Saturday, November 2, 2013

Stubs - Them!

Them! (1954) Starring: James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness. Directed by Gordon Douglas. Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman, Russell Hughes. Story by George Worthing Yates. Produced by David Weisbart. Run Time: 94. Black and White. U.S. Science Fiction, Horror.

This will definitely age me, but I originally saw Them! when I was a kid on television. And this was back in the days before cable, satellite and 200 plus channels of choice. Back when there were only three networks, not counting PBS, and one independent TV station in Dallas, which is where I’m from. I remember liking the film, being a little grossed out by the big ants but still liking it. This was before I knew who James Whitmore was or that James Arness was Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke or had been The Thing From Another World (1951).

Originally conceived as a color, widescreen, 3D spectacular, the film ended up being black and white and widescreen. The color tests proved to be disappointing and Warner Bros.’ “All Media” 3-D camera malfunctioned. The only color in the film are the blue and red titles and even though the film was not shot in 3-D, some of the camera set ups still remain.

This would have probably looked awesome in 3D.
While following up on an unspecified report, New Mexico State Police troopers Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and Ed Blackburn (Chris Drake) discover a little girl (Sandy Descher) in shock, wandering the desert near Alamogordo. Following up on the report of an abandoned car and trailer, the two troopers find it deserted and the side of the trailer ripped open from the outside. They do find a strange print in the sand and call for an ambulance and crime scene investigators. A cement casting is made of the print. Before the ambulance leaves, with an attendant (William Schallert) watching the little girl, a strange sound echoes out of the desert wind. The little girl, though no one notices, responds to the sound.

Troopers Blackburn and Peterson check out the Ellinson trailer.
Peterson and Blackburn go to “Gramps” Johnson’s General Store further down the highway to see if he knows anything about the missing family. Like the trailer, his store has been torn apart from outside. But no money has been taken from the cash register. The only odd damage is a barrel of sugar that has been smashed open. Peterson finds Gramps’ Winchester rifle has been fired, but also twisted out of shape. They find Gramps’ dead body in a basement. It is later determined that he could have died from a multitude of wounds, including a broken neck and back, a skull fracture, crushed abdomen and what Coroner Putnam (Joe Forte) confirms is “enough formic acid in his body to kill 20 men.”

Peterson leaves Blackburn at the store to wait for the crime scene investigators, while he goes to check on the little girl. But no sooner has Peterson driven off then Blackburn hears the same strange sound. When he goes outside, we know he’s doomed. Off-camera shots are fired, the sound gets closer and we can hear Blackburn scream in terror.

Because the owner of the trailer was an FBI agent named Ellinson, another FBI agent, Robert Graham (James Arness), is dispatched from the office in Alamogordo. (More than likely he was the office in Alamogordo). He sends the plaster cast of the oddly shaped footprint to his Washington, D.C. headquarters. In return, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) and his daughter, Dr. Pat Medford (Joan Weldon), a team of entomologists, are dispatched from the Department of Agriculture.

The Medfords are taken to see the Ellinson girl in the hospital. He manages to bring her out of her catatonic state by exposing her to formic acid fumes. She screams "Them! Them!" Next Drs. Medford are taken the site where the trailer had been. Pat goes out to search from more prints and encounters a giant, eight-foot long foraging ant. The lawmen fire, but don’t do any real damage until they take senior Medford’s advice and shoot the ant’s antennae. Peterson manages to empty a Thompson submachine gun into the ant, killing it.

There's nothing like the smell of formic acid in the morning.
Only later does senior Medford reveal his catastrophic theory that the giant ants were created by exposure to the first atomic blast nine years before at nearby White Sands. And if they aren’t stopped, mankind might get wiped off the earth by the very aggressive and powerful mutants.

If this ever happens to you, remember to shoot at their antennae.
Helicopters searching the desert find a nest. Phosphorus is fired at the opening to keep the ants inside the nest and poison gas bombs are tossed in to kill the ants inside. Graham, Peterson and Pat Medford go into the nest to confirm that all the ants have been killed. But Pat finds evidence that two of the eggs have hatched and that two queens have escaped to potentially establish new colonies. In an effort to avoid a general panic, the government covertly investigates any reports of unusual activity, even sightings of "flying saucers."

Ant with human rib cage in its mandible. Eew!
One report, taken by a sergeant (Leonard Nimoy), has Pat Medford and Graham fly to Brownsville, Texas, where a pilot (Fess Parker) has been put into a state psychiatric hospital for making his report. He tells the two that while he was flying into Brownsville he saw three flying saucers shaped like ants, heading west. Even though Graham believes him, he tells the attending physician (Marshall Bradford) to keep the pilot locked away until the government says he’s cured. (What do you bet he’d still be there today if that was real?)

Pilot (Fess Parker) tells Dr. Pat Medford and Agent Graham what he saw in the sky.
The Coast Guard receives a Morse Code message saying a giant queen has hatched her brood in the hold of a freighter. We see giant ants attack the ship's crew and are told only a few survivors escape to be rescued. The freighter is later sunk by the U. S. Navy. Another report leads Graham and Peterson to a rail yard in Los Angeles with a smashed boxcar missing 40 tons cargo of sugar. The watchman (Dub Taylor) is brought in for questioning, but let go.

One queen starts a colony on board a freighter.
The body of a mutilated man is found and connected to the report of a missing father and his two sons, Graham and Peterson, to Jensen (Olin Howland), an alcoholic patient in a Los Angeles hospital "drunk tank". He reveals that he's been seeing giant ants outside his window for the past 5 months. The room overlooks the Los Angeles River. When they go down to investigate, they find a broken model airplane. A call to Mrs. Lodge (Mary Ann Hokanson) confirms that the father was flying a model airplane with his sons in the river basin.

Given this significant threat, the U. S. Army declares martial law and a curfew for Los Angeles; more troops are assigned to find and then assault the new nest in the storm drains under the city.

Peterson finds the two missing boys alive deep inside the drain system, but they are trapped by the ants' nest. He calls for reinforcements and goes in alone to rescue the boys, finally getting them to safety. Before he can escape, he is attacked by a giant ant. Graham arrives too late with the reinforcements and Peterson dies. But the troops fight off the ants just before a cave-in temporarily cuts off Graham. Several ants charge him, and he is able to hold them off long enough for the other troops to tunnel through and rescue him. The queen and her young "princess" hatchlings are quickly discovered and then destroyed using flamethrowers.

The last thing the ants see in Them!
The film ends with Graham asking if these ants were a result of the first atomic tests, what else might there be from the subsequent tests? This leads the senior Medford to warn: "When man entered the atomic age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, no one can predict."

With the atomic age upon us and the Cold War heating up, the effects of radiation were a real concern to movie-going audiences. Them! takes that fear and tells a compelling story based on it. There are some things that don’t make sense along the way, like why a New Mexico State trooper would be leading Army commandos against a nest of giant ants in the sewers of Los Angeles? But part of the low budget charm in these kinds of films is the cast gets used throughout, in situations, say shooting bazookas that you’d think there’d be specialists to do. 

Otherwise the film is fairly fast paced, suspenseful and if you only know what they tell you in the movie, credible.

Considering the type of movie this is, there are many solid actors in the film, including several who would go on to find fame and fortune on television. This was a studio picture, Warner Bros., so it is not surprising they were using people they probably already had under contract. Chief among the actors who would go onto to bigger things on smaller screens was James Arness, who had graduated from playing The Thing From Another World to playing FBI agent Graham. The next year, Arness would start playing his best known and longest running role, Matt Dillon on TV’s Gunsmoke (1955 to 1975).

But in addition to Arness, William Schallert, who had a small role as an ambulance attendant, would go on to play Patty Lane’s father Martin on The Patty Duke Show (1963 to 1966). And Leonard Nimoy, who was uncredited in Them! would go on to play Mr. Spock on Star Trek (1966 to 1969) and in subsequent related films.

Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame had a bit part in Them!

While James Whitmore would also have his own TV series, The Law and Mr. Jones (1960-61), he is better known for his movie roles, including Gus Minissi in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Harry Truman in Give ‘Em Hell, Harry (1975). Whitmore was twice nominated for Academy Awards; once for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Battleground (1949) and once for Best Actor of Give ‘Em Hell, Harry.

Joan Weldon, who played the eye candy 1950’s horror films seemed to require, had a rather short career in films. She has only appeared in very few films and television shows from 1953 to 1958. Her role as Dr. Pat Medford is by far her best known part. She returned to her career as a performer in road company productions and retired in 1980.

Edmund Gwenn and Joan Weldon play father/daughter entomologists in Them!

The actor who played her father, Edmund Gwenn, on the other hand had a very long career in films, appearing in over 80 features from silents on. A cousin of actor Cecil Kellaway (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Gwenn may be best remembered for his role as Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He won a second Academy Award for his role in Mister 880 (1950).

Gwenn also appeared in two Hitchcock films, as the cockney assassin in Foreign Correspondent (1940) and later in The Trouble With Harry (1955). A British born actor who moved to Hollywood, he appeared as Katherine Hepburn’s father in Sylvia Scarlett (1935). Adept at playing both comedy and dramatic roles, Gwenn’s last British film was Cheer Boys Cheer (1939), which is considered to be the prototype for Ealing Comedies, which would be made by the Ealing studio after World War II.

Them! was the first of several films having to do with irradiated beasts. Godzilla (1954) would be roused by nuclear testing at the Bikini Islands, giant spiders would threaten mankind in World Without End (1956) and grasshoppers would mutate into bus-sized abominations after coming into contact with radioactive fertilizers in Beginning of the End (1957) to name a few.

Ironically, it is the ants in Them! that are perhaps the most disappointing aspects. The film would go on to to be nominated for Best Special Effects, which must say something about the state of special effects in the mid-1950’s. I’ve learned that the ants used in the movie required a team of operators to move and that shows. These ants don’t scurry, they lumber and look more clumsy than menacing.

This is actually a good shot of one of the ants from Them!

I read one article that claimed Them! was Warner Bros.' highest-grossing film of the year and I’ve also read that it was the 51st highest grossing film of the year, bringing in $2.2 million in box-office rentals. Either Warners had a really bad year or this Slate magazine story is wrong.

Them!, no matter what it made at the box-office, is still a fun diversion and very much worth watching. If you’re looking for the best radiated mutant insect monster movie to watch, look no further.

Them! is available as part of a collection at the WB Shop:

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