October Film Series Quarantine: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)

My pick for this month is: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Where is it available? This is quite a popular title, so public libraries should have it (Orem is confirmed), the BYU library has a copy for those who have privileges, and for streaming rental or purchase on YouTube, on GooglePlay (least expensive), and Amazon.

Plot

Dr. Miles Bennell shares his terrifying account of “pod people” taking over his town in fictional Santa Mira, California. Unraveling as a flashback, you can feel the world closing in as people all around Miles start acting a little bit unhuman . . .

Background

Allied Artists Pictures Corporation, formerly Monogram Pictures, which was known for their low-budget adventure films, released this film in early February of 1956. That was only one month before the release of my pick from last month, Forbidden Planet. (This is a coincidence, I promise!) But it was from the same cultural ecosystem as Planet that Invasion will spawn. But both are excellent examples of developing cinematic atmosphere. Shot in a simple matted widescreen format and in black and white, it had no ambitions of distraction, but aimed for a slowly building panic-induced viewer engagement that left you sitting forward in your seat. For further comparison between the two, if Planet felt like a precursor to Star Trek, then Invasion would be an embryonic Twilight Zone episode.

Favorite bits to watch for

I love the film noir elements of this film. Certainly most-associated with the crime and detective films of the era, the adaptation of tools such voice-over-flashback, dimly-lit settings, and a femme fatale to the science fiction drama works surprisingly well. A doctor is our detective searching for clues to decipher what is going on, and despite the framing story we the audience unravel the mystery only as our characters do. Maybe my love for detective noir AND science fiction lead me to love the mix in this one.

This film is all about the experience. It needs to be viewed in an undistracted 90 minute window in a dark room. So please, leave the rest of this article for after the movie (if you are going to watch it) so that none of it is painted by the things I will tell you from here on out. Enjoy!

For after the show

Boy, does this film move fast in its pacing, the mystery absolutely driving from scene to scene. It is incredibly lean and economical, quickly telling us the what, where, why, when, and how with very little elaboration beyond just what we need to know. This works perfectly for the development of the suspense as there is no drawn out explanations of our lead-couple’s past or the details of alien invasion. We know just enough to root for the romantic couple, just enough to make us feel for the loss of humanity in the town, and just enough to feel the shock down our spine with that last kiss!

This economy probably stems somewhat from the skills and experience of the films director, Don Siegel. Mr. Siegel began his career in the montage dept. at Warner Bros. There he was tasked to cut together sequences that would convey as much as possible in very short montage sequences, condensing images and lines. He is credited for the opening montage in Casablanca, and he won two Academy Awards in 1945 for two different short films. Truly his craft was in making the most of condensed time in the world of the film.

This film is also a great testament to the level of talent and craft in Hollywood in the 1950s. The excellent lighting, camera work, special effects, and acting belie the shoestring budget with which this was produced. The scenes are long and let the actors act when we need to be drawn into the moment, yet the pace of mounting suspense is maintained throughout. It is a prime example of great technical filmmaking!

It’s aims are modest, yet it achieves them so resoundingly that it works very well.

Adapted from a 1955 serialized story by Jack Finney, this film version tapped into the cold war zeitgeist of paranoia centered on ideological philosophies rendering our friends, family, and neighbors unrecognizable.  Whether that change was to conspiracy-crazed anti-communism, or in the exact opposite direction of embracing soulless Marxism, the lens of others becoming “unfeeling pod people” could be adapted to either interpretation. Treatises supporting each interpretation have been penned, so it is truly a Rorschach test – where what you see in the ink blots is what you bring with you inside. We could certainly link the current mistrust and paranoia of the current pandemic that is moving unseen through human carriers today in 2020 as well!

Production tidbits

As with Planet from last month, the studios’ big budgets are going to feel-good spectacles and musicals, yet there is a disturbed undercurrent in the low-budget offerings of more pessimistic fare. In some markets, Invasion was coupled on a double bill with the lesser sci-fi thriller Timeslip or Atomic Man from Britain. Truly it was trolling for a different audience than the A-pictures. But this was a modest hit, making back ten times its production cost.

Initially, producer Walter Wanger was hoping to cast recognizable talent for the roles. His list for Miles Bennell consisted of Dick Powell and Joseph Cotten. For Becky, he envisioned Anne Bancroft, Donna Reed, or Kim Hunter, among others. But with a constricted budget, he had to search lower salaries and found Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. Kevin McCarthy followed director Don Siegel from their recent collaboration An Annapolis Story (1955) the previous year. Although it would have been great to have such actors, I also feel that the casting of unrecognizable faces works really powerfully in this film as they come off as people that could truly be your neighbors.

The film’s title changed a few times during production. Initially, it was to have the same title as the source material by Jack Finney, The Body Snatchers. But in 1945 there was a Robert Wise/Val Lewton production of that name in the singular, so they didn’t want it to be confused as a re-release. The film continued to rotate through They Come from Another WorldBetter Off Dead, Sleep No More, Evil in the Night, and World in Danger before finally coming around just about full circle to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Which has become its own pop culture root for all sorts of Invasion of… titles for films, books, TV episodes, and so forth.

My favorite fun-fact

One of the promotions at theaters in the U.S. was displays of giant paper mache pods in lobbies and other entrances.

Ben Harry, Curator
BYU Motion Picture Archive

September Film Series Quarantine: ROAD TO BALI (1952)

This film, which was never copyrighted, is in the public domain and readily available online through such platforms as YouTube. It is also available in the Harold B. Lee Library, Provo City Library at Academy Square and Orem Library.

Abbott and Costello. Martin and Lewis. Crosby, Hope and Lamour. For movie goers of the 1940s and early 1950s, the trio of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour were among the most recognizable names on the silver screen and by 1952, they’d appeared in five “Road to” films, traveling to such exotic places as Singapore, Zanzibar, and Rio. Exotic locations became the convenient foils for the comedic antics of these three entertainers and The Road to Bali is no exception.

Situational comedy is the plot, as Harold (Bob Hope) and George (Bing Crosby) are found in ever more extraordinary circumstances. As dancers and singers they are quickly forced to escape from Melbourne, Australia to avoid humorous marriage proposals. Later hired as deep-sea divers, they are taken to Bali where they compete for the romantic attentions of Princess Lala (Dorothy Lamour). She, however, can’t decide who she loves more and then with treasure on the line, the three escape to another island. There she discovers among the natives she can take multiple husbands, which they all agree. Further high jinx ensues when Crosby and Hope are mistakenly married to each other and a volcano god becomes angry with such an arrangement and initiates an eruption. With such incredulous plot twists, one wonders if 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano (staring the duo of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) is an homagic spoof.

The Road to Bali is significant in its violation of the fourth wall, inviting the audience to participate in the story. Two instances display Hope’s comedic talent. As Crosby is about to beginning wooing Lamour, Hope turns to the camera and says “He’s about to sing. You may as well go and get some popcorn!” In some reports, this was a popular time for kids to get up and purchase snacks, much to the chagrin of Crosby. Then, as the film ends, Hope, after losing to Crosby the love of Lamour, is able to conjure up the iconic sex symbol of Jane Russell after playing a flute over a large basket. Unfortunately for him she quickly falls in love with Crosby and he is left on the beach pining to the audience to extend the film to see what will happen next. This invitation to the audience acknowledges how endearing the trio had become to the American audience throughout the series of films.

With a box office gross of about $3 million, The Road to Bali was the least financially successful film of the franchise after the initial Road to Singapore. It also just barely missed out on the top ten grossing films of the year, losing out to such classics as The Quiet Man, Ivanhoe, and Cecil B. DeMille’s epic The Greatest Show on Earth.

When it was released in 1952, the well-known Crosby and Hope were financially successful, investing in numerous ventures outside of Hollywood. During the film, the inside jokes continued, which many viewers would have recognized. Watch for Crosby to make side references to the major league baseball franchises of Pittsburgh and Cleveland. At the time of he was a minority owner of the Pirates while Hope was an investor in the Indians.

Although not the last of the “Road to” films, it was the last with all three stars. In 1962 United Artists and director Norman Panama tried one last time on the series with The Road to Hong Kong. Lamour, although she appears in the film, was replaced with much younger Joan Collins as the primary love interest. And, with this significant change, the “Road” magic was gone. A critical and financial disappointment, it marked the unfortunate end of the series and provided an unremarkable coda for Crosby and Hope as acting partners.

We hope you enjoy getting away with The Road to Bali.

 

Brian Wages, Reference Specialist

Harold B. Lee Library, Social Sciences

Celebrating Wordsworth during COVID

Special Collections’ exhibit commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Wordsworth is now open to the public! Though postponed from Wordsworth’s actual birth month of April due to COVID precautions, the exhibit is part of a worldwide network of events (learn more at http://wordsworth250.org).

The Special Collections exhibit, “Wordsworth at BYU,” was curated by Dr. Paul Westover and students in his English 374 course, “Romanticism and Memory.” It features books and items from BYU’s Rowe Collection of William Wordsworth and shows the impact Wordsworth has had at BYU and in the culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Wordsworth at BYU” is up through the end of October in Special Collections’ reading room. Can’t come to campus? Check out the students’ work at https://wordsworth250.byu.edu/.

September Film Series Quarantine: FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)

My pick for this month is Forbidden Planet from 1956.

Where is it available? This is a popular title, so public libraries have it (Orem and Provo are confirmed), the BYU library has a copy for those who have privileges, and for streaming rental on iTunes, and Amazon.

Come join the space crew of commander John J. Adams, played by Leslie Nielsen and get far far away from the recent strangeness and enjoy some intergalactic strangeness.  The setting is the 23rd century, and our starship is nearing a distant planet where an Earth expedition was sent over 20 years ago. Here they must solve the mysteries of the planet and the beings who live and had lived there.

This feels to me like the seedling of the original Star Trek series. I love it. A starship crew exploring uncharted regions of the universe that takes its cues from the nautical explorations of the 1700s. The atmosphere and intrigue rivets me still today.

One element I particularly enjoy is the music. It is a fantastical soundscape that abandons the symphonic orchestration that had been established as the Hollywood studio sound (which was based in late 19th century Viennese styles, thanks to Max Steiner – whose scores we have in the BYU Film Music Archive!). But the music works wonderfully because this is outer space and we can certainly push things into the unfamiliar. Electronic soundscapes transport us to worlds only dreamed of. Yet it still follows established film music syntax to raise the suspense when the onscreen action calls for it. Please pay attention to the music/sound.

Cast: Leslie Nielsen’s captain is strong and bold, making and delivering decisive orders to his crew. This is very early in his career, and he does well as the take-charge leading man. Although, in retrospect of his subsequent career as a comedic actor, it is hard not to be looking for a joke when he delivers some of his lines. Walter Pidgeon is great, and this is the time in his career where he started doing more and more on stage and less in the cinema. and Anne Francis does well as the innocent. This would be her most famous role in cinema, though she had a decent television acting career.

Technical data: an MGM production. Released in theaters March 3, 1956.  Presented in color and Cinemascope to stretch that screen wider than those tiny screens at home that Hollywood was afraid would steal away too many viewers. And those fears weren’t totally unfounded as just the prior year some very popular television programs had debuted. The $64,000 Question premiered and really marked the beginning of the dramatic television quiz show format. Also in September, Gunsmoke had debuted which was VERY popular and would become a television standard for 20 seasons. In 1955 and 1956, the popularity of rock and roll music increased: Elvis Presley, Bill Haley and the Comets, and Chuck Berry and The Platters were the rising stars. In 1955, consumerism takes off in a big way, record car sales increase in the US so that 7 out of 10 families now own a motor car, and new auto safety laws were put in place requiring seat belts to be installed on all new cars (but do they have them on the starship?).

What was going on in cinema history when this was produced?

Forbidden Planet was released in March of 1956 so it was widely competing with popular big budget musicals such as Oklahoma!, Picnic, Guys and Dolls, and Carousel. Other notables in the theaters at this time demonstrate the country’s lingering processing of the war: Battle Cry and Mister Roberts. Forbidden Planet was great counter programming for the kids and adults alike, with its mysterious science fiction offering. The rest of 1956 would overshadow Forbidden Planet with some large spectacular films: best picture winner Around the World in 80 Days, the popular musical The King and I, and possibly the grandest movie of all time: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments.

But Forbidden Planet is hardly forgotten and is much loved among science fiction fans today. Now sit back and enjoy the movie. The next section is for after you have seen it.

AFTERTHOUGHTS (for after the movie. SPOILERS!)

I hope you had a good time enjoying the film. As you could tell, the entire film was filmed on sets. Entirely shot on the MGM soundstage in Culver City, it allowed the creators a great deal of control in the atmosphere and became the pattern for cinematic space scenes into the late 1960s. For this film they built their set in a cyclorama, a curved backdrop to give the impression of a 360 -degree set. It is interesting to see repeating patterns in science fiction film production, as the recent star wars production The Mandalorian returns to a digital cyclorama-like set for the 21st century.

Following up with special effects, it is interesting to note that Robby the Robot was a very expensive film prop: at a cost of roughly $125,000 its construction represents about 7% of the film’s entire $1.9 million budget. The creature was created by Joshua Meador, an animator loaned to MGM from Walt Disney Animation. According to a “Behind the Scenes” featurette on the film’s DVD, a close look at the creature shows it to have a small goatee beard, suggesting its connection to Dr. Morbius, the only character with this physical feature, as it was a physical manifestation of his primitive mind.

Potpourri:

  • The story in this film has been compared as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest set in space. Which might give meat for pondering if you are familiar with the play.
  • It is interesting that the beast our earth-folk encounter deep in space is only the beast they bring with them.

I hope you experienced a little bit of that childhood thrill of exploration, of uncovering something ancient or even untouched by human hands. I hope you enjoyed the film and found some delight in traveling with this film.

Ben Harry, Curator
BYU Motion Picture Archive

Presenting the BYU Library Film Series in Quarantine

Here at the library, we are very sad that we will not be able to offer in-person screenings in our auditorium this Fall. We miss the experience of enjoying cinema together. However, we want to do what we can during this semester, and so while we may not be able to gather physically, we can still celebrate our love of cinema.

We proudly present this Fall’s series: FILMS IN QUARANTINE.

This series will still seek to enrich and add value to your cinema experiences. Each month, we will provide some viewing suggestions based around a unifying theme from some special contributors. Our goal is to present our community with viewing suggestions and provide insight/context/editorial to enrich your movie watching plans. And now you can watch them with popcorn!

How you can access these films? There are a variety of methods that you can use to access these films. You can purchase a disc, check one out from your local public library (you might need to reserve online these days before you go pick it up), or you could use a number of streaming services for rental. Commonly, these titles are available through Googleplay, Amazon, Itunes, or YouTube, or look for them on Netflix or other platforms.

September’s Theme: FAR OFF PLACES

Over the last six months many of our plans to get outside of our lovely valleys here have been interrupted. One of the powers of the cinema is the ability to transport us to locales quite different from where we are. This month’s films will get us outside our bubble. So please, take up our suggestions, enjoy a movie, stay safe, and we hope to see you in person after the thaw!

Ben Harry, Curator
BYU Motion Picture Archive

Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner papers

Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner (1818-1913)

To continue in our celebration of women’s history this month, L. Tom Perry Special Collections is pleased to announce the availability of a newly digitized collection: Mary E. Lightner papers (Vault MSS 363).  Known to most Latter-day Saints by her maiden name, Mary Elizabeth Rollins, Lightner is most well-known for her role as a young girl, along with her sister Caroline, in the rescuing of the printed pages of the Book of Commandments after W. W. Phelps’ printing press was destroyed by a mob in July 1833.

Lightner’s papers relate more to her later years, including her sealing to the Prophet Joseph Smith as a plural wife. The collection includes handwritten originals and photocopies of correspondence including correspondence to Apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and many prominent Mormon women while in Utah, including Eliza R. Snow, Emmeline B. Wells, and Zina Diantha Huntington Young. Also included are personal histories, autobiographies, speeches, articles pertaining to her life while in Minersville, Utah, along with patriarchal blessings and a statement relating to her marriage to Joseph Smith. Dated 1865-1980.

Mary Elizabeth Rollins was born in Lima, Livingston County, New York, April 9, 1818, daughter of John P Rollins and Keziah VanBenthuysen. In 1828 she moved with her family to Kirtland, Ohio, where they lived with her uncle Algernon Sidney Gilbert, and in October 1830 she was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Along with her mother, sister Caroline, and brother Henry, she moved to Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, where she encountered many of the persecutions suffered by the Latter-day Saints in Missouri. Mary E. Rollins married Adam Lightner of Liberty, Clay County, Missouri in 1835. Adam Lightner was not a Latter-day Saint, but he was a good friend to Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints all of his life. They moved from place to place in Missouri and later to Minnesota, and eventually went west arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1863. Mary was the first plural wife to Joseph Smith in 1842. The Lightners settled in Minersville, Utah, where Mary was one of the first school teachers and was asked to speak frequently to various groups including gatherings of General Authorities, prominent citizens, and the 1905 graduating class of Brigham Young University. Mary E. Lightner died in 1913, at the age of 95 in Minersville, Utah.

Comets of the 17th century

L. Tom Perry Special Collections contains a variety of comet pamphlets by European astronomers of the 16th and 17th centuries. If you enjoyed (or missed) comet NEOWISE this summer, we’d like to share some delightful woodcut illustrations from recent acquisitions to this collection.

This engraving, from Erhard Weigel’s Speculum Uranicum aquilae Romanae sacrum (1661), depicts the comet of 1661 passing over the University of Jena. This comet has been identified with Comet Ikeya-Zhang, which was observed in 2002.

This unsophisticated little woodcut appears on the title page of Friedrich Müller’s Cometologiæ, which describes the comet of 1664-1665, which was widely observed across western Europe. Müller was a professor at the university in the city of Giessen.

 

Emmeline B. Wells collection

Emmeline B. Wells (1828-1921)

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the official adoption of the 19th amendment, granting women in the United States the right to vote, which will be on August 18, 2020, L. Tom Perry Special Collections is pleased to announce the availability of a newly digitized collection: Emmeline B. Wells collection (Vault MSS 805). The collection contains correspondence of Emmeline B. Wells, 1898-1923; papers and poems either by or about Emmeline B. Wells; a certificate to the Columbian Exposition in 1893; handwritten documents written by Emmeline B. Wells or family; priesthood blessings; photocopies of photographs; original and typescript of ledger book (Emmeline B. Wells’ copy with marginal notes) recording Utah Suffrage Association membership and “Relief Society Minutes, Nauvoo, 1842-1844;” diaries of Emmeline B. Wells, 1 May 1875-14 October 1876, and 16 December 1883- 29 January 1886; genealogical pencil records; original and color photocopy of verse book written for Emmeline B. Wells on her seventieth birthday; and original and color photocopy of “Songs and Flowers of the Wasatch,” a book of verse presented at the World’s Columbian Exposition (1893: Chicago) containing hand-painted watercolor illustrations. Dated 1842-1923.

For more information about Emmeline B. Wells, and to explore all her recently published diaries, visit this website by the Church Historian’s Press.  The other 45 original diaries have all been digitized as well, and images can be found here.

Emmeline B. Wells was instrumental in both the Utah and national suffrage movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Wells was the chief editor of the women’s rights journal Women’s Exponent. She was also friends with famous suffragettes Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and in 1899 she was invited by the International Council of Women to speak at its London meeting as a United States representative. Wells served as the general president of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1910 to 1921.

Parley P. Pratt papers

Parley P. Pratt (1807-1857)

As we prepare to celebrate Pioneer Day on July 24th, we often turn our minds back to those early pioneers that helped to settle the great state of Utah. One of the first of these pioneers to enter the Salt Lake Valley was Parley P. Pratt.  He came with his family to Utah in 1847, traveling in the Daniel Spencer and Peregrine Sessions company.  He would later lead two additional companies of pioneers to Utah in the 1850s.  While his time in Utah was short-lived, due to an untimely death by the hands of a mob in Arkansas, his influence is still felt today. He served in the legislature of the provisional state of Deseret beginning in 1849, and he was among those who oversaw the division of Salt Lake City into wards and the organization of other wards in Utah. Sometime in the mid-1850s, working with George D. Watt, Pratt helped develop the Deseret alphabet. Pratt explored, surveyed, and built the first public road in Parley’s Canyon, Salt Lake City, which is named in his honor. He also explored parts of Southern Utah for future settlements.

In rememberance of Pratt’s contributions to Utah’s early history, L. Tom Perry Special Collections is pleased to announce that our small collection of Parley P. Pratt papers (Vault MSS 4) has recently been digitized and posted online.  Included in this collection is Pratt’s only extent diary from his mission to Chile from 1851-1852, the first missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to visit South America.  He traveled there with one of his plural wives, Phoebe Soper Pratt, and left after their son, Omner, died. Also included are three handwritten letters during his mission to Chile, and eight fragments of manuscripts by Parley P. Pratt. All items date from 1851 to 1855.

John Keats’ last book turns 200

This nondescript book in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections recently turned 200. John Keats’ final book, Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St Agnes, and other Poems, was published in early July 1820.  The collection – now considered one of the most important works of poetry in all of English literature – includes such famous works as “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” and Hyperion. BYU’s copy is still bound in its original paper boards, as issued by the publisher (though the spine has been repaired).

While the volume was better received by critics than Keats’ previous book, Endymion, its publication marked the beginning of the end of Keats’ brief life. Keats was suffering from tuberculosis and his condition deteriorated rapidly throughout July 1820. He sold the copyright of Lamia to raise funds to travel to Italy for the winter in hopes of improving his health. Keats died in Rome on February 23, 1821, aged 25.

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