that their logo came to mean to me would be a gross understatement – the studio’s forced mascoting of One Froggy Evening star Michigan J Frog during the launch of the ‘WB Network’, and the subsequent tying together of classic cartoon characters with the most genetically deprived members of the Wayans family for the sake of corporate synergy will not soon be forgotten by this viewer. Contributions for the Save the Shield campaign can be sent to the attention of the webmaster (non tax deductible)