Friday, August 20, 2010

Tales of Tomorrow (George F. Foley Productions, TV series, 1951-1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The first Tales from Tomorrow episode was called “Ice from Space,” and dealt with a top-secret military base at which an experimental rocket was fired up, didn’t come down for two days and upon its return contained what appeared to be a block of ice but which actually turned out to be an animate ice-creature from another planet who set about chilling the area around the base so all humans would eventually die and its kind could take over the Earth. Done as a movie or a filmed TV show, this could actually have been the premise for a quite exciting sci-fi story, but given the exigencies of live TV (this show was aired on ABC on August 8, 1952) — the limited sets and the almost nonexistent special effects — the story was considerably weaker than it might have been. Still, it was nicely tense, and a very young and almost unrecognizable Paul Newman had a bit part as one of the soldiers (Charles recognized him before I did!).

The other Tales from Tomorrow episode, “Youth on Tap,” was far better, a genuinely chilling tale of a 160-year-old scientist who has figured out a way of giving himself eternal youth by inventing an electronic gadget that not only draws blood from his potential victims but also saps them of their “youth energy,” turning them into instant old people. It’s not exactly a fresh fantasy idea — H. P. Lovecraft did something similar with his story “Cool Air” (only with refrigeration instead of blood and electricity), and I think Poe did a story like this even before — but it was marvelously well done, with good acting, taut writing and capable direction.

Charles couldn’t help but wonder why mad scientists in movies are almost always depicted as having bottomless personal fortunes they can draw on for their diabolical experiments — the guy in this show had $1,000 in cash on him to draw on whenever he needed a new transfusion victim — and (though one of the things I liked about the 1936 British film with Boris Karloff, The Man Who Changed His Mind a.k.a. The Man Who Lived Again, was precisely that it did address the issue of just how a mad scientist would be able to finance his experiments) I pointed out that, as Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis had said in the documentary I’d just finished transcribing, in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries almost all scientists had been “self-supported aristocrats doing science for the fun of it” (and Irving Stone in his novel about Charles Darwin, The Origin, made a great deal out of the fact that Darwin had a private income and therefore didn’t have to support himself with his researches, and therefore had a lot more intellectual freedom than colleagues like Thomas Huxley who had to hold down jobs in academia to make ends meet), and this tradition definitely seems to have survived in the fiction about “mad scientists.” — 7/20/97


Afterwards I ran Charles a Tales of Tomorrow episode called “The Great Silence,” starring Burgess Meredith as a Washington state farmer who is part of a massive epidemic in which people lose their voices; and a Lights Out with Basil Rathbone called “Dead Man’s Coat.” The three episodes of Tales of Tomorrow I’ve seen so far are so well written and compellingly dramatized that it’s clear that if this show had been produced on film from the get-go instead of being done “live,” it would have the same cult reputation as The Twilight Zone (and would have been re-run to death, like The Twilight Zone, long ago). While not quite at the level of “Youth on Tap,” “The Great Silence” was a chilling story in which — skirting on the thin edge of comedy but not quite going over — Meredith and the actress playing his wife ably enact the sheer frustration of people having to communicate with each other in spite of having been mysteriously deprived of the power of speech. (You may ask why don’t they write each other notes. As we find out later on in the program, they’re illiterate.)

The “official” explanation of the “Great Silence” is that it’s caused by a cloud of radiation from hydrogen bomb tests (at the time this show aired in 1951 no hydrogen bomb had actually been tested) and will end as soon as the cloud dissipates. Meredith learns better — while going outside to hunt he stumbles upon an alien being who’s controlling the phenomenon from his flying saucer — and he’s frustrated by his inability to explain to the authorities what’s going on, since not only has the “Great Silence” rendered him mute, he can’t write either. So he takes matters into his own hands, uses some dynamite he has around the farm to blow up the flying saucer — and in a chilling final scene, his wife starts talking to him and he asks her to be quiet as he dies. As I said, the writing is powerful enough that the show is worth watching, even though we have to watch it on ancient kinescopes and the production values were never that great anyway. — 8/18/97


I ran three old TV shows, two of them with James Dean. One was The Bells of Cockaigne (a.k.a. “Dean/Bells/Cock”), broadcast live on NBC November 17, 1953; the other was the Tales of Tomorrow episode, “The Enemy Within,” broadcast live on ABC six months earlier (May 1, 1953). The third one we watched was an Invisible Man episode from the 1958 British TV series based (very loosely) on H. G. Wells’ famous character.

Out of the two Dean shows, the Tales of Tomorrow promised to be interesting because it co-starred Dean with Rod Steiger — a seemingly natural pairing because they were both strong Method actors — but it was actually rather disappointing. It was really a showcase for Margaret Phillips, who played the wife of scientist Steiger (Dean is Steiger’s lab assistant and only appears in one scene, though for trivia enthusiasts it marks one of the few times Dean acted while wearing his glasses — he was terribly nearsighted and in his films he would rehearse with his glasses on, taking them off only when the cameras were actually rolling and he’d memorized his moves).

Steiger has spent the last three years inventing a serum that eliminates inhibitions and lets out the evil side of a person’s character (it would seem to be a singularly useless discovery, but his hope is that he can reverse the process and create an antidote that would bring out a person’s good side — his speech makes it sound as if he is trying to invent Prozac!), and when one of the test tubes leaks the serum onto a pie in Steiger’s refrigerator, his wife eats some of the contaminated pie. Phillips, an actress I’d never otherwise heard of, is actually quite good playing the dual character, and it builds to a final climax in which Steiger tries to talk her out of committing suicide long enough for the serum to wear off and her to regain her normal character — but aside from the curiosity value of Dean’s appearance, it wasn’t one of the stronger Tales of Tomorrow shows I’ve seen. — 8/27/97


Charles and I had a videotape mini-marathon that began with Boris Karloff’s Tales of Tomorrow TV appearance, “Past Tense,” an all-too-typical (for Karloff) mad-scientist story in which he plays a doctor who invents a time machine and conceives a plan to make himself rich by going back into the past and selling penicillin at a time when it hadn’t been discovered yet. Karloff turned in a reliably good performance in a show that wasn’t anywhere nearly as chilling as the best Tales of Tomorrow episodes (and the final frisson was rather spoiled by where the Sci-Fi Channel chose to put the last commercial break). — 2/23/98


Eventually I ran Charles a couple of movies. One was a 27-minute episode from the early 1950’s science-fiction series Tales of Tomorrow, an adaptation of “Frankenstein” originally aired live on January 18, 1952. Charles and I had seen some Tales of Tomorrow episodes I recorded off the Sci-Fi Channel (now cursed with the ridiculous, offensive and meaningless moniker “SyFy”!) in the 1990’s and I had been quite taken with this show, particularly the imagination of the writing, and convinced that had this been a filmed series instead of one shown live and surviving only in ratty-looking kinescopes, it would have been rerun to death the way The Twilight Zone was and would have the reputation Rod Serling’s acknowledged classic series does as well.

This one was scripted by Henry Myers, who had the impossible challenge of doing justice to Mary Shelley’s classic novel within a half-hour TV time slot, and who solved that problem (more or less) by moving the story’s setting to the present day. Victor Frankenstein (John Newland) has purchased an old castle on an island in a Swiss lake, accessible only by rowboat (which makes one wonder how all the scientific gimcracks in his lab were brought there), and he’s visited by his old professor (Raymond Bramley) and his girlfriend Elizabeth (Mary Alice Moore — the page for this show lists her as “Frankenstein’s Wife” but, as in Shelley’s novel and the 1932 film, they’re merely engaged, not actually wed), who in this version is the professor’s daughter. The old prof laughs at the thought that Victor might actually be on the brink of creating an artificial man, but of course he really is — and the monster is played by Lon Chaney, Jr., 10 years after he portrayed the role in Jack Pierce’s famous makeup in the fourth film in Universal’s cycle, The Ghost of Frankenstein.

There’s really no comparison between the two performances, though; unable for copyright reasons to use the Universal makeup, Vin Kehoe made Chaney up to look like Tor Johnson’s “Lobo” characterization in Ed Wood’s movies, and Chaney — apparently so drunk he was unaware that he was actually on TV and not just doing a dress rehearsal — moves through part one gingerly, afraid to crash into any part of the set and break anything. He gets a bit better in part two, though it’s not his fault that Myers doesn’t supply any motivation for the monster’s rampages — though there’s a hint of the gimmick in the original novel that Victor flees in terror at the ugliness of the creature he’s just loosed upon the world and that’s what warps the Monster’s nature from potentially decent human being to machine-like killer. There certainly isn’t any hint of the pathos James Whale brought to the characterization of the monster in the first two Universal films, or of the intensity and precision with which Boris Karloff acted the role before first Chaney, then Bela Lugosi and finally Glenn Strange took it over.

The monster murders the Frankenstein maid (Peggy Allenby) and nearly kills her husband, the butler (Farrell Pelly); eventually Victor and the professor drive it out of a window and it falls 200 feet to the lake, but the monster survives even that, though it proves vulnerable to simple gunfire at the end. Directed in the usual live-TV traffic-cop style by Don Medford, this “Frankenstein” show is an engaging one but simply doesn’t do the story justice — nor, given the limited time they had to tell it in, should one have expected it to — and frankly the producer of Tales of Tomorrow, George Foley, was better off when he commissioned original scripts than when he tried to dramatize the classics of the sci-fi and horror genres. — 8/9/10


We picked out the second episode from the Critics’ Choice DVD of Tales of Tomorrow, “The Crystal Egg,” ostensibly based on a story by H. G. Wells but moved unobtrusively to a contemporary (1950’s) setting, in which a junk dealer, Mr. Cave (Edgar Stehli), has a mysterious customer interested in buying a cut-glass crystal oval. They’re dickering over the price when the guy gives Cave a couple of pounds (they did keep the story setting in England!) to hold the piece. Curious about why the guy would be interested in it, Cave loans it overnight to his friend, Cambridge astronomy professor Frederick Vaneck (Thomas Mitchell, top-billed) — who spends the night locked in his lab with the crystal and realizes it’s a sort of window that gives him the power to see the surface of Mars, including a life form that looks like a one-eyed otter. Vaneck pleads with Cave to be allowed to keep the crystal, but Cave takes it from him and is in turn waylaid in the street. The crystal is stolen and Vaneck is reduced to sounding totally crazy when he tries to tell people (including a journal editor who’s published previous articles of his) what he saw in it.

After the disappointment of the Tales of Tomorrow “Frankenstein,” this show was the real article: a compact story that could easily be told in half an hour, a chilling central premise and brilliant execution from script writer Mel Goldberg, director Charles S. Dubin and a quite good cast. This is one live TV show where they didn’t just blow the acting budget on one old movie star; Sally Gracie as Vaneck’s girlfriend Georgette was a bit on the whiny side (when she badgered Vaneck to take her to a movie I joked that the films she wanted to see were Stagecoach, Gone with the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — all films in which Thomas Mitchell had key supporting roles) but Josephine Brown as Cave’s wife was properly long-suffering and Gage Clarke as Vaneck’s sympathetic editor was also quite good. As I’ve noted before, had it been shot on film instead of done live Tales of Tomorrow would probably have the same reputation The Twilight Zone does now — and would probably have similarly been rerun to death. It’s an engaging program and one that deserves to be better known, and not only as an important early credit for later movie superstars like James Dean, Rod Steiger and Paul Newman. — 8/10/10


The night before last Charles and I watched another episode in the Tales of Tomorrow DVD from Critics’ Choice: “Appointment on Mars,” aired June 22, 1952, a chilling tale whose writer, S. A. Lombino, pretty obviously ripped off the basic situation from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, only instead of Mexico he set it on Mars. Three astronauts — Robbie (Leslie Nielsen), Bart (William Redfield) and Jack (Brian Keith, billed as “Robert Keith, Jr.”) — have flown to Mars on a spaceship built for them by an international mining conglomerate in exchange for half of whatever valuable minerals they discover on the Red Planet. They discover treasure, all right — Robbie’s Geiger counter starts clicking away like the percussion section of an Afro-Cuban band and they realize Mars has enormous deposits of uranium — and they stake a claim, but pretty soon Robbie’s rabbit’s foot mysteriously disappears and he starts tearing into his comrades about it. (It was a felicitous touch on Lombino’s part to make the scientist of the crew also the superstitious one.)

Eventually the astronauts, consumed by increasing degrees of paranoia, kill each other — and then two disembodied voices (Mark Allen and Sam Locante) representing Martians are heard on the soundtrack congratulating each other for being able to freak out the Earth invaders into destroying each other and thereby keeping Mars and its minerals safe for the indigenous population. Tautly directed by Don Melford, this is an excellent episode, vividly staged and brilliantly acted — this is one early credit for Nielsen in which he can still be taken seriously despite his late-1970’s/early-1980’s comeback as a deadpan comedian, which leaves people (certainly Charles!) tempted to laugh every time he comes on screen — that once again makes me regret that Tales of Tomorrow was done “live” and survives only through lousy kinescopes instead of being filmed like later, similar shows such as The Twilight Zone (which once you’ve seen Tales of Tomorrow doesn’t seem as pioneering as it’s been ballyhooed ever since it was on!) and The Outer Limits. — 8/12/10


Charles and I ended up watching the last episode of Tales of Tomorrow included on the Critics’ Choice DVD, “Ice from Space,” which had also been mentioned at the head of my movie-journal entry on the show because we’d watched it before in a VHS tape I’d recorded from the Sci-Fi Channel (before it acquired the horrid new computer-generated name “SyFy”), and which turned out this time better than I’d thought it was before (mainly because I was comparing it to another Tales of Tomorrow episode I’d liked better) It’s a taut suspense tale about a rocket (represented by, you guessed it, a stock clip of a V-2 launch from a captured Nazi newsreel) that is shot off from a military base and mysteriously disappears, then finally returns to earth bearing a large chunk of blue ice that chills everything and everyone around it until people start dying and it has frozen hundreds of square miles of desert around it.

The humans are Major Dozier (Edmond Ryan), commander of the base and the rocket project; Congressmember Burns (Raymond Bailey), who happens to be visiting the base when all of this happens and who spends most of the episode tearing into Major Dozier for the amount of money he’s spending on the project and telling him that his father, also a military officer, would have handled it all better (I had visions of producer Mort Abrahams telling screenwriter E. H. Frank, “Your father could have written a better script than this!”); Dr. Meshkoff (Michael Gorrin), the inevitable foreign-accented rocket scientist who was the “brains” behind the project; and the two servicemembers assigned to retrieve the rocket and stand guard over the ice, a lieutenant (Sam Locante) who dies from the effects of the ice-from-space induced cold; and his sidekick, Sgt. Wilson (a young, dark-haired Paul Newman in his very first professional acting credit in any medium),whose Method-induced hysteria adds to the intense and almost ribald old-Hollywood overacting of the rest of the cast.

The film bears a striking resemblance to The Thing, the 1951 version, not only because Raymond Bailey as the Congressmember looks a good deal like the actor who played the reporter in The Thing but because it’s also about a confrontation between an isolated group of people and an implacably destructive alien being in a military base under arctic temperatures (though in The Thing the arctic temperatures were normal for the polar base where the thing’s spaceship landed).

Though hampered a bit by the half-hour running time and the cheapness and crudity of the live-TV production (I’ve already commented that had Tales of Tomorrow been shot on film, it would have been re-run to death the way The Twilight Zone was and would probably have the same cult following), “Ice from Space” is great melodrama, a provocatively premised suspense thriller well plotted by Frank and effectively staged by director Don Medford, leading to a predictable but still moving conclusion in which Major Dozier has the ice-from-space loaded back onto the rocket and flies off with it (it was designed to carry a human but no person had flown in it before) to sacrifice his own life to send the Ice from Space back from whence it came, or at least to get it away from causing any further harm to earth: a tough, moving, no-nonsense drama from a surprisingly good series that was virtually forgotten until its episodes resurfaced in the 1990’s! — 8/20/10